When we don’t agree

In chapter 7 we discovered that there was a crisis in the church in Corinth that seemed to be associated with divisions over leadership, gross immorality and a lack of self control especially in the area of sexual conduct. Whilst Corinth was probably at one end of the spectrum of church life and practice it suffered from the same sorts of issues that probably afflict most churches at one time or another. The solution to some of these problems was straightforward – there was clear guidance from God on what was right and what was wrong, however some of the problems were less easy to solve. As to how we are to live our lives out on this planet, God has made many things crystal clear, we can think of this clarity as the certainty that a light house offers to the danger of hidden rocks. But we sail our life on the high seas and often there is no light house to provide certainty, the bible does not offer a prescription for each and every complicated situation in which we find ourselves. Thus there is a need to work things out from biblical principles with the advice of mature and wise counsel. Paul provided just such that advice in chapter 7 regarding marriage and relationships.

Now in chapter 8 he deals with a related issue. If many of our practical Christian experiences are complex and solutions are not necessarily obvious, there is a need for judgement – and if this is the case there is a fair chance that not everyone will arrive at the same conclusions. The problem Paul addresses in this chapter resulted from apparently well meaning people coming to very different judgements on areas of uncertainty – areas where there was no clear cut instructions from God. Thus Paul writes to help the Corinthians deal with such situations: situations in which differences had arisen which could not only lead to division but could damage the faith of some.

Disputes are common place in churches. Sometimes these differences run so deep that they can lead to schism and division. Paul himself split with one of his co-workers over a dispute relating to a co-worker. It’s possible that there is some merit in allowing churches to split if genuine people wanting to do the right thing see that the greater good is served by parting company. But, division should be only under extreme circumstances, the question at hand in chapter 8 is how to deal with differences of opinion – without resorting to painful and potentially damaging division.

  1. The problem with knowledge

The issue in this chapter was about food sacrificed to idols. So not relevant to us, but the principles Paul adopts can still teach us much. There seemed to be two possible backgrounds to this issue. In first century cities such as Corinth, many people brought animal sacrifices to their idols and local temples. They brought the best animals. The meat from the sacrifices was usually eaten by the temple priests and their employees. There was however usually more than enough meat to go around and any surplus was sold in the local market. It was the best of quality – people generally brought the best animals for sacrifice. For shoppers in the market it was likely that the source of meat on offer was not always clear. Should believers buy and eat such food? The other possible background to the food issue, was likely to be related to the great feasts (involving eating the sacrificed food) associated with idol worship and held in the idol’s temple. These were probably great social occasions and it seems that some of the believers were happy to accept invitations to these dinners. Were they right to do so?

So the question for the Corinthians was – how should a Christian respond to these circumstances; should they eat the meat or not, should they attend the Temple dinners or not.  There were at least two perfectly legitimate responses. One group took the view that since these idols represented non-existent false gods then there was no problem in eating the food offered to them. Why not, they would say, it’s good food after all and causes us no harm. In contrast, the other group were highly sensitive to eating such food as their conscience simply made them feel highly uncomfortable. How could they participate and become involved in such a thing as the worship of idols and false gods – perish the thought! One issue and two responses, and no specific guidance on the issue – no lighthouse to guide!

The question is not so much as to who is right and who is wrong, but how to deal with two legitimate (and potentially incompatible) but different responses to the same issue.

The group who viewed this is a non-issue were in some respects correct. They had knowledge of what was real (God) and what was not (idols) and made their decision accordingly. But there was a problem with this group. They were in the know and knowledge alone was not going to solve this issue. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if when faced with such situations we could all sit down and coolly and logically work through the problem and arrive at a unanimous and informed opinion and decision. If only life were so simple! Let’s get used to the idea that we will not agree on everything. But let’s also get used to discovering how to work together when we don’t agree. Paul gave the key to working together – it’s love not knowledge. There are two possible problems with knowledge, first it tends to make people proud. (it ‘puffs up’ in the NIV translation). One commentator has said ‘some Christians grow, others swell!’. Knowledge puffs up says Paul, but love ‘builds up’. This is love in the self sacrificing sense, not in the self satisfying sense. The other problem with knowledge is that you never quite know what you don’t know! Donald Rumsfeld (the former American defence minister) once famously said that it was not the known unknowns that bothered him it was the unknown unknowns! Sometimes we know what we don’t know, other times we don’t even know what we don’t know! Knowledge is always deficient, never complete. But as for love, not only does it build up but it also leads to a knowledge of God. Paul says ‘whoever loves God is known by God.’ It’s better to be known by God than to know stuff incompletely. That seems a fair point to me! Paul is saying I think that in matters of opinion (in this case the rights and wrongs of eating food offered to idol) then the application of knowledge is not really the answer, love is the answer! I can’t help but notice that love is the first named fruit of the Spirit – knowledge doesn’t get a mention!

  • The two positions with respect to food offered to idols

In verses 4 to 8 Paul summarisies the two positions with respect to this issue. We’ll call them the knowledge-group and the conscience-group.

The knowledge- group had thought through the issue. They had recognised that ‘an idol is nothing at all in the world’ and that ‘there is no God but one’. We would have no issues with either of those statements. Even if there were other gods (which there are not) as far as we are concerned (the knowledge-group reasoned) for us there is only one God, it is this God from whom all things come anyway and we live through him, not other gods. So all very logical and to the point. 

What of the conscience-group? The issue with the conscience-group was that they just could not get over the fact that the food had actually been offered to idols. It was by definition defiled by this very act. If they had been forced to eat, every bite and every mouthful would have caused inner turmoil and pain – how could I defile myself by eating this stuff – it’s contaminated. Paul admits that their conscience is weak, but nonetheless this was a real and legitimate problem for them. Perhaps they had been previously intimately involved in idol worship and now that they had become Christians any association with idol worship would have been distasteful and offensive.

Paul has a view on the rights and wrongs of the dispute and he seems to be relatively neutral albeit with some sympathy for the knowledge-group. He says: Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat and no better if we do. I think he is saying that eating the food is really of little or no consequence. This is so often the pattern in churches: there is a legitimate difference of opinion, but often related to matters of little or no consequence. How tragic to hear so often heated discussion of peripheral things. We would do well to consider any differences of opinion that arise in our church in this light and ask ourselves, how important really is this? Is it of eternal significance, is there specific teaching related to this in the bible? Is it an area of legitimate difference?

Having stated that food doesn’t really matter, Paul was not about to let this difference of opinion fester, it needed to be dealt with and this forms the last part of chapter 8.

  • Sorting it out

The knowledge-group needed to be aware that the exercise of their opinion (which was probably correct) could lead to great hurt and damage to the church. If they were to exercise their rights they could unwittingly destroy the people in the conscience group. Paul says that if the knowledge-group were to exercise their rights they could become a ‘stumbling block’ to people in the conscience group. So if someone with what Paul calls a ‘weak’ conscience sees one of the other believers from the church eating in an idol’s temple he may become emboldened to do the same. If this were to occur the person with the weak conscience could be destroyed by the person in the knowledge-group. Would this be acting in love? Certainly not, in fact Paul describes this sort of behaviour as a sin against the weak-conscience person as well as a sin against Christ. This is a fairly startling comment from Paul. So exercising pretty reasonable judgement could result in sin if the person acted In such a way that another believer was ‘destroyed’. So being right could mean being wrong if it’s done in a way that fails to show love! This comes as something of a shock for many of us. It’s much more comfortable to have blacks and whites, but we have to recognise that often life turns out to be more complex. On the other hand we must not lose sight of the fact that there are some blacks and whites where God has given great clarity on what we ought to do. Remember that this passage is dealing with the areas where there is no clear guide and where judgement is necessary.

In the age in which we live, we seem to have emphasised greatly both personal rights as well as individual freedom. Why should I change to please him? We may well ask. Especially of the other person is lacking in grace themselves! Interestingly Paul deals with a similar issue in Romans 14. In that letter, he addresses the side of the person with the weak conscience too. He says that the person with the stronger conscience should not despise the weaker person and conversely the person with the weaker conscience should not pass judgement on the stronger. The issues for the Romans seemed to be with eating (anything or only vegetables), observance of holy days and drinking wine. We can imagine just these sort of issues arising in the church today. The consequence of these differences in Rome had brought out the worst in both groups: the knowledge group despising the weakness of the conscience group and the conscience group passing judgement on the knowledge group. Can you see yourself joining one of the groups and enjoying the ding-dong dispute! So how to deal with these situations – pursue what makes for peace and for mutual understanding. Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers – how right he was.