An apostle’s counsel on living with diversity in a congregation.
I love the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians. One reason: it is dead-on realistic about life in a congregation. The church in Corinth was a mess. It was wracked with tensions, scandal, theological confusion, and pretensions. Sound familiar does it not?
I also love the book because we witness Paul the apostle turn into Paul the pastor. Paul had got this community of faith started. He longed to see it grow up into a mature fellowship. So he gives a great deal of attention to its needs and problems.
What Is Acceptable Christian Behavior?
One locus of tension in the church was the issue of whether Christians could rightly buy and eat meat that came from the animals sacrificed on the altars of pagan temples. These sacrifices were a major source of supply for butchers. An additional issue was whether Christians could participate in civic dinners and trade gatherings in temples where sacrificed meat might constitute the main dinner entrée.
Some members of the Corinthian church asserted that it was perfectly OK.* After all, they argued, pagan gods did not exist. Eating meat from temples then involved no endorsement of pagan gods. Other members of the church were not so sure. They were scandalized by the practice, believing that it entailed a faith compromise. The church seems to have asked Paul’s advice on the subject. He answers in 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1.
I’m fascinated by his response. His advice is very practical and pastoral, but it is far from simple and clear cut. Which makes it tricky to deal with.
The dispute in the church was not one of theological principle, but of Christian behavior. One group in the church saw no problem in eating meat sacrificed on pagan altars. Nor did they have any scruples about attending dinner in pagan temples. And concerning those in the church who did not agree, they were ready to dismiss them as “weaker brothers.”
Other members of the church, however, felt scruples about these practices. Maybe they were newly converted Christians, who were not quite yet convinced that pagan gods were not real. They were therefore offended when they saw fellow believers eating temple meat.
Both sides had merit in their viewpoints, but apparently little tolerance or compassion for other viewpoints or sensitivities. That led to contention in the church’s life.
In conviction Paul himself seems to have shared the viewpoint of those who saw no problem in eating the meat. But the rightness of his viewpoint was not his chief concern. Nor was it the issue that he felt the “more enlightened” members of the church should be agitated about. Paul’s chief concern was whether this intra-church dispute was going to wreck the congregation’s communal life. Were the behavior and attitudes of either side building up the church? Or were they undermining its welfare and unity?
On this point Paul was decisive. If by eating meat, an “enlightened” member of the community causes a weaker member to stumble in faith, then the enlightened member should voluntarily give up his or her liberty and refrain from eating meat. In such disputes over behavior, the welfare of the community must take priority over the rights and liberty of the individual. So he says in verse 8:13:
Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
To support his argument, he sets himself up as an example. As an apostle, he is entitled to many things—including financial support from the community. But he says he has voluntarily chosen not to exercise those rights—all for the cause of advancing the gospel of Christ.** As further warrant for his practice, he claims he is imitating Christ.
He summarizes his conclusions in verses 10:23-24:
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.***
In listening to Paul’s counsel, it is important, I think, that what he counsels is voluntary restraint. He is not arguing that the community should impose conformity on all. There is diversity in the church. That diversity is not just a matter of different backgrounds and upbringings. That diversity may be inspired and created by the Holy Spirit. Therefore diversity is to be reverenced and cherished. A forced conformity may be a form of abuse and defilement of the Body of Christ.
Distorting Paul’s Counsel
Yet I find Paul’s counsel tricky to implement. One party in a church may argue that another party should refrain from certain behaviors because the first party finds them offensive. They can argue that if the second party continues in its offensive behavior, that party is not demonstrating Christian love. And so we can devolve into a situation where one party in the church becomes a minority dictating behavior for the greater whole.
I do not suspect that Paul would have countenanced his counsel be used as grounds for a tyranny by the minority. Paul, for example, did not give way to what we might have considered the weaker brothers in the case of the disputes in the Galatian churches. There he felt a serious theological principle was at stake, and he was not about to give way to the Judaizing party and its sensitivities about Christian behavior.
So I find that Paul’s counsel is not as quite as simple and clear cut as I would like. At times, our life in the church may call us to voluntarily surrender our rights for the sake of the good of the greater whole. At other times our life may call us to stand firm on our rights. This calls for careful discernment. We may find that we make many mistakes and experience a great deal of anguish.
Yet what can it mean for us today to exercise love in building up the Body of Christ, as Paul counsels? One thing I do believe it requires is learning to respect the differences among us.
Respect is a largely undervalued virtue, but it goes a long way to maintaining harmony. People hunger to be respected in their jobs, in their families, and in their communities. It is one reason I believe we are experiencing so much turmoil in our political life. Too many people in our country feel they have not been respected. In anger they raising hell to ensure they are not ignored. Something similar can happen in the church.
Treating someone with respect is letting someone be himself or herself. It does not mean smoothing out differences, but it allows diversity to be, understanding that there is a hidden wisdom to diversity that eludes all attempts to unite by imposed conformity.
Treating each other in the church with respect does not make differences, conflicts, and disputes go away. But treating others with respect does mean our disputes need not tear us apart and destroy our life together.
So the strange dispute in Corinth over eating meat sacrificed to idols becomes an occasion for Paul to illuminate an important principle in our life together in the church. Neither arrogant individualism nor smothering social conformity are to govern life in the church. Rather, says Paul, let love govern our behavior. And one manifestation of love is respect.
* They may have belonged to a group in the church who prided themselves on their intellectual sophistication. Earlier in the letter Paul chastises them for their putting down what they may have regarded as their “less enlightened” brothers.
** Paul walked his talk. While in Corinth, he earned his living as a tentmaker. He did not receive financial support from the church.
*** The translators of the NRSV has placed certain phrases in quotation marks because they believe that those are words that Paul is quoting from the letter the church sent him.