One of the Bible passages that most continually fascinates me is 1 Corinthians 8, maybe because the context of it feels so very contemporary. Here we have Paul – busy, harried, starting-churches-all-over-creation Paul – forced to drop everything and deal with a trivial dispute among believers that seems to have gotten out of hand.
In Paul’s case, the matter revolves around the issue of whether or not believers should eat meat sacrificed to idols. This was a common practice in Paul’s time: the remains of the sacrifice were sold at reduced rates to those who were willing to eat it. Some of the Corinthian Christians had been engaging in this practice and, it is implied, defended their right to do so. Other believers disagreed vehemently, believing that since the food has “been sacrificed to a god…it is defiled” (8:7).
Again: does this sound familiar? Obviously contemporary believers don’t have to deal with the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols, but let’s call this what it really is: a debate over ‘best practices’ and how one ought to go about being a Christian and living out the Word. That debate, we do have – about all sorts of things. I’ve seen Christians engage in fierce debates over whether or not the Bible permits drinking alcohol, in what ways one’s faith should inform one’s vote, over how the Pauline dictates ought to be interpreted from denomination to denomination (i.e., the “woman pastor” question), what the Bible really says about tattoos and piercings and gambling, about worship, about Bible translations (you can really start a fire with that one), about dating… The list goes on and on.And it all comes down to the same thing, really: believers arguing over which way is best, most godly, closest to the truth.
That’s why Paul’s response interests me so much. He does offer a verdict on the debate, and when I was younger I was always surprised to see that he actually falls on the liberal side of the issue: “…food does not bring us near to God,” he points out. “We are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (8:8). He goes so far to refer to those Christians who object to the practice as having weak consciences, implying that their immature faith requires perhaps more rules than might be necessary in order to remain steady.
But then he offers a caveat. “Be careful,” he warns the meat-eaters, “that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. …if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall” (8:9, 13). In other words: for those who do not consider the meat to be “tainted” by its proximity to sacrifice, it’s not tainted and is fine for eating. But if those who perceive that meat to be “tainted” are coaxed to eat it by their brethren in spite of their convictions that it is defiled, they are sinning – and the meat-eaters bear responsibility for that.
What strikes me most about Paul’s response is that he doesn’t seem interested in resolving the disagreement in the sort of way that creates unanimous harmony about the issue. Although he agrees that the anti-meat faction is interpreting the matter too strictly and that they should not prohibit their brethren from exercising their rights, he doesn’t persuade them to think otherwise; he allows them their convictions, and demands that the meat-eaters respect those convictions. And although he agrees with the meat-eaters that they should be free of guilt over eating meat sacrificed to idols, he doesn’t demand that everyone else agree with them, and implores them to consider their brethren as they go about exercising their rights.
Here, then, is the summary of that text: a group of believers disagrees over best practices. One part of the group, Paul agrees, is theologically correct; the other one interprets it too strictly. But that’s fine; they can do as they like in consideration of each other and still go on together. It’s okay for them to disagree. They can still work together. They can still all be believers.
I think we’ve lost some of that in the modern church. We’re so invested in our arguments for or against minor points and interpretations of doctrine that we don’t understand why everyone doesn’t agree; the arguments can become fierce and protracted. How can I, the Methodist wonders, deal with a Southern Baptist who thinks it’s okay to bar women from the pulpit? How can I, the tee-totaling believer thinks, deal with a Christian who wants to throw back wine at dinner? And why, the hapless Christian wonders, does the NIV vs. KJV debate make people so mad?
Arguments among Christians are particularly fraught because behind them always lurks the specter of salvation, of eternity, of Christ. Losing an argument feels like you are doing it “wrong,” which can be frightening; no one wants to invoke God’s wrath or feel like a “lesser” Christian or believe that they are blind to a truth in God’s word. And so we fight viciously about some of these things because our idea of our own Christian selves is so invested in them.
If that’s the case for you, then take comfort in this passage from Paul. Yes, there are a set of inarguable Christian doctrines within the faith – you won’t and shouldn’t get far if you start questioning the resurrection or the existence of Jesus Christ on earth – but by and large, our arguments revolve over a million other minor things. And that’s okay. It’s fine to disagree. There’s room for it. So long as our focus is on loving and serving each other, on considering each other’s needs and situations, Paul says that we don’t all have to feel the same way about particular points of doctrine. There’s no need to shame anyone or argue everyone into unanimous agreement.
As always, love and the work of love is what matters more than anything else. In your disagreements with other believers, be considerate. Be respectful. Be kind.
And above all else, give grace.