1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1
3 March 2024
Freedom. It is hard to think of any human ideal that is more widely celebrated than that one. Wouldn’t you say?
Ask the East German who saw the Berlin Wall come down. Freedom!
Ask the recovering drug addict who’s managed to escape the downward spiral. Freedom!
Ask the wrongly convicted prison inmate who finally gets justice and sees his sentence reversed. Freedom!
Ask the woman who manages to escape from an abusive relationship, or the homeowner who’s finally done with his monthly mortgage payments, or the employee who can now leave the hated job she’s endured for years, or the African Americans who finally won the civil rights they fought so hard for.
It just resonates so deeply in our hearts, doesn’t it? The idea of being liberated from… whatever oppressive situation it was and now starting life afresh: released, unencumbered, unshackled. No wonder it’s celebrated in movie after movie. And song after song.
From Freddie Mercury ‘I want to break free’ to Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’, to Beyonce’s Freedom – that anthem to the Black Lives Matter protests back in 2020.
Freedom is something to yearn for (if you don’t have it). And something to make sure you celebrate – if you do.
And of course, it’s a big deal in the Bible.
The history of God’s people is a history of liberation. A nation of slaves are set free from their Egyptian slavemasters and led into a new promised land where they can worship their God freely. And as they go about that journey, they model to us what it is to be set free from sin by Jesus, and to look forward in hope to an inheritance in heaven that will one day be ours.
Freedom is our story as Christians. And if you’re not yet a Christian believer, it could be your story!
Where things get a bit murky, though, is what the daily life of a free child of God looks like.
I mean, we know we’re not completely free. We are servants of God, and therefore there are things that are right or wrong; because he’s decreed them to be so.
• There is a black and white.
• In the black zone are the forbidden things: killing or stealing or – as we saw last week – worshipping a false God. That’s relatively straightforward.
• And in the white zone might be – what? Listening to God, praying, and loving our neighbour and encouraging God’s people and so on.
• There is black and white. Right and wrong.
• But then of course to make things a little more complicated, there’s a zone that lies between the black and the white, isn’t there?
• A grey zone. Where decisions could go either way. Where there is freedom.
Which sounds wonderful. Except that bubbling up within most of us is a tendency to collapse that grey into either the black or the white.
The pharisee in us wants make the grey into virtually black.
You… oversleep and have to choose between missing your morning Bible reading or being late for work. What do you do? Well, you mustn’t miss your morning devotions, so there’s your answer, says the voice of the pharisee in your head.
You’re pondering your Christian giving. ‘Make sure it’s exactly 10% of pretax income, no more, no less’, says the voice, ‘And don’t forget your child benefit and that Christmas cheque from Auntie June!’
Do you see? The grey is collapsed into almost black.
Meanwhile the free-and-easy approach goes the opposite way.
If it’s not expressly forbidden in the Bible, it’s fine, says that voice. ‘The Bible doesn’t mention synthetic marijuana or adult-only-rated video games, and so on – so what’s the issue? Go for it.’
You can see what that approach is doing – effectively collapsing the grey into the white. Anything goes.
So why do we do this? Push out the grey in one of those directions? Well, I think we do it because it’s just easier. The grey zone, you see, is the zone of wisdom.
It’s where the decisions lie that need to be thought through, and weighed, and balanced. And that’s just too much like hard work. Easier to be just a pharisee or a free-and-easy type.
A month or two back, the Christian internet pretty much exploded because a respected pastor in America was asked by a grandma if she should go to her grandson’s same-sex wedding. His answer of ‘yes, as long as he knows exactly where you stand’ seemed to split the Christian world:
• Some disagreed strongly, because to them going to a wedding meant celebrating the wedding. Simple as that. She’d be celebrating what God has condemned.
• Some agreed with the pastor though, because – let’s face it – going to a same-sex wedding is never mentioned in the Bible, so she can do what she likes.
What both responses had in common was that: they were right and the other side were wrong. Neither side, it seemed, could cope with accepting this was a decision in the grey zone. Neither was happy to treat it as a wisdom issue which might vary according to context and individuals and so on. Calling it the other way was enough to get you cancelled.
You see what’s going on?!
The whole situation was a classic demonstration of how tricky we find it to deal with our freedom.
But that is exactly what these chapters of 1 Corinthians we’re looking at are addressing.
How the members of this decidedly ‘messy church’ handle the freedom of decision-making in the grey zone.
Look how Paul describes this grey zone, in verse 23.
23 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—
And notice he doesn’t correct that; but he does fill out the picture:
…but not everything is beneficial.
Again, another quote from them:
“I have the right to do anything”
Which again he doesn’t deny. But there’s more to be said.
—but not everything is constructive.
In other words, it’s not black or white.
And then he goes on:
24 No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.
I won’t say any more about that, because he’s going to come back to that idea, and so are we.
But you see how he’s introducing this idea, that having freedom doesn’t necessarily mean you should exploit that freedom for your own purposes. Having freedom actually brings greater responsibility to ensure we steward that freedom well.
So what might that involve?
First, he says: enjoy your freedom with confidence. This is verses 25 and 26.
25 Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26 for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”[f]
For three chapters now, Paul has been dealing with an issue that seems foreign to us, but was clearly a serious hot potato in Corinth: it was whether or not to eat the meat of an animal that had been sacrificed to idols. And so far, his answer has been no!
No – because of the effect on other believers.
No – because of the effect on unbelievers.
And no – because of the effect on you.
But now the context in view changes. Rather than spending a night out tucking in with friends at the temple food court, he’s now talking about just picking something up at Tesco for a quiet night in. A glass of wine and a nice steak. There’s no temple involved now. And there’s no other people involved either. Just you.
And that changes everything. Now the answer is an unqualified ‘yes’!
Go for it, says Paul. You can sink your teeth into that steak with no qualms at all! All those caveats and concerns are gone. So just enjoy yourself. You’re free. That meat – like everything else in the world – is God’s to give, and he’s given it to you!
Now actually that would have been pretty revolutionary. You read the New Testament, and there are people trying to ban eating this that and the other all over the place.
• Oh you can’t eat that: it’s banned by the Old Testament laws.
• Oh you can’t drink that: that’s too indulgent.
• And so on.
And every time, Paul says: nonsense.
Worth bearing that in mind actually, for when people put restrictions on us today.
It could be about food and drink.
• Don’t eat that kind of thing: it’s bad for the environment
• Don’t eat that either: it’s bad for your health
• Don’t eat that: the animal it came from may not have been well looked after.
Now please be clear: those may be good and persuasive reasons for holding back, and you and I are free to choose not to eat those foods for those very reasons; but other Christians are free to disagree. And it’s wrong to lay things on someone else’s conscience which are actually matters of freedom.
And of course that goes beyond food and drink. There is a tremendous freedom in being a Christian believer. It’s OK to enjoy God’s gifts.
And actually sense of freedom is an important part of the culture we want to see here at Christ Church. We want to correct sin, and promote wisdom, and warn against foolishness, but we also want to allow freedom, even freedom to disagree and make different calls.
So yes, that’s the first thing Paul wants to say. Without other people or factors in the equation, it’s fine – in fact more than fine – right and appropriate – to enjoy your freedom. It’s a way of saying: thank you… to our great provider God.
But there is of course more to be said.
So steer number 2 from Paul, in verses 27-30: express your freedom with discernment.
So back to the meat thing. Imagine, says Paul, a different scenario. This time, you’re not picking up a Co-op meal deal to eat in front of Strictly on a Friday night on your own. No, you’re actually going out for dinner with friends at their place. What do you do about the meat there?
Answer? Well, it depends!
If nobody raises the subject of the meat’s origin, then don’t you raise it. It’s a non-issue. Verse 27
27 If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience.
If it’s not a problem for them, it’s not a problem for you. Just enjoy your slab of meat pie, or whatever it is!
But if another guest there does in fact bring up the subject, then that does change things.
28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience
In other words, if it’s an issue for him, then it becomes an issue for you. You don’t want him to be confused about whether Christianity is distinct from paganism or not, and - given he’s actually probably just trying to help you out, stopping you from doing something he assumes you don’t want to do - you want to respect that. It’s not actually a problem for you in itself (v30 – you’re grateful to God for the food – it’s all good), but it is now a problem for him, which makes it a problem for you, because you care about his soul.
So look at the situation, Paul is saying. And make your call, with discernment.
As I say, it’s probably quite foreign to us, all this. So let’s bring it closer to home. A couple of examples might help us think through the application.
Here’s one. Say you’re a Christian. I know there are plenty of people here this morning who aren’t. But say you are. And you’re invited to dinner with a Moslem friend. So it’s pretty likely you’ll be eating Halal meat.
That is, meat from the right animal, from the right part of the animal, killed in the right way – according to Islamic tradition. Now is that a problem for you? Probably not. Nobody’s making an issue of it. And it’s just meat. So lay in!
But supposing someone there says: ‘you do realise this is halal meat. So it was prepared according to the principles taught in the Koran, and Allah’s name will have been pronounced during the killing of the animal. You’re a Christian: are you sure you’re ok with that?’ Well at that point, it becomes a different thing, doesn’t it? So you likely make your apologies: ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, now that you mention it, do you mind if I leave the meat here.’ Yes, it is an awkward situation, but that’s the point: you’re deliberately making it an awkward situation, because circumstances have arisen where you need to distinguish yourself for fear that they think your Christianity means nothing to you.
It takes discernment, you see? Being sensitive to the circumstances.
Or how about another one. You’re invited to join a friend at their yoga class.
What do you say? Well, I take it you say: yes, why not? Nobody’s talking about it being anything other than an exercise thing. You’ve done a bit of Pilates; bit of Zumba; why not a bit of yoga? Go for it.
But then what happens? You’re just going in, the two of you, and another regular joins you and you start chatting. And they say: ‘Oh this is the best part of my week; it really helps me to get spiritually centred. The instructor’s great – she encourages us to use it to get connected with ourselves and the world. I always spend some time meditating afterwards, and the whole experience makes me a more grounded person.’ Well, now it’s become a different thing, hasn’t it? The religious origins of yoga are more front and centre. And so again, what do you do? I imagine you make your apologies and be on your way. Because you don’t want either of your friends thinking your Christianity is unimportant to you, or that you can somehow fit an Eastern religious viewpoint into your understanding of Christ. You’ll live with the awkward for the sake of the making a stand.
Well, there are a couple of example to get us all thinking. I predict some good chats over coffee later!
But the point is simple: express your freedom with discernment.
And so we come the final point, which is less about practice, and more about motivation. Exercise your freedom with purpose.
That is, as you navigate these grey areas of life, these wisdom areas, be clear on the principles that are going to guide you.
In verse 31, Paul, makes it clear he wants to move beyond the meat question to the whole of life in the grey zone.
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do
You see, we’re into the whole of life in the grey zone.
And he effectively he gives us three questions to ask to feed into any decision we’re going to make.
Question 1: does it promote the glory of God?
Verse 31 again:
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
• Now I’ve got something here.
• It’s my flexible selfie stick here
• Very useful: wherever I go, I can have a record of that place, or that group of people or whatever it is, with myself in the foreground….
• This is Buckingham Palace, with me in front of it. This is Westquay Shopping Centre, with me the main thing in the picture. This is coffee time at church, with me front and centre.
Now here’s the point. Most of us live our lives, carrying this selfie stick. Effectively. We go around, all day and every day, seeing ourselves front and centre in every situation. How’s this going to affect me? Does this make me look alright? Am I going to come off well from this? Is it going to make me happier, or more comfortable, or better off?
Do you see? Every situation, we’re carrying a selfie stick and staring at the world around us with ourselves in the foreground. It’s our default way of living.
But Paul says no!
It’s got to be God front and centre. What is this decision going to do to HIS reputation? How will this decision serve to shine a spotlight on his love and goodness and strength and power and wisdom, and so on?
His glory, and not mine, is what matters. Do you see?
Does this decision promote the glory of God?
Second question: does it serve the ultimate well-being of others?
Paul’s already introduced this guiding principle, back in verse 24, hasn’t he?
No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.
But he returns to it again now in verse 32 to explain what he means.
Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
It’s already clear from chapter 1 that Paul is Ok with people being offended by the message of the gospel. What he’s determined to avoid is people being driven away because of the messenger. See, what drives Paul, and I hope drives us, is the passionate desire he has for other people to prosper spiritually.
But how is it possible to live your life focussed on other people doing well? It’s very hard, isn’t it? There’s always going to be that question in the back of our mind: if I’m looking out for everyone else, who’s going to look out for me?
Andrew Tate, the guiding star of so many rootless teenage boys over these past couple of years, puts it as clearly as you could want: ‘I’ve always been an exceptionally selfish individual, because I realise that the only person who cares about me having supercars, money and women… is me.’
I take it what makes Paul – and every Christian different from Andrew Tate – is that we know that our Father in heaven has got our back. He’s looking out for us. Loving us, caring for us, providing for us, sustaining us. And just knowing that creates the environment for me to be able to give myself to that crucial issue of other people are doing in terms of where they stand with God. My energy can go into prioritising helping other people get to know Jesus, or go on with him, make some progress in the kingdom.
So that’s his second question to feed in to our daily decision-making: does it serve the ultimate well-being of others?
And third question, which pretty much just summarises the first two: is it in keeping with the example of Christ?
Chapter 11 verse 1 there should really be the final verse of chapter 10. It has Paul saying:
1 Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
Jesus is the one who showed us more than anything what it was to give himself to glorifying his father by serving others – even at great cost to himself.
Remember what Paul says elsewhere of Jesus: he was the one
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
11 every tongue (might) acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Here is our model. Jesus himself, the self-giving, others-serving, God-glorifying one who said: ‘Come follow me’.
This is Paul’s guidance for navigating the part of life that lies between the black and the white, for making decisions in the grey zone.
Be confident in your freedom, be discerning, and be purposeful – does it shine the spotlight on God? Does it help others make it to heaven? Does it chime with the example of Jesus?
And you can apply those questions of all kinds of issues
Maybe you’re choosing where to live. And so rather than just asking how comfortable it is, how convenient, how light it is, how about asking: is living here the best thing for glorifying God by preserving gospel-shaped relations with the people I know and encouraging fellow-believers in their walk with Jesus? Forget the high ceilings and the free-standing bath and the lovely magnolia tree, or whatever it is. How’s it going to enable me to focus people’s attention on God?
Maybe you’re choosing a potential marriage partner. What’s a key question you’ll be asking? Presumably it’s not just ‘do I fancy him or her’, although that is important; but would teaming up with this person leave me best placed to work for the spiritual good of others? Will they be a help or hindrance in that?
Or maybe you’re choosing what to do for a career or: should I take this job? Well there’s the question – how will this career or job contribute to God using me in the salvation of other people? Just this week I was asking after someone who’d at one point considered gospel ministry, church work, as their career; but had lost interest over the last couple of years. And I asked why that was. And the answer that came back was: ‘Ah well, church work just seemed quite uncertain, the money’s not great, the hours are long, and relationships in churches can be tricky’. And I found myself thinking: ‘And?’ I mean, what’s any of that got to do with it? When people’s eternal life is on the line, when it’s a matter of heaven and hell, how does your personal comfort come into it? Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of other jobs that give you gospel opportunities; and they may be a better match to your gifts; that’s not the issue. The issue is: what’s the motivation here? How are you weighing things?
Well, we could go, but you get the point. Our great God has given us such freedom. How will you and I live, speak, behave, make decisions this week in a way that stewards that freedom well: that gives glory to God by serving the spiritual well-being of others and following the path of Jesus?