Some of you might remember that I’m on a journey of actively trying to make friends with the Apostle Paul. It’s going well. Paul is great. He’s spiritually deep. He’s got a servant’s heart. He has a really sharp wit. He loves to burst into praise of the greatness of God in the middle of his theological expositions.
I’m also finding that a lot of people have a wrong first impression of Paul. Over years of modern proof-texting, Paul has accrued the reputation of being a lofty spiritualist. While he certainly is godly, and has intelligence and spiritual insight to spare, he is not lofty. He’s very down to earth, and he knows how to grapple with the nitty-gritty of everyday life. His pastoral heart shines through in his epistles. He’s not just writing theory — he’s dealing with the real lives of real people. To him, Christianity doesn’t need to be reconciled with “real life” — he expects it to transform and dictate the way that life takes place.
Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in the book of 1 Corinthians. A huge portion of this epistle directly addresses concerns which had been reported to Paul by the church in Corinth. Corinth, to put it bluntly, was a mess. It was disjointed, with people arguing over their favorite preachers (1:10-13); it tolerated disgusting immorality that put the pagan neighbors to shame (5:1-2); its members were suing one another (6:1-10); and its gatherings were a chaotic contest of who got to speak when (all of chapter 14). The whole epistle is Paul explaining what Christianity should look like in the everyday lives of this church.
As I was reading through 1 Corinthians, I was struck with chapters 8-10, which talk about the issue of food that had been sacrificed to idols. That sounds like a quaint, ancient practice that would only be relevant to the original culture. Yet I am convinced that it is profoundly applicable to us today.
To the Corinthian believers, this was a daunting and very practical issue. Idolatry was part and parcel with the Roman culture, and there was very little a Christian could do to entirely escape its influence. Vendors in the markets sold meat that had been involved in idolatrous rituals. Many cities, including Corinth, had major meeting halls in a Roman temple, so attending a normal social function with one’s neighbors and family — say, a wedding — meant coming face to face with blatant cultic practice. And the accompanying dinner wouldn’t be catered in by the local Kosher deli, either (let the reader understand).
For believers with unsaved Gentile friends and family, this was beyond socially awkward. What was a God-fearing person to do? How could they fulfill the social duties of their day without compromising their religion?
Some of the Corinthians had reasoned their way right out of the conundrum. There’s only one true God, they figured. Idols are nothing. We know that idols are nothing. They have no spiritual authority over us, and we can prove it on paper. In conclusion, idol-meat is just meat, and we can eat it without the least bit of guilt before God.
Aware of their attitude, Paul writes to them concerning the matter. He doesn’t fault anything in their logic. He actually agrees with them. Even so, Paul didn’t take issue with their theory, but their demeanor: “Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.” Going on to affirm that “We know that an idol is nothing…” he agrees with the logical case they made — while already hinting that all of their knowledge must defer to the principles of love.
He cuts to the chase in 8:9: “…beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak.” He goes on to explain his basic point: If a “weak” Christian is convinced that eating meat sacrificed to idols is just another form of idolatry, but that person sees you eating idol meat without a care in the world, then maybe that person will be emboldened to eat from it, too.
But since eating idol meat was morally justifiable, shouldn’t that be just fine? It’s not like it’s a sin or anything.
Not according to Paul. If a person thinks it’s sin — even if it’s not — and they go ahead with it anyway, it is sin. An innocuous activity done against a guilty conscience is still sin before God.
This is what stuck with me as poignantly relevant to our day. Only for us, I wasn’t thinking so much about cultic practices, but of entertainment.
Entertainment is as pervasive in our society as pagan temple practices were in Corinth (and possibly just as idolatrous, if we were to press the issue). And it certainly is an area in which believers have all manner of different opinions on what is and isn’t okay to consume. Certainly there is a line that sincere Christians can agree not to cross — say, with pornography. But short of that, people believe they can watch and read and listen to all kinds of different things. You can find Christians who think that Barney is evil incarnate and other Christians who think the Saw series is just good gory fun. You can find those who think that Mario Bros. is dark magic and those who think that Grand Theft Auto is “just a game”. The more conservative and cautious ones may think that the others are lukewarm backsliders, and the more liberal ones may think that the others are mean religious dweebs.
Now, I’ve addressed this issue before, and I am a staunch believer in the fact that entertainment is simply not worth getting defiled over. When in doubt, throw it out. I think it would be difficult to be “too safe” regarding the matter. However, I understand that there are plenty of Christians who are willing to enjoy a much broader range of entertainment than I do, and I’m quite willing to believe that many of them are sincere believers.
But it is in this very context that I think that the principles Paul sets forth can apply. For instance, I ran across a blog post the other day, and one of the commenters stated that he had written a 90-page thesis to highlight and elaborate upon the Christian themes he found present — not in a Biblical passage, not in a sermon, and not even in The Chronicles of Narnia — but Harry Potter.
Ninety pages. Over a series of secular fiction.
Now, I have never and will never participate in the Harry Potter franchise. It skeezes me out and I am plenty happy to stay far away from it. But I know a lot of people — a number of whom are my friends — who unreservedly enjoy the books and movies. I’m not about to evaluate their spiritual condition based on that fact. I’m willing to believe that they do what they do with a clean conscience, and their consumption of fictional wizardry is between them and the Lord.
I take issue with Ninety-Page Thesis Guy — not because he liked Harry Potter, and only secondarily because he considered it to have Christian themes (as opposed to “moral themes”, which I’d be much more willing to affirm). What I take issue with is his 90-page thesis. If he wants to read and watch Harry Potter, that’s one thing. But the fact that he is now on a mission to not just defend his own participation, but to encourage others to jump in with him, really, really bothers me.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Ninety-Page Thesis Guy is one of those “strong” Christians Paul was talking about, and I, as a squeamish and too serious person, am one of the “weak”. Now let’s suppose I got in a big internet debate with Ninety-Page Thesis Guy over the moral ramifications of Christians patronizing openly witchcraft-driven movies. Suppose he ran logical circles around me and talked me into reading every single one of those ninety pages of arguments. Suppose then that I snuck off to a showing of the movie at the furthest theater I could reasonably drive to, so I knew none of my friends would run into me. What now?
Maybe I would stagger out of the auditorium within ten minutes, feeling ill under the weight of my wounded conscience. Maybe I would watch with growing interest and fascination, drawn into the story, minute by minute drowning out that little persistent voice that kept piping up, “You really shouldn’t be here…” Maybe I would leave fully satisfied with the experience, feeling the tiny adrenaline thrill of finding out that what I thought was forbidden really wasn’t so bad after all.
However the situation ended up playing out, I sinned.
I let Ninety-Page Thesis Guy talk me into doing something that, until previously, I had thought God disapproved of (Genesis 3, much?). Or, if we don’t want to sound that severe, I let him talk me into breaking a commitment that I had made to the Lord as a demonstration of my love for Him and His ways. Just like a weak believer in Corinth might be made to stumble over a piece of steak, I was just made to stumble over a movie.
Was it worth it?
Paul’s answer would be a resounding and sharp “No.” In his day, he didn’t just say that the weak Christian sinned. He said that the strong Christian sinned, not just against the weaker brother, but against Christ (1 Cor 8:12). That’s serious. And no cut of meat, no movie, no music artist, no video game, no book, is worth that. Paul felt so strongly about it that he was willing to not just avoid idol-related food, but to “never again eat meat” (8:13) if it would prevent a fellow believer from stumbling.
I don’t think that the practical application of that today is to never, ever, ever look at anything that might possibly offend some Christian that you might meet someday. But I firmly believe that it does mean we don’t try to talk each other out of personal convictions — even if we think the other guy is a bit off his rocker. Notice that Paul never once told the “weak” believers to toughen up and stop being so unreasonably religious. He told the “strong” believers to guard the hearts of the weak and to give them no cause for offense.
If my friend is unwilling to touch any kind of video game because he’s worried about what it will do to his time and compulsions, then I do not get to beg him to play this one really cool one with me because there’s nothing bad in it at all, honest. Even if there really is nothing bad in it. It’s off-limits for our hangouts and our conversations. I might play it later on my own time, but I won’t then go tell him about my high score and how much fun I had.
If my friend will not watch any kind of TV because she feels like it is compromising her covenant with her eyes, I do not get to tell her, “Well, there’s this one show that I think you will actually really like. It’s educational! It’s edifying! It made me want to go pray!” Even if all those things are true. I can’t invite her over to watch. I can’t tell her about this amazing episode that was the best thing I’ve seen all year. I have to leave it alone — her conscience demands it, and the One to whom she is accountable is zealous for her heart.
I have seen Christians try to talk each other out of their “religiosity” related to all sorts of things: Movies, books, music, apparel, coarse language, tobacco, alcohol, and more. If that’s you, I implore you: Please, please, please stop.
That doesn’t mean you can’t answer honestly if your friends ask you about something (e.g. “Interesting question; I don’t think it is a sin issue, actually”), but it means that you don’t offer your opinion unsolicited, and you sure don’t try and convince your friends that they just need to loosen up. If it really, truly is a “gray area” issue, just let it be.
Their conscience is your problem. And your conscience is my problem. Missing out on permissible things is far less detrimental than sin — let’s help people avoid the latter by being gentle about the former. It’s not about being right. It’s not about enjoying life’s temporary pleasures. It’s about loving one another, and ultimately — according to Paul — it’s about the glory of God.
“Conscience,” I say, not your own, but that of the other. For why is my liberty judged by another man’s conscience? But if I partake with thanks, why am I evil spoken of for the food over which I give thanks? Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:29-31)