I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. (1 Co 10:15)
I am oppressed by what I like to think of as Christian idiocy. Why is it that Christians are not allowed to think? Christ said the world would think poorly of us, but must we invite the world’s wrath for all the wrong reasons? As I explain to my children, “It’s laudable if your classmates don’t like you because you’re Geekier than they are, not interested in social conformity, or not willing to do what’s wrong to fit in; it is not acceptable if they don’t like you because you smell bad.”
I grew up a Christian idiot. I attended churches which taught things like women should not wear pants (because pants are men’s clothing—clearly they were unfamiliar with Mary Tyler Moore in “The Dick van Dyke Show”). They taught that no one in the Bible drank wine containing alcohol. I believed it was wrong to attend movies (but not wrong to attend live theater). I wouldn’t eat in a restaurant that served alcohol. I found fault with Big Band music. (I once refused to let a schoolmate borrow Allan Sherman’s “You Went the Wrong Way Old King Louis,” to play for his history class; Paul Pendagrace, I apologize.) I attended a large Bible college/church where the pastor’s argument (to loud praise) for why the Bible was the Word of God was, “Because I’m afraid of Momma,” where the students were not allowed to take notes on the sermons, and where every college-owned board game had its dice replaced by spinners. Another very large Christian college prohibits students from reading the Bible in a large common area. Another infamous Christian university has only recently reversed its racist policies, which for decades it claimed were Scripturally supported. I’ve heard everything from tattoos to beards (anyone remember that Jesus guy?) presented as unchristian. I spent decades thinking that I might somehow ruin God’s perfect will for my life, and be stuck with His second-best “acceptable will.” I hated sermons on Hebrews 12, because I had been taught chastisement referred only to punishment (it means discipline), and wondered how I could be saved without seeing evidence of God constantly punishing me. I laugh now, but the wonderful dancing my 3-year-old daughter does, or the way she insists on clinking glasses together and exclaiming “Cheers!” at dinner, would have been offensive to me a decade ago.
Meanwhile, the wondrous, complex depth of themes and doctrines contained in the Word of God and the rich historical background of the cultures therein described were glossed over much of the time.
As one of my coworkers likes to exclaim, “Non-sense!”
Why don’t we compare what we believe to the Word of God? Why don’t we actually study the Word of God enough to know what it really teaches? Why can’t we learn from the Berean example in Acts 17:11–12?
Our churches—and thus, our Christian culture—are rife with extrabiblical teaching. The ancient rabbis declared, “God has spoken, and everything else is commentary.” History and Scripture would indicate that it is indeed human nature to expand God’s doctrine. Indeed, a study of the book of Acts or of Paul’s Epistles will make it clear that debates about such human-driven doctrine were with Christianity virtually from the beginning. Granted, the Word of God was not yet complete, which no doubt added to the debate—but things haven’t really changed. We would be wiser to heed the words of Christ:
7You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 8“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'” (Mat. 15:7–9, ESV).
The Separatist Pilgrims had the right idea: One of their constant questions, which ultimately led to their departure from the Church of England, was, “Does the Bible really teach that?” Our American tradition of marriage being a civil, rather than strictly religious, ceremony, comes partly from their understanding that nowhere in the Bible was a pastor shown to officiate in a marriage ceremony. They disavowed many ceremonial creations, such as crossing oneself when uttering Christ’s name, merely because such creations could not be supported by Scripture. A friend who is a skilled student of Greek tells me she often encounters what she calls “Christianisms”—teachings or traditions that have become a common part of Christianity that have no real basis in the New Testament Scriptures.
We sound like idiots because we espouse idiocy. We’ve stopped thinking, because, while we criticize the sound bytes used in the media, our churches are preaching nothing more than sound bytes with a Christian flavor. We’re afraid of starting a discussion of doctrine, either because we are afraid might be wrong or because we lack a comprehensive knowledge of God’s Word. We study our Bibles using “What does this passage mean to me?” rather than starting with a grammatical-historical hermeneutics methodology. We rant about “Biblical standards,” when expecting outward conformity to rules of behavior that have absolutely no Biblical basis, and then we use these extrabiblical issues to divide believers from each other.
“I do not believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” —Galileo Galilei
It’s worth exploring one of the big debates of the New Testament believers: Should a believer eat meat that had been offered to idols?
The first time this is encountered is in Acts 15:24–31.
24Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, 25it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
30So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. (Acts 15:24–31, ESV)
The scenario was that the early Christians were being pulled in a number of directions. Some people told them they had to obey all or part of the Old Testament Law to be saved. This is understandable, considering the number of Jews who became followers of Christ, who had believed all their lives that following the Law was a vital part of pleasing God. These believers were, understandably, confused. So they wrote to the Apostles and said, “Hey, can you clarify this, please?”
Acts 21:25 summarizes the conclusions of Acts 15:24–31 quite beautifully:
But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.” (Acts 21:25, ESV)
The prohibitions against eating things strangled or animals that had not had the blood drained seems to have not caused much controversy. The command to avoid sexual immorality would be repeated throughout the epistles, though there was no danger of that being misunderstood (although the believers at Corinth seem to have been very skilled at disregarding it).
But eating meat that had been offered to idols (which was, as I understand it, available inexpensively in the marketplaces—essentially idolatry-subsidized food) seems to have continued to be a large controversy. Paul would devote two more passages related to that topic in his epistles (one dealing with specific food taboos in general, and another dealing directly with food offered to idols), providing clear instruction of how such derived prohibitions are to be handled. It is also interesting to note that Paul did not consider the recommendation the Apostles made to be binding; it clearly was meant to address the concerns of a particular group of new believers, an idea backed up in the context of what Paul wrote.
1As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.
4Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 5One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.
8If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
10Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” 12So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. 13Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.
14I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. 16So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. 17For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
18Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. 20Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.
22The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Rom. 14:1–23)
Romans 8 gives us several important principles for dealing with differences of opinion about what is right and wrong. Key among these is the idea that it’s wrong to flaunt liberty among those who are weaker or less knowledgeable to the point where it causes them to be troubled, or worse, causes them to sin by giving in to peer pressure to do something they don’t believe is right. But notice also that Paul says judging another in either direction is wrong. Those who have stronger convictions about foods were not to criticize those who understood that it didn’t matter. Ultimately, Paul agrees that there’s nothing wrong with eating specific foods, even though some found them offensive, but warns, “Stop tearing down the work of God for the sake of food.” (Rom 14:20, ALT) Ah, balance!
In his first letter to the believers at Corinth, Paul deals specifically with the topic of food that was offered to idols:
1Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.
4Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth–as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—6yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
7However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (1 Cor. 8:1–13, ESV)
My sister grew up loathing the common ignorance about this passage. We tend to use it metaphorically, failing to see the obvious fact that the Apostles were describing a real, practical, everyday situation.
The night was hot and still, a power outage meant that the ceiling fans weren’t moving and the hiss of the gas lanterns made the small brick church in central western Brazil seem even hotter than usual. The pastor was away, so one of the deacons was leading the Wednesday night Bible study. He read the passage [1 Cor. 8], halting a bit here and there, for he was more accustomed to farming and outdoor work than to reading. I wondered what he could possibly find to say about this rather obscure passage. To my surprise, he looked up from his Bible, his sun wrinkled face beaming and said, “Oh my brothers and sisters, how kind the Lord is to give us a passage like this that tells us just what we need to know! You know that the owner of the big ranch that is close to our property is having a party and has invited us all. But he has told us that he is going to sacrifice the bull to the voodoo gods before he barbecues it. Here we have the answer to whether or not we can eat the meat at the party!” (Frances Wilcox Matheson, unpublished study of 1 Cor. 8 )
Verse two is very much in need of being noted: “If you think you know everything, you’re wrong.” We often disregard further education in a matter. (Paul’s further instruction regarding meat should cast illumination on the fallacy of this idea.) I’ve heard people tell me when discussing doctrine, “I studied this x years ago …” with no interest in even consideration of further study. I try to always be aware that some of the things I believe so deeply now may change in the next decade or even less; one cannot grow in knowledge without having to revise some opinions.
Paul clarifies who is likely have trouble eating meat offered to idols (v. 7)—those who formerly worshiped them. I have often seen that a person who has newly been brought to grace will be very sensitive about certain areas in which sin dominated in their particular lives. Over time, this tends to change, as the believer’s knowledge increases and faith becomes stronger.
But is all this loving? Why even bring to the table such a discussion? Because this Christian idiocy does nothing to help the cause of Christ; just the opposite. We impose our own nonbiblical standards on other believers, completely contrary to the Scripture. We make them guilty—causing them to sin. Or, we are proud of how righteous or spiritually sound we are, either from the approach of liberty or the approach of restrictions. This stubborn insistence on self-righteousness ignores the love we are commanded to show to our brothers.
Does it mean that there aren’t things which are obviously wrong for a believer? Of course not. God’s Word is full of commandments about how a believer should live his life. Drunkenness (but not drinking) is prohibited. Dishonesty is prohibited. Sexual immorality (a much more expansive word in the Greek than the KJV’s fornication would imply) is prohibited. Gossip and backbiting are prohibited. Revenge is prohibited. Hatred is prohibited—and its presence is used to disprove faith in Christ.
But so much is also prescribed. Adhering to sound doctrine is prescribed. Edifying other believers is prescribed. Giving is prescribed. Propagating the gospel is prescribed. Studying the Bible is prescribed. Earnest prayer is prescribed. Loving our brothers and sisters in Christ is prescribed. Why do our children think practicing Christianity is merely composed of avoiding a long list of behaviors defined as unrighteous? Pastor Erik DiVietro put it this way:
I am a Christian, but I’m often ashamed of it. Don’t get me wrong! I am not ashamed of the name of Jesus Christ—it is the hope of salvation for the world. I am not ashamed of HIM; I am ashamed of the people who take his name and then use him as an excuse to be arrogant, self-righteous snobs.
The church is the hope of the world, but we pretend like we’re the center of the world instead. Everyone should look like us, sound like us. We never consider anything outside ourselves. Forming a Christian opinion often goes like this: (a) This is what I like to do. (b) This is a verse I can use to say that it is good to do what I like to do. (c) I will try to coerce everyone else to do what I like to do. (d) I am spiritual doing what I like to do even if no one else agrees with me. (e) I can look down on those carnal people who don’t do things like I do. (Erik DiVietro, “Fear of Becoming an Activist”)
I am not saying that personal holiness is wrong, nor am I flaunting my liberty in Christ, saying, “Ha! Look what I can do!” Scripture—the revealed will of God—needs to be our first directive for behavior. I will strive to be loving toward those who are weaker or less knowledgeable Christians, which means I won’t try to coerce them into behavior they might find sinful, nor try to mash my own derived applications of Scripture into their heads.
I am angered at the disregard for the deep and the elevation of the shallow in modern Christianity. I’m mortified by the lack of Bible knowledge that is actively persisted in our churches, while the same tired “Christianisms” and misapplied, historical taboos are given serious weight. I’m saddened by the labeling that allows us to exclude any believer who falls even slightly outside our cliquish assemblies’ definitions of likemindedness.
We should be ashamed.