Thursday, September 26, 2013

When Knowledge Can Be Harmful: An Interpretation of Paul’s Teaching in 1 Corinthians 8

Knowledge can be harmful. If used incorrectly, it can hurt other people. Christians believe that we have a knowledge of the truth, but we need to be careful how we use this knowledge.

The members of the church in Corinth valued knowledge. They knew that Christians have been privileged to have a knowledge of the truth in Jesus; but Paul reminds them in 1 Cor 8:1 that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Knowledge has a tendency to puff people up with pride, but love builds others up. Knowledge without love is destructive. Knowledge helps our brains to develop, but the knowledge that we have will not help others unless we act towards others in love.

Paul applied this principle of knowledge guided by love to Christian behavior generally, but the particular issue that this applies to in 1 Cor 8 is the issue of the eating of meat offered up to idols. Most of the meat produced for consumption in Corinth was associated with pagan rituals or pagan temples. A practical question for Christians in such a context was: “What meat, if any, is okay for us to eat?”

There were some Christians who argued that all meat could be eaten. Their argument is summarized in 1 Cor 8:4–6. They rightly believed that because there is only one true God, all other so-called gods and idols are false and not real. There are lots of so-called gods and lords that people believe exist in heaven or on earth, but as far as Christians are concerned, “there is one God, the Father, from whom all things are, and to whom we belong”; and there is also only “one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:6). These Christians were arguing that everything belongs to the one true God as the source of all things, and to the one true Lord as the agent of all things; therefore, every type of meat also belongs to God; consequently, Christians can eat whatever we want to eat.

These Christians rested upon orthodox Christian theology to justify their practice when it came to eating meat, regardless of its origin. Paul fundamentally agreed with this theological argument. What they were saying about there being only one true God was true. What they were saying about every type of meat being permissible to eat was also true.

The problem was, however, that “this knowledge does belong to everyone” (1 Cor 8:7). There were some Christians for whom eating such meat was problematic. These were Christians who had grown up in the pagan environment, and who associated eating meat with the pagan rituals that often accompanied the slaughter and the eating of such meat. For all their belief in Jesus as Lord, these Christians still had a weak conscience; and eating such meat would feel to them as if they were doing something wrong.

To resolve this issue, Paul applied his principle of knowledge guided by love. His argument applying this principle is found in 1 Cor 8:8–13.

Paul’s first point is that food, in and of itself, is neither here nor there (1 Cor 8:8). Christians are no more presentable to God whether we eat beef, chicken, dog, or even whale. What matters to God is our hearts; and what we eat does not affect our hearts spiritually. So the issue is not food per se. The issue is people’s conscience, and especially the conscience of those whose conscience is weak.

This then leads to Paul’s second and main point: Christians need to make sure that whatever knowledge or authority or freedom that we have does not end up becoming a stumbling block to people who might have a weaker conscience (1 Cor 8:9). A stumbling block is any impediment that stops a person from progressing on the pathway to salvation. A stumbling block is anything that encourages someone else to sin or to give up on following God. The danger for those who said that they had the authority to eat whatever they wanted (because of the knowledge that all food belongs to only one true God) is that by eating meat that had been offered up to idols, they could encourage those with a weaker conscience to sear their own consciences by doing the same thing while believing that such action was sinful.

The example that Paul gives in 1 Cor 8:10 illustrates this. Paul mentions how if someone with a weak conscience saw a fellow brother eating meat in a temple, then the former might be encouraged to copy the practice of the latter even though that went against the latter’s conscience. And so, by exercising one’s freedom in Christ to eat anything, a Christian could actually be causing spiritual harm (or even the spiritual death) of a brother or sister, someone for whom Christ has died (1 Cor 8:11).

True knowledge, therefore, can be dangerous if it is not guided by love. Whatever we do in the presence of fellow Christians will have some effect on them. Obviously if we do something bad, we present a bad example to those around us. But Paul here is talking about eating meat, which in and of itself is not sinful. In other words, sometimes even doing something that is not wrong can have a negative effect on fellow Christians. We should always do what is good, but some of the things we do are matters of personal choice rather than strictly being a matter of what God has explicitly commanded. For example, what we eat, what we drink, what job we do (for the most part), what clothes we wear (within reason), how we pray, whether or not we fast, are all basically matters of personal freedom and preference. In Christ, Christians have freedom to engage in these activities according to personal choice; but if the way in which we exercise our personal choice could prove to be spiritually troublesome for any Christian brothers or sisters that possess a weak conscience, then to insist on acting according to our own understanding and freedom is actually to wound the conscience of a weaker brother or sister. And, according to Paul, to act in such a way is actually to sin against the brother or sister in question. And to sin against a brother or sister in Christ is to sin against Christ himself (1 Cor 8:12). This is why Paul can conclude in the way that he does in 1 Cor 8:13: “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, in order that I might not make my brother stumble.”

Paul’s teaching challenges Christians to be considerate and tolerant of one another. Consider how this teaching might apply to the issue of prayer by way of example. If our heart is right with God, then there may be a limited number of body postures that we might avoid, but there are also many potential body postures that could be employed when praying to God: eyes open, eyes closed; head bowing down, head looking up towards heaven; hands together, hands open; hands by your side, hands raised towards the sky. Or even laying hands on others, or not laying hands on others. But is there more power involved if you lay hands on the person that you are praying for compared to if you do not? No. Jesus did not have to be physically present with people in order for them to feel the effects of his prayers. So it is our heart that matters more than the manner in which we actually pray. We have freedom in a sense to pray how we want to, as long as our heart is right with God. But if the manner in which we pray makes someone else feel uncomfortable, or perhaps even feels wrong to another Christian (whether rightly or wrongly), then it is much better to curb our freedom, to use our knowledge with love, and to avoid that activity in the presence of those for whom it is troubling, than it is to wound the conscience of a fellow brother or sister in Christ for whom Jesus has died.

Paul’s principle of knowledge guided by love applies to all of those areas of freedom where Christians have not been given a specific command from God, or where we have been commanded specifically by God but the details as to how to implement that command are a matter of individual choice.

Overall, Paul’s point in 1 Cor 8 is that Christians are meant to be encouraging one another in the faith rather than discouraging one another. Instead of forcing our opinions on others in areas of personal freedom, out of love we should be mindful of how our actions might impact negatively on those around us, even if there is nothing wrong in and of itself with what we are doing. Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor 8 is a challenge for Christians to be mindful of exercising our knowledge and freedom in Christ in accordance with brotherly love.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Same-Sex Marriage: A Case of Dodgy Science and Theology

On 2 September 2013, Kevin Rudd, in his role as the prime minister of Australia seeking to be re-elected, appeared on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Q&A program (see Kevin Rudd on Q&A between minutes 55:23 and 59:33). Mr Rudd is a Christian, but has recently become a political advocate for same-sex marriage. On the program he was asked a question by Matt Prater, a Christian pastor, about how Mr Rudd could support same-sex marriage while claiming to be a Christian.

Mr Rudd responded as follows: “Number one: I do not believe that people when they are born choose their sexuality. They are gay if they are born gay. You don’t decide at some later stage of life to be one thing or the other. It is, it is how people are built. And therefore, the idea that this is somehow an abnormal condition is just wrong. I don’t get that. I think that is just a completely ill-founded view.”

“Secondly, if you accept that it is natural and normal for someone to be gay because that’s the way they are, then it follows from that that I don’t think it is right to say that if these two folk here who are in love with each other and are of the same gender should be denied the opportunity for legal recognition of the duration of their relationship by having marriage equality.”

After this response, Matt Prater was given the opportunity to present his own view. He pointed out to Mr Rudd that Jesus’ definition of marriage (in passages like Matt 19:4–6) involved a man being married to a woman, and he politely asked Mr Rudd: “if you call yourself a Christian, why don’t you believe the words of Jesus in the Bible?” Mr Rudd answered quite vigorously as follows: “Well mate, well mate, if I was going to have that view, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition. Because St Paul said in the New Testament, ‘slaves be obedient to your masters.’ And therefore we should’ve all fought for the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War. I mean for goodness’ sake! The human condition and social conditions change! What is the fundamental principle of the New Testament? It is one of universal love, loving your fellow man. And if we get obsessed with a particular definition of that through a form of sexuality, then I think we’re missing the centrality of what the gospel, whether you call it a social gospel, a personal gospel, or a spiritual gospel, is all, is all about. And therefore, I go back to my question. If you think homosexuality is an unnatural condition, then frankly I cannot agree with you based on any element of the science; and therefore, if a person’s sexuality is as they are made, then you’ve got to ask the second question: Should, therefore, their loving relationships be legally recognized? And the conclusion I’ve reached is that they should.”

Mr Rudd asserted three fundamental points in his answer. Firstly, he believes that science has found that homosexuals are born gay; secondly, that the New Testament’s teaching on homosexuality was culturally conditioned; and thirdly, that the fundamental principle of the New Testament is universal love for one’s fellow man. On all three points Mr Rudd’s opinions are deficient.

Regarding what science has found, I wonder whether Mr Rudd has actually read any of the research. It is fashionable following Lady Gaga and others these days to assert that homosexuals are born that way. The problem with this view is that current scientific research does not actually assert this. While the studies into genetic influence on sexual orientation vary in their results, there is a growing consensus, based mainly on studies into the degree of concordance of sexual orientation in twins, that genetics only plays a minor role in sexual orientation. The major factor seems to be individual environmental factors (see Peter S. Bearman and Hannah Brückner, “Opposite-sex twins and adolescent same-sex attraction,” American Journal of Sociology 107 [2002]: 1179–1205; and N. Långström, Q. Rahman, E. Carlström, and P. Lichtenstein, “Genetic and environmental effects on same-sex sexual behavior: a population study of twins in Sweden,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 39 [February 2010]: 75–80). The 2010 study cited above, which studied more than 7,000 twins, concludes that genetics accounts for at most around 40% of the variance in sexual orientation in men, and less than this in women. A 40% genetic predisposition, for example, is similar to or slightly weaker than the genetic predisposition to aggression. If certain people are born with an aggressive personality, surely, following Mr Rudd’s logic, they should also be able to claim to have been born that way. Why, therefore, should their aggression not be legally recognized as a mitigating factor when it comes to sentencing at law, for example? We do not hear Mr Rudd making this argument.

Regarding Mr Rudd’s assertion that the biblical teaching against homosexuality was culturally conditioned in a similar way to how the early church thought about slavery, this manner of argument is also incorrect from an orthodox Christian point of view. It is true that the Apostle Paul taught that slaves should be obedient to their masters (e.g., Eph 6:5). But contrary to Mr Rudd’s assertion, the Bible does not teach that slavery is “a natural condition.” Mr Rudd has been selective with what the Apostle Paul actually taught. Alongside of teaching that slaves should be obedient to their masters, the Apostle also taught that human slavery is fundamentally incompatible with Christ’s redemption of individual Christians.

This can clearly be seen in Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor 7:21–23. Paul argues firstly in 1 Cor 7:21 that Christian slaves should continue on in their current situation. Short of rising up in rebellion, running away, saving up enough money to buy back their own freedom, or gaining manumission, slaves were in no real position within the Roman empire to gain their own freedom, so Paul’s instruction at this point makes sense in the society of his day. At the same time, however, Paul states that Christian slaves should avail themselves of any legitimate opportunity to gain their freedom (1 Cor 7:21). He also asserts the value of every individual who found himself or herself enslaved by reminding Christian slaves of their freedom in Christ (1 Cor 7:22). Furthermore, in 1 Cor 7:23, Paul asserts that, because all Christians (including those who are slaves) have been redeemed through the precious blood of Jesus on the cross, then Christians should not literally be slaves to anyone. Through his death on the cross, Jesus has purchased every individual Christian. It is as if spiritually every Christian has become a slave of Christ. Being free as a slave of Christ is incompatible with being a slave to anyone else. Therefore, Paul supported the emancipation of slaves where it was possible to achieve this. This is borne out in Paul’s letter to Philemon, where Paul asks Philemon to receive back his runaway slave, Onesimus, “no longer as a slave, but … as a dear brother” (Philemon 16). He asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as he would have welcomed Paul himself (Philemon 17), and to charge any debt owed to him by his runaway slave to Paul’s own account (Philemon 18). Paul also strongly hints that he wanted Philemon voluntarily to set Onesimus free, and to allow Onesimus to help him while he was in prison for the sake of the gospel (Philemon 13–14, 20–21). Mr Rudd has seriously misrepresented, therefore, the Apostle Paul on the issue of slavery. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, may have argued that some people are “by nature slaves” (Aristotle, Politics, 1.5–7); but it is incorrect to attribute this view to the Bible.

Regarding the fundamental principle of the New Testament being universal love for one’s fellow man, there is some irony in Mr Rudd’s language at this point. Presumably Mr Rudd does not think that on the lips of New Testament Christians the teaching of love for one’s fellow man included homosexual love, but at the very least he is suggesting that the Christian teaching on love should be supportive of same-sex love relationships. But Mr Rudd has overlooked an important consideration at this point. The New Testament concern with love comes from Jesus. And Jesus’ concern with the love of human beings for one another is linked to the importance of human love for God. In fact, according to Jesus, human love for one another is only the second greatest commandment (Matt 22:39). The greatest commandment is love for God (Matt 22:37–38); and as Jesus has said: “if you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Loving God involves being obedient to what God has instructed. How we fulfill the second greatest commandment, therefore, must be consistent with our obligations under the greatest commandment. The greatest commandment requires us to follow God’s instructions on how we are to love other people, and not to reject or ridicule God’s instructions in the face of contrary human opinion.

What then is God’s instruction concerning marriage? As Jesus clearly states: “Have you not read that in the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘for this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and unite with his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not humans separate” (Matthew 19:4–6). In advocating same-sex marriage, Mr Rudd has clearly rejected Jesus’ definition of marriage, which involves a man leaving his father and mother to be united to his wife (literally his woman—the word for wife and woman is the same word in Greek). Mr Rudd may claim to be a Christian, but he has in effect separated what God has joined together. His view on same-sex marriage is inconsistent with the teaching of Christ and the New Testament. If Mr Rudd were honest, he should acknowledge his disagreement with Jesus and the Bible rather than misinterpreting the Bible or chiding Christians who still hold to a view that he also supposedly believed in as recently as only three months ago.