Sunday, February 1, 2015

Weak and Strong

The scriptures referred to are 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

You may find this hard to believe but some people think I'm a know-it-all. (Wait for inevitable laughs) Yeah, I find it funny, too. At best, I am a know-a-lot. And that's limited to subjects that I am interested in. My family learned a long time ago that if they wanted to keep me from winning Trivial Pursuit keep asking me sports questions. I know virtually nothing about sports outside of the names of athletes whose scandals enter the mainstream news. There are types of music I don't know much about. And I love meeting people who have worked in uncommon jobs and learning about whole realms I never knew existed. Believe it or not, when I find myself in conversation with an expert in something, I tend to shut up and listen to what they can teach me. I subscribe to what Will Rogers observed when he said, “We are all ignorant, just on different things.”

In today's New Testament reading Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” Paul was a rabbi and very knowledgeable about the Bible. He also was fairly well informed about pagan culture, quoting Greek playwrights and referencing boxing and other sports. He took books with him on his journeys. So it is a bit surprising that such an intellectual man could say that knowledge inflates one's pride while in contrast love builds people up. That insight underlies this whole passage.

Again you will notice quotation marks in the passage which indicate the parts of the letter from the Corinthians that Paul is referring to. The question is whether a Christian can, in good conscience, eat meat that had been previously sacrificed to idols. The reason this was even a problem is that most meat markets were attached to pagan temples. Excess meat sacrificed to the idols was sold to the public. Some Christians had no problem with this because “no idol in the world really exists” and “there is no God but one.” In other words, to some Christians the meat may as well have been offered to the tooth fairy as an idol of marble or gold. It was just as unreal. But the consciences of some Christians were no so easily assuaged. We do not know if their primary objection was that the idols were real or just thought it looked bad for Christians to eat the leftover sacrifices from pagan gods. But going against their consciences made them feel that they were betraying their faith. Paul says their consciences were weak. The Greek word used here basically means “strengthless.” It could also be translated “feeble, sickly, impotent.” So Paul told the Christians with such feeble consciences to grow up, grow a pair and stop whining!

No, he didn't. Instead he told those who had more robust consciences to make allowances for their weaker siblings in Christ. Paul is saying, “Yeah, you are more knowledgeable. But don't let your knowledge make you arrogant and callous. Rather out of Christian love, limit your own freedom in Christ.”

Wait! Paul, the foremost advocate of Christian liberty, is saying to instead tailor your freedom to accommodate those with more feeble consciences? Why? Because of the primacy of love. If you walk with a small child you don't take your full stride. You deliberately limit your freedom to walk at your normal speed out of deference for someone smaller and unable to keep up. You do so out of concern and compassion for the child. Paul is basically saying that if you are dealing with someone whose conscience is not as strong as yours, you need to accommodate them as you would a child.

This goes contrary to the way the world looks at strength. In this world, if you are strong others either defer to you as a matter of course or you bend them to your will. In the old days it was the physically strong who ruled and most great kings were great warriors. But under the right circumstances a strong mind could defeat a strong body. The Bible tells us that David was not a tall man but he was a master strategist. How do you fight someone bigger and stronger than you? You stand at a distance and hurl a stone into his forehead. Then, when he's down, you chop off his head. Brains versus brawn.

There are other sources of strength, though. With agriculture came the accumulation of valuable things, like food and livestock. When money was invented as a medium of exchange, having a lot of money gave you a lot of power. That in turn allowed you to hire lots of people and become a powerful force in your community. It also allowed you to bribe judges which gave you power in legal matters and allowed you to bribe other officials which gave you political power. And if you combined political, financial and military power, you could pretty much do whatever you wished. And powerful people usually do.

For instance, powerful people do occasionally murder spouses or other individuals in rage. But I cannot remember a single one winding up on death row, much less being executed. If I stole a ring from you I would be in hot water legally. Vladimir Putin, upon meeting New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, admired his Super Bowl ring. Kraft took it off and showed it to Putin. Saying, “I could kill someone with that ring,” Putin pocketed the $25,000 diamond ring and left. When Kraft asked for it back, Putin claims he remembered neither Kraft nor the ring—which, by the way, is on display as a gift to the Kremlin. Were I to defraud you of a few thousand dollars and be caught and found guilty by officials, I would probably get jail time. JPMorgan Chase was fined $20 billion dollars for its financial wrongdoings and not only did no one go to jail but the same year, it increased the $11.5 million it paid its CEO Jamie Dimon by a few more millions.

People with power can do a lot of things. They rarely ask themselves if they should do them. And they primarily use their power for their own benefit. They rarely see their power as a resource for the use of others, as a stewardship from God to be shared generously with the poor and powerless. When they do, it is news. Sadly it is much easier to find news of the outrages above than news of people such as Tom White, a Christian and a construction company owner, who decided to give away his fortune before he died. It's a goal he reached at age 84, having given $75 million dollars to more than 100 charities, especially Dr. Paul Farmer's work in Haiti.

Power seeks to justify itself. It rarely says, “I am a fluke,” but almost always “I am deserved.” Which means that those who are on the opposite end of the spectrum apparently deserve to be powerless. Thus we have the pernicious idea that anyone can be rich if they work hard enough. If hard work were enough to make you wealthy then the hotel maids and restaurant waitstaff and floor nurses and elementary teachers of this world would be in the top 1%. Hard work is only one factor in achieving power.

I was watching the PBS series on the Roosevelts and was once again very impressed by Teddy, our 26th president. One historian said he was a genius, reading a book a day, 3 if he had the time. He wrote over 150,000 letters during his 2 terms, dictating them to a succession of secretaries, one picking up when another was exhausted. We like to think that Teddy marched into the presidency based on his merits alone. But Theodore was the child of a wealthy family. He was home schooled by tutors. He went to Harvard. He received help from family and influential friends. If you took away that privilege, do you think this sickly child who had multiple near fatal bouts of asthma would have achieved as much? And what if he were not white? Or not male? The prospects for such a person in the late 1800s were not good.

But what Theodore Roosevelt did with his strengths marked him as a very unusual man of power. He fought corruption in government and in the New York police department. He fought corporate greed. A month into his presidency he invited Booker T. Washington to dine with him, his wife and his daughter in the White House despite a storm of protests from southerners. He insisted labor be represented in arbitration to end a coal mine strike. He convened the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. He used his strength to help the weak.

Perhaps Roosevelt picked this up from his regular attendance of his Dutch Reformed Church or his wife's Episcopal Church. I do know that when something he proposed was criticized as not being within his constitutional powers, Teddy paraphrased Jesus and said, “The constitution was made for the people, not the people for the constitution.”

In the musical Camelot, King Arthur is trying to make his realm a better one. He realizes that the world thinks might makes right. Whatever strong men want, they make it so by power. Arthur's revolutionary idea is “Might FOR Right.” In other words, his knights will use their prowess with the sword to bring about, not their own wills, but what is right. It's not quite a Christian idea because physical coercion is involved but certainly the Bible makes clear that God gives us various gifts to use for the good of all the people. To those he gives power, he does so not that they might get their own way but that they might help those who have little or no power. God has nothing against those who are rich, provided they came by their wealth honestly and they are generous to the poor. In the same way, the strong are supposed to help the weak. And the same principle applies to those with stronger consciences.

What does Paul mean by a strong conscience? For Paul the conscience is like an internal tribunal that judges whether our thoughts, words and deeds match our moral standards. A good or strong conscience helps one bring them into harmony. A weak conscience, which he also describes as “defiled” (1 Cor 8:7), is one that doesn't function so well when it comes to maintaining one's integrity. It allows one to go against the very standards one supposedly agrees with. Such a weak conscience can be “wounded” (8:12) and it can cause the person to “stumble” (8:13) and be spiritually “destroyed.” (8:11) The person with the strong conscience wants to make sure he isn't the cause of a person going against their conscience and so, out of love, abstains from behavior that might tempt someone to compromise their integrity.

Notice that we are not talking about areas in which the Bible is clear but rather specific instances where Christians legitimately have different views. Paul is not saying that everyone has to think alike in such matters. In 1 Corinthians 10:29, Paul says “why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience?” As he writes in Romans 14:5, regarding the differences Christians were having over which, if any, holy days to observe, “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” This is freedom in Christ: not that anything goes in every matter but that in nonessential matters, one is free to make up one's mind so long as one is fully convinced.

So how does this relate to us today? There are a lot of issues confronting the Church on which Scripture is either silent or ambiguous. Christians of good conscience have come to different conclusions and some Christians are still wrestling with these controversies. Paul would say “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” But he would also tell those who are convinced, whichever side they are on, to have consideration for those who are still struggling. Don't bully them and try to force them to do something they are not fully convinced is the right thing. No one should feel compelled to do something ethically that they are having grave doubts about.

How does one decide on such issues? The first step is to study Scripture. Even if the matter is not directly addressed, it is good to know what the Bible says about analogous topics or related issues and see if there are some principles that can be derived from them. A broad and deep knowledge of the Bible is always a good place to start.

The second step is to look at what Christians have done about the issue in the past. Were these rooted in Scriptural principles? Which ones? What other reasons did they appeal to? And what did Christians on the other side say? A good knowledge of church history helps us realize that we are not necessarily the first to deal with a problem and it helps us to learn from how our predecessors dealt with it.

The third step is to use reason, remembering that reason is not a position in and of itself but rather a method for teasing out the implications of certain principles or data and trying to remain self-consistent. Two people can be totally logical and come up with opposite positions because they started with different premises. As Christians we start with the revelation of God in Scripture. Still scripture encompasses a awful lot and what one chooses to emphasize can lead believers to differ. So our emphasis has to be rooted in God's living Word, Jesus Christ. All Scripture must be seen through the lens of what we see of God in the teachings, acts, death and resurrection of Jesus. For instance, if we are looking at something in the Old Testament that seems pretty harsh we must nevertheless remember that Jesus said all of the Law and the prophets are dependent on the two greatest commandments to love God and love our neighbor and that none of the commandments are greater than those 2. So our response in any situation must be a loving one, even if we disagree on the specific way in which we express that love.

And even though Paul says we can't bully those with weak consciences, it doesn't mean we can't talk about such matters. We can help people who are struggling clarify what issues they are wrestling with and share our struggles and what helped convince us. We should listen to them. We can also share our questions and insights and even doubts. That's scary because it reveals our vulnerability. But true strength is daring to show your vulnerability and admitting your own imperfection to another. Those who act as if they have no questions and no doubts but are 100% certain are often not the strongest people but the most insecure. It's a mask to fool others. But we don't live in a comic book world and can only help others and help ourselves when we remove the mask of pretending to be perfect.

And then we need to give our so-called weak brothers and sisters in Christ the freedom to decide for themselves and to realize that we are not to pass judgment on them anymore than they are to pass judgment on us. And we should be humble, realizing that we don't know it all and are in all probability not correct in everything we believe. Remember, knowledge puffs up but love builds up.

Jesus did not say, “The world will know you are my disciples by the way you agree on everything.” Rather the sign of discipleship is our love for one another. And in this fractious world what better testimony can we offer the world than being able to disagree with our fellow Christians on some issues and yet still worship together and work together on those things which Jesus made clear he expects of us: to love others, to forgive their wrongs, to admit our wrongs and to use our strengths not to take advantage of the weak but to help them and to encourage them to grow and become stronger in faith, hope and love?   

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