Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wednesday in Lent 3 - Don't freak the weak - updated

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet 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.

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. ‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall. (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)
This is a problematic text. I think the helpful part of its message is that those who experience great liberty in Christ should not exploit that liberty to lead the reticent and fearful into what these "weaker brethren" might consider sin, because they are simply not ready to handle it. One should be considerate of one's siblings in God's family.

The not so helpful aspect of this passage lies in its serving as a great prooftext (pretext) for "the tyranny of the weak." In other words, "we can never do anything that might cause offense to the timid, the scrupulous, the uninformed, the easily led, or the newly converted."

The long-time believers, the fearless, the risk-takers, the innovators, etc. are thus hamstrung by the weakness of the rest. It is rather like trying to work through consensus when one person resolutely refuses to go along. That may be brave and useful on the part of the one person and the rest may need to hear that testimony. Then again, that person may just be enjoying the passive aggressive wielding of power and the group will be paralyzed.

Notice that I carefully wrote of leading "the reticent and fearful into what these 'weaker brethren' might consider sin." The text makes it clear that it is NOT sin to eat meat offered to idols. So if I were to lead someone into this practice through my casual attitude about the whole thing, that person would not be sinning nor would I have led that person into sin. That person would only be led into what he or she might fear to be sin. I would have increased anxiety but not led into sin. My callousness might be sinful but the behavior involved (eatin meat offered to idols) would not.

Perhaps those in the various churches who have come to see sexual orientation as a neutral category and homosexual relationships (including genital behavior) to be no more sinful or grace-filled than straight ones--the moral categories only applying to how we behave toward each other and not to the configurations of bodily plumbing--have so lived in their freedom as to trouble those with a weak conscience. (I would point out that this passage indicates that those scandalized are the weak ones lacking knowledge, which corresponds to the message elsewhere that God does not give us a spirit of fear.)

I am not asserting that this is the case, only that this is one possible application of the principles in the passage. And if we run with it for a moment we may note a couple of things.

1. We all know that homosexuality is not contagious. LGBT persons are surrounded all their lives by straight folk and that preponderance and all the societal assumptions and pressures toward straightness do not turn them straight. Straight persons who happen to know LGBT persons do not suddenly find themselves turning gay. Acknowledging that LGBT persons exist and that some of them live in committed relationships and a very few of them are called to holy orders has nothing to do with turning the whole world queer. I just want to discard that specter up front.

2. So the example of our freedom might lead others to think that being queer was all right in God's eyes, and that might make them very nervous. Obviously, the idea of this does. Very nervous. And from the anxiety arise thundering denunciations, and from thundering denunciations arises violence.

Some of us would assert there is no issue of sin here, only the issue of freaking out the weak. One may well posit that those churches who have moved ahead on this did so with inadequate consideration of their weaker siblings (though it wasn't done in secret and where have they been for the past three decades?). TEC has even accepted that charge and said "sorry."

Others who believe firmly in the reality of idols (metaphor for viewing homosexuality as an objective moral disorder, at the very least) will indignantly denounce our freedom as license and godlessness. St Paul suggests we not freak the weak and also suggests that the weak are wrong. I think that if one waited patiently for the weak to come around and join those with knowledge there would have been no development of doctrine or evolution of Christian practice for the past two thousand years.

It seems to me that Jesus did a fair amount of freaking the weak, and so did the prophets. Even the Apostle Paul was known to do so from time to time (denouncing Peter quite boldly). So I think taking the principle of consideration into account while not making this passage an absolute might be a reasonable path. But never to freak the weak? Sorry.

Tobias Haller has some very good comments about this passage and its applicability (or lack thereof) to our current discussions.  He is, as ever, thoughtful, careful, and articulate.

When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6:29)
The Forerunner preceded the Christ: announcing the inbreaking of God's reign and calling all to turn around and forsake the ways of death, refusing to accept the terms of the powerful and the wicked, and losing his life at the hands of the unjust. Holy John, pray to Christ our God that we may be bold in the truth.

Give ear to our prayers, O Lord, and direct the way of your servants in safety under your protection, that, amid all the changes of our earthly pilgrimage, we may be guarded by your mighty aid; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

--the BB


Tobias Haller said...

"Great minds think alike" at least when they are following the lectionary! Wish I'd seen this prior to posting my own thoughts; but we did seem to be on a similar wavelength.

Paul said...

I noticed that, Tobias, when I saw your post. Grinned to myself. Thanks for stopping by.