It can be a nagging question: if we all have the same Holy Spirit in us, shouldn’t we have the exact same convictions on everything? If we are all reading the same Bible, and we all have been baptized into the same Spirit, then why don’t we agree about things more often? As we know, truth isn’t a fluid thing. We often rush to figure out who is right, and who is wrong. Those who are right feel superior, and those who are wrong feel jaded. But perhaps we are asking the wrong question.
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, ESV).
Taking this verse by itself, we can list all the Christ-like things Paul did, and then try to do all these things ourselves. However, Paul was referencing something very specific here. In context, he is talking about believers having different views on meat sacrificed to idols—whether or not one should eat meat that was somehow tainted by the evil spirits surrounding those dark places.
On one hand, we should have nothing to do with idol worship. On the other hand, when you are poor, you take the meat you can get. Beggars can’t be choosers. On one hand, if you have past trauma from idol worship, and have been rescued from that world, eating that meat could spiral you down to memories you have tried hard to forget. On the other hand, if you have no such memories, eating certain kinds of meat will not overcome the salvation that Christ’s blood has purchased for you. God’s grace isn’t that fragile.
Is it wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols? Well, it depends. And that’s not the answer we expect, considering we all have the same Holy Spirit, who shows us what is right and wrong.
A few verses before this, Paul writes, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24, ESV). In other words, we need to understand the roles of freedom and submission in the Christian life. We are free in Christ. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. And yet, we are called to submit to one another.
Submission, at its root, is an act of humility. Submission is only possible within freedom, otherwise it’s oppression. Oppression is an act done against you, and submission is an act of humility that you do for someone else. In other words, don’t just humble yourself in the sight of the Lord. Humble yourself in the sight of your neighbors, and serve them.
Serve others freely. Know the place of the law in your Christian walk. It’s not about being oppressive. The law 1) accuses us, 2) restrains us, 3) instructs us. Notice, the law never saves us or redeems us. That’s not its job. It’s not restoring us to God—that’s the work of Christ, not the law. It is, though, a healthy guide for loving your neighbor. Don’t steal, don’t lie. Put the best construction on what they say and do. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Don’t hurt others. Look after them. Love generously—with humility. The gospel doesn’t abolish the law; it tells us Jesus fulfilled it.
Our temptation with the law—our constant temptation—is to make ourselves feel superior when we keep it. In fact, lording the law over people with arrogance communicates that the weight of our righteousness is on us, not on Christ. It’s a twisting of the law. This is why Paul says to imitate him, as he imitates Christ. Christ lived a perfect life on our behalf. And yet, he lowered himself for the sake of restoring others.
Martin Luther wrote, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (On the Freedom of the Christian, 1520). We live within that tension—a paradox.
Freedom and submission actually go hand in hand. Freedom is not scary, because we can hide in Christ-like submission, and submission is not scary, because we do it out of freedom. Freedom and submission are the nuts and bolts—the practical pieces—of how we live together in peace.
There’s a reason that patience is listed as a fruit of the Spirit, but arrogance is not. Perfection is not a fruit of the Spirit, but kindness is. It’s often an uncomfortable tension.
Paul writes about this same tension in regard to circumcision. Paul had someone circumcised so that he could preach the gospel, but later held his ground to not have another man circumcised. Why? Did he change his mind on the issue? Did he simply grow in his faith and no longer saw it as the issue?
The only hill that Paul was willing to die on, the fight he was willing to have, was, “How do I get the gospel of Christ to my neighbor? How do I help them understand?” Paul wasn’t wringing his hands over whether he was fulfilling the law to perfection. He knew it was fulfilled to perfection in Christ. The law has its place in communicating the depths of the gospel—but not always in the way we think it does.
After his conversion, all of Paul’s previous personal accomplishments—all his accolades through the law, all his status—didn’t matter anymore. He considered them rubbish. Every good work he did after his conversion was for the purpose of preaching Christ crucified. Every person he loved was so that they might know the love of Christ. Every argument in which he engaged was to make sure everyone had access to hearing the gospel, that no one would be impeded from hearing the gospel. He wrote about the freedom we have in Christ, and how we should use that freedom to love others.
So, is meat sacrificed to idols good? Is it bad? To paraphrase, Paul said that Jesus took care of all of that, so the real question is, will eating meat help or hurt your neighbor’s understanding of the gospel and what Christ did? Through which approach to meat will you love your neighbor better?
We often think these difficult judgment calls would be easier if we just had more laws, or even guidelines. What we have instead is a Shepherd—a person. The Holy Spirit points us to the work of Christ, training us in humility and submission, that we might point others to the work of Christ.
In the Corinthian passage, Paul was talking about communicating the gospel to believers and unbelievers. This was an issue within the church as much as it was outside. The community of believers is to live in a gracious way with each other because that is how we remind each other of the sustaining nature of God’s grace. We don’t want anything to get in the way of communicating the gospel.
Gretchen Ronnevik is an author, farmwife, mother, and teacher of six children. Her course on Gospel Mentoring can be found at www.gospelmentoring.com.