Permissible, Beneficial, Constructive
by Fred W. Faller -- Burlington, Masschusetts, USA
In the life of any church, there will be times when there needs to be settlement about issues that are dividing people. Typically, the division has already existed in the hearts of those dividing from one another long before it surfaces to be dealt with. In this discussion, I am assuming that both sides of the divide are composed of hearts that are good, albeit differing because of personalities or perhaps perceptions or simply have different ways of approaching the word of God. I do not intend to deal with the issue of division where the hearts are bad: selfish and stubborn. That is for another discussion.
It did not take long for the young church in the book of Acts to run squarely up against a brewing division where Gentiles were coming into the Kingdom of God and the children of Abraham were struggling, with their heritage as the old covenant people, in letting these despised outsiders in.
The first significant confrontation on a large scale takes place in Acts 15, where some of the Jewish Christians were beginning to insist that the gentile converts had to be circumcised and obey the Law in order to be part of the church. It was an "old school-new school" conflict where the old school folks were insisting on traditions and practices that no longer applied under the new covenant.
Without quoting all the significant passages, there are several things worthy of note about how this conflict was resolved:
1. The elders and apostles gathered in Jerusalem. Barnabas was there also and shared, so we see that it was not exclusively the elders and apostles. One could argue that Barnabas was a teacher (Acts 14:1-5) and had earned the right to be called evangelist. There may have been other prominent contributors in the discussion. We also see that by the end of the discussion, the whole church was finally involved (verse 22) but we don't really know at what level and when they came in.
2. Peter opened the discussion with the clear explanation that God had made it very clear that He had accepted the gentiles and had made no distinction between their salvation and that of the Jews. He basically explained the command of God that the Gospel was for everyone.
3. Next Paul and Barnabas shared many examples of how the Gentiles had come to God and what God had done through them.
4. Finally, James stood up to speak. His argument from the Scriptures finalized the resolution. It was a bit of a compromise: the people were to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, sexual immorality, meat that was strangled and from blood. The implication was one of freedom from the law, but with several nods to the law in the message. This is clear from James’ final argument: "For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
5. The BIG issue at hand, circumcision, was not even addressed. The discussion centered on a much more basic problem: that of tradition and law and how it was bound on people in the lives of the new covenant church. Circumcision was resolved by silence, that is, not saying anything about its prohibition, but only saying what should be prohibited, the silence arguing that Jews who wanted to circumcise could do so and Gentiles who did not want to do so, did not have to. If they had specifically prohibited circumcision, it would have tread on the freedom of the Jewish Christians to do so, and by assumption, would have stepped over a line that the Spirit did not want them to step over.
6. When the letter was sent out, the wording shows an interesting sensitivity to the issue:
a) "It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit ..." -- this was not a set of new ironclad laws like in the law of Moses.
b) "...not to burden you with anything beyond the following ..." -- we are only recommending what we consider to be the minimum burden.
c) After repeating the list of abstinences, the letter said, "You will do well to avoid these things." These are not laws. There is nothing hard and fast here. There really aren't any strict rules, but this would be beneficial to you -– it would be well for you to stick with this. We find later that Paul certainly allowed people to eat meat sacrificed to idols, even claiming (I Cor 8) that knowledge allowed him to do so, and in Romans 12 it is clear that he considered meat eaters "stronger" than those who refrained.
7. Paul and Barnabas were part of the team that took the letter to Antioch.
There is no doubt that Paul's involvement in this kind of discussion was consistent with his teaching in his letters. Paul fought courageously for the Gentiles in the face of the Jewish culture that often dominated the church. Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians...nearly all Paul’s letters would deal with the freedom of being in Christ, apart from the law, and how that freedom manifested itself in the church, and multiple appeals for peace between Jew and gentile converts.
Paul recognized the differences between people: Jew, Gentile, Slave, Free, Man, Woman, New Convert and Mature Disciple. In all his letters, he addresses issues of these differences, not only culturally but developmentally. Here are a few passages that stand out in this area.
I Corinthians 6:12 "Everything is permissible for me" – but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible for me" – but I will not be mastered by anything. The context of this passage is Paul's assault on sexual immorality that was prevalent in the church. What is most interesting is that he is contrasting not what is right and what is wrong, but he is making his argument by saying that even if something is permissible, the challenge is whether it is beneficial. Even if something is permissible, is it something that is taking over our lives? that is mastering us? I believe that Paul is trying to make a very positive argument, refraining from laying down absolutes, even when some of these behaviors perhaps should be absolutes. Instead he is initiating an argument that says, "Even if this were permissible, it is not beneficial. Even if this were permissible, if you engage in it, it will master you and steal your soul."
This kind of thinking threads its way throughout the letter as Paul continues: In chapter 8, he addresses the issue of meat that was being sold in the marketplace that had previously been sacrificed to idols. People knew this and it was an issue in the church about whether this spiritually tainted meat should be consumed by the disciples. Look carefully at Paul's argument about knowledge:
I Corinthians 8:1ff - "Now about food sacrificed to Idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up but, love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know." There is nothing wrong with knowledge. Knowledge is permissible, but knowledge is not as beneficial as Love.
Paul goes on to describe the true knowledge about the meat that is sacrificed, how it has no spiritual portent at all. This knowledge is good and it leads to freedom. But the exercise of your freedom might not be beneficial if someone else is still struggling with their lack of knowledge. Paul goes on to say that it’s possible to do something permissible, that actually destroys another person’s faith. When this happens, we are sinning against Christ (8:12). Paul volunteers at this point to never eat meat again if it causes a brother to sin. This is a stunning attitude about the length he is willing to go to do what is beneficial, over what is permissible.
In I Corinthians 10:23ff, Paul says this yet again! "Everything is permissible" – but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible" – but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good but the good of others. Paul goes on to discuss the issue of meat sacrificed to idols again. He concludes with another startling statement. After strongly suggesting that one should refrain from eating meat if another man's conscience is violated, he asks the rhetorical question:
"For why should my freedom be judged by another man's conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church or God. - even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good, but the good of many." (I Corinthians 10:29b-33)
The answer to Paul's question is, of course, that my conscience is essentially bound up in the lives of the people around me. They cannot be separated. I lay down whatever it is I am holding onto to serve and meet the needs of others, even if it means purposely restricting my own freedom in Christ to do it.
As in many issues like this under the new covenant, Paul addresses this most thoroughly in his letter to the Romans. In Romans 12, after thoroughly vetting the many spiritual issues, he addresses the church in Rome about the practicals of life in the church. He launches into his discussion with a call for disciples to be living sacrifices, not pandering to the pattern of the world. This was particularly true of the church, that was supposed to be different.
He calls for humility (12:3) and an appreciation for the differences that exist in the church and the need to allow those differences to co-exist for the benefit of the whole, followed by a call to love, honor, service, tolerance and peace (vs 9-21). It’s all about submission, Paul seems to be saying, and he addresses the issue of our submission extending beyond the boundaries of the church in the first half of chapter 13, and then expounds on more examples of love for one another within the church. "Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore, Love is the fulfillment of the Law."
All this is bound up in Paul's view that "all things are permissible – but not all things are beneficial". Even the commandments fall under the guidance of the overarching rule of Love.
In Romans 14, Paul goes into even greater detail of the need for understanding these concepts in the community of believers.
Paul starts his appeal with the simple statement: "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters." Paul acknowledges that there are people in our midst who have weaker faith, who have not matured as much and his appeal is one of acceptance. The "acceptance" is not toleration, but wholesale embracing of the person, even in their weakness. Paul is generalizing here. A few verses later, he will talk specifically about several issues, but here he gives no way of telling who is weaker, but only that there will be stronger and weaker among us.
He then appeals to the two sides differently:
· The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not.
· The man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does. Why? "Because God has accepted him! Who are you to judge someone else's servant?" (Romans 14:3-4)
Paul then observes that each person will stand or fall before God. I am a servant of God and as a servant, God is able to make me stand, and stand I will! Paul goes on to explain that the differences I focus on, that I get so frustrated with, will all be sorted out when I face judgement, where I will give an account for who I am and what I have done. It is God who will judge, not me, so it is not my place to pass such judgment in the church. Stop doing that!
But Paul does not stop there. He says there is an alternative that we should do! "Instead," Paul says, "Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way." (Romans 14:13) This is a conscious activity. I look at my brother who is so, so different than me, perhaps less mature in certain ways, less knowledgeable, perhaps, and as the more mature brother, I make up my mind to not do anything that would cause him to have trouble. He brings up the foods issue again and concludes the argument with:
"If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love! Do not by your eating, destroy your brother for whom Christ died." (v 15)
This is a very strong echo from I Corinthians 10 – a very consistent message about love for your brothers, overriding your personal freedoms, convenience and conscience.
Then Paul makes a stunning statement, the first half of which I have never heard taught in the churches – ever! "Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." (Romans 14:16-17)
Paul seems to be giving the disciple the authority to rebuke a brother who would condemn something of which he has become convinced by faith."Let us therefore, make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification." (v 19) There it is again. All things are permissible – we have huge freedoms in Christ, but the focus is on that which is edifying – that which is constructive. Don't destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All foods are permissible, but if it causes another to stumble, it is wrong, it is not beneficial. It’s better to lay aside your personal freedoms and not do anything that causes your brother to fall! Paul wraps up the whole discussion with this idea set, undoubtedly aimed at producing harmony:
· Whatever differences you have – whatever you have come to believe, keep it between you and God.
· The man who is un-conflicted about this is blessed.
· The man who doubts (is conflicted) is condemned if he eats, because he is not fully convinced (he does not have faith)
· Anything in a man that does not come from the full conviction of faith, falls short of God's desire for him and he sins.
Now, it is clear that Paul is using the example of food and who has the faith to eat what, and who is sinning if they eat or don't eat. But I think that in spite of this example, Paul is arguing a much greater cause. He heads the whole discussion with a very generalized argument. "Accept people who are weaker, without passing judgment." The undercurrent of all of it is love and how love compels us to accept without judgment –- to love unconditionally and to go the extra mile, to make up our mind, not to create stumbling blocks, to not distress our brothers with our action. This is the character of Love.
1. In all these passages, Paul develops a common theme, and that is that the good of my brother in my heart. I go out of my way to listen and take into account those needs and I go out of my way not to offend or cause him to stumble.
2. The decision by the apostles, the elders and others in Acts 15 was overarching and totally minimalist. It did not even address the central issue of circumcision and left most of what they could have discussed open to the freedom of believers. When the other churches received the letter they were refreshed, possibly because it said so very little.
3. Paul publically and specifically addressed failings in the church and called for each disciple to take responsibility to accept differences, love others unconditionally, to be fully convinced, and to accept fully the convictions of others.
4. Paul did not leave the interpretation, enactment or enforcement of his rule of love and its implications to a small group of people who would decide for the others. The letter was written "to all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints." When he wrote to the Corinthians, it was "to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, - their lord and ours." There were probably elders, evangelists and teachers in Rome, and the other churches to which Paul wrote, but these letters are not to them and there is no indication in them that there was specific jurisdiction of any individual or group of people who made such decisions. Each member was expected to grow and mature and patiently wait for others and accommodate others in that process. We know historically that these letters were read publicly as often as they could be read, for as long as people could listen, and it was read to the whole church, not digested and re-taught by an appointed minority.
5. Paul was convinced that the church, as a collective, was mature enough to handle his directives. In Romans 15:14 he stated "I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another." Paul believed that the church was capable of handling his "bold points", to discuss them and respond to them appropriately. He had faith that God was able to work in individual hearts to accomplish his goals.
6. Paul expected them to go out of their way, to make every effort, not to offend others.
The way people read the bible, the hermeneutic and the conclusions that are drawn from it, are widely varied. It is no surprise that in a large church, with members ranging from the newly baptized to those thirty-plus years in the forming, that there will be huge disparities in knowledge, maturity, love, acceptance and sacrifice. So how does this all apply? How do I fully accept others without making judgements on their faith and maturity? How does one keep what he believes between himself and God and allow all others to do the same?
This task is much easier in matters that are largely personal – clothing tastes, ways of dealing with sin, entertainment preferences, prayer habits, fasting, personal disciplines and things like these. Where it gets complicated is where personal tastes manifest themselves in a more corporate environment, for example in the assembly of the church. How are we to know when something that we are doing is offensive, hurtful or not respectful of another's faith? How do I decide when it is time to give up my preferences for the sake of others? Is it the right of the elders, teachers, and evangelists to decide this for the church? When do I know when a person is just being stubborn or has a bad heart? Does that even matter?
In Paul’s writing, he does not answer any of these questions. Why is that? It is a distinct possibility that Paul never had to answer those questions. Maybe the early church never faced them because it was different than what we have developed. Perhaps if we made more of an effort to research and restore the new covenant understandings and assemblies, then the problems of our church would be more clearly answered by the Scriptures – by Paul's writings. As it is, Paul's answers seem almost foreign to our way of life because we are not being what the church was then.
I believe the key is in what Paul taught the church: that he would gladly relinquish his right to things he knew to be permissible for the sake of one who struggled with it. He considered it not beneficial to pursue his right in that context. He considered it not constructive or edifying. I have no doubt that Paul was not opposed to healthy dialog on such issues. He opened such dialog in I Corinthians 8 where he clearly argues that his knowledge about the nothingness of idols was correct –- that eating meat sacrificed to them was permissible, but that is the same passage where he volunteers "never to eat meat again" if it is an issue that remains for someone else. If the apostle Paul lived this way and called others to do so, should not this be the standard for my fellowship also?
How would this work? Paul was pretty clear to the Corinthians in I Corinthians 14:26 – 40 (By the way, the NIV heading "Orderly Worship" was added by someone else). Nothing in the directive of these verses claims to be or fits in the category of worship, as Paul and Jesus saw it. After giving simple instructions, Paul concludes with this authoritative statement in verse 36:
"Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored."
Why would he say this? Paul says this through the spirit of God, because we are prone to invent our own ways of doing things and rearrange what God has ordained to our own desires. We go out and find teachers who support what we want, and inject the teachings of men into our practices, rather than the teachings of God. Paul is being very strong here. He is basically pre-empting anyone who would teach otherwise and he is teaching it as the Lord's command. Is he not saying that if anyone teaches someone differently they should be ignored?
Paul did not tell the church to organize "worship leaders" and have them "lead" the congregation in some "amazing way" with "vertical worship". Since Paul's vision was that God had seated us in the heavenly realms with God, that there was no need for anyone to "lead us into the presence of God" since we were already there. There were no polished presentations with minute by minute timelines and professional speakers with a time slot, and trained song leaders, or groups of people spending hours hauling around sound equipment for displays of "talent" to entertain the people who have not been properly taught what worship is. There was no claim that this was worship at all! It consisted of saved believers, gathered together, who each had something to give and by giving it, would build the church. In their eagerness to do so, Paul gave simple instructions about respect and process so that it would be orderly, and then he gave that final warning that this was God's command.
After I have had dialog about whether I should consider these alterations to God's command to be permissible, I then have to have the discussion about whether is it beneficial or constructive. According to Paul's multiple addresses on this topic, this is determined by whether it is offensive or hurtful to another person's faith in the assembly, in which case, the mature disciple would restrain their freedoms for the sake of conscience of those they see as less mature. At the same time, they would open sincere dialog about the issues while patiently waiting for each other to mature.
My faith is simple. Although I have never actually seen this, it does not mean that it would not work and I have to believe it would work. Paul had this faith. Shouldn't I be striving for that? My Protestant history, and modern culture, particularly American culture, is driven by the paparazzi mentality, that speaks to our psyche, that we must choreograph everything, that it must be "professional", that it must be "produced" or the small-minded, sound-byte-trained audience will get distracted. We perpetuate this idea that the people are not mature enough to figure this out and we have small groups of persons who figure it out for us. This is simply not the biblical teaching nor practice and we must grow in our faith in this area. The Bible teaches that if we do what God wants, the unspiritual man will come into our midst, see what we are doing and fall on his knees and worship God saying, "God is surely among you!"