Jan 5, 2011

Weak Brethren VII

"But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak." (Verse 9)

The first thing to notice about these words concerns who is designated by the pronoun "yours." Does it not refer to all the members of the Corinthian assembly, to Christians? Does Paul not, by this language of direct address, identify all of them as being possessed of "that knowledge," and therefore, "the strong ones"? Does he not address, in the second person, those who know that "the idol is nothing," who have "no conscience of the idol"? When Paul speaks of "them that are weak," he speaks in the third person. Does this not show that the "weak ones" are not viewed by Paul as being part of the church, not part of the group designated by the pronoun "yours," but as a separate outside group. The contrast is between "you" (2nd person) and "them" (3rd person).

The next thing to notice is the fact that Paul further identifies who is of "the strong ones" versus who is of the class of "the weak ones." Those who are strong, which includes Paul and the members of the Corinthian church, have "liberty," which those in the class of "the weak" do not possess. Paul says to the Corinthians - "your liberty," a liberty that belongs to you as Christians, as men of strength in the Lord. He does not say "this liberty that belongs to you as well as to those who are weak."

Paul here continues his condemnation of the boasting of the Corinthian Christians, a particular kind of boasting that they practiced against their idolatrous neighbors. The chief question becomes this, however: Was Paul condemning the boasting that one kind of Christian practices against another kind of Christian, or the boasting that Christians in Corinth were practicing against non-Christian pagans? It is not denied that many of the same principles of boasting are present in either case, in all kinds of boasting, but the context clearly shows that it is a Christian's boasting against his pagan neighbors that Paul is here particularly condemning. From the very start of this epistle Paul has been combating the various kinds of "boasting" (glorying, praising) of the Corinthians and here he addresses bragging of another kind.

It seems as if the Corinthians did not show much interest and zeal in making converts of their pagan neighbors, of turning weak ones of the heathen faith into strong ones of the Christian faith. When they would meet a neighbor who was still an pagan idolater, one not possessing "that knowledge," rather than witnessing to him with love and extending effort for his soul's conversion, they would instead "put on airs," be standoffish, and boast of their superior status as Christians. They saw themselves as a kind of privileged class with a limited membership, a kind of cult.

It was part of Greek culture for those of higher social status to "stand aloof" from those of inferior status, to "look down on" them, and to promote their own superiority. It was also part of Greek culture and religion to "flaunt" their wealth and status, to publicize their titles. The idea of "conspicuous consumption" was not unknown to the pagan Greeks and Romans.

No zealous Christian soul winner would ever think of meeting a lost soul, who is married to paganism, with the message "I am superior, God's favorite, and you are not," with the added idea, "and you cannot do anything about it." These proud Corinthians, however, do not seem desirous of saying to idolaters, "and you can be God's favorite too."

Paul warns against the "us" versus "them" mentality with regard to the heathen. He backs up his warning with instruction concerning the chief characteristic of Christian people, those who have the Spirit of God, which is that they "love." They love God supremely and their neighbors they love as their own selves.

A Christian who does not have love for his neighbor, and who does not see him as a "brother," is not a Christian in truth. It is impossible for the Corinthian Christian to "love" his neighbor if he does not deeply desire his neighbor's becoming Christian. The attitude of many of the Corinthian Christians showed a lack of neighborly and brotherly love towards their pagan acquaintances, viewing them more as enemies to be avoided and shunned rather than "brothers" to be won to Christ.

This lack of desire for the salvation of the weak, of those not Christian, by the Corinthians, is implied in several verses in Paul's first epistle to Corinth. Already notice has been paid to I Cor. 9: 22 where Paul spoke of his own zeal for "winning," and "gaining," and "saving," those who are lost, a zeal which was lacking in the Corinthian church. Other verses also imply an indifference on the part of the Corinthian Christians towards the salvation of their pagan neighbors. In the very chapter now being analyzed, Paul will ask the Corinthians to consider how their actions were bringing about the "perishing" of the weak brothers, as if it had not been considered by the Corinthians. Paul asks - "and through your knowledge shall the weak brother perish?"

Christian Rights & Freedoms

The Greek word for "liberty" ("exousia") denotes freedom to do as one pleases and freedom to do involves the "right" to do so. Paul warns Christians not to think that it is always best to "assert" their rights and freedoms, as Christians, but should often "forgo" them, especially if doing so aids in the salvation of the heathen. In two places in this epistle Paul warns that "expediency" trumps personal "rights," that the good of others is more important than personal rights.

"All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any." (I Cor. 6: 12)

"All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not." (10: 23)

By the phrase "all things are lawful unto me," he means "I have freedom in all things." He is also saying "I have rights." But, he argues that the assertion of one's rights and liberties is not always "expedient," and that the universal constant assertion of rights may actually, and ironically, bring a Christian a loss of freedom. Sometimes the assertion of personal rights and liberties will be harmful to one's neighbor, will not "edify" him.

Paul says that the Corinthians, who possess "that knowledge," and who have strengths, rights, freedoms, and titles, that others do not possess, may, by their boasting, and by their lack of zeal for winning lost pagans, and by their uncharitable asserting of their rights, "become a stumblingblock to them that are weak." What kind of stumblingblock? A hindrance to what? Is it a hindrance against weak Christians becoming strong Christians? Or, is it rather a hindrance against pagans becoming Christians? Surely the latter is correct, as the context demonstrates. The majority view affirms that this is a warning to the strong members of the church, a part of the church, against their attitude and treatment of the weak members of the church, the ones who have serious doubts about the truth of the creed of the apostle. Thus, the stumblingblock spoken of is interpreted, by the majority, to be a hindrance that strong Christians put in the way of weak Christians.

Involved in Greek and Roman ideas and definitions about "liberty" there was not only an inclusion of "rights" and "freedoms," but "titles" also. In previous chapters it was shown how "status" in the Graeco-Roman world was judged based upon the criteria of wealth, birth status, power, wisdom, knowledge, and how the divine and human judgment of such qualities was quite different. The criterion regarding "titles" was also mentioned.

The importance of "titles" in the Graeco-Roman world were much like the importance of "titles" in European feudal society. Titles involved "entitlements." People with "titles" were owed something, either money, respect, recognition, preferment, or superior rights and privileges.

Again, the standard for identifying the true people of "title" is one of contrast. God has his standard and man has his standard. Who are earth's real titled lords and kings? God says it is Christians, the ones who, in the eyes of the world, are viewed as without rights and titles.

Christians Dining in Heathen Temples

“For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol's temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?” (Verses 10,11)

The pronoun "any man" (anyone) is third person. It either means "anyone in the church" or "anyone in the world." Is Paul concerned with how Christians may interpret the act of another Christian who is seen "sitting in the idol's temple"? Or, is Paul concerned about how "anyone in the world," especially the lost, interprets the presence of a Christian in an idol's temple? The latter is the case, and this the context clearly shows. When Paul says "if anyone see you who has knowledge," who is meant by the pronoun "you"? Is it not "you Corinthian Christians"? How can it be limited to only one portion of the church membership? Does not the language of the apostle show that the "weak" are ignorant of Christian knowledge? Does this language not also show that the one observing the Christian "sitting at meat in the idol’s temple" has no knowledge? "You who have knowledge" is a class of people contrasted with those who do not possess "that knowledge," that Christian knowledge. Further, "you Christians, who have knowledge, who visit and sit in the heathen temples," is second person, while "if anyone" is third person. The one "seeing" the Christian dining in a heathen temple is the one who does not have Christian knowledge, one who is a pagan idolater. Paul is asking - "if a heathen man sees you Christians sitting and dining in a heathen temple, what will he conclude from it"

Paul's reference to the Corinthian Christians "sitting at meat (dining) in the idol's temple" needs to be focused upon.

There was a great emphasis in the Greek and heathen temples on "fellowship," and "camaraderie," and "brotherhood" and "fraternity." Temple fraternities were often the very glue that held ancient Pagan societies together. The social, political, and religious lives of these ancient pagan societies were more closely intertwined than is now the case in the western world.

The temples of the pagans were places for regular gatherings by the members of the particular heathen temple. They were like today's fraternal "lodges," where worship was mixed with festivity. Close knit fellowships were formed in local communities and the local temple was the place where this fellowship was enjoyed. Each temple looked upon its members as "brothers." They were a family, a brotherhood, a fraternity. The weekly meetings of the brotherhood were often looked to with fond anticipation. Much revelry and feasting, amidst celebration of the idols, were designed to please the depraved flesh and spirit. These polytheistic people took their religion seriously, no matter how debauched it may appear to Christians. Who would not enjoy getting drunk, fornicating, feasting, and serving every divers lust and pleasure?

These Pagan Corinthians commonly referred to their neighbors, who were all members of various fraternities and secret societies, "initiates into the mysteries," as "brothers." Calling each other "brother" is not something unique to the Christian community. It was certainly commonplace among the Jews. The Apostles addressed Jewish audiences as "men brothers" (See Book of Acts). So too did the various Pagan assemblies, present in Corinth and throughout the Greek and Roman world, address each other. This is seen today in various "Lodges" and fraternities prevalent in society, like that of the "Freemasons," the "Oddfellows," etc.

In close knit societies, where daily life is regulated by a calendar of events designed to produce the greatest pleasure to the flesh, it is not uncommon for fellow citizens and neighbors to think of each other as "brothers."

Is it possible that Paul could be using the term "brother" in this chapter as "neighbor" or as a "fellow citizen"? Could he be using it as meaning "those who were your brothers formerly in the idol’s temple"? The question is this: will you Corinthians quit calling these neighbors of yours, who are not yet Christian (as you), and who still go (now, without you) to the regular meetings of the fraternity, "brother," because you have now come to Christian knowledge and salvation?

No comments: