Jan 5, 2011

Weak Brethren VIII

"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?" (I Cor. 8: 10, 11)

From the preceding chapter it was shown how "anyone" is "anyone in the world," and "thee" (you) is "you Corinthian Christians." It has also been demonstrated how the Christian is defined by his faith, or lack of faith, in the creed given by the apostle in verses 4-6. It was also shown how "anyone in the world" connects with the one who is "seeing" the Christian "sitting at meat in the idol's temple." Also, that the one witnessing the Christian dining in the heathen temple is a temple worshipper, one not a Christian, one who does not have "that knowledge" and conscience connected with the given Christian creed.

In the preceding chapter it was also shown how "dining" in heathen temples was a commonplace occurrence in Greek and Roman pagan society. Before their conversion, many of the Corinthian Christians "sat at meat in the idol's temple" as a regular "good-standing" temple member and worshipper. But, now that they had been converted, some of them continued their former associations with their heathen friends and former temple "brothers," by attending temple functions and feasts. These no doubt did so with the conscience faith that it did no harm, especially if one does not participate as a member, but as a visitor. Other Christians in Corinth, however, surely cut off all ties with their former pagan "brothers." These would "not be caught dead" in a heathen temple.

In the advice of Paul concerning Christians dining in heathen temples, and in a larger context, concerning how Christians should associate with heathen peoples, he does not condemn the practice of such dining, but rather cautions care in the practice. Paul wants the Christian who does dine with heathens, in heathen temples, to ask his conscience this question - "how will it look?" How will my presence and participation be interpreted by my pagan neighbors, by my former brothers of the temple lodge? How will it look to the church? How will it look to God? Paul asks - "shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols?"

Is "the conscience of the weak" the conscience of a Christian or a pagan? Obviously "the weak" is the same class as those who "see" (observe) the Christian dining in the heathen temple and eating sacrificial food dedicated to the idol gods. It is not the case of two Christians both being in the idol's temple and watching the conduct of each other, but of one heathen watching the conduct of one Christian. Paul is saying to the Corinthian Christians - "your weak heathen neighbors and brothers will be scrutinizing your conduct and what you do,in their temple, will either reinforce them in their heathenism or it will edify them by leading them to inquire into the Christian religion."

Paul is asking the Corinthian Christians to consider whether their participation in such idol feasts and festivities will serve to "enbolden" or encourage the idolater in his idolatry, or discourage it. This idolater is one who is "weak," or "without strength," powerless to overcome his addiction to idolatry, and has a "weak conscience." What is a "weak conscience"?

It is clear that Paul, in this chapter, and in the next two chapters, contrasts those who are weak with those who are strong. The weakness of the weak is in several areas. As has been shown in previous chapters, they are weak in nature, or abilities, and in the eyes of God, are weak in wisdom and knowledge, weak in wealth and status, weak in nobility or birth status, weak in titles and inheritance, and weak in conscience.

The real strong ones, in nature and ability, in wisdom, knowledge, in power, in real titles and lands, and the truly high born, the men of good conscience, are Christians. The conscience is weak and impotent because it does not possess the knowledge of Christ, or "that knowledge."

Paul says that heathen, or weak brothers, in witnessing Christian participation in heathen feasts, may 1) encourage the heathen in his idolatrous practices, and 2) act as a stumblingblock or hindrance to the the heathen becoming Christian, and 3) become a stimulus for the heathen to further "defile" his "conscience."

It is sometimes argued that these "weak brothers" cannot be lost pagans because the text says that their "consciences BECOME defiled." Such language implies, it is argued, that the consciences of these "weak ones" had previously been undefiled. But, this is false reasoning. Every sin or act of idolatry defiles a lost man’s conscience. To argue that "became defiled" must imply that the conscience was previously undefiled is not tenable. This would limit the words to only those who have undefiled consciences, and make them inapplicable to those with already defiled consciences. But, the truth is, every time a person with an existing defiled conscience, as the heathen possess, commits an idolatrous act, he further defiles his conscience. Paul's reference to the "weak" being "emboldened to eat" should not be interpreted to mean the emboldening to eat by one who has never done so before, but the encouraging him to do so again and again, a kind of positive reinforcement.

"And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?"

Paul has really already asked the Corinthian several questions that are similar to the one just now cited. He had basically asked them 1) Is your practice of eating food sacrificed to idols, in the idol's temple, encouraging and reinforcing the faith and practice of the heathen? 2) Is this practice leading to the conversion of heathens to Christ or hindering it? So, this next question is simply another way of phrasing the same question. Is your attitude and practice, towards your lost heathen neighbors and brothers, the result of love for them, the effect of an earnest desire for their salvation from heathenism?

This verse has become the location for particularly intense feuding among bible interpreters. In the context of the debate over who are "the weak brothers," whether lost pagans, or immature Christians, the argument is made that the identification of "the weak ones" with the term "brothers" proves that "the weak," and those with weak knowledge and conscience, are Christians, and not pagans. But, this is a "weak argument" (pun intended). When the cultural context of Corinth is fully considered, the use of the word "brother" by Paul, in relation to "the weak," serves not the purpose of designating "the weak" as "saved," "gained," Christians, but another purpose entirely.

Love Thy Neighbor

Throughout the epistles of Paul there is the constant enforcement of the rule of love. There is no abrogation of the command of God for all to "love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus himself taught that the "whole law" was summed up in the first two commandments, the command to love God supremely and to love one's neighbor as one's own self. (Matt. 22: 40) To the Roman Christians Paul wrote:

"For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." (Romans 13: 9)

And, James also, says the same.

"If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well." (James 2: 8)

In the context of Paul's instructions to the Corinthian Christians one hears Paul's statement about "charity" (agape love).

"Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." (I Cor. 13: 4-7 NKJV)

In the attitude of many of the Corinthian Christians towards the heathen there was manifested a lack of real love. The boasting of the Corinthian Christians, the air of superiority and importance that they showed towards those they judged as "ignorant" fools, unenlightened ones, the indifference and lack of concern for the salvation of their heathen neighbors, all showed how they were not fulfilling the basic will of God that says "love your neighbor as yourself."

No comments: