Saturday, January 02, 2016

Freedom's Limits

Paul begins this 1 Corinthians 9 with a series of questions. The original letters in the New Testament were not divided into chapters. Rather, like any letter they just flowed from one thought to the next. By asking questions Paul was, in effect, making statements. The implied answer to each question is yes. Paul states: I am free. I am an apostle. I have seen the Lord Jesus. You (the Corinthian church members) are my workmanship in the Lord. And finally, Paul tells them that they are the seal of his apostleship in the Lord. A seal is a mark of identity, or proof of authenticity and ownership. They themselves were the confirmation of Paul's authority, apostleship and the effectiveness of his ministry. Paul also told them that they themselves were the "defense to those who would examine" (1 Corinthians 9:3) him. What examination was he talking about? What defense? What proof? Who was calling for an examination or a proof? Why was Paul on the defensive here? Who was calling his apostleship into question? And why? It helps to keep the larger context of this chapter in mind. Paul was writing to the Corinthians in response to a controversy that had irrupted in the church. That was the reason for this letter and his impending visit. A lot of issues were dealt with in this letter, and yet the context of the letter was laid out in the first chapter as being the wisdom of the gospel vs. the foolishness of the world (the Greeks). That concern played itself out in several ways -- sexual immorality, unity and diversity, food laws, spiritual gifts, etc. Paul identified the underlying issue as a philosophical and/or theological dispute between two groups of people who had deep-rooted and opposing views of things. He explained the issues by talking about how the wisdom of Christ was different than and opposed to the wisdom of the world. Today we call this kind of thing competing worldviews. One group interpreted everything through the eyes of the prevailing worldview of the day -- various forms of Greek philosophy. The other group interpreted everything through the eyes of Christ. Many new believers had been added to the roles of the Corinthian church, and in the midst of their growth pains one of the church leaders was found to be involved in an illicit romantic relationship with his "father's wife" (1 Corinthians 5:1). No doubt more was going on than what had been expressed in the letters to or from Paul. The issue that had been presented to Paul concerned a church leader who had been teaching, implicitly or explicitly, that there was nothing wrong with such a relationship because in Christ Christians were free, in Christ Christians were no longer bound by the Old Testament or by their old moral habits. We tend to think that we in our day are different than the early Christians were, but here we see that things have not changed much regarding the fundamental concerns of the churches. Such concerns are still rife in the church today. Paul was responding to a question (or a series of questions) that the Corinthians had written to him about. That original letter has been lost, but we know about it because Paul referred to it. In chapter seven Paul wrote, "Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: 'It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman'" (1 Corinthians 7:1). After answering that concern with the traditional biblical view of marriage in chapter seven, Paul clarified the issue of freedom in Christ using the concern of food sacrificed to idols in chapter eight. Yes, we are free in Christ, he said. But there are limits to our freedom that impact more than our own salvation and morality. There are social issues that involve us in the care and concern of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Though we may be technically free to do so, we must not model behaviors that can be misunderstood by others. So, though we are free to eat food that has been dedicated to idols, though we are free to participate in pagan (popular) holiday festivals and celebrations, the better course of action, said Paul, the more mature and responsible thing to do is to avoid such activities, not because they are in and of themselves wrong or immoral, but because other Christians who are less discerning may misunderstand our actions and motivations and fall into temptation and sin as a result of misreading our actions. Paul understood the tensions related to the issue of Christian freedom. Paul understood the ease with which the most sincere Christians can misunderstand the most basic things. On the one hand, freedom in Christ was the evangelistic cry of the Early Church in the face of political domination by the Romans and similarly in the face of religious repression by the Pharisees. The cry of freedom, then as now, was at the forefront of social and political change. Against the tide of unrestrained freedom, Paul argued for caution and restraint. Here and elsewhere Paul argued that freedom in Christ did not mean that Christians were free to do whatever they wanted to do, even if there was nothing ultimately wrong with some particular action. But rather, Christians were free in Christ to live in obedience to Christ, free to care for and model behavior suited to the least discerning of Christ's people. Christians can err by improper evaluation of their freedom in Christ, and they can err by improper evaluation of their duties of obedience to Christ. But the danger dealt with here in First Corinthians lies in unrestrained freedom. Other dangers and concerns are dealt with elsewhere. Article Source:

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