A Little Consideration, Please

two women with heads bowed and covered
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/evergreenkamal/859318504/">Kamak Hamid</a>

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Now, concerning invitations to participate in other religious practices, we all know that “everybody claims to know God.” Knowledge just swells heads, love makes great people. Anyone who claims to know everything is full of crap. Anyone who loves is good with God.

So, concerning other religions, we know that there’s nothing to them, really, and the only God is our God. People call all kinds of things “God,” some of them things you can see, others things you can’t. There are lots of things that people worship. But for us, believers, there is only one God, the one who, as a parent, provides us with everything, and the one to whom we belong. The only thing that commands our allegiance is Jesus. Everything is the way it is because of him. We live by him.

However, not everybody knows this. Some participate in other rituals as if they were the real deal, because that’s they way they’ve always done it. They don’t know any better because they’ve been tricked. Ritual won’t bring us any closer to God. We’re no better off if we do it, and no worse off if we don’t.

Be careful that your freedom doesn’t hurt somebody else! What if someone who’s an addict sees you walk into a bar. Won’t that person think it must be OK for them to have a drink, too? And then that person – Jesus wanted that person in the movement – that person gets screwed up because of you. You’re not following Jesus if you lead other people to mistake libertarianism for salvation. In fact, if it would help keep a friend away from drink, I’d never drink again myself.

[See also, previous comments pertaining to verses 9-13.]

Paul’s original context for this is the practice of eating food sacrificed to idols. A context completely foreign to most modern readers. The closest thing in our experience is probably atheists looking down their noses at Christians insisting on saying grace before meals with atheists at the table. The atheists think they know better, and the Christians think they know better, but whose really to say. The sacrifice of animals to various gods was a religious practice, and one that weighed on the conscience of some Christians, and on the list of scruples for others. In Corinth, it had become yet another occasion for a church fight about whose Christianity is better, and people who just wanted to feel right with God were getting hurt.

The whole argument hinges on verses 2-3, “Anyone who claims to know everything [about God] is full of crap. Anyone who loves is good with God.” Paul can’t bring himself to take his own advice about not claiming to know everything about God, but just because he can’t take his own advice doesn’t make it good advice.

So, to go where Paul wants to go (but can’t quite get there), the ritual really doesn’t matter. Not even Christian ritual. If it helps some people feel better, fine. If not, it’s not required. If it creeps others out, it’s probably better to dispense with it. What matters is that you love.

Loving means, as a minimum, being considerate of what is helpful or harmful to someone else. It means being mindful of others’ weaknesses. It’s like a Hippocratic oath of religious practice: “First, do no harm,” or as ethicist Stanley Hauerwas says, “Let the Christians of the world resolve not to kill each other.”

Beware the Dogs!

Philippians 3:2-3

Beware the dogs. Beware those who do evil. And especially beware those who insist that any ritual that leaves a scar is better than spirited action where Jesus is concerned.

In Paul’s original, the ritual some people insisted on was circumcision. To be a Christian, they said, one needed first to be a proper Jew, and that required circumcision. Paul correctly saw past that kind of nonsense. It’s not what your penis looks like that determines whether you can be right with God.

Today, though, we have all kinds of other external marks and ceremonies,  rituals that leave scars, that people will tell you are critical to gaining God’s acceptance.

Sometimes the scars are physical. A woman is told she must return home to her abuser because that’s what God expects of her.

Sometimes they are emotional. Boys are told they have to suck it up if they want to be a real man.

And both physical and emotional scars are often connected to spiritual scars. A family is told that if they don’t tow the Pastor’s theological line, they’re all going to hell. Of course, it isn’t true. It’s nonsense.

Paul’s advice: beware people who insist that scarring you is a requirement for God to accept you. Paul doesn’t say hate them back. But beware.

Most of the time people who insist on these things are probably well-intentioned, or perhaps they have been so deeply scarred themselves that they are beyond knowing better. Just like the dog that bites you is either well-intentioned, guarding the family home, or else has been beaten to the point of meanness. There’s a reason for the phrase, “rabid fundamentalists.”