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All things are lawful; but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful; but not all things edify (1 Corinthians 10:23).
“If I can, I should.”
The above statement can never be found in the pages of Scripture but it has been accepted as if it were by many people in the world today. In science rarely are limits imposed on ethical grounds; present levels of knowledge and technology are the major hindrances and there are always researchers seeking to push ahead regardless of potential consequences. It is only when things go horribly wrong that questions are asked in retrospect, yet even then, the impulse to do because it was possible is rarely challenged. This is not only a matter of science; how many times have people decided to exercise a given liberty just because they could? How do most people celebrate their 16th, 18th, or 21st birthdays? They “celebrate” their newly gained freedoms, often to excess. If responsibility is ever learned it is only after many painful experiences of excess.
The same mentality has infected the religious world thanks to the strong American emphasis on freedom. People want to justify what they want to justify; they look to Scripture for “authority” so they can do what they want to do. It is important to have Biblical authority for what we do (Colossians 3:17), but Biblical authority is not an end unto itself as Paul seeks to explain to the Corinthians.
Corinth was a Greek and pagan city. Most of its residents continued to participate in idolatrous observances; its practice was so prevalent that the meat sold in the marketplace had been previously sacrificed to the town’s idols and most everyone had no problem with that. Paul wanted to make it clear that eating the meat was not a problem in and of itself; the problems came in when either a fellow Christian who did not have understanding was tempted to honor idols or if pagans were making an issue of it (1 Corinthians 8:1-13, 10:27-30). Meanwhile Christians must flee from idolatry, not partaking of the table of the Lord and the table of demons as well (1 Corinthians 10:1-22). It is not as if the Corinthians were unaware of these things; they just seemed to feel as if they were fine.
The challenge is laid down in 1 Corinthians 10:23. There is some question as to how the verse should be understood: is Paul actually saying that all things are lawful, or is it a quotation of the statement or premise of the Corinthians? Strong arguments can be made either way. For our purposes we can be confident that such was the basis upon which the Corinthians acted; if Paul is making the statement he does so accommodatingly, always recognizing that matters of sin are not lawful (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:19-21).
Thus “all things are lawful” was the operating mode of the Corinthians: we can do these things, therefore, we should. To the Corinthians eating meat sacrificed to an idol was lawful; the matter was thus settled.
Paul does not argue about the authority or lawfulness of the behavior; he has already affirmed that an idol is nothing (1 Corinthians 8:4-6). Eating meat sacrificed to an idol is thus “lawful.” Yet Paul wishes to go further: is it expedient (or profitable)? Does it build up? He makes one thing evident: just because something is lawful (thus, authorized) does not make it profitable or edifying (1 Corinthians 10:23). After all, Christianity is not about doing whatever one pleases; Christians should be looking out for the good of his neighbor (1 Corinthians 10:24).
Eating meat sacrificed to idols may be lawful, but causing a brother to stumble because of it is not (1 Corinthians 8:1-13). Christians may be able to eat meat sacrificed to idols but should not cause pagans to think they are honoring the idol (1 Corinthians 10:25-33). If eating meat sacrificed to idols brings you back into an idolatrous orbit, it has become a stumbling block, and is no longer lawful (1 Corinthians 10:1-22). Christians cannot just go around doing things just because they can; they have to give consideration to themselves and to their neighbors. Is it profitable? Does it edify?
Paul’s lesson is sorely needed today. We need to have Biblical authority for whatever we do; all must be done in the name of the Lord (Colossians 3:17). But the analysis does not stop there. The goal is not just to find Biblical authority, let alone to invent Biblical authority to do what we feel like doing. It is not enough for something to just be authorized; it must be profitable; it must edify, for all things ought to be done unto edification (1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 4:11-16). How will this practice influence my fellow Christians? Will it be a cause of stumbling? Will those outside the church think I have compromised myself by the way I exercise my liberty?
Even if “all things” are lawful, they may not be profitable; they may not edify. We should never do anything just because we can; we should do it because it glorifies God in Christ and is profitable unto edification. Let us seek the good of our neighbor, live under Biblical authority, but seeking to edify the Body of Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry