everything is permissible (even beer and ribs?)

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Be gracious to me.  My attempt at a modern-day retelling of 1 Corinthians 10:23 – 11:1.  See the actual text

Our culture tells us there’s no objective truth and anything goes — but we know not all things are useful or productive.  While the prevailing motto of our time is “everything in moderation,” there exist many things which are neither beneficial nor advantageous, no matter how small our portions.  None of us should act selfishly.  Instead we should desire to do what is best for others.

Eat and drink whatever is served at the concession stand without fear of breaking unwritten rules.  All of earth is God’s, as is everything in it.  Enjoy your food and drink.

If a non-Christian takes you out to dinner, eat and drink whatever you’d like from the menu, and enjoy yourself in doing so.  Don’t interrogate your host as to why he’d treat you to dinner at a restaurant serving pork and beer.  But if he asks the waiter to remove the alcohol menu because you’re a Christian, by no means should you ask for it back.  Even if you find no problem with the occasional drink, this guy sees it as inconsistent with belonging to God.  Of what benefit is it to exercise your freedom if it calls into question the sincerity of your faith?  In these situations, give up your freedom for the conscience of another — not that what is sin has changed, or that another’s conscience should reshape your own.  But you are surrendering your liberties in order to be positive and encouraging to another.

So, while “anything may go,” make your decisions based on what is actually beneficial and productive.  Enjoy your meals, eating to please God and give him glory — and not to appease another.  But don’t allow your freedom to enjoy a rack of ribs and a Heineken become an excuse to offend those who see it differently.  Again, I myself don’t do that which delights me, but that which is advantageous to those around me — especially what leads to the salvation of others.  Imitate me in this, as I’m following Christ in doing as much.

I’m not sure I’ve summarized this text correctly for our day and time.  I’d love feedback.  The main questions raised for me have to do with my own inattention (or failure to translate) that which would have to do with food sacrificed to other gods (the context of our passage).  I can’t think of a way in modern-day America to translate this well — other than to assume drinking alcohol would be doing so to the delight of the devil.  I realize that is not an exact translation, and I may have taken too much liberty with the text.

Also, I question the difference between offending others and causing them to “stumble.”  I’d like to argue that anytime we can offer our freedom to enjoy something in exchange for another human being’s benefit, we should (regardless of whether it is a stumbling block or “merely” an offense).  But are we, at some point, enabling them in a way?

Obviously, Paul’s overarching theme is that we should seek the good of others in order for them to be saved, even if it means giving up some of our freedoms.  And his primary examples are unbelievers — though he adds disciples of Christ at the end.  I guess another question is:  If we’re giving up our freedoms in order for others to be saved, how does that play out when the “others” already are saved?

I’m seeking to understand the text well and, so, welcome critiques given in love and with kindness.  I in no way think I’ve got this one all figured out.  Your ideas?



Filed under modern-day retelling

34 responses to “everything is permissible (even beer and ribs?)

  1. mikevalstephens

    I’ll have to think on this some more before giving a real response, but I’m curious how this passage would look to you with your current setting as the cultural backdrop for the modern retelling.

    • actually, to a very large extent, it is written with my current setting as the cultural backdrop. specifically what were you thinking?

      • mikevalstephens

        This statement of yours led me to believe that you were trying to relate it to Americans and the restaurant references as well. Though the pork and alcohol choice made me wonder if you were thinking of muslim background believers.

        Here’s a missionary predicament for you: to what extent do we tailor our behavior to the culture around us? This passage is relevant in that predicament in wanting to be sensitive to the believers here. I also think of Paul talking about being all things to all people. My predicament is that what is considered respectable behavior in a culture is largely shaped by the majority religion. I want to be respected in order to gain a voice for the Gospel, but I also want my behavior to show the difference that Christ makes in my life in a culturally appropriate way. This is on my mind right now because someone was recently shocked to learn that I am a Christian. They had thought that I was a better Muslim than they are and said that I didn’t have “the air of a Christian”, which to them means I don’t act/dress/talk like all the Americans on TV (who are all thought to be Christian). I feel like I ought to be able to express this much more concisely, but even with this lengthiness I’m not sure I am making sense.

        • mikevalstephens

          Don’t know how I lost the quote but you said… “I can’t think of a way in modern-day America to translate this well” that’s what I was referring to.

          • yeah, i actually was trying to kind of ride the fence between life here and life in the deep south where i grew up. you might argue the pork was thrown in not only to refer to a muslim situation, but also to complete the meal, or simply to soften the words about beer.

        • for me, in short — though i’ve been meaning to write a longer post about this (but haven’t for that very reason — it’s longer) — it’s like this:

          i’ve decided to remove all the cultural barriers to the gospel that are reasonably possible to remove, don’t greatly limit the work i do, and don’t cause me to sin.

          for instance, i wear long pants and speak swahili (easy to eliminate those barriers), but i still drive a truck and live in a house with running water (not living in a somewhat comfortable house would probably limit much my time here, and not driving would limit where and how i could do agricultural development, etc).

          [that being said, really and truly, having a car and a nicer house than many tanzanians is culturally appropriate for how much money i have and the kind of work i’m doing, etc. the tanzanians would actually be less trusting of me if i pretended i couldn’t have a vehicle, etc.]

          so i remove whatever barriers to the gospel i can. however, in time, i may allow some of those to come back on purpose. take drinking for instance. it is seen here as the evil of all evils. no christian would ever drink beer, and everyone knows it — not just christians. i’m not challenging that right now. and i’m not drinking at bars in town and the like. but it may be that one day i will challenge that, because it isn’t simply a cultural barrier, but it is a pharisaical way of someone enforcing their beliefs on others. and it just falls too much in line with the mindset that there is only one end to any action — responsible drinking doesn’t exist. but should. so i may go back on my removal of that barrier later.

          i’m rambling now. am i making any sense? how are you doing it there?

          • mikevalstephens

            We are you totally in agreement with removing as many obstacles as possible to the Gospel, there are enough already without me adding to it.
            As far as outward expressions… we dress in a way that’s considered respectable – traditional clothing, but there are a few clothing items that indicate specific Muslim faith that we don’t wear. There is a cap for the men and there is a cloth that women will put around their babies on their back that is usually taken to the marabout to be blessed. So I carry my baby on my back, but I just use an old wrap skirt to wrap him instead of the special cloth that would be thought to have been blessed by the marabout even though I could buy one new at the market and not have it blessed. Mike goes bare-headed. In public, we adhere to the culture standards of normal and respectable – such as me walking behind my husband, me carrying everything, me serving him first, etc. Even though at home, we consider it a two way street and he serves me and the kids as much as we serve him. We eat pork at home, but try not to let our neighbors know about it. Though when my house helper asked out right about it, I didn’t lie. I just explained that we believe that God had given us permission to eat everything.

            These are good theme verses for us in these decisions:
            I Cor 10:31-33
            ” So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God- even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.”

  2. Man, that looks yummy. I haven’t eaten ribs in 5 years….

  3. Brett, you might mention that alcohol and pork are taboo in Muslim areas, thus you selected these items for consideration. I think your re-telling does a good job getting at the issue of contextualization.

    As you note, there are elements of this text that do not easily translate into our American culture (“foods sacrificed to idols”) which do have direct application in other parts of the world (e.g., Hindu and some animistic settings where animal sacrifices are still practiced). The other thing that many of us do not really comprehend is that often only a portion of the animal is actually burned up in the sacrifice, and the rest of the meat is shared by the family offering it and the one serving the function of priest.

    Considering the differences of settings, I think you have done a good job getting us to look at a challenging text in fresh ways. Blessings.

    • thanks, john. i always listen a little more to what you say than others.

      you know when i was in china, i was several times forced to deal with the idea of accepting food that had been sacrificed to (or was being eaten in honor of) the buddha. i’ll never forget the first time in came up in a bible study i was teaching. here i was, trying to make the text applicable to us today — and my chinese friends were wanting to know whether they could eat a particular evening meal with their families or not.

  4. Ben

    I’m with you.

    Whether it’s one person looking at the food from the perspective of it being sacrificed, or one person looking at a beer from the perspective of alcoholism, our personal experiences cause us to make judgment out of self-preservation.

    However, the difficulty seems to come when we are tempted to impose our judgments on others who may not have or even appreciate our personal experiences, whether good or bad.

    I feel like Paul is suggesting we have more freedom to say yes or no rather than having to stick to our guns and live only in our little world of rules. Those who can’t bring themselves to down a beer or eat a burger with cheese, live in the captivity of their conscience.

    It seems that only certain acts become taboo in a persons mind when the power and influence of the act replaces the power and influence of God.

    • i really like your last sentence. too often we’ve elevated the power and influence of acts — both good and bad acts.

      and if someone can’t bring themselves to eat a burger with cheese, they need to trade houses with me for a week. i’d happily eat their share.

  5. I’m thinking the paragraph that begins “If a non-Christian takes you out to dinner” would better reflect the original if you referred to being served a drink that might or might not have alcohol in it. (Ex.: was given a coke in Cuba, only to discover it was Coke with rum in it)

    You might say, “When eating at a non-Christian’s house, drink whatever they give you without asking whether or not it is alcoholic.”

    Just trying to think along with you.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

    • tim, that makes good sense. i wonder if there could be any relationship between this passage and luke 10, when Jesus sends out the 72? i believe he tells them to eat and drink whatever is placed before them.

      thanks for your help, tim. and was your coke and rum in cuba in a little plastic sandwich bag with a straw? just curioius…

      • No, but something else connected the incident with this passage. I was with some brothers who immediately said, “Oh, this has rum,” and put their glasses back on the tray. I took that as a sign that I was expected to do the same.

        Grace and peace,
        Tim Archer

  6. Very thought provoking indeed. Nice piece.

    I noticed that you are form Dothan, AL. I am also originally form Dothan. When did you live there?

    Glad I found your site. Great Stuff!

    • thanks for stopping by, adam. i believe we “met” over at shawn smucker’s site.

      i lived in dothan until ’95, when i graduated from northview. i did two years at auburn before transferring out, and haven’t lived in alabama since.

      what about you? i also have a younger brother and sister that you might know (i’m just assuming you’re younger than i…).

      • Live in Dothan til 2001 when I went to college in Birminham, AL @ Birminham-Southern. Ended up stating in B’ham after graduating.

        Looking for leaders, bloggers, and pastors to answer 10 questions for my blog. Would you be interested? If so get with me and I will get you the questions.

        Already have responses to a few contacts that I have made and cannot wait to start posting them.

        • where did you go to high school. my brother is named brian harrison, and brittney is my sister. they are 30 and 24 — both went to nhs.

          and i would probably be happy to answer 10 questions, but that would all depend on what they were about and how personal they were and the like. but you can certainly give me a try. my email is harrisonsingeita[at]gmail[dot]com

  7. Kim

    I’m actually really glad you wrote this Brett.

    Since I have dedicated my life to God, I have been doing my best to avoid certain situations where I know in the past I would have behaved one way, but now feel the need to behave another.

    Last weekend my Dad invited us over for a FD bbq. We had amazing ribs, and my dad bought especially for me some Coronas. In the past I would have dug in and never thought anything of it. But I paused. I haven’t had any alcohol in months and this was the first occassion where it was offered and I needed to respond. So there is my dad holding it out, waiting for me to take it. So I took it. I had that one beer, he was happy, I didn’t hurt myself or anyone else, and I realized I had successfully navigated a hurdle while still I believe being pleasing to God.

    Not sure if I can help you with your interpretation, just thought I’d share how that just happened to me.

    • kim, if it means anything, i personally believe you handled the situation just fine. and your story really does fit the interpretation well. thanks for giving me a real life example.

      no one’s offering me coronas here in tanzania.

  8. I discovered while living in South Korea that the question of whether to eat food that has been offered in sacrifice at a temple is a real, present-day question.

    And on the quad at my university in the United States, every weekday the Hare Krishnas serve an inexpensive and very tasty meal; it’s probably the most popular dining in the city. If you read their materials about the food’s preparation, you discover that it has been offered in sacrifice to Krishna before being served to the public.

    So these questions don’t always need to be translated for “modern” situations– food offered to idols is still all around us.

    In Korea, I was fed a really tasty honey cake, and as I took the last bite I said, “this is really good, where’s it from?” and was told that it had been offered in sacrifice at a nearby temple. By then it seemed too late to stop eating. And at the university, very few Christians had qualms about eating food that had been sanctified to the glory of Krishna.

    Acts 15 also pertains to the question of food offered to idols. St Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians is his pastoral instruction to a specific Church in a specific situation. The encyclical from the Council of Jerusalem is addressed to all the Churches, and is the result of a conciliar decision made by all the Apostles together. And it is quite specific in saying “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” that all Christians ought to abstain from sexual immorality, strangled things, blood, and things offered to idols.

    I have a hard time arguing with these instructions, and I have a hard time saying that the counsel of one Apostle to one Church in one situation trumps the direction of all the Apostles to all the Churches.

    On the other hand, that Krishna lunch in college was TASTY. And if I bless the food, offer it and myself in service to Christ… well, does that undo its role in idol worship?

  9. james, i encountered similar situations when living in china and traveling in southeast asia. on numerous occasions i was asked to sit down and enjoy meals that had been dedicated to the buddha. and a lot of my bible students would ask me about their own family’s practices, and how they should respond.

    i think i would tend to look at the acts 15 situation opposite of the way you seem to be. rather than paul’s instruction possibly being the exception to a much broader rule set forth by the council at jerusalem (acts 15), i’d argue that his is the general Christian principle good for all times and places. and that the specific situation (not an exception though) is that one concerning only the gentile believers in antioch and a few other places.

    i’ve never heard anyone give a bang-up explanation of the acts 15 text (as to the reason for those four directives in particular), but in my mind i’ve narrowed it down to two possibilities (neither of which i’m completely satisfied with):

    1. there might be an issue of table fellowship. the church at jerusalem is attempting to give the gentile christians a few of the basest commands, so that they can eat together with the jewish christians. i don’t think this explanation is all that great, because it doesn’t ask the jewish believers to overlook anything or do anything different — which would be required of them (eg. eating with “unclean” people, etc). also it doesn’t address pork and the like.

    2. the council is just wanting to give these gentile believers a few simple directives to follow (probably that they are already following) in order to separate themselves completely from pagan practices. i like this explanation, because these are gentiles (former pagans), with knowledge and experience in the jewish synagogues, who have now become christians. if they need any kind of instruction it would be that of how not to be syncretists in their view of God. also, this would explain why the jewish christians are given no instructions. [and i also wonder whether or not these directions are simply so the christians in antioch can be visibly different than the pagans surrounding them? kind of a missionary principle of some sort.]

    so i think i’d say paul gives the general christian rule — that we should give up our freedoms for the benefit of others, especially if it might help them come to be saved.

    then i think a specific instance of this principle being put into play is acts 15, when the gentile christians (who very well may know and understand meat sacrificed to another “god” means nothing) are instructed to distance themselves from pagan rituals and practices. i think this is an effort to:

    1. smooth over the relationship between the jewish and gentile christians, and

    2. set apart a people as being different than the pagans around them — so as to model to them salvation and belonging to God.

    both of which are setting aside freedoms for others. what do you think?

    • Brett,

      I like your reading of this, and am rereading both passages more closely. That Paul twice says “asking no questions for conscience’ sake” is striking.

      I wonder if this might not be a contradiction but rather a clarification of the Apostolic decision in Acts (which came first?)- Christians have been instructed to abstain from things offered to idols, and Paul gives the Corinthians some concrete ways to interpret this rule in a culturally appropriate manner:

      “If someone gives you food and says, ‘here, eat this to the glory of Apollo for whom it was sacrificed,’ then by all means abstain. Do not even pretend to honor an idol. But don’t pick fights, for heavens’ sake! Don’t interrogate your butcher, or cross-examine your host at dinner. Eat the food before you, because it comes from God. You don’t need to ask questions about it.”

      • [i think the corinthian letters were both written at least five or so years before luke’s ‘acts of the apostles’ account.] but, yeah, i think you’re right — the letter from the council should have actually been written and delivered a few years before paul writes his letters. of course i also don’t know that the order makes a great deal of difference.

        it just seems to me paul is giving a general Godly principle — one that Christ embodied, and that paul is imitating, explaining, and asking the corinthian church to imitate in him.

        the letter from the council seems to me to be extremely occasional. i think the further you are from pagan practices in your own life — and in the lives of those around you — the more you exercise your freedom to eat all things.

        i might even see it as similar to the further you are from alcoholism in your family, or its abuses in your community, the more you exercise your freedom, etc?

  10. Ike

    “If we’re giving up our freedoms in order for others to be saved, how does that play out when the “others” already are saved?”

    Even if you are the guest of an unbeliever and don’t want to offend him, it is better to offend the unbeliever and not eat for the sake of the weaker Christian who would be offended to eat…since love to other believers is the strongest witness we have….John 13:34-35. After saying that…..verse 32 mentions three groups which covers all humanity and we are to be creful to offend “none”.

    • ike, you bring up the big debate in my mind. i agree that love for one another is our strongest witness. and i agree that i should not (let’s say) drink alcohol with a weaker brother present who (for whatever reason) believes it to be sin — even if we’re guests in the home of a nonbeliever.

      but the question then arises for me: what if this brother is not the weaker brother, but simply wants others to adhere to the fence he’s built for himself around the “torah?” i still want to say that i refuse the drink, in order to bring greater love and unity to the situation.

      but at some point that becomes a bit ridiculous. when he believes it sin to eat animals because God originally gave only the vegetables and fruits of the world to be food. or when he believes it sin for me to cook or mow my lawn on saturday, etc. what about those situations?

      • For me a significant pointer is the word that is sometimes translated “offend” carries the meaning of “causes to stumble.” Me feeling uncomfortable over the actions of other believers is very different than me being led back into sin by their example. Paul clearly disturbs the comfort of many at Corinth with forcing them to address this thorny issue. Too many believers abuse this text by forcing others into obedience to their personal “druthers” rather than granting the freedom that is clearly present here.

      • Ike

        Just look at Jesus’ example. He freely ate & drank with sinners. He was accused of being a drunk & glutton by religious people. And Jesus saved His harshest words for these religious legalists. The so-called weaker brother…. in 9 out of 10 cases here in our American culture, is the religious /traditionalist /cultural/ legalist. They are following their own culture & tradition over Scripture.

        The true “weaker brother” (or weaker Christian) as described in Romans 14:1-6 ….. is someone who feels it is more God glorifying not to eat meat or drink wine. In our culture the weaker brother could be someone who feels it’s more God glorifying not to have a TV, not to play cards, not to drink beer, not to eat meat etc…. This is not necessarily because they are given to abuse these things, (although that may be included)…..but because they think it’s more God glorifying & honoring to avoid them. And the bible says that they are wrong in this type of thinking.

        How do we respond to these weak brothers? The bible tells us not to quarrel over these things. Allow each one his own conscious without judgment. So I’m not obligated to abstain for the biblically defined “weaker brother” and the weaker brother is not obligated to partake because of my freedom in Christ. I would point out…..that there is a biblical case to be made that the weaker brother should not be left in his wrong belief. But should be moved on to maturity in thinking as he grows in the gospel.

        “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” Roman 14:1-6

      • thank you, both, for elaborating a bit on that. that’s pretty much where i already find myself on the issue. but occasionally i still wonder if i shouldn’t give a bit more… not sure where that guilt comes from.

  11. it is certainly a tricky situation. i for one do not believe that alcohol is forbidden to the christian, just the abuse (be not drunk) HOWEVER, there are plenty of unsaved out there who have in their own minds standards for Christians and if we are seen breaking them it can hurt their chances for ever accepting the gospel. we do have to be careful about our testimony. if we look too much like they do, then what is up with this gospel thing? but if we are too far removed from them, we are freaks. it’s something to pray about.

  12. Pingback: willard’s prayer « aliens and strangers

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