Sixteenth in a series
1 Corinthians 10:31–
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
You and I live our lives in a complex cultural setting. I find myself struggling to know what is right, what is wrong and what is best of multiple alternatives in complicated situations.
There are many ethical issues that are clear-cut. Let’s assume that we all agree to biblical authority. We know that on those matters in which God has spoken clearly to us through His Word, we are called to clear-cut obedience. There is no room for double-mindedness in the Christian life. We cannot grow as men and women of God if, at one moment, we are handling sacramental elements of the bread and wine in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf and then, the next minute, bowing to pagan idol worship before whatever creature is competing for that place in our life that belongs only to Jesus Christ.
We’ve observed our own schizoid tendencies. We have watched others who have flirted as close as possible to the world, only to become seduced by it, losing their close relationship with the Lord, sometimes in ways so subtle or so blatant. Paul states it clearly, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (
It’s so important for us to know those clear-cut teachings of God’s Word. What the Bible says “do,” we are called to do. When the Bible says “don’t,” we better obey and not do. Our attention is drawn to passages such as the Ten Commandments in
However, not all circumstances we face are quite so clear-cut. There are those difficult areas. Tensions exist between Christians who have differences of opinions as to what is responsible and irresponsible behavior. Tensions exist between Christians who have differences of opinion in terms of biblical interpretation regarding matters on which the Bible isn’t all that clear. It is possible for one to get caught up in the extremes, missing that dynamic balance which God intends for us to experience. There are those ethical gray areas. I can be tied up in knots as a sincere Christian who desperately desires not to be too narrow or too broad.
For example, I know that there is nothing I can do in this life that can remove me from the potential of God’s forgiveness and grace except my own unwillingness to accept that forgiveness and grace. Therefore, I can be drawn, if I’m not careful, toward what theologians call “antinomianism” in which I so celebrate the grace of God that I live in unrestrained Christian freedom, cheapening that grace, priding myself in my lack of restraint. Some Christians have so distorted their freedom in Christ that they pride themselves in sinning all the more that God’s grace may abound all the more. A broken and contrite heart is not evident. Repentance seems to be a missing commodity in this person’s lifestyle. However, at the other extreme is my tendency toward religious “legalism.” I can become so preoccupied with my potential sin and my need to respond to God’s grace in righteous living that I elevate onto a pedestal my own good works. After all, why shouldn’t God love me and treat me in a special way? Compared to those other people, I am so good. I can end up in a lifestyle denying the very basic spiritual principle that salvation is not by works but by God’s grace.
I put the question to you that I put so often to myself and others. If you were to die in the next ten minutes and step into the presence of Jesus Christ and He were to ask you, “What right do you have to enter my kingdom of heaven?” what would be your response? I have asked this hundreds of times of hundreds of people. It sort of catches each one off guard. In most cases, the response is, “I’ve tried to live a good life,” or “I’ve been quite religious, gone to church regularly and have tried to help other people.” I’ve even frequently heard this response, “I am a spiritual person, and I come from a long line of religious people. I even had an uncle who was a minister.” What would your answer be? The fact is that our good works do not get us into heaven. That is a legalistic approach to the Christian faith. Our answer to Jesus Christ should be, “I have no right except that I have repented of sin and received you as my Savior and have claimed your gift of forgiveness and eternal life, purchased on the cross both for my life on earth and as access to your kingdom of heaven for eternity.”
As clear-cut as the biblical teachings are about God’s grace, there is also our response with righteous living. We are called to obedience. We are called to serve our Lord. There will be a day of believers’ judgment at which we will receive His affirmation for our faithfulness.
So we live in that tension between becoming legalistic with that subtle tendency toward believing that we can earn God’s favor and cheapening God’s grace by presuming on His generosity and kindness to the point that we do whatever we want, allowing our freedom to become license.
The matter of Christian freedom and where to draw the line involves matters of personal conduct. How narrow or broad are we going to be? Instantly, a list of items comes to your mind, if by chance you were raised in a conservative Christian environment that considered smoking, drinking, gambling, dancing, certain kinds of movies and immodest attire to be sin. At the same time, we know that the Bible does not mention any of these with specific reference stating, “Thou shalt not.” And all of us know and some of us are Christians who drink, dance, go to movies and wear clothing that would have been considered immodest thirty or forty years ago.
Just how do we decide what is right and what is wrong?
This issue also involves our attitudes and philosophical approaches. Must a Christian be a capitalist or a socialist? A Republican or a Democrat? A protectionist or a free-trader? Does a Christian hold a prior allegiance to United States citizenship or to some broader sense of world citizenship? What is the Christian position on immigration? Should our borders be closed or open or something in between?
How do we deal with a matter as seemingly straightforward as an honor code? Some universities expect a student to sign a statement that they will not cheat and that they will bear responsibility to report any situation in which they’ve observed cheating. To some of us adults, that code makes sense. We believe it, we hold to it. Our younger generation struggles over that honor code. Although it is based on secular ethics and biblical standards in which cheating is not allowed, it presents a serious problem when it comes to reporting the cheating of others. One of the highest ethical standards among our youth today is the high value of “not ratting” on your friends. So an ethically sensitive Christian young person who has signed such an honor code and therefore must adhere to it, who, at the same time, does not want to “rat,” must put on blinders so as to see no evil, saving oneself from the dilemma of having to report one’s friends.
The fact is that the Bible doesn’t give absolute specific instructions on any of these areas. Although we could take a text out of context and build a whole lifestyle, economic philosophy or political philosophy on that particular text, there are those who could take another text out of context and build a whole contradictory system on that interpretation.
Let me give you an example that comes a bit closer to home for us personally as a church. We are members of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Our denomination, along with many other denominations, has been engaged in a struggle between those of us who are endeavoring to hold to the historic biblical doctrines of the faith and those within our denomination who reject such fundamental biblical doctrinal truths as the virgin birth, the deity of Jesus Christ, the necessity of the blood atonement on the cross, the Second Coming of Jesus and even the very notion of biblical authority.
There are those who mock the biblical, ethical teachings on matters such as sexual conduct as being outdated and irrelevant to contemporary society. Some would say that things have gotten so bad that we cannot possibly continue as individuals and as a church to remain in a denomination that even allows such continuing debate. There are others who say that we are responsible to stay, to fight, to win, maintaining historic biblical truths as are evidenced in our confessional standards. To this point in time, those standards still stand, and we represent the historic church of Jesus Christ, committed to orthodox theology and biblical lifestyle standards. Why leave and allow an investment of centuries to be taken over by those who insist on having their way but have not yet gotten it, risking the very loss of our property and all the good and creative things going on in the local church in the process?
On the one hand, we are told to disassociate ourselves from apostasy. On the other hand, we are called to be persons who work to maintain the unity of the body of Jesus Christ. On the one hand, we are called to stand for truth, whatever the price. On the other hand, Jesus made it very clear that the wheat and the tares will grow up together and that we dare not uproot that which is healthy in the process of trying to remove that which is unhealthy. But, ultimately, He will be the judge in the final day.
It was on a matter such as this that Paul wrestled with the believers at Corinth. It was a matter irrelevant to most of us, but from it we can extract some principles that will help us deal with those complex matters of conduct and philosophical orientation. The Corinthian Christians had a tendency toward playing loose and fast on the matters of Christian conduct. If anything, they overly stressed “freedom.” They had a saying that too often is quoted as a biblical truth. This saying is quoted twice by Paul in
Paul illustrates this by dealing with the matter of meat offered to idols. We have already seen that, in the Greek culture, there were the pagan temples. Worshipers brought meat as offerings to the temple. The pagan temples converted that meat into money by both running a restaurant operation in association with the temple and by having a meat market in which some of the best meat was available to the public at the lowest prices. Paul has already stated that the fact that the meat had been offered to idols does not make it bad meat. One is welcome to eat the meat, even if it had been offered to idols. At the same time, he has made it very clear that the Christian was to avoid the worship practices of the temple. The teaching is clear-cut both in its permissiveness on the one hand and on its prohibition on the other.
Now we come to the ethical gray area. Imagine that you have been invited to a dinner party in Corinth at the home of a non-Christian, and you are sitting there enjoying a delicious Greek salad with feta cheese when the hostess brings in the main course, a succulently prepared leg of lamb. There are several guests at the dinner. One sitting next to you is a fairly recent convert who used to be involved in the temple worship. To you, it makes absolutely no difference as to the source of the meat. It is simply meat. This new Christian nudges you and gives you the eye, because he has seen stamped on that meat some identifying sign that it came from the temple. Coming to Christ has demanded that he cut off all contact with the temple. That meat represents that which he left behind when he came to Jesus Christ. What do you do? Let’s see what Paul says. He writes (
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, for “the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.” If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience – I mean the other’s conscience, not your own. For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
The key is that we “give no offense.” Or as the New International Version translates it, “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks, or the church of God. . . .”
Do you follow the spiritual logic to this point? There are issues that are clear-cut in Scripture. There are matters of conduct or of philosophical and theological understanding that are not clear-cut in the Bible. There is the right to “private scruple” in which you have your own personal interpretation of Scripture, which enables you to live in a particular way that might differ from the conduct or philosophical understandings of other Christians. You hold this private opinion. However, in a public environment, where that private opinion could hurt, confuse or cause a fellow Christian to stumble in his or her relationship with Jesus Christ, you are prepared to subordinate your private scruple to the public good. We are not talking about hypocrisy. We are talking about deeply held convictions that are yours as instructed by Scripture and your own prayerful reflections, matters of significant importance to you, that you are prepared to subordinate, for the health and welfare of the body of Christ, as your own opinions and scruples. In true Christian freedom, there is an awareness of an environment larger than one’s own personal environment.
I’d like to share with you three basic questions, which you can ask yourself on every occasion in which you find yourself dealing with some area of ethical gray. I have tried to frame these in as straightforward and simple a form as possible. They come directly from this passage, and they crystalize, at least for me, in as practical a way as possible, the central teaching with which Paul has been wresting in
Question #1: What is best for me?
Answer that honestly. Paul writes, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up” (
In my desperate desire to live in Christian freedom, I have a personal privilege and responsibility to make sure that what I call freedom is not something that will be destructive at the worst and unhelpful at the best. Not all things are helpful. Not all things build up. As I make decisions, I must keep asking myself, is this the best for me? Is this helpful? Does it build up?
In a way, this seems like a selfish question. But by the time we look at the next two, we will have those monitoring devices in place which will correct anything that might be egocentric or selfish. However, it is important for us to realize that God is interested in your and my welfare. True wisdom may necessitate my altering of what I might be inclined to call freedom or liberty, because not all things are positively constructive.
For example, nowhere in the Bible does it say that it’s a sin to smoke. Some well-meaning Christians have said that it is. But there is no way that you can convince me from the Bible that a person loses his or her salvation from smoking, even though in some cultures it was considered very sinful. I was raised in an environment where it was considered sinful. Yet, most of my elders in the Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church smoked. Ironically, it took the Surgeon General of the United States to convince our society that the smoking of tobacco products is harmful to one’s health. It simply isn’t helpful. In fact, the Bible tells us to take good care of our bodies. Smoking will not build them up. I am one who has been blessed with never having started. I’ve not had to go through the painful withdrawal that some of you have gone through and others of you have found almost impossible.
Another hot topic would be the matter of moderate drinking. The Bible does not prohibit the use of alcoholic beverages. It does speak strongly against drunkenness. To say that it’s a sin to have a glass of wine with a meal would be wrong. At the same time, I have too many friends who have ended up as alcoholics. When I read the statistics that one out of ten who drinks will end up an alcoholic, I have to take seriously my own vulnerability and that of those around me to that. I might choose to abstain entirely. I might choose to carefully monitor myself in a way that alcohol does not become something of daily usage and, when it is used, it is in moderation. Or I may conclude that, even though it is not a problem for me personally, I will avoid using it at all in situations in which I’m in the presence of a family member or friend who is a recovering alcoholic. More and more frequently, I am attending events in the homes of friends who themselves do not have a problem with alcohol but, because of children or parents who do, they no longer serve it. So, on the one hand, I can quote passages of Scripture that could encourage the use of alcoholic beverages in moderation. I can also quote passages that warn of the subtle potential destruction that can be brought about by alcohol consumption. I need to keep my eye on
Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaining?
Who has wounds without cause?
Who has redness of eyes?
Those who linger late over wine,
those who keep trying mixed wines.
Do not look at wine when it is red,
when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly.
At the last it bites like a serpent,
and stings like an adder.
Your eyes will see strange things,
and your mind utter perverse things.
You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea,
like one who lies on the top of a mast.
“They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt;
they beat me, but I did not feel it.
When shall I awake?
I will seek another drink.”
So, I have to make my decision as to what is best for me. It may not be what is best for you.
I’ve got to deal with issues of sleep and to somehow come up with a balance for my own good as to what is the minimum amount of sleep I should have and what is the maximum amount. I can burn the candle at both ends, trying to survive on four or five hours of sleep a night. On the other hand, I could be self-indulgent, staying up late and then sleeping in so as to get enough sleep but hurting my work productivity.
What is the right amount of food? The Bible speaks against gluttony but, at the same time, speaks in favor of enjoying all of creation. I’ve got to find that balance that is best for me.
And, as one who tends to be a driven workaholic, I do have the freedom to let my entrepreneurial tendencies go hog wild. But I also have to face the consequences of burn-out if I do.
All of these matters and many more we could discuss. It’s important for me to evaluate the consequences simply for myself, my own well-being, my own peace of mind, my own physical and emotional health. Although it doesn’t sound very Christian, this first question really is. God is interested in what is best for you. Ask yourself that question when in doubt.
Question #2: What is best for others?
Paul writes, “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (
We have to be careful that we do not allow ourselves to live under the dictatorship of others. Paul warns of this in
All through my ministry, I’ve been called to take positions on matters that are not definitely spoken to in the Scriptures. You know the feeling, don’t you?
For example, all through my ministry, I’ve been caught in the middle between some here at St. Andrew’s who love Jesus Christ and who feel that we should not talk much about money for fear that we will turn people away from our church. After all, people don’t like to come to church and hear requests for money. Then there are those who feel that the sooner we confront the realities of biblical stewardship – each of us not making an equal gift but an equal sacrifice – we’ll be able to do things for Jesus Christ, both here and throughout the world, what He wants us to do and we otherwise would not do without such a challenge. The fact is, I cannot benignly smile and agree with everyone. A person in a leadership position must search their heart and mind and come to a conclusion, rally the troops and move forward, knowing that there will be well-meaning persons who love the Lord just as much who might choose a slightly or dramatically different approach.
The same thing applies to this present denominational issue. Most of us agree that there are unresolvable differences within our denomination. Some, in good conscience, cannot live with that tension. I myself am deeply bothered by those who are unwilling to uphold the historic truths of God’s Word. On the other hand, I have a problem with those who are determined to leave and found the “perfect church.” It never ends up being that. They, too, will soon be squabbling over matters of some of the more minor points of theology.
Early in my ministry, the session of the Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church voted unanimously to leave our denomination. I as its pastor and moderator had to honestly share with them that I would need to find another church and they another pastor, because I had been called by God into a denomination, knowing that it had had these problems for many years. My call was to be an agent of spiritual renewal in a mainline denominational church.
At the first meeting I moderated as the new moderator of the Everglades Presbytery, Florida, ten churches did not show up. That was the founding of the Presbyterian Church of America, the beginning of a very painful schism that divided not only churches but families. My session decided to stay in and invited me to stay as pastor. They only left the denomination later after I had accepted a call to the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. If I had left then in 1971, I would never have had that meaningful ministry in Pittsburgh and would have been precluded from being your pastor here at St. Andrew’s for these past twenty-eight years.
My model is Dr. John Stott, who for decades has had a faithful evangelical witness within the Anglican fellowship, in spite of the tensions, problems and even apostasy that has plagued that denomination. Your own session now is wrestling with this and will soon make a statement as to the strategy that we will take, speaking clearly on the issues from a biblical standpoint and knowing that our calling is to stay within this denomination. The circumstances demand some kind of recalibration and major change. We will do it in conjunction with many other like-minded churches from the declaration that it is not we who are leaving. We’re the true church. It is those who are demanding nonbiblical changes who are the ones who are really departing, and we will not let such efforts go unnoticed.
One of our great Presbyterian strong points is the value of private versus public scruple. We don’t have to agree with everyone and everything to be a Presbyterian Church member. At the same time, decisions have to be made. We cannot vacillate and be all things to all people.
But while not being pushed around by every pressure point and becoming just people-pleasers, convictionless characters whose viewpoints are shaped by the last person with whom we’ve talked, you and I are called to put the good of our neighbor above our own good. “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (
Paul has multiple constituencies. He names them – those of Jewish background, those of pagan Greek background and those who have become faithful followers of Jesus Christ.
Paul elaborates on this theme as he writes to the church of Philippi. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (
As your leader, many of these denominational matters need to be sensitive to the history of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. They who resolutely stand the ground of denominational loyalty without raising questions would not be in your best interest. To brashly talk about leaving and manipulating by-laws and articles of incorporation, thinking that somehow we can change long-term Presbyterian law for the sake of our own individual independence as a church would be selfish. But, somehow, I as a leader and you in the lay leadership of this church have to figure out that which is the best way to go to uphold historical truths, while, at the same time, not unnecessarily ripping at the fabric of our denominational association in a way that threatens this church with the loss of its property and, most seriously, diverts attention that we should be giving to airing out our mission statement to years of wrangling over lesser matters.
There’s nothing that destroys homes, churches, nations and the entire human race more quickly than selfishness. How easy it is for me to look after my own interests. How bent I am to selfishness. I need to keep asking myself the question, “Does this activity or attitude build up others or is it simply for my own good?”
When are you the happiest and others the happiest? Is it when you’re claiming your rights? Is it when you’re living for yourself and yourself alone? Pleasing self is not more important than benefitting someone else. You know it. I know it. Jesus calls us to practice it.
Ask yourself, “What is best for others?” when there are chores to be done. Ask yourself, “What is best for others?” when there are decisions to be made. My entrepreneurial spirit could uproot my family and drag them all over the world. But I must ask the question, “What is best for others?” Ask yourself the question, “What is best for others?” when you are inclined to come out with that remark of ugly sarcasm. Did you give up anything this week for someone else? Did you make a sacrifice that benefitted another? Or could it be said of me this week, “John lived in a little world, bordered on the north, south, east and west by John.” That, if it can be said, would be the ultimate definition of John being engaged in idolatry.
Under this question that makes us think of others is our concern for their spiritual welfare. I need to each day be increasingly aware that I am not “seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.” Undergirding all I am and all that I am called to be needs to be my concern for the salvation of others. If you also are a Christian, that concern must be the underlying concern of your life. That is why you are here. That’s why God didn’t take you to heaven the moment you received Him. You are here to be a witness, a servant, God’s representative. He has given you a ministry to others. Keep this question close to the surface of your existence, “What is best for others?”
Question #3: What is best for God?
Paul quotes another passage of Scripture standing in
Do you realize who really is in charge anyway? I have to periodically ask myself that question. It’s so easy to forget.
You and I have the privilege of doing everything we do to the glory of God. That’s the bottom line.
This week, keep asking yourself the question, “Is this bringing glory to God?” Keep asking yourself the question, “What is best for God?” I’ll guarantee you that, if that’s your primary concern this week, you will end up having the answers that you need to the first two questions, because what is best for God is best for others and is also what is best for you!
Let’s not be idealistic about this. What is best for God will cost you something. It will rearrange your priorities. It will be a radical reconfiguration of your life. For most of us, it will not cost our physical lives. For some, it will.
Friday night, Anne and I attended the chapel for the PGA Senior Champions Tour Toshiba event being held here at Newport Beach Country Club. For ten years, I was the back-up chaplain leading the chapel at five events a year. Five years ago, they called a new full-time chaplain, Tom Randall, who spent the early years of his ministry as a missionary in the Philippines. In front of some 30-35 professional golfers and their families, he told a most graphic story of radical Muslim terrorism in the Mindanao province of the Philippines back in the 1990s, before we understood that kind of terrorism for what it was. He was involved in sports ministry, bringing basketball all-stars from the United States to play the top teams and at half-time give a Christian witness. He was warned by the Muslim brotherhood that if he mentioned the name Jesus Christ, they would kidnap him and cut off the appendages of his body, such as fingers, feet, ears, nose, and hands. Just before he stood up at half-time to preach, he leaned over to his national friend and sometime interpreter and said that he was hesitant to mention the name of Jesus, to which his friend declared, “You must name the name of Jesus. That’s what you’ve taught me to do when you led me to Christ! In fact, I’ll stand up there with you and help interpret the words into the local dialect.”
So they stood up together. When Tom mentioned the name of Jesus Christ, several rows of the Muslim brotherhood stood up and repeated their threat, declaring they would follow through on it if he once more mentioned the name of Jesus Christ. At that point, others in the stadium stood up and with their boos drowned out the threats of these terrorists. Tom Randall survived. But several years later, his friend, the interpreter, was beheaded by those terrorists for mentioning the name of Jesus Christ, putting God first in his life. He told of how when he went to do the funeral, he gave his condolences to his friend’s widow. Her response was, “Don’t pity him or me. He is with the Lord Jesus Christ, whom he loved and served, and I have the joy of knowing he is in the presence of that Lord now and knows it was all worth it!”
You and I are called to ask the question, “What is best for God?” And we are called to follow through on it, whatever the cost.
All this week, at your job, do it for the glory of God. If you’re a student, study to the glory of God. If you are playing a sport, do it to the glory of God. If you are giving a witness to someone else about what God has done for you, do it to His glory. If you are in a social environment, do it to the glory of God. If you’ve got any doubt in terms of decision this week, ask yourself the question, “What is best for God?”
If you are struggling with Christian freedom and all matter of Christian liberty, and you’re not sure where to draw the line, ask yourself these three questions. Any one of them, objectively addressed, would give you the answer you need. All three of them asked in reversed order – “What is best for God?” “What is best for others?” “What is best for me?” – raised in the context of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and an openness in prayer to God’s Word, will give you the answers you need when you confront those areas of ethical gray, those areas of question!
John A. Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.