Matthew W. Kingsbury
While preaching through 1 Corinthians recently, I was struck by chapters 8 through 10. There, the apostle Paul addresses idolatry. Apparently, some people in the Corinthian church had taken to attending feasts in idol temples, eating food that had been offered to idols; that is, they were participating in the worship of pagan deities. They had somehow convinced themselves that since idols were not really gods, any "worship" of them was meaningless, and thus a Christian could take part in these meals without compromising his confession (1 Cor. 8:4-8). Indeed, such attendance was to them proof of Christian maturity, since it showed that one fully grasped the doctrine of monotheism and accordingly had no fear of false gods. Those who went to these feasts were, in their own estimation, the "strong" Christians, and those who stayed away were the weak ones.
Not surprisingly, Paul condemns this thinking most vigorously. After all, the second commandment says, "You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them" (Ex. 20:4-5). There is no exception clause in the second commandment. It does not go on to say, "But feel free to bow down to carved images as long as you maintain a mental reservation noting idols aren't really gods at all, but only pieces of carved rock."
Worse still, Paul adds, idolatrous feasts are in fact demonic sacraments (1 Cor. 10:14-21). As the Lord's Supper spiritually (that is, by the work of the Holy Spirit) joins us to Christ, so these feasts spiritually unite one to demons. Participation in pagan feasts is essentially a denial of one's Christian confession: "You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord's table and of the table of demons" (1 Cor. 10:21).
But what fascinates me is how Paul waits until chapter 10 to make this point. He begins his condemnation of the Corinthian practice in chapter 8 by showing how the "strong," who can make the mental reservations that permit them to attend the idolatrous feasts, lead the "weak," who can't, into sincerely worshiping a false god. In fact, if all we had to go on was 1 Corinthians 8, we might well conclude that participation in pagan feasts contains no inherent sin, and is to be avoided only when it might compromise a brother's conscience.
Our doctrine is clear: idol worship is a terrible sin. But Paul doesn't begin with doctrine. He begins with charity. He exhorts the Corinthians in chapter 8 to love their brothers by refraining from pagan feasts. In chapter 9, he defends his apostolic authority, not to instruct them on the second commandment, but to command them to forsake their sin of pride. The "strong" Corinthians are proud of their conduct only because they do not love their brethren as themselves. Paul's argument is this: What's the point of teaching the Corinthians right doctrine, if they're not seeking to apply what they already know with love? Knowledge without love is worse than useless; it can kill the weaker brother for whom Christ died (1 Cor. 8:11). "We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies" (1 Cor. 8:1).
We Orthodox Presbyterians are very careful about our doctrine, and are rightfully wary of those who pit love against doctrine. Indeed, the liberals in the old Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. rallied under the banner of "love" so they could uncharitably persecute the orthodox in their midst. Paul himself insisted on correcting the doctrinal error of the "strong" Corinthians who thought that participating in pagan feasts was proof of their great knowledge. Still, we err whenever we think that right doctrine is sufficient in itself. Our doctrine, however right it may be, is worse than useless if it is not clothed in love. Love, not doctrine, is the chief Christian virtue, and love is always an identifying characteristic of the true church. When we begin with love for our brethren, our knowledge will not puff up, but will edify. Love enables us to use our right doctrine for the good of our brethren, in imitation of our Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnation of truth, who first loved us, and who will always love us.
If there is division between you and your Christian brethren, within your congregation or outside of it, what has caused it? Is it really your right doctrine, or is it your failure to pursue and promote right doctrine with the genuine Christian charity that imitates the love of Jesus?
"Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:12-13).
The author is the pastor of Park Hill Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colo. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2002.