I Corinthians 10:23-11:1
“Freedom in Christ”
November 11, 2007 - Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
“I don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. We have freedom in the Covenant to believe whatever we want.” Those words were said to me many years ago by a man with an impeccable Covenant pedigree. He was a full-blooded son of Swedish immigrants, grew up in a Covenant church, went to North Park college, and taught a Sunday School class in a Covenant church. If anyone should know the extent of what we lcall “Covenant freedom,” it was he. He even had biblical support. His belief was an expression of the phrase beginning our text, “Everything is permissible…” My friend thought that included heresy.
“The reality of freedom in Christ” is the sixth and last of our Covenant Affirmations, the central convictions of The Evangelical Covenant Church. It is the Affirmation most often mentioned when we try to distinguish ourselves from other denominations, particularly other evangelical denominations. Alongside our commitments to the Bible, to new life in Christ, to mission and all the rest, we have a deep and fundamental commitment to freedom. That freedom is the root of much of our joy, but it’s also the root of all kinds of misunderstanding.
We affirm freedom because it is clearly one of the great themes of Scripture. God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, telling Moses in Exodus 6:6 to say, “I will set you free from being slaves…” Hundreds of years later, Isaiah the prophet predicted the Lord coming to set captives and exiles free. Then Jesus arrived proclaiming a Gospel that included liberty, delivering that famous phrase found in John 8:32 “…you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
So we believe in freedom. It’s not just “Covenant” freedom, it’s Christian freedom. Galatians 5:1 reads, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” So we in the Covenant affirm with all our being that we are free. It’s the joy and blessing of being a Christian. Freedom is at the heart of who we are as a church. It was also at the heart of the Corinthian church—and they were truly messed up.
A major portion of Paul’s first letter to Corinth deals with the subject of Christian freedom and what it means in the church. Our text this morning is actually the conclusion of a much longer section. The apostle took up several questions which the practice of freedom had raised for the Corinthians. It extends certainly back to chapter 6, where in verse 12, Paul first quotes that phrase, “Everything is permissible…” But you can find the issue of freedom reaching back as far as chapter 5, where Paul responds to unlimited freedom in sexual behavior.
That’s the thing, you see. We as Americans, and evidently those folks as Corinthians, are and were conditioned to understand “freedom” as absolute and unlimited. If you are free, you do as you please, believe what you please. You as an individual are free to make your own choices and live in whatever way you desire. That’s what freedom means to us. But it’s not what it means in the Bible.
Wherever Paul talks about freedom here in I Corinthians, he immediately qualifies it. In chapter 6, verse 12, when he says “‘Everything is permissible for me…,’” he immediately adds, “but not everything is beneficial.” He does the same here twice in chapter 10, verse 23, “‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is constructive.”
From the get go, from the very introduction of the concept in Scripture, the freedom God gives us is always understood to be freedom within limits. You can search all day, but you will never find in the Bible the idea of unlimited freedom to do or believe whatever you please. At the very beginning, in the Garden of Eden, we read in Genesis 2, verse 16, that God told Adam, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden…” It sounds like unlimited choice, but verse 17 goes right on, “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…” Freedom with a limit.
After their deliverance from Egypt, after being set free from the bitter tyranny and slavery imposed by Pharaoh, where did the people of Israel go? Why to Mt. Sinai, where as the first major event of their new life of freedom, they are given the Law, the Ten Commandments and all the rest. God set them free, and then God gave them limits.
Jesus did the same. He prefaced the freedom He announced in John 8:32 with the limit that made it possible in verse 31, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Truth by itself is no guarantee of freedom. Just knowing a little truth will not set you free. Your math textbook is full of truth, but you still have to do your homework. Your bank statement is probably as true as can be, but you probably won’t find much liberty there. The chart being written as you lie in a hospital bed may be total truth, but it may say that you are no longer free to live as you would like.
No, Jesus said that you and I will be free when we hold to His teaching, when we are really His disciples, when we remain within the limits set by His own life and example. Our Covenant Affirmation gets it right. We believe in freedom in Christ. In Christ. That is the boundary and limit of true freedom. It’s a huge field of play. Our freedom is gloriously huge, because Jesus Christ is God, the Master and Lord of this whole world, of this whole universe. But it’s still freedom within a limit, within Him and who He is.
To say our freedom is in Christ clears things up. Christian freedom can’t include freedom for heresy, freedom to deny the basic facts of who Jesus is and what He did. We are not free, as some who claim to be Christians suppose, to deny that Jesus is God or believe that He did not rise from the dead or that He’s not coming again. My friend was wrong. Covenant freedom, Christian freedom, does not mean you can believe whatever you want. Holding to Jesus teaching and to what the apostles taught about Him is one limit on our freedom.
Yet somehow I doubt that heresy is what many of us sitting here today are struggling with. Maybe a few of us wrestle with hard questions about miracles or about life after death or even about the divinity of Jesus. Those can be hard issues if you have doubts. I’d be glad to talk with you more if that’s where you are at. But I’m guessing most of us who struggle with Christian freedom are where the Corinthians were. We’re not so much concerned about what we’re free to believe as what we’re free to do. And that’s where we might be as messed up as they were.
We can reconstruct the situation in Corinth. Christians were being invited to banquets held in honor of pagan gods. These were common social events. You invite friends over to watch the Super Bowl or to play a game, like the party my daughter went to Friday night. In Corinth, you were invited to a dinner party in honor of Asclepius or Zeus or some other god. Those parties were held in dining rooms located in the pagan temples. In verse 21, just preceding our text, Paul made it clear that believers were to having nothing to do with such parties, calling those supposed gods “demons.” “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.” Clear limits. You can’t be a Christian and join in drinking toasts to some other god. But it wasn’t quite that simple and Paul knew it.
Much of the meat sold in the market in Corinth had been offered first to one of the pagan gods, to an idol. The pagan priests took what was offered, then sold it to help with temple finances. It was sometimes hard to know for sure if what you had bought was “idol meat” or not. And if you were dining in someone else’s home, you had absolutely no way of knowing where the meat on the table came from.
Some Christians in Corinth struggled mightily with their consciences. What if they went to a friend’s home and unknowingly ate idol meat? Wouldn’t they be betraying their faith in Christ? And wouldn’t it be wrong for any Christian to buy meat in the market without first finding out if it had been offered to an idol? How could any good believer possibly put her own soul and the souls of her guests at risk?
Despite what he said so clearly in verse 21, here in our text in verses 25 and 26, Paul comes down on the side of freedom. “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.’” God made that sirloin. Pagan gods are figments of the imagination. Don’t eat in their honor, but don’t suppose that meat which finds its way into the market carries some spiritual taint. That gives those gods too much credit. Eat whatever you like. You are free.
You are free, Paul says, but still free within limits, within the limits of Christ. You don’t have to worry about the spiritual power of some idol residing in your lamb chop. But you do have to be concerned with the spiritual welfare of your brother or sister who is loved by the Lamb of God. So everything, like idol meat, may be permitted, but not everything is beneficial. Not everything is constructive. You may be completely free, but you will be completely wrong if you always exercise your freedom.
In the middle of our text, Paul specifically takes up the situation of being at a dinner party in someone else’s home, the home of an unbeliever, a non-Christian. His basic stance is freedom, which he expresses in verse 27.
Please indulge me while I mention that as a child I heard verse 27 quoted often and stringently by my great aunt, who used it totally out of context. We children sat at her table and were served unfamiliar items like boiled greens or chicken livers. We would lean toward Mom or Grandma and whisper, “What’s this?” only to be immediately shut up by Auntie’s stentorian voice reciting this Scripture: “Eat whatever is set before you, asking no questions!” Well, that’s obviously not what Paul meant.
Paul did mean to say that Christians were free, as I have said, to eat whatever meat might be on the table, without asking questions of conscience. Eating idol meat at a private home was a matter of moral indifference. No one need have pangs of conscience about it. But it is not indifferent if someone else has pangs of conscience about it.
In verse 28, Paul raises the case of when one believer might tell another that the meat on the table was idol meat, with the obvious concern that it would not be right to eat it. In that case, Paul says, “then do not eat it.” Do not eat, he says, for the sake of the other person and for the sake of that person’s conscience, no matter how clear and free your own might be. The limits of your freedom begin wherever your life touches that of someone else.
It does not mean you are not free. Paul asks in verse 29, “For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience?” If what you say or do or eat or drink is within your own grasp of what pleases God, then you are free, really. But you still may not say it or do it or eat it, if it harms your sister or brother. You are not judged by somebody else’s conscience, but you are judged by the Body of Christ. Being “in Christ” means letting others into your life so deeply that their consciences determine what you do.
What happens at the Lord’s Table shows us how deeply our freedom is bound up in the hearts and lives of others. We hear the words of our Lord, “This is my body, broken for you,” and we eat the bread, in faith taking into ourselves the Body of Christ. But remember all that is the Body of Christ. It is miracle enough that it is the truly human flesh of our Savior, pierced by nails and a spear as He hung on the Cross. We take that Body into ourselves spiritually and are nourished by it. But to that miracle is added another.
Over two chapters in I Corinthians 12—as we heard for our Affirmation of the church as the fellowship of believers—Paul says you are the Body of Christ, you the Church, you His people. We believe in the mystery that we are Christ’s Body. So when you put out your hand and take a piece of bread and put it in your mouth, you are in faith also taking that Body of Christ into yourself. You are taking in to your own being the life of every other Christian around you and with you in the Church. His heart becomes your heart, her conscience becomes your conscience, and you are called to live that way, to exercise your freedom not just for your own individual will and benefit, but according to the will and benefit of everyone else in the Lord’s Body.
Paul says in verses 31 and 32, “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 everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.”
Freedom is only half the story. It’s not simple. Should you be free to do something you know is not wrong? The answer is not yes or no, it’s “Do what glorifies God and blesses your sisters and brothers in Christ.” The other half of the story is love. It may be permissible, but is it loving? Freedom and love. Freedom within love, within the love of Christ. That’s what we affirm in the Covenant.
Many years ago, not too long after phone service was de-regulated, we had trouble with our phone line. There was lots of static and we had trouble hearing the person on the other end. A service man pinpointed the trouble at our second phone. My mother had given it to us. She received it as a free gift for opening a bank account or something like that. It was cheaply made, and a short inside it was affecting the whole system.
The thing is, the cheap phone worked fine by itself. It would ring. You could use it to dial out. You could hear through it. In all respects it operated perfectly—except for its effect on the rest of the system. It weakened the signal and caused static. There seemed to be nothing wrong with it, until you tried to use another phone connected to the same line.
Eating the Body of Christ reminds us that you and I are connected to each other in Him. It’s not enough that I’m O.K. with Jesus by myself or that you’re O.K. with Jesus by yourself. If I live cheaply and poorly it hurts not only me, but all of you. What each of us is and does affects everyone else down the line by which God calls us into new life. Freedom does not stand by itself. That’s why our Affirmation is “the reality of freedom in Christ.” Christ, including the Church which is His body, is the boundary of our freedom.
It matters to everyone here what movies you see, or how much you drink, or how you speak to your children. Your freedom and my freedom is a freedom within bounds, a freedom within Christ and His love. It is freedom within a Savior who has made us all part of Himself. And so we are part of each other.
Paul said in chapter 8 verse 13 that if the exercise of his freedom to eat meat causes his brother or sister to sin, he will never eat meat again. That’s the kind of limit he was willing to place on himself. It’s the kind of limit we are called to place on our own freedom.
For all that I’ve talked about the limits, we are free. In Jesus Christ you and I find freedom from sin and death. His grace has taken off the chains of old ways and liberated us to a new kind of life. We have been given freedom and we offer that freedom to each other, freedom to differ about whether baptism should happen for infants or only for believers or whether Jesus will come back before the tribulation or after the tribulation. We allow each other freedom to drink alcohol or not, to like hymns or to like praise songs, to choose to worship at 8:30 or 10:30. We enjoy and share this wonderful free life that Jesus paid for with His own broken body. And that Body is at the very same time the boundary and limit of our freedom. We are free from sin and free to serve and love each other.
Freedom comes last in the list of Covenant Affirmations. It’s last not because it’s least, but because you can’t have it without our other Affirmations. Without faith in the Bible and experience of new life in Christ and commitment to mission; without the church as a fellowship of believers and a conscience dependence on the Holy Spirit, you cannot really be free. Freedom is not where we start, but where we arrive when we begin to live the life we have in Christ. As we walk within the limits set by those other affirmations, we find real freedom.
The biggest thing, then, is not our own freedom, but that of our brother or sister. How can we offer to those around us the same liberty we enjoy? At the beginning of chapter 11, Paul ends his thoughts on freedom by asking us to follow his example. Like him, you and I have to give up some freedom so that others can be free. But following Paul in that self-denial, we are really, as he says, following Christ. Jesus gave up His freedom to free us all. And as He said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj