Did you know that the early churches of the New Testament struggled mightily with an issue that we think nothing of today? I mean they got into heated disputes over this issue. Some Christians would separate themselves from other Christians over it. Others would call the salvation of fellow Christians into question over it. And what was this divisive issue? It was the eating of meat that had been offered to idols.
In ancient cities such as Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus, pagan temples dedicated to pagan gods were commonplace. As part of the idolatrous worship at these temples, priests would offer up animal sacrifices to the false gods. These animals were choice, unblemished, high-grade meat. Following a sacrifice, the “leftovers” were sold in the meat markets of the cities. The meat was the choicest available, but the price was cheap because the meat was “used.” Naturally, the lost people of the city thought nothing of purchasing the meat and eating it. The Christians, on the other hand, didn’t know how to handle the dilemma. Eat meat that carried the taint of idol worship? Would God allow such a thing? The answer you got depended upon which Christian you asked.
The Gentile Christians who had been saved out of idolatry and paganism were particularly sensitive about the whole issue. They just couldn’t make their consciences believe that God was okay with them eating that meat, no matter how much of a bargain the meat was. We can liken each of those Christians to one who has been saved out of alcoholism. No matter how many preachers, Bible teachers, and commmentators tell that Christian that it’s alright to drink a beer or a glass of wine, that Christian won’t quite believe it. His past experiences have just been too scarring.
Well, it was clear that the early churches needed some God-inspired guidance concerning the eating of that meat. And who better to provide the guidance than the greatest theologian the world has ever known, the apostle Paul? So, it’s no wonder that he devoted extensive sections of his letters to the Christians of Rome and Corinth to the topic. And what was his take on the meat? We find the answer in the following passages:
#1: Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. (1 Corinthians 8:4)
#2: Eat whatever is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience’ sake; (1 Corinthians 10:25)
#3: I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself… (Romans 14:14a)
#4: For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:4-5)
Now, I do realize that I’m only giving you half of what Paul taught on this subject, and I promise you that we’ll get to the other half in the next post. But for now just let the first part of Paul’s God-inspired teaching wash over you and penetrate down into your soul. The man taught, “Since there is only one true God, an idol is really nothing. As nothing, it certainly doesn’t have the power to taint meat. So, don’t let your conscience wear you out over such meat. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market.” In 1 Corinthians 8:9, Paul calls the option to eat that meat “this liberty of yours.” That’s where we get the term “Christian liberty.”
But now here’s the question for us Christians today: How does Paul’s teaching on “Christian liberty” come into play in our lives? I mean, we don’t have to deal with meat that has been offered to idols, do we? No, but we certainly have to deal with things such as: wine, beer, liquor, secular music, secular movies, secular t.v. shows, and the latest fashions. Oh, we can be good little legalists who live miserable little lives. We can throw out our televisions, shun movie theaters, keep our radios turned off, wear Puritan-style clothing, avoid any restaurant that has a bar, refuse to celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Halloween (all of these holidays have pagan trappings, you know), and spend all our time praying, reading the Bible, and listening to gospel music. But is that really how God wants us to live? I think not. Jesus wasn’t a hermit-like isolationist. He got out among the masses and enjoyed life. As a matter of fact, His “Christian liberty” kept the legalistic Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes torn all to pieces. They couldn’t believe that He had the gall to do some of the things He did.
I think that Chuck Swindoll, the well known pastor and radio preacher, has given us a wonderful illustration of why Christians desperately need to grasp the concept of Christian liberty. In his study guide for Romans chapters 12-16, under a heading entitled “Taboo Or Not Taboo?”, he writes:
Isn’t it funny how religious convictions can vary so widely among Christians? Let’s invite some believers of different backgrounds to a pool party, just to see what will happen.
Out on the pool deck, our party is well under way: the hot dogs are roasting on the grill, the drinks are getting iced in the coolers, and our guests are happily visiting and laughing under a warm, sunny sky.
Suddenly events take a turn for the worse: three couples from California decide to take a dip in the pool before lunch. They toss off their sandals and T-shirts, jump into the pool, and begin tossing a beach ball around. Bill, from Alabama, practically falls out of his chair. He doesn’t believe in “mixed bathing” – males and females swimming in the same pool at the same time. He quickly excuses himself and walks into the house whispering in disbelief, “What bacchanalian ritual have I stumbled onto here?”
Passing Bill in the doorway is Amber, the teenage granddaughter of Ethel, our senior party guest. Amber, in a cool tank top and shorts, is just showing up for the party, but she barely gets both feet on the deck before Ethel meets her with a bright pink, oversize beach towel in hand. “Amber dear,” Ethel says, “For goodness’ sake, cover yourself before you cause some poor boy to stumble!” Amber – now a pink terry cloth mummy – trudges to the first chair she can find, plops herself down, and commences to sulk.
Andy, our Lutheran guest, tries to lighten things up. He turns to Mike, a Southern Baptist, and asks, “Want a drink from my cooler?” Mike heartily accepts, and Andy raises the lid, revealing several of his favorite brands of beer. “Which one would you like?” Mike doesn’t answer, but quietly joins Bill inside the house.
“What’s with him?” Andy asks. “There’s nothing wrong with having one dang beer!” “Andy!” his wife exclaims, “Watch your mouth! That graphic language really bothers me.”
Now do you see the need that we Christians have to truly understand Christian liberty?