I’m a preacher. That means that almost every week, I stand before people and I speak. But my speech is not neutral. I am making an argument. By argument, I don’t mean picking a fight or starting an argument, I mean advancing an idea that I want the hearers to consider. As a preacher, though, the arguments that I am advancing don’t start with me. As a Christian preacher, they reside in our community’s sacred text, the Bible. So the task is a bit more complicated. I don’t get to stand up and say any old thing that I like. I have the responsibility of being faithful to what the text says. That involves things like discerning what the text says in context, figuring out where we are today, and bringing those two worlds together in a life-giving way. That’s much more complicated than it would appear.
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that arguments/ideas have a distinct shape. There is a way that the Biblical writers reason. There are unique features of their writing. They advance some arguments to make a point and not others. There are different emotions that play on the writing. There is a specific context that they write out of. All of this combines to create the shape of the argument/idea.
Take 1 Corinthians 8, as an example. Here the Apostle Paul is writing to the church in Corinth. He is addressing various questions that the church is asking. In 1 Corinthians 8, he is talking about eating food sacrificed to idols. A very contentious issue in Paul’s day as Jews and Gentiles formed one church out of two very different cultures.
Let’s unpack the text:
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all posses knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God. (1 Cor. 8:1- 3)
From the outset, Paul’s argument is of a certain shape. He starts with a universal – we ALL posses knowledge. He contrasts knowledge with love, giving love priority over knowledge. He points out that knowledge at its best is incomplete and points to loving God as the way to go, which results in being known. [Listen to Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls to explore the interplay between knowing and being known] That is Paul’s framework for addressing the question. How does this direct the rest of his argument?
So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Cor 8:4-6)
There is knowledge and there is love. Paul starts with knowledge or what I would call a theology of idols. While there are ‘gods’ and ‘lords’ that people hold up as real and true (idols) they aren’t real. There is only one God, the Father, who made heaven and earth and only one Lord, Jesus, through whom we live. So food sacrificed to idols, is a cultural language game that directs people’s lives in some sense, but is rooted in nothingness. Idols aren’t real and have no power. They certainly don’t carry any power over followers of YHWH and Jesus.
But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
While all people have knowledge, Paul says that not all people have the same knowledge. There are some people who are so accustomed to idols that they allow those idols to have power over them, even though they have no power. This is an interesting turn, because often people will pit “those with knowledge” against “those without knowledge” by giving preference to “those without knowledge”. They are the ones that seem to be taking a hard stand against meat sacrificed to idols. But Paul doesn’t argue that way. Paul says it those who will not eat meat sacrificed to idols are the ones who are living out the culture’s values (still so accustomed to idols…) by letting the meat sacrificed to idols have power over them. They are trapped in the cultures worldview. They don’t have the freedom of knowing that being near to God isn’t about food one way or the other, it’s about love. Being known by God comes through loving God, not your lunch menu. So what’s the way forward if those with knowledge and those who aren’t quite there yet are to live together?
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, from whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall. (1 Cor. 8:9 – 13)
Again, Paul does not castigate those with knowledge eating meat sacrificed to idols. He refers to it as freedom. That’s not his concern. His concern is that those who aren’t there yet will be harmed by the freedom of others. It’s here that the shape of Paul’s argument from the beginning influences his conclusion. In community, love informs knowledge. Knowledge can’t just run around doing whatever it wants. This relationship is fleshed out in places like 1 Corinthians 12 – 14. Love directs knowledge in ways that are life-giving for the entire community. In this particular instance, while idols have no power therefore it’s ok to eat meat sacrificed to idols makes theological sense, in that not everyone is on board, the practice doesn’t make good ecclesiological sense. Better to never eat meat again, than cause a brother or sister to engage in an act they consider sinful.
Back to preaching
When dealing with this text, then, it’s important to create an argument with the same shape. I would say that the shape of this argument is a heart: It’s all about loving God and loving your neighbor. It’s not an us vs. them kind of argument. It’s not an argument about faithfulness vs. unfaithfulness or obedience vs. disobedience. Paul doesn’t denigrate one group and elevate the other. He’s dealing with what it means to love people within a diverse community where people are often at different places relative to right beliefs and right practices. Paul’s priority is heart-shaped; It’s love.
If we are going to be true to Paul’s writing as preachers, it’s important to keep true to the way Paul writes and the shape of his arguments. If we do not, we may be talking about the text, but the text isn’t speaking for itself. This is not only true of Paul, but of any sacred text, or the work of anyone that we might re-communicate from the pulpit (or from anywhere else, for that matter). We cannot re-communicate the work of others unless we rightly determine the shape of their arguments and ideas. Only then can we let their work breathe and speak through our own!