A friend who serves another church recently told me about some folk who have decided to break fellowship with that church because he was not taking a public stand on the upcoming election here in Michigan. Because he did not publicly advocate for a particular issue on the ballot, they were choosing to break fellowship with that church. I was recently asked why we as a church do not take public stands on various public issues. The reason has to do with the mission Jesus has given us. Let me explain.
In the ancient Roman world most butcher shops were connected to various temples. An animal would be offered in sacrifice and much of its meat would be sold to the public. It was a bit of a “win-win” situation as various temples were supported and the general public could obtain meat. Only in large cities with a large Jewish population could meat be purchased from a “kosher” butcher shop, one where meat had not been offered to an idol. Few cities had these.
Human history has been one of idolatry. Ever since Adam chose to elevate himself above God in the garden, humanity has been worshiping various gods they have invented. Faithfulness to the one true God requires rejecting all other gods. While we live in a pluralistic world, the believer in Jesus must not be pluralistic. There is only one God and his name is Jesus. We cannot elevate anything or anyone above Jesus, nor can we worship anything or anyone alongside Jesus.
Because early Christians were so eager to avoid idolatry, they were concerned with the issue of eating meat. Remember, most Christians throughout the empire only had access to a butcher shop connected to a temple, which means if they were to eat a juicy ribeye, they knew it had earlier been offered in sacrifice to, say, Zeus. It was such a significant issue in the first century the church in Corinth wrote a letter to the apostle Paul with questions about it.
Paul responded with the letter we know as 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul is clear: an idol has no real existence, therefore meat in the shop was offered to nothing. Since the entire world actually belongs to the Lord, eat the meat. It is a good gift from God himself.
It’s not hard to imagine, though, that in the church in Corinth were new believers who were saved out of this very idolatry. Being new Christians and being immature in faith and remembering that they themselves had recently offered sacrifices to various idols, their consciences were wounded when they saw fellow believers eating meat. In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul tells the church that if this were the case, it’s better to not eat meat for the sake of your brother or sister in Christ. He writes this instruction:
But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.1 Corinthians 8:9 ESV
It is very interesting that Paul doesn’t merely say meat was allowable. He says it is a right that belongs to followers of Jesus. However! Having a right does not mean one must exercise the right. He goes on to explain that a brother or sister in Christ—“the brother for whom Christ died”!—is far more valuable than meat. If eating meat offends your brother in Christ then you must reject it. Such an offense is not merely a strong dislike for a thing on the part of the other, but a genuine crisis of faith. The immature believer who is offended cannot see past the connection to idolatry and so questions his or her own faith. That’s what Paul means. Give up your right for such a brother or sister.
Then in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul seems to change topics. He explains how he, as an apostle, did not exercise his rights as an apostle. Like the other apostles he had a right to make a living from the churches he planted and served, even to the point of getting married and having a family. That would require even greater compensation as having a family significantly increases one’s expenses. Paul says he gave up that right because he believed it was better for the churches he served to see his example of selflessness so he earned a living at a regular job when he could. Rather than being a digression, Paul is explaining that personal rights do not trump the mission of God. God’s mission is greater than personal liberty. In chapter 10 he encourages the church to exercise the same concern for the mission of God when it comes to meat offered to idols. He writes this:
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner 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, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?1 Corinthians 10:23–11:1 ESV
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to 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, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
Here Paul explains the reason for bringing up his own surrendering of rights. Merely having a freedom does not require the exercise of that freedom. The truth is we often forget the real purpose of freedom is to serve God and to serve others. He expresses their freedom by telling them to eat “whatever” is sold in the meat market. Go ahead, buy that meat. Throw it on the grill. Enjoy it! He emphasizes that the whole earth belongs to the Lord and its blessings are given to us.
He says if an unbeliever invites you to dinner and you would like to go, go. Enjoy yourself. He says to eat whatever is served by that unbeliever “without raising any question on the ground of conscience”. He says to not ask where the meat was from, meaning whether it had been sacrificed to an idol. However! If your host tells you it had been offered in sacrifice you must not eat it. The meat had not suddenly changed. It was still, ultimately, the Lord’s meat, so why the sudden prohibition? Paul says to be like him in refusing to exercise your freedom and your rights. He says specifically to refuse to eat it for the sake of conscience—but not your own—that of the unbeliever who invited you.
In other words, Paul says a follower of Jesus can eat meat that had been offered to an idol in good conscience before the Lord, but for the sake of the unbeliever, he should give up his rights to eat that meat. The unbeliever may get the impression that you’re okay with a bit of idolatry or that you implicitly indicate that his worship of his god is on par with your worship of your God. Either way, the unbeliever’s conscience—his sense of right and wrong—is the guiding principle. When that person directly connects your consumption of meat with his idolatry—his, not your idolatry—you must reject it. Whether one eats the meat or rejects it, he or she must do so for the glory of God. Notice closely his reason: “not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved”.
Paul would gladly give up his rights, whether that meant the right to earn a living from the gospel or the right to eat meat, if it meant that many could hear the gospel and believe. To say this another way, Paul’s desire to engage in the mission of God was greater than his own rights. If giving up his rights meant opportunities for mission, Paul would gladly do it.
What’s interesting here is how he connects the conscience of others to his own rights. The believer in Christ can and should eat meat without concern for conscience. It is God’s blessing to you. But if God’s blessing becomes a stumbling block to the gospel, that blessing does not need to be enjoyed.
We don’t have this exact concern today. The closest we might come would be purchasing meat from a halal butcher shop in which all animals are slaughtered according to halal guidelines, which includes uttering the words “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful” as the animal is killed. Paul says such an animal is good for food and is right to eat and one may eat with a clean conscience, but if eating such an animal might create a barrier to preaching the gospel, we must reject that good and right thing.
To connect this to my friend who is criticized for not taking a public stand on certain ballot proposals, Paul says to make use of your rights in Christ, whether that freedom is eating meat or publicly endorsing certain candidates or pieces of legislation. However, when that specific right becomes associated with idolatry, you must refuse to exercise that right publicly. Remember, Paul said to eat the meat placed in front of you but if the person serving it tells you it was offered in sacrifice you must refuse the meat. This refusal is not for the sake of your own conscience, but for the other person’s conscience. If support for a party or candidate or piece of legislation is very tightly connected to partisan political idolatry, we must not exercise the right to address it publicly. The issue is not whether you make this connection, but whether others do. This is critical to understanding how a church ought to approach endorsing or opposing any particular piece of legislation.
My friend could, in good conscience, stand up and publicly announce his support for, or his opposition to any number of issues, for he could do so without participating in the partisan political idolatry we see in our country. His own conscience is not the guide, however. If anyone, whether a fellow brother or sister in Christ or even an unbeliever makes a direct connection between his particular stance and political idolatry, for the sake of the other person’s conscience, he must not do so.
It’s fine for him to vote his conscience on the matter. Meat, even when offered to an idol, is just meat and it comes from the Lord. When that meat, however, is too closely associated with idolatry, it just simply isn’t worth eating. As Christians who are citizens in this country, we can and should vote according to our conscience. We can and should encourage one another to participate in the freedoms we have. What we should not do as a church, however, is endorse or oppose specific pieces of legislation when that legislation is perceived by others to be partisan. Vote your conscience, of course, but your freedom does not need to be expressed publicly.
In our cultural moment, partisan politics is idolatrous. It is idolatry, through and through. Men and women may not bow down to Baal or Zeus, to Asherah or Artemis, but many gladly pledge their allegiance to a political party. They put partisanship above their faith, or more subtly, they equate partisanship with faith in Jesus. Many would, of course, deny this, but ask yourself this question: do you know or have you heard of people who have left a church over politics? There are many who have broken fellowship with a church because their particular partisan perspective is not being reinforced publicly by the church. Jesus prayed in John 17 for his followers to be united, yet many are willing to break that unity in order to have their political views affirmed. That is not what Jesus prayed for!
Are we free to vote? Yes, of course. Are we free to have loyalty to a political party? Yes, of course. Are we free to hold strong political views? Yes, of course. Are we free to break unity with fellow believers over politics? Absolutely not! The mission of Jesus ought to drive our understanding of political engagement, and that includes not speaking publicly in favor or in opposition to any particular legislation when it is perceived as partisan. Again, this is not for our conscience, but for that of other believers and even of unbelievers. If we publicly endorse legislation that is widely perceived to be partisan, we would be eating meat offered to an idol but we would also be in direct violation of the apostle’s command.
Our priority must be the mission of God. Think of what we saw in 1 Timothy 2 a couple weeks ago. Paul writes to Timothy “first of all” to urge him and the Ephesian church to pray for all people, including those who are in positions of authority and who make the very laws that affect us all, and the reason they must pray is the mission of God is to save all kinds of people. God’s mission is not limited to or even focused on this nation. It is for every tribe and every language and every people and every nation. Why would we ever allow local political concerns to prevent us from faithfully fulfilling his mission when all we need to give up is the public consumption of meat offered to idols?
Paul also wrote to the Christians in Rome about meat offered to idols. He wrote this in Romans 14:
Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God.Romans 14:20–22a ESV
The faith that you have—that your conscience is clear concerning your political views—keep between yourself and God, when that freedom to hold your views is too closely associated with partisan idolatry. Paul isn’t saying you can’t “eat” in the privacy of your own home. He’s saying we do not need to broadcast our political views, our candidates of choice, our favored political party. The mission of God is more important than our right to express our opinions. We ought to be known as people who proclaim the gospel of the glory of God in the face of Christ. When making our political views known blurs this gospel by showing it through the lens of partisanship, we must deny our rights and keep Christ as our focus in our public discourse.
The next time you hear someone say that this election is the most important election ever, remind that person that the most important election ever took place before the foundation of the world when God in Christ chose to save many from their sins. And then go and live accordingly.