Monday, February 02, 2015

The Rudder of Conscience

1 Corinthians 8

“Conscience and reputation are two things. Conscience is due to yourself, reputation to your neighbor.”  St. Augustine

Sometimes the Bible comes across as written in a completely unfamiliar language – especially when we read portions literally (giving the words only “face value”) with no critical analysis, no reasonable interpretation, no attention to the greater context, and no prayerful consideration. 

The eighth chapter of First Corinthians is only one of many such sections that, when taken literally, can be easily dismissed as useless or irrelevant today because Christians have come to believe there is no longer any such thing as “unclean” meat.  As for food offered to an “idol”, we don’t really see so much of that, either, and likely don’t even know what Paul means.

We also live in the “land of the free”; and while we can appreciate that our own individual “rights” may end at the tip of another person’s nose, we nevertheless demand they move their nose lest they interfere with our rights!  We want to be free to make our own choices without any outside interference.

It still bothers me somewhat that when the wet/dry issue was becoming an issue in Columbia County, I simply could not get stirred up about it.  I've shared with you that I stopped drinking a long time ago and am much better off without it (as anyone would be), but having bars and liquor stores in town is, to me, unsightly but not worth getting in a twist over.  Yet even though we know alcohol poses a real danger to some, we demanded our own “rights” to purchase locally.

When the lottery became an issue, the United Methodist Church stood against it.  I can’t say I was really ever stirred up about it then (though I advised against it), but I could (and still can) see that such “pie in the sky” promises never materialize, that “too good to be true” really is “too good to be true”, and many states have found that lotteries never live up to the “Promised Land” hype – but they always exploit the weakest among us.   

Yet we demand the “greater good” of helping some even if it may harm others.

There is legalized marijuana in some states; legalized euthanasia in other states; and legalized prostitution in some counties in Nevada.  Alcohol and abortion are legal in all fifty states, but we still struggle with what some believe are necessary restrictions we should impose for the sake of public health and safety.

The Living Word, however, is not about what we can do or what we may do and does not recognize “individual rights”; the Written Word is, for the redeemed soul, entirely about what we must do in accordance with what is written in the Scriptures for us to know – and for reasons we do not often understand … unless we take a closer look.  It is a developed conscience within a sanctified life which can know the difference between right and wrong based on human reason, the Written Word, the traditional teachings of the Church, and experiences we have had ourselves. 

We must also consider the experiences of others as well – especially those who are weak and have suffered as a result of our individual demands. 

So even the freedom we Christians celebrate is not absolute; at least not in Divine terms.  “Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor 8:9). The late John Paul II once said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do as we should.”

So what should we be concerned with?  It is easy to say it is for the individual to determine his or her personal limits and be responsible within those limits, but we do not always consider that some among us simply have a weak constitution. 

These “weakest among us” desire and need – and, by Scriptures and a developed conscience - are entitled to - our full consideration.  St. Paul seems to require that we be more concerned about their weakness than with our own rights.  St. Paul is holding the entire community of the Church responsible for the well-being of the weakest among us.   

Incidentally, so does Jesus hold His disciples responsible for “causing one of these little ones to sin” (Matthew 18:6).

Paul’s discourse is clearly not about food since “Food will not bring us close to God.  We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (1 Cor 8:8).  Food offered to idols is only the contemporary example Paul chose to use, an example that would likely be locally understood.  To summarize the entire chapter, then, “Paul formulates a general ethical principle that the [measure] of [acceptable] personal behavior is its effect on others …” (Notes, NRSV, New Oxford Annotated Bible, pg 279 NT).

So if we do harm by what we do – in any way whatsoever, by design or neglect by lack of concern or care for others – our personal behavior becomes unacceptable.  It boils down to the summary of the ENTIRE LAW: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14).

This means we as members of the Body of Christ are the “rudder” on the great ship which is the Church, and the means by which we are guided is obedience to The Word and the collective developed conscience of the community.  We operate under the authority granted to us by The Captain (who is Christ) who calls the orders for the Ship from the Bridge (Heaven).  It is then the “rudder” which guides the Ship.  Ideally the “rudder” will function strictly according to the “command” given, but even then all things have to be in place and functioning as they must – according to our individual spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28; Ephesians 4:11).

The Titanic is a good example.  Lots of things went wrong leading into that fateful night, but what ultimately sent the ship to the bottom of the ocean was a “rudder” too small for the ship’s size and capable speed.  It could not dodge the iceberg in time. 

Even on a river boat pushing several loaded barges, the rudder has to be turned early enough to give the heavy load time to respond.  This means the boat’s pilot must always be looking and thinking ahead long before the boat enters into a river’s bend – lest the boat run aground.  River sand is incredibly unforgiving.  So nothing can be taken for granted – as the “unsinkable” Titanic that arrogantly plowed into dangerous waters with known icebergs at full speed.

We have to decide which way we will go and by what means as we continue to navigate waters known to be dangerous.  We can go arrogantly by our own standards at full speed which is essentially no standard at all since we cannot possibly agree completely, or we can be guided by the Great Standard which is long and eternally established by The Almighty Himself and affirmed by Jesus … which, I will grant, does not always seem so clear.   Yet even if we cannot find our collective way as One Body, there is one standard by which St. Paul challenges the Church to measure itself and its effectiveness as The Church: how much (if any) consideration is given toward those among us who are weak?

There are no easy answers to be given in a sermon or written in a book or essay.  The “mega-church” pastors who seem to be enjoying great success are good for perspective, but even they are not the definitive standard by which all churches can be measured – no matter how large their churches or how many books they've published.  Even these are only a very small part of the collective Whole and Holy Body of Christ.

Our direction is not about what Adam Hamilton or Mike Slaughter or Rick Warren or Joel Osteen may suggest – or even by what we may demand individually.  Our direction is determined by our collective developed conscience in accordance with where The Great Shepherd will lead us – and – always with a compassionate eye on those who are weak among us – lest we hit the iceberg and sink – and put everyone at great risk. 


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