Individualism and freedom are hallmarks of Western society. In fact, we Americans are very proud of our freedom. We want to be free and independent to make our own choices about how we live our lives, how we make decisions, who we support in political elections, and free to choose what religion to follow, or to choose not to follow a religion at all. Freedom is a value we should cherish.
Even when we talk about the gospel, we speak about being free in Christ; free from sin and the law and its demands. In fact, the central idea of salvation, that God has bestowed God’s grace on us, is based on the idea that this is a free gift, given not because we have earned it, but because God is gracious towards us. We are indeed free in Christ.
Yet, although the gospel message is one of freedom, we may often take individualism and freedom to a misguided extreme. Certainly individual Christians are free to hear and follow God as God so leads them. However, believers must also take into account that individual freedom may at times contravene Christian unity, which can bring harm to the faith of other believers.
The Apostle Paul, who was certainly the most ardent proponent of the freedom offered in Christ, was nevertheless concerned that Christian freedom find a home within a community of faith, in which we are members of the same body of Christ. Indeed, in reading Paul’s letters we find that he constantly sought to balance Christian freedom with Christian unity.
As evidenced by the letters which he wrote, Paul frequently dealt with issues being raised in the churches across Asia Minor; issues that endangered Christian unity. One particular congregation that received most of his attention was the church at Corinth. This church brought many questions to Paul, and Paul sought to answer these concerns through two epistles that were eventually selected to be a part of the New Testament.
One particular issue that Paul addresses is the eating of food that had been offered to idols. Eating such food was a common practice in the ancient world, but in Corinth, questions must have been raised concerning whether or not believers could eat the meat that was used in such rituals and still remain faithful to Christ. Thus, this church turned to their beloved apostle for answers.
But if we read the passage from 1 Corinthians chapter eight carefully, we will soon discover that Paul does not see this issue as the basic problem. Indeed, Paul only uses the issue of eating to point to a deeper problem, one of arrogance and misguided freedom. It seems that some in Corinth thought themselves to be so much more spiritually knowledgeable than others that they thought they were freer than others to choose to eat the meat offered to idols.
Their rationale might go something like this: “We know that idols do not exist, for God is the only living deity. Therefore, since we have greater spiritual knowledge, we know that the meat sacrificed to these idols is only meat, since the idols are not real. Therefore, since we have this great knowledge, and because we are free in Christ, we can eat the meat that is sacrificed to these idols without defiling ourselves.”
Yet, there is a fundamental problem with their logic: Does their act of freedom demonstrate any faithfulness to God through whom believers have their existence as members of Christ’s body? In other words, does their freedom in Christ allow them to do that which might be harmful to the body of Christ?
Paul’s implicit answer to the Corinthians is very akin to what he makes explicit other places: Freedom in Christ is not an opportunity for the flesh (see Rom. 6:1-2; Gal. 5:13). When we are given freedom in Christ, it does not mean that we can live the way we want to live. Despite our emphasis on our individual relationships to God, we are always and forever members of the body of Christ, and to a great extent we are responsible to other members of that body.
As Christians we do have freedom in Christ. Yet, freedom must always be guided by love; love for God and love for others. The problem for us is that we do not consider how our actions will affect other believers, and we often disregard their best interests. Some of our actions can be so serious as to alienate others from their own faith in Christ. We need to re-examine our actions and form them in ways that build up the body of Christ through loving relationships with one another.