Sometimes my wife gets in from work, and she says 'pleaaaaaase no more decisions!' She's in a job where she spends her whole day trying to make quick, but important, decisions about people's healthcare, and by the time she gets home she has reached decision making-saturation point!
Now how does someone in healthcare make decisions? Do they think 'how can I get them out this room as quick as possible'? Or 'how can I make as much money from this as possible'? Or, 'how can I run some interesting tests on them'? Mwahaha. No, you'd hope that their priority in every decision is what's best for the patient's health.
Now let me ask you this. How do we make decisions as Christians? What should be our priority as we're making decisions?
There are some decisions which should be easy as Christians aren't there? Like if we're thinking about careers, then being a thief, running a casino or going into prostitution are pretty clearly off-limits – because the Bible speaks directly on them. But that does leave quite a wide range of other options!
So imagine 'Steve' in our church family. He works in a small accounting firm on the West road. And he's offered a job at another firm in Edinburgh. It's a significant increase in salary and a more challenging role with longer hours. And he'd have to relocate his family to Edinburgh. Should he take the job or not? Well obviously, Ephesians 7.3 says 'Brothers and sisters, always choose Scotland when you have the chance'. Actually, I think Ken's added that in! No there isn't a direct biblical command on that is there – so how do we decide?
Or what about 'Lois' who's work colleagues invite her round for a big booze-up. It's been a difficult week at work and they tell her that their main aim is to get totally wasted! Lois' Christian friend says to her, 'God says not to get drunk, so if that's their aim then you shouldn't go, even if you know you won't be tempted to drink too much.'
Now Lois' friend is right – the Bible does say not to get drunk – that might be new to you this morning. It's not because God's a kill joy, but because we're out of control when we're drunk and it easily leads to us dishonouring God. But it's fine to have a drink. And in this situation, Lois knows she won't get drunk, and she rarely gets a chance to hang out with her colleagues and get to know them better. So should she go?
Now maybe you've had decisions to make in the last few weeks where you've been unsure what to do as a Christian? The fact is, there are loads of grey areas of life where the Bible doesn't give us a direct command. But what it does give us is godly principles for making those decisions – which we're going to see in this passage.
And the first principle is this:
1. We (Do) Have Freedom as Christians
Before we dive in, let's get our bearings again in the letter. You might remember from when we looked at chapter 6, that it seems the Corinthians had this slogan which is there in verse 23. "All things are lawful" or "permissible". You can kind-of understand where they got it from, because in Paul's teaching he often talks about the freedom we have as Christians. For example, in his writing to the Galatians, Paul says "For freedom Christ has set us free" (Galatians 5.1).
What Paul meant was - we're free from the chains of sin and death! And free from a lot of the Jewish laws, which were designed to set the Isralites apart as a nation (because now the gospel is going out to all nations). So, for instance, we don't have to keep the food laws any more – we can eat anything as Christians.
And in verse 25, he goes on to give them a practical example of what it looks like to exercise your freedom as a Christian. He says, 'have a think about going shopping at the meat market'. Back then, some of the meat in the market would have come from sacrifices to idols in the temples. And Jewish people would have been really careful to check that the meat they bought was kosher and hadn't been sacrificed to idols.
But Paul says to the Corinthians, you have freedom as Christians. You should feel free to buy and eat any of the meat in the market. Earlier in the letter, Paul had instructed them that eating meat sacrificed to idols in a temple might encourage others to worship idols and so they shouldn't do it. But outside of that context, meat is meat, and they can eat what they like without making a fuss.
Now that might not feel directly relevant to us today – I imagine you haven't recently been offered meat that's been sacrificed to idols! Although for our brothers or sisters here this morning from other cultures, it might be directly relevant. And for example, it tells us that it's ok to buy and eat halal meat as Christians. But the principle Paul is giving us here, is that we shouldn't overly-restrict our Christian freedom where there's no biblical command.
So for example, some churches in South America that I've been to insist that Christians should never listen to secular music. Which meant that you had to be very careful what music you have on your phone (or 'Walkman' back in the day when I was there)! Now there might be some music that's isn't edifying for us to listen to as Christians, but there's no reason to put a blanket ban on secular music.
If we're not careful, we'll slip towards legalism. We'll try to earn our way into God's good books by being 'holier-than-thou' and we'll be tempted to look down on those who don't stick to our rules that we've made up. And so Paul says – no, enjoy your freedom.
But you see, the problem here, is that the Corinthians took this freedom to mean they could do anything – they said 'everything is permissible'. And they were tempted to use their freedom to be self-serving. And so Paul's big message to them, and to us today, is 'no, no, no!' It's true that we have a wonderful freedom as Christians. But unprincipled freedom isn't what we're called to. We're to use our freedom responsibly. Firstly, in a way which seeks the good of others, and secondly, in a way which seeks to glorify God.
So let's have a look at the first one of those principles –
2. Seek the Good of Others
Take a look at verses 23 and 24.
"'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 neighbour."
Paul says 'don't just use your freedom selfishly, use your freedom for the good of your neighbour – to help them and to build them up. And Paul gives them another practical example in verse 27. This time they've received a dinner invite from an unbeliever. And for a Jew in those days it would have been very unusual to eat with a Gentile (a non-Jew) – but to eat with a Gentile and eat non-kosher food – well that was unthinkable.
But Paul says 'go along'. And rather than turning your nose up at the foot that's put in front of you, verse 27 – "eat whatever is put before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience." Which makes sense, because if you went round to someone's house and told them you didn't want their food, it would be pretty offensive wouldn't it? That's unlikely to win you an opportunity to speak to them about the gospel!
And that's what Paul emphasizes in verse 32, he says – don't offend people for no reason, try to please them – not for your own advantage, but so that they might be saved. That is what should be on our heart as we meet and work with non-believers. How can we please them in a way which opens doors for them to hear the gospel and be saved.
But we shouldn't seek to please people so far that we're not willing to stand up for Christ or speak for him – even if it might offend. Do you see it there in verse 28?
Paul says, if you go to a non-believers house and as they give the food, they specifically say 'this has been offered in sacrifice' then you're not to eat it. Because in that instance they're making a point of it, and they're possibly even seeking to test you. And so Paul says, avoid the appearance of having compromised your faith in Christ. Don't eat it.
And, although it doesn't say it here, it's surely an opportunity to be really clear that they don't take part in idol worship any more, that they're serious about their faith, and it's a chance to talk of Jesus. Paul says elsewhere "make the most of every opportunity to speak of Jesus" and "always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have".
I think this dinner party example is really helpful, because as Christians in the world, we're often tempted to go one of two ways. One way is legalism, where we think that by keeping rules we'll get into God's good books. And we're tempted to add in things that God hasn't even said. And the other way is licentiousness. It doesn't matter if you don't know that word, it just means 'thinking we're free to do anything', and not being willing to say no. And the root of both of those things is wanting to put ourselves first, rather than seeking the good of others.
You see, on the one hand, the legalist goes round for dinner, their unbelieving friend has cooked a fantastic dinner, but they don't know where it came from so they turn it down straight away. They're more concerned about their own reputation than loving their host. Maybe that's us if we avoid getting involved with those we feel are living in a sinful way? Or if we're quick to judge others.
But on the other hand, many of us would go round and eat the food (because we're free!), but even if they proudly told us that it had been sacrificed to idols, we wouldn't say a thing. We're not willing to speak out or say no, and make a stand for Christ.
So to go back to that example of Lois from the start… Her friends have invited her over to get totally hammered. Should she go? What do you think?
I think Paul's dinner example speaks into her situation. Just like the Corinthians are free to eat meat sacrificed to idols when they go round to someone's house, we're free to go to parties where some people are getting drunk, as long as we don't join them in getting drunk.
Although, if we know that we're tempted to drink too much, it wouldn't be wise. But if we can control ourselves, the best thing for others is that we get to know them better and maybe have a chance to speak of Jesus.
But, in Lois' case, her friend has specially told her that the aim of the evening is to get hammered. And so, just like Paul encourages the Corinthians to say no when their friend specially states that the meat has been offered to idols, I think Paul would encourage Lois to say, 'I can't take part in that because I'm a Christian'.
We shouldn't be naive as to think that if we attend a function where people are essentially celebrating ungodly actions, that people will see our distinctiveness and the godliness we're aiming to pursue.
And so for Lois, saying no in that situation is probably the best witness to Jesus. It might make people think 'wait a minute, this girl really believes this'. What's this about?
That very thing happened to me when I was working at Procter & Gamble. Lots of people knew I was a Christian. But at a party with colleagues it somehow came out that I wasn't sleeping with my girlfriend, and it was like the penny dropped, and people suddenly realized that my faith really meant something to me. And whilst I got a bit of a ribbing about it, I also noticed that I got more serious questions from people after that too – and genuine interest.
And so in these chapters on food sacrificed to idols, chapters 8 to 10, Paul calls us to a radically different attitude to our freedom. And he gives us a fantastic summary of it in chapter 10 verse 30 to chapter 11 verse 1. He says that rather than asserting his Christian freedoms for his own advantage, for the sake of both Christians and non-believers, he's willing to give us his rights in order to serve others and bring glory to God. Sometimes we need to make it clear that there are things we won't do as Christians.
Why? Well in verse 31 Paul summarizes everything he's been saying in the last few chapters, and he says whatever you do,
3. Do All to The Glory of God
That's our third principle.
As we make decisions, our overriding concern should be that God's name would be glorified. If we're not sure about something, we should be asking the question, can I glorify God in this?
I guess it can be quite hard to know what that looks like in practice – and so this flow chart might be helpful. Let's use the example of 'Steve' at the start. Should he take that job in Edinburgh?
1. The first thing to ask if we're unsure is 'does the Bible allow this?' If not then don't do it! But for Steve there's no issue.
2. So the next helpful question to ask – does my conscience allow it? For example, maybe we know deep down that we're doing it for the wrong reasons. We're not doing it to glorify God. And if that's the case we shouldn't do it.
But Steve's conscience is happy. Although in a culture that is moving further away from God, it's easy to override our conscience and so we really need to listen carefully to it and also make sure we're testing it against God's word.
3. But if our conscience does allow it, here are 3 further questions that are helpful. Some people call it the 'G test'…
a. What will be the effect on my spiritual growth?
b. Will this be for the good of others?
c. Can I do this for the glory of God?
So for Steve, what will be the effect on his spiritual growth? He knows that on the one hand, there's a good church to get plugged into in Edinburgh, but on the other hand, the hours they seem to do in the Edinburgh office would most likely mean that he'd struggle to ever make it along to any sort of midweek Bible study group.
Next, would it be for the good of others? Well actually most of his non-Christian old university mates live in Edinburgh, and so it would be a really good chance to reach out to them. And the higher salary would enable him to give more to a church plant he supports. But on the flip side, his kids are really plugged into the youth groups here at St Joseph's and they're growing in their faith. And his wife really values her Christian friends here.
So can he do it for the glory of God? Well maybe Steve knows that he is generous with money, but he can easily make an idol of his career – and as Paul says in v14, he needs to flee from idolatry if he's going to glorify God.
But there might not be a clear answer in some of these grey areas - and that's ok. God gives us freedom to choose, and we're to prayerfully consider it in light of these principles, maybe consult some wise Christian friends, and then just make a choice and get on with serving God in that area. The important thing is that we're genuinely seeking to follow God in our decisions.
Now in some ways, following these principles (and applying the G test) all looks fairly simple and straightforward. But in reality, this is incredibly challenging isn't it? Paul is saying, rather than putting ourselves first, we're to restrict our freedom for the good of others. And whatever we do, every decision we make, is to be for God's glory.
I don't know about you, but I find that a huge challenge. I wonder how many decisions you've made this year, or even just in the past week, where you've put yourself first, rather than others? And you've not sought God's glory above everything?
Well thankfully there was one man who did that perfectly. That's why Paul says in ch11v1, imitate me as I imitate Christ. That's our 4th principle.
4. Imitate Christ
In that reading we had from John's gospel earlier, Jesus is in Jerusalem. He's at the point where he has to decide whether to go to the cross. And as the son of God he certainly has the power to get out of that situation. But here's what Jesus says:
"Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name."
Jesus went to the cross for the sake of God's glory. And he went to the cross for you and I - for all those times when we haven't chosen to put God first in our daily decisions. And because Jesus made that choice, we have freedom from sin and death. And we have the hope of heaven.
And so, as we make decisions in this life, whether it's the little daily decisions (like am I going to read my Bible or look at my phone when I get up in the morning?) or whether it's the big decisions (like where am I going to live? Or what should I do with my life?) let's imitate Christ, and say, I'm going to make this decision for the glory of God. Let's say, Father, glorify your name.
Well why don't we stop and take a moment to think about how this applies to us? Maybe there are decisions which are on your mind for this week or this year? And let's ask God to help us put this into practice.