When to Limit our Freedom

Wednesday, March 14, 2012 — — Week of 3 Lent

Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 955)

Psalms 119:97-120 (morning) // 81, 82 (evening)

Genesis 45:16-28

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Mark 6:13-29

[Go to http://www.missionstclare.com/english/index.html for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

For Paul it is important that love be our primary motivation. Love is more important than knowledge; more important than freedom. We are to use our knowledge and freedom in the service of love. We are to forego what we know and limit our freedom if it is more loving to do so.

The presenting issue is food sacrificed to idols. Among the gentile converts, this issue was a big deal. Paul’s solution is characteristic of his ethic and gospel.

Christ has made all things new. The gift of life in Christ is the gift of freedom. We have been made Christ’s own, reconciled to God completely through the generous act of Christ. He had no scruples about meat sacrificed to idols. It’s good meat; eat it, and enjoy.

But there are some who have not come to the fullness of this freedom. He calls them our weaker brothers and sisters. Out of regard for them, we should be willing to limit our freedom rather than harm their conscience. If they think the meat sacrificed to idols has some significance as a participation in the worship of the other gods, then, when he is at table with them, he would abstain from eating such meats as an act of loving respect toward them.

Some applications are obvious. Don’t have pork ribs when you are at a restaurant with an observant Jew; order tea when visiting with someone in alcohol recovery; don’t cuss in front of your mother.

This is a passage that is being urged upon the Episcopal Church with regard to our relationship with our brothers and sisters in regions of the world where gay people are regarded as immoral or sick. For the sake of their conscience, we should forgo our freedom to recognize ritually the holiness of gay unions. I find that application problematic, since it perpetuates injustice and violence toward my gay brothers and sisters. I would refrain from blessing gay unions in the diocese of Rwanda, but here where we recognize the holiness of such love, I would bless freely — something like Paul enjoying idol meat in his private home but restraining when with a new and scrupulous gentile convert.

When is it right to limit our freedom for the sake of another’s scruples, superstition, or ignorance? That’s the question Paul presents us. He’s obviously encouraging generosity toward the weaker neighbor, in a spirit of love and respect. But Paul has his boundaries too. He fiercely opposed those Jewish-Christians whose conscience was offended by the presence of Greek-Christian brothers who were uncircumcised. He won’t compromise for the sake of their conscience. The connection between circumcision and bondage to the law was too critical. For me the connection between oppression and violence toward gay people and their denial of blessing is too critical.

What about our weaker brothers who fear that Darwin’s evolutionary theory will unseat God? Or those who fear everyone who has not followed some public script about Jesus will go to hell? What about our brothers and sisters who believe a fertilized egg is fully comparable to a living, breathing human being? …those of us whose conscience is offended when we execute someone who is in prison and completely in our control. …or those who believe torture is always wrong?

I know that these conflicts between love and freedom and knowledge are complicated and always with us. Paul invites us to elevate love to such a degree that when it is necessary, we should be willing to limit our freedom. It is a harder moral equation when someone’s scruple demands we limit another’s freedom or participate in oppression. It is always complicated when we must judge between competing loves.

When is it right to limit our freedom for the sake of another’s scruples, superstition, or ignorance? That’s the question Paul presents us.

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