Building Up

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. ‘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. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall. – 1 Corinthians 8

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Newark's Episcopal Bishop Mark Beckwith hugging a woman outside Newark's Penn Station

Newark’s Episcopal Bishop Mark Beckwith hugging a woman outside Newark’s Penn Station

After I wrote yesterday’s post I got thinking about the tensions inherent in a position such as the United Methodist District Superintendent. When Lisa began her appointment, I thought of the position as roughly akin to corporate middle management with all the headaches that entails. Over the past couple years, however, my mind has changed. It isn’t at all like “middle management”. While certainly existing within the tensions from above and below, unlike corporate managers, Superintendents in the United Methodist Church also exist within networks not only of prayer, but far more important, the bonds of Christian love and fellowship that tie clergy to clergy, congregation to congregation, Bishop to local church, and local Church to our global church. Rather than cursed with unwinnable and untenable struggles, District Superintendents are blessed to be the face of that thing local churches far and wide keep hearing about – “The United Methodist Church”. Rather than not having a congregation to serve, Lisa serves nearly 70 of them, the clergy and laity the largest she may ever serve. With all the drama and politics, all the headaches and complaints, all the sorrow and joy, in a very real sense the Rockford District is her congregation.

Of course, my perception is limited. This is her approach to the position: the Administrative work is always in service to the larger goal of carrying on the mission and ministries of the churches in the District; addressing the needs both of the congregations and clergy, the other Superintendents and the Bishop, are little different except in scale, from those clergy face dealing with various factions, committees, and constituencies within the local church; always making clear to all parties that she both has the backs of the congregations on the District as well as her colleagues and Bishop helps keep her both in the thick of things as well as a voice apart that can help smooth out rough edges and calm frayed nerves. I have always had respect for the Superintendents under whom Lisa has served, both because of who they were and the office. Now, I have an even deeper respect for both because to do this job, one need remember what St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 8: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

The whole of chapter 8 of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is an example of the Superintendency at work. The congregation has issues – boy, does it have issues – and it becomes difficult to discern an answer when Scripture seems unclear on how to proceed. The law against idolatry is very clear; does that mean, however, that sitting in a pagan temple and eating food offered to idols is forbidden? What if one understands that the idols are not gods at all, making the food offered to them just food? Does that mean that person, in the maturity of his or her faith, can eat in a pagan temple?

St. Paul’s response begins with a gentle rebuke to those who seem to believe that, having some kind of “knowledge” that gives them special indulgence, there is no harm done by continuing to fraternize with their pagan friends in their temples. Throughout the chapter, St. Paul seems to agree with the position that eating food sacrificed to idols is fine. Salvation coming through faith after all, it doesn’t hurt the person who does so, and refraining from doing so adds no beneficence.

Still, St. Paul isn’t all that impressed with folks who claim such knowledge. Of more importance than such knowledge is the love members of the congregation should have for one another. Acknowledging the lack of clarity in Scriptures, St. Paul understands the matter to be of little consequence. At the same time, he understands some within the congregation are scandalized by those who continue to act as if they are still believers in pagan gods. Rather than promote either some strict adherence to some principle that, well, just isn’t that clear; or insisting that those who don’t understand simply accept that what some folks are doing is OK whether they feel it is or not; rather than either of these alternatives, St. Paul offers something very different.

Folks in the Corinthian church should love one another. Not some sappy, huggy emotion. They should love in the ways St Paul describes later in the letter, in Chapter 13. Out of care and concern, folks should be considerate of the feelings of others, living their lives not from whatever knowledge they possess, but from the love we all share from Jesus Christ. If some in the congregation are scandalized by others eating in a pagan temple, it’s far better not to do so. Not because those who do so are committing a sin. Rather, because those doing so are creating unnecessary stumbling blocks for others. Knowledge doesn’t matter in the end. Only love matters.

Such advice, I think, needs to flow from Superintendents across the country to those who demand conformity to an orthodoxy that is neither universal nor eternal. It needs to be given to Seminary professors who seem to believe unity in Christ is adherence to words about Christ rather than the Person who has died and is risen, the Savior whose love holds us forever. This advice needs to be offered to those who insist the Bible is clear in its prohibitions regarding same-sex love and marriage. This advice needs to be given to those who insist the Scriptures aren’t so clear if we take a critical look at the Scriptures in question. Remember: Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up.

We need Superintendents like St. Paul who insist that love rather than some knowledge or understanding, some tradition or set of doctrines, should be our guide through the thickets of our struggles. Our unity is not rooted in human words; our leaders are not those with knowledge or understanding; our brokenness will not be healed by appeals to this or that understanding of obscure and unclear Scriptures.

District Superintendents are in the unique position to offer love not just in words but through their example to the clergy and congregations under their care. Particularly in matters where neither Scripture nor tradition seem to offer a way forward, no DS could do better than to remind everyone that our overriding principle is love. Heard in faith, lived in hope, this love is at the heart of who we are together as Christians. This is how Superintendents, like St. Paul, are the tangible face of that all-too-abstract idea of our universal Church.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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