“Cultural Practices in The Church — What is Paul’s Counsel?”
As a word of caution when trying to apply Paul’s teachings, remember that because many of his epistles deal with cultural divisions in the church, applying his doctrine can be difficult. His teachings address specific cultural practices and their affects on the church. So when we do try to apply Paul’s teachings, we should look carefully at the problem solving process and underlying principles as opposed to to his proscribed solutions. The solutions are often culture specific.
In his letter to the Corinthians, we get hints of the problems occurring among the church at Corinth as we explore the themes he repeats throughout the entire epistle. In Corinthians 1:10 he states, “Now I beseech of you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment….For it has been declared unto me….that there are contentions among you.” The members of the church at Corinth were starting to divide into groups depending on their beliefs.
In many of the branches of the church, Paul was addressing the contentions that were taking place between the Christian Jews and the Christian Gentiles. However, it seems that in Corinth, the members were mostly Gentiles. From Acts 18:6 it appears that the Jews in Corinth did not embrace Paul’s teachings. Yet in spite of the fact that there wasn’t a division in the church based on Jewish or Gentile heritage, the church members still seemed to be able to find things to fight about.
In 1 Corinthians 8, we find that one of the disputes among the church members regarded “touching things offered unto idols”. Living among the pagan gentiles, the members of the church were disputing about whether or not it was okay for a Christian to eat “of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols”. Apparently after making sacrifices, the Greeks would offer up the remains of the sacrifices for sale in their markets. While we don’t struggle with the exact problem, Paul’s answer is interesting, especially as applied to what some people consider to be modern Mormon cultural practices.
Paul states, “we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one.” (1 Corinthians 8:4) Meaning because there really don’t exist any other gods, the sacrifice is worthless. It has no power to save or help the individual…it holds no spiritual meaning. As Paul states, “But meat commendeth us not to God: for either, if we eat are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.” Paul says, for the believer in Christ, the eating of meat that had been offered as a sacrifice to pagan gods would have no spiritual effect. Because it wouldn’t make you a “sinner” to partake of the meat, you would expect Paul to conclude that it is okay to partake. But this is not his conclusion.
Paul continues by stating essentially that not everybody has the same strong faith…not everybody has the same knowledge about the true God. Because there are differing degrees of faith among the believers and non-believers, Paul states, “But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.” (1 Corinthians 8:9). Meaning, just because you believers are free to partake of the meat and not be tempted to start following the practices of the pagans, doesn’t mean that you should partake of the meat. He argues that believers eating meat to sacrificed idols could prove to be a stumblingblock to those with less faith. “For if any man see the which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those thing which are offered to idols.” In other words, there are those weak in the faith who may believe that is okay to eat meat to sacrificed idols, worship those idols, and engage in wicked practices associated with those idols, often justifying their behaviors by contending that “the believers are doing it.”
Paul concludes by stating, “wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.” Paul contends that there are practices in the church that we should avoid…not because the practice itself is inherently sinful or evil. In many cases, many of the cultural traditions in the church (how we look, what we wear, what we eat, what we do on Sunday, etc) make us neither better nor worse. Yet, I believe Paul makes a case for the reason why some of those things should be done. Many of the “cultural – not doctrinal” practices in the church purposely set up a bigger divide between God’s church and the surrounding civilization. This allows those who are weaker in the faith to more easily see the differences between the sins of the world and the goodness of God’s true practices. The hope is that by setting up a greater dichotomy, those who struggle will be less inclinded to embrace the world, justifying their choice by the behaviors of those in the church.