Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sunday Recap: "Gray Areas"

As I started my sermon today, I asked the congregation to name some Christian taboos they knew about or grew up with--things Christians aren't allowed to do. The list was long: Various groups at different times have said that Christians aren't allowed to drink, dance, play cards, go to movies, wear shorts, wear make-up, shop on Sunday, farm on Sunday, wear pants (women), or have long hair (men).

Many of the taboos that Christians follow and argue about are actually gray areas. In other words, there's no clear, direct "black and white" Scriptural command saying you can or can't do it. Some Christians see good reasons, based on what Scripture does say, to avoid these things. Other Christians say, "Scripture doesn't say I can't, so I'm gonna!"

How do we navigate these gray areas? And what do we do when we just flat disagree with each other?

In last week's Corinthians Challenge Scriptures on sexual immorality, Paul was black and white: Don't do it! But in the Scriptures for this week (1 Corinthians 8, 9, and 10) he seems kind of wishy-washy. He's writing about eating the leftover meat from animals that had been sacrificed to idols. That's where most of the meat sold in the markets of Corinth came from--and the Corinthians were asking Paul whether it was OK to eat it.

At some points Paul says it's OK. At other points he says it's not OK. So which is it?

Apparently for Paul, it depends on the situation. If you're a strong Christian who knows idols aren't real, you can eat that leftover meat with a clear conscience. But if you're a new believer who just came out of the idol-worshiping lifestyle, then it's probably best for you to stay away from it.

And, if you're one of the strong who can eat it, but your doing so will cause a faith crisis for the new believer who sees you doing it--then put down the prime rib and head for the salad bar.

This whole meat-eating business is a gray area. It's not black and white. What's OK for one person, or for one situation, might not be OK for another. 

Now, am I saying there are no absolutes? Certainly not!  Some things are absolutely black and white. Adultery: it's never OK, at any time, for any reason, for me to sleep with my neighbor's wife. Idol worship: if I was to put a little statue in my home and bow down to it every morning, that would not be OK--not now, not ever. Belief in Jesus: If I were to stand up in worship one day and say, "I don't believe Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins--he was just a good man," I should be removed as your pastor, because belief in Jesus is an absolute for us. 

We Methodists have a great slogan that can help us here:

In Essentials, UNITY
In Non-Essentials, LIBERTY
In All Things, CHARITY (love)

The Essentials are the absolutes -- the things that are black and white. These include belief in God as Father and creator; belief in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; and belief in the Holy Spirit as the presence of God at work in us and in the world. In these, we must have Unity. 

The Non-Essentials are the gray areas--the things that equally committed Christians disagree on and sometimes argue about. For example ...
  • Drinking: Some Christians point to verses that forbid drunkenness and say, "It's better not to touch the stuff." Others say, "It says you can't get drunk, not that you can't drink at all. And besides, Jesus drank wine!" 
  • Dancing: Some Christians say, "Look, dancing is in the Bible! King David danced!" Others say, "Yeah, but that was before all the bumping and grinding and being all up on each other that people are doing today! Better to just stay away from that." 
  • Worship Styles: Some Christians point to verses like, "Make a joyful noise to the Lord," and say, "We should get loud in worship!" Others point to verses like, "Let all the earth be silent before him," and say, "Worship should be quiet and reverent." 
  • Politics: Some Christians say, "I'm going to vote Democratic because they care about the poor." Others say, "I'm going to vote Republican because they are stronger on moral issues and family values."
As strongly as you might feel about some of these issues, the fact is they "do not strike at the root of the faith" (John Wesley). They're Non-Essentials. We have to give each other Liberty to "think and let think" (again, the words of John Wesley). 

Finally, the motto reminds us that in all things we must have Charity (the King James word for love). I think Paul would agree. In helping the Corinthians navigate their gray areas, he says, " No one should seek their own good, but the good of others" (1 Corinthians 10:24). Love is the key. Don't judge other Christians who don't rise to your standards. And if you feel free to do something, don't look down on Christians who don't feel free to do it. Above all, don't divide from each other because of  issues that are not essential.

Love each other. That's how you navigate gray areas. 

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