February 29, 2008

Not about Food

I am becoming more than a little annoyed at people bringing up Paul's advice to the Corinthians (in the eighth chapter of his first letter to them) as if it had relevance to the present debates and tensions in the Episcopal Church and wider Anglican Communion. The analogy is most often made by casting the Episcopal Church in the role of the knowledgeable Corinthians who should refrain from exercising their liberty for the sake of the weaker brethren who might be led into sin.

In case you don't remember you might want to go back and reread that chapter. (You might also want to take a look at the last half of Chapter 10 where the theme returns.) The issue concerns people who, like Paul, know that there is only one God and that idols are simply dead statues. For such enlightened folk eating food that has been "offered to an idol" is no more problematical than eating anything else. It doesn't "mean" anything because an idol is "meaningless." But a less well-informed seeker from that pagan society, newly come to Christianity but still preserving some superstitious belief that idols might actually represent some secondary divinity or demon or other, seeing a full-fledged Christian eating food offered to an idol, might then themselves eat food offered to an idol in earnest --- that is, thinking that it is all right to actually eat food offered to one of these pagan deities or demons. Which is, of course, a sin of idolatry.

So the moral issue is twofold: first, on the question of idolatry, that it is sinful to eat food offered to an idol if you think an idol represents a real divine or demonic entity, but not sinful if you know there's no such thing as a secondary divinity or demon. The second moral issue, at the center of Paul's concern, is that although the "knowledgeable" Christians are not sinning, they may be leading their weaker brethren into committing sin. It is important to keep Paul's moral relativism in mind in this case: the act itself is morally neutral, only sinful or not depending on whether you believe in idols or not. Eating meat offered to idols is only sin if you believe in idols.

The analogy with the present state of the Anglican Communion fails on a number of counts. First, does this really extend to a general principle --- that is, once one gets beyond the immediate question of food offered to idols, is there some basic rule that one should always defer to the "weaker brethren" regardless of the moral issue in question? Did Paul "give in" to the weaker brethren on the issue of circumcision (which he admitted mattered "for nothing" yet was very exercised about in addressing the Galatians)? Of course not; so even Paul did not apply this principle to the things he felt strongly about. He told the Galatians not to give in to the "mutilators" because he thought they were wrong, and even if circumcision didn't matter, it was a symbolic act that to his mind undid a central Gospel concept: trust in Christ instead of in the Law. He never implied it would be all right to just go ahead and get circumcised — it counts for nothing after all — in order to keep the peace. This would have led others into getting circumcised thinking it was necessary to do so — the very position Paul is most eager to oppose.

Secondly, the parallel breaks down over the question of what sin the weaker brethren are being led into committing. In the present tension over sexuality we are not dealing with something that is held to be permissible if you think about it one way and not permissible if you think about it another way -- in the fundamental sense of the case it is not at all like food offered to idols. Saying that same-sex relationships that are mutual, faithful, and lifelong are capable of grace and of moral goodness does not lead anyone who doesn't agree with that premise to enter into a same-sex relationship while thinking it morally wrong. Rather, we are dealing with a question of whether a certain form of relationship is permitted or not, morally right or not. The present situation is simply not analogous to the one Paul is describing.

Finally, and most importantly, we are not dealing with such a trivial matter (as Paul maintained) as food offered to idols. We are dealing with the extent to which the church is causing harm by maintaining a teaching that is actually costing people their lives — and that includes people in Nigeria perhaps more than here in the US. To what extent are hate crimes fueled by religious belief? To what extent are such crimes in Nigeria and the West Indies given tacit support by church leadership -- the very so-called "weaker brethren" that some are trying to protect from the "scandal" of having to be in Communion with a church that -- as a whole, and through its legitimate process of decision making -- has come to disagree with them on this issue? Who are the "weaker brethren" and who is "puffed up with knowledge" in adopting a superior tone and telling the rest of the world what it must do? The loose structure of the Communion (up until now) was capable of providing adequate space for people to disagree without going into schism or requiring compliance by all to the belief of some. But that is not good enough for those insistent that all toe their line. TEC has not required anyone else to conform to its views; but voices from the "Global South," though they may dwindle in numbers, continue to insist that theirs is the only way forward. Who is acting in the spirit of deference to which Paul called us, and more importantly, in the Spirit of Christ, in this case?

Tobias Haller BSG


Christopher said...

Fr. Haller,

Thank you.

I have had that passage used by family members who insisted I remained closeted for their sake. I have had that passage used by fellow Christians to suggest I break up with my beloved for their sake or that I should not be public about being partnered for their sake or that I should be celibate for their sake. As I have noted before, the reality is that passage is an exhortation to love of one's fellow believers, not a law and demand. But it is often used to clobber gay and lesbian persons. Your revisiting Paul in light of the circumcision scandals of the first century is helpful. Paul is want to ensure the Gospel in both cases and employs opposite principles, if they can be called that, in order to do so. It makes him a good pastoral theologian.

bls said...

Anyway, what kind of temptation would it be for a straight person to enter into a faithful gay partnership? None at all, of course.

It's a bizarre, un-grounded-in-reality, non-analogy. As so many of the anti-gay arguments are, which is why they are losing their force.

And thanks for noting that it's not a trivial matter, too; it's time that people who argue against gay partnerships thought for a moment what that means for gay persons and our lives. It's time for these folks to stop speaking "theoretically" and start thinking in concrete terms about the flesh-and-blood reality - and to engage in some empathy for other people. It always amazes me that this is so hard to get people to do; it's an Incarnational faith, after all, and one in which it's a top priority to think about others!

RFSJ said...


Excellent. I join with Christopher and BLS that it's high time this passage, and the context in which it's often used, be revisited. You've done an excellent job of this. I recommend a submission to ATR or some other journal. You'll have to flesh it out, of course, but I know you can do it,

Lenten Blessings,