I Corinthians 8
A country singer croons, “I’ve Got a Thinking Problem.” He could be singing about American Christians because we have a thinking problem. Many Americans have come to the conclusion that they think more clearly than everybody else. People now believe their knowledge is superior knowledge. Not content with being right and knowing more, many Christians have also concluded that anyone disagreeing with them is going to hell, is a heretic, an apostate, a false preacher, an imbecile. I know people who think like this because they share these accusations on Facebook. Last week alone I was told I was going to hell four times.
Philosophers would say we have an epistemological crisis. Epistemology deals with knowledge and how we come to know and what we accept as true knowledge. The production of knowledge in our country is all out of whack. As soon as someone suggests they have discovered a piece of new knowledge, someone says that not only is it not true knowledge, it is not even knowledge at all. People stand in line for the latest new technological knowledge, but when it comes to religion we are often stuck with the old. Someone suggesting a new reading of a biblical text gets slammed as a troublemaker. We think one way as technocrats; we think another way as Christians. Let’s just say it again: America has a thinking problem.
Knowledge, it turns out, can be slippery. Paul says that knowledge puffs up. This is a warning label placed on knowledge that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and there may be something called too much knowledge. Knowledge can make us feel superior. We start believing that our beliefs are the only right beliefs. Paul contrasts puffing up with building up the body of Christ? Which is preferable? Puffing up or building up?
Knowledge is to be used to love one another not lord it over one another. Pastor and people are to engage in a relationship of intimacy where we freely share ideas, convictions, thoughts, beliefs, and “new” forms of knowledge.
Raney the lead character in Clyde Edgerton’s novel Raney, gets into a heated argument with her husband Charles over whether Jesus turned water into wine. She tells Charles, “It had to be grape juice because it didn’t have time to ferment.” “If Jesus could make wine,” says Charles, “he could just as easily make it fermented as not, couldn’t he? Why mess around with half a miracle?”
Raney blasted back, “I’ve been going to Bethel Free Will Baptist Church for twenty-four years now, and Mr. Brooks, Mr. Tolley, Mr. Honneycutt, and all these other men have been studying the Bible for all their lives and they say it’s grape juice. All added together they’ve probably studied the Bible over a hundred years. I’m not going to sit in my own kitchen and go against that.”
Finally, Raney threw out her best argument: “If it’s not in the Bible I’m not interested in it because if I have to stop believing in the Bible I might as well stop living on earth.”
The other side of our thinking problem is that both sides think they are the only ones who know how to think and what to believe. Paul deals with these thinkers in I Corinthians 8. Some church members at Corinth seem to think they are the “strong” because they have knowledge that idols don’t exist. Therefore it was OK eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. They knew there was no God but one. The strong are rationalists. They have degrees from the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, and Bradley.
The problem with the knowledge of the strong is that they think the other church members are weak. In short, they feel superior to the “weak.”
In another conversation between Charles and Raney, we learn what could be another valuable lesson. Charles is a college librarian and Episcopalian. Raney is a high school graduate and Free Will Baptist. Raney asks Charles why he has to be friends with these college professors and why he can’t be friends with her friends. Charles makes a husband mistake by saying, “These people think.” Raney retorts, “Think? Who don’t think? Everybody thinks.”
Raney says to herself that Charles spouts this stuff he’s read in the library and expects the words to be formed in gold in my head. But, she thinks, I’m sorry.
I’m on Raney’s side here. Everybody thinks. Too many Christians are like Charles. Look there are thinking people on all sides. Good, smart, intelligent people on both sides with different ways of thinking about politics, religion, economics. These problems didn’t drop from the sky yesterday. The debates we are having are like walking into a room full of people all engaged in animated conversation and you can tell it has been going on for a long time. Having forgotten our history, we are now insulted by the people who are not on our side.
Paul faced this situation in the church at Corinth. You should not be surprised that people disagreeing, arguing, and fighting goes all the way back to the New Testament Church and before that back to the Jews. “Anyone should know better than to enter an argument between Jews or the Christian equivalent to Jews â€“ that it, the Anabaptists. Jews love to argue with Jews, just as Anabaptists love to disagree with one another, but as soon as an outsider tries to enter the argument the former antagonists discover a common interest in keeping the interloper out.” It’s like a policeman trying to stop a man from beating his wife. As soon as he grabs the husband, the wife starts hitting the policeman.
Look, it is not about being right or wrong. We are a people who see through a glass darkly with incomplete knowledge so how have we morphed into people who huff and puff about being right and having all the right beliefs and using the Bible like a club? Paul seems to have little interest in allowing one side or the other to be the good guys and girls. He doesn’t allow us to be right and those on the other side to be wrong.
Knowledge and love are partners. The knowledge that counts most is the knowledge born of love. Paul describes this knowledge with the claim that “there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and for whom we all exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things are and through whom we exist.” This knowledge is more important than all the knowledge that we use to prove that we are right.
Paul thinks that caring for one another is more important than flaunting our superior knowledge. He even says he will stop eating meat if it hurts a fellow believer. Paul doesn’t have the same addiction to what we Americans call freedom. Paul believes we can sin against members of our family and wound their conscience by exercising our freedom. “How extraordinary: God desires that we know him by participating in the very life of the Trinity. We had not expected such intimacy from God.”
Knowledge not determined by love has turned us into conservatives and liberals and divided the body of Christ. It’s not about being conservative or liberal; it’s about the lordship of Christ. We have lost the ability to be Christian just to the extent that we identify being Christian with what Americans call “freedom.”
Thinking we have superior knowledge is idolatry. No one has all the answers. No one has a perfect list of doctrines. We are a mixture of truth and error whether we admit it or not. The denominations are not in agreement. Since no one knows for sure, it seems that we are being puffed up by the idea that we have superior knowledge.
Paul’s words about knowledge hit me hard. It’s not my nature to keep new ideas and new knowledge to myself. I don’t want to “sequester, own, possess, or control” the flow of knowledge to my congregation. I want to share the knowledge out of love and I want you to participate lovingly in it, to respond to it as a gift rather than as if I had given you a bag of rattlesnakes. I consider what I learned in seminary and what I learn through reading a gift and sharing that knowledge makes possible a shared life between us. I pray that I will not allow my love of knowledge to get in the way of my presenting knowledge with love. I pray that I offer knowledge as a gift to you and that you receive it as a gift.
What matters is that Jesus is Lord.
What an odd way we have of following our Lord. Baptists have created voluntary church membership. You can follow the Lord or not follow the Lord according to your whim. Church members can come to church or not come to church. Surely the Lord will understand. Church members can give thousands or nothing at all. Surely the Lord will not notice. Mostly we seem content with this arrangement. It’s like having a boss that never checks to see if we show up. It’s like serving a king that has no requirements of us. A lot of Baptists are on the Lord’s welfare system. They make no contributions to the life of the community and the Lord continues to bless them and provide them with all the privileges of membership.
Then Paul says that we lack what he calls necessary knowledge. Paul says that necessary knowledge has something to do with love: What is necessary knowledge? It is being known by God. Rowan Williams says that if God’s attention slipped, we wouldn’t be here. God’s action is going on, a sort of white heat at the center of everything. It means that each one of us is already in a relationship with God before we’ve ever thought about it. It means that every object or person we encounter is in a relationship with God before they’re in a relationship of any kind with us.”
God desires that we know him by participating in the very life of the Trinity. I think that we keep fighting over who has the right beliefs and the right knowledge because we are not sure we want this much intimacy. This is why we all keep ourselves at a distance from God, some more than others.