Second, love is self-limiting because we want to be careful not to stumble others. This is an extension of the first point. In order to build someone up, we need to consider how our actions affect others. That involves limiting our freedom. If all we care about is ourselves, then we won’t consider our actions and how our actions could stumble others.
This was an important consideration for Paul. As a more mature, and I want to underscore this, as a MATURE follower of Jesus Christ, he was always concerned about the weaker brother and sister, weaker in terms of faith. And he would often curb his freedom so as not to stumble them. If you are a baby, of course, you are selfish. That’s to be expected. But as you grow up, we all assume that people mature and start thinking about others.
Paul was always concerned about the welfare of others. He is not a puffed up leader, he is not an alpha male who beats his chest. He is not a leader who says, it’s my way or the highway. No, Paul is modeling for us a servant leadership. One who stoops to weakness and bends to serve those who are weaker in faith.
What is the issue that is raging in this church? It was an issue about food. We hear that and think, what’s the big deal? I think about Allen Iverson. He’s an NBA player who used to play for the Sixers. He skipped a practice one day and many people made a big deal about it. And when he was interviewed right after the story broke, he said, hey man, we’re talking about practice, we’re talking about practice. This is not a game, this is practice. And in a span of 15 seconds, he said the word “practice” like 50 times.
And that is how we might read this passage. We’re talking about food, man, this is not murder or matters of life and death, we’re talking about food. We react that way, understandably, because we don’t understand the cultural context when Paul wrote this letter. For me, I’m like, even if the butcher at the local Ralphs down the street where I get my meat is a Satan worshiper, that’s not going to stop me from enjoying my pulled pork sandwich with extra salami. You know what I am saying. I am free in Christ to eat whatever I want. Eating certain foods or not eating certain foods is not a big deal to us.
The importance of the question of food sacrificed to idols becomes evident when one realizes how much the Greek and Roman society in the first century was so thoroughly immersed in all kinds of idolatry and pagan sacrifices. For example, in the case of food, the meat offered on the pagan altars was usually divided into three portions: one portion was burned up, a second portion given to the pagan priest, and the third given to the offerer. If the priest did not use his portion, it was taken to the marketplace. Thus a considerable amount of sacrificed meat ended up in the public market, on the tables of neighbors and friends or at the pagan festivals. The problems facing Christians are obvious. Was the meat spiritually contaminated? Did the pagan god actually have an effect on the meat? Even if one did not think so, what would his participation in eating this meat do to his Christian brother watching who might have a sense of problem with this behavior?
Chapter 8 is interesting because it’s the complete opposite situation from Romans 14. In Romans 14, the debate involved highly religious Jewish converts who used to abstain from eating certain foods due to religious traditions. If they ate certain foods, their weak conscience stumbled them because they thought they were sinning.
1 Cor 8, on the other hand, involves Gentile converts who were completely irreligious non-believers, who probably never stepped foot into a temple or a synagogue. For them, eating the food stumbled their weak conscience because the food was a reminder of pagan practices that they actually participated in before they were converted. Totally opposite situations, but the principle is the same. Don’t stumble those who are weaker in faith.
So Paul urges us in Romans 14:1 in this way–regarding disputable matters or opinions, don’t pass judgment, don’t quarrel. Rather, accept and welcome the weaker ones.
What if Allen Iverson paused before he skipped the practice? What if he considered how his absence from practice might have discouraged his teammates who were at the practice, sweating and working hard? So as not to stumble them, what if he concluded, I don’t want to go to practice, but I’m the All-Star, I’m the veteran, I should set a good example. I’ll go to practice for their sake. This is a completely different mindset than saying, it’s only a practice, don’t make it such a big deal, get off my back. It IS a big deal from the standpoint of your teammates.
Paul practiced this principle of self-limiting love in his own life all the time. In 1 Cor 9, Paul makes the argument that although he has every right to receive money from the churches that he founded as an apostle, he refuses to exercise his right. But instead, he chooses to forego the money because he’d rather boast about being able to preach the gospel free of charge than to receive a salary.
Let’s apply the principle of self-limiting love when it comes to a person’s freedom regarding many ethical gray areas and specifically as it pertains to the ethical situation in question–the food sacrificed to idols. This is really the crux of the matter. Eating certain foods is not that relevant so let’s bring it into areas that might matter for us. For example, is it okay to watch certain movies? Is it okay to drink? Is it okay to listen to secular music or play card games? The answer is not as clear cut as many think.
Paul’s answer would be–well, it depends. Paul almost comes across like a relativist in chapter 8. It depends on the congregation. It depends on the unique group of people that Paul was fellowshipping with and it depends on each person’s conscience.
Some things are clearly wrong ethically. Murder, adultery, the obvious blatant sins. But what do we do about the ethical gray areas. Getting drunk is a clear sin, but sipping wine over a meal is not, although some would disagree with that statement because of their conscience.
It is no secret that I like scary movies. I don’t like demonic movies like the Exorcist. I have my limits. But I like a movie that gets my heart beating a bit faster. I especially enjoy watching a thriller a second time with friends because I already know where the scary moments are. And instead of watching the screen during those scary moments, I like to watch my friends jump out of their seats or scream. I don’t know why. It’s a bit twisted, I know.
When I was dating Jackie, we went to watch the movie, The Sixth Sense. Have you seen it? Great movie, one of the my top 5 of all time. I was having a great time during the film and Jackie was okay for the first half. Then, there was the scene in the house when the temperature drops and you could see your breath. Remember that? And suddenly, a boy appears in the hallway. And he looks normal until he turns. And then you see the back of his head and his brain is exposed. And I thought, finally, this movie is getting interesting. Then, Jackie turns to me and says, I’m out of here, let’s go.
At that moment, I faced a crisis of faith. What do you mean let’s go? This movie is approaching the climax. And I had a choice. Do I leave with Jackie and preserve my chances of marrying her, or do I stay in the theater and risk being single for the rest of my life? Of course, I got up… but I did hesitate for about 10 seconds.
Scary movies do not stumble me. I have a clear conscience. Most movies I watch, I am not really engaged. My mind wanders, unless the movie is scary, and 90% of the time, I fall asleep. But Jackie is stumbled by scary movies. She can’t get them out of her mind. She has a hard time sleeping. She has nightmares. And of course, this can have an adverse effect on her spiritual life.
We have been married for 12 years and what if I said to Jackie, I know you don’t like scary movies, but I am free in Christ. You know how much I enjoy scary movies. I can’t give them up. So whenever I am watching a scary movie and you happen to walk into the room, you are just going to have to cover your eyes and ears and go to another room. What if I did that? You would think, what kind of husband are you, that’s wrong!
If I really loved Jackie, wouldn’t I limit my freedom? Watching the Sixth Sense is not a sin for me. I have a clear conscience. I am not stumbled. But out of my love for Jackie, I should be willing to limit my freedom. Love is self-limiting because we want to be careful not to stumble others.
In a church setting, I am very reluctant to make blanket moral prohibitions. Thou shalt never go to a bar to witness to his friends. Thou shalt never go to a party where there is alcohol. Thou shalt never watch certain movies. For some, never going to a bar is the right decision because of his past struggles. For others, going to a bar and reaching out to friends is the right thing to do. It depends on the person.
Paul was the mature one and he actually had the “right” answer. Food sacrificed to idols–we have freedom in Christ. It’s no big deal where the food came from. You are free to eat. That’s the right answer. Yet, Paul doesn’t impose this teaching on weaker brothers and sisters. Instead, he embraces them, he serves them, he gives them space to reach this conviction when their conscience allows them to. And Paul can do this without compromising his own faith.
Rather than making blanket moral statements, we have to get to know one another in this congregation. Matters of conscience cannot be imposed because what stumbles you may not be the same thing that stumbles me and vice versa. This kind of flexibility drives fundamentalists crazy. Give me a rule and let’s agree to it and stick to it. We can easily become a legalistic church if we take matters of personal conscience and turn them into universal moral absolutes. Instead, we need to know our congregation. And for those who are stronger in faith, more mature in Christ, we need to be the ones who have a servant heart. The mature ones need to bend to accommodate those who are weaker in faith. That means we have to be okay with a certain amount of differences. We don’t always have to be on the same page on every moral, ethical issue. But we must be in agreement about one thing–we will do whatever it takes to not stumble others.
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Love involves building up others and in order to build up others, you often will need to limit your freedom so that you don’t risk stumbling them. This is a servant mindset. How can I best serve my fellow brother or sister? Love is self-limiting. That’s point number two.