From Idol Fancies to Solid Preaching
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From Idol Fancies to Solid Preaching

Stephen C. Farris

If we were to describe the relationship the gospel and conflict as a whole it would be necessary to say that the gospel is both the cause of conflict and, ultimately, the cure for it, as for all other ills. Here, however, we are concentrating on only the second half of that statement primarily because that is what Paul does in I Corinthians. In this address we shall concentrate on Paul’s effort to resolve a particularly difficult conflict within the church in Corinth. I suggested earlier that identity is shaped not only by common doctrine and by a shared story, but also by shared practices. We are indeed what we do. In this section of I Corinthians Paul is what the Corinthians do. He is still, however, speaking about identity.

Judging only by the length of treatment, the two most pressing problems in Corinth, at least in Paul’s opinion, were the problem of eating meat offered to idols and the difficulty over speaking in tongues. Each of those issues takes up three chapters in the epistle, more material than is devoted to any other particular problem. One could even claim, in that Paul takes up the question of meat offered to idols first, that to him it is the more significant of the two. The structure of Paul’s argument is similar in both cases. Following an introductory chapter obviously directed at the problem itself, he indulges in what looks like a lengthy aside. With respect to speaking in tongues, this apparent digression is the love hymn of I Cor 13. With respect to meat offered to idols, it is Paul’s testimony to the rightness of his own conduct as an apostle. In both cases, Paul then returns in a direct and unambiguous manner to the issue at hand in a concluding chapter.

The latter problem, disputes over charismatic gifts, is repeated regularly in contemporary churches. None of us would have any difficulty naming several churches where conflict has occurred over charismatic gifts in general and speaking in tongues in particular. The former seems, at first sight, more foreign and perhaps even trivial. People in churches we know get upset about speaking in tongues, but who worries about meat offered to idols? This problem seems very distant indeed. It may be, however, that because of its apparent distance, this problem may allow us a dispassionate look at Paul’s preaching strategies. It may be, moreover, that we will eventually be forced to adjust our estimate of the significance of the problem itself.

This difficulty involves, as has already been mentioned, the issue of eating (likely in feasts within the pagan temples themselves) meat which had been sacrificed to idols (cf. I Cor 10:21). Many of our listeners may have been influenced by old Cecil B. DeMille "cast of thousands" Biblical epics. They may, as a result, have peculiar mental images of the word "sacrifice." They may picture an entire steer, four legs stretching rigidly towards the sky, smoldering on a huge stone altar, surrounded by scantily clad female extras. This is scarcely accurate, of course. Only certain choice fat portions were offered to the god. The rest became the property of the temple and its priests. Some of it was then sold on the open market where, quite obviously, friends and neighbours of the Corinthian Christians might purchase it.1 Paul discusses this kind of meat in the later verses of chapter 10. For him this is not at all a difficult issue. Paul is quite clear that a Christian could eat this meat with a clear conscience: "Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any questions on the ground of conscience" (I Cor 10:25). Why? Because the earth and its fullness, including its steaks and chops, belong to the Lord ( I Cor 10:26). If an unbelieving friend invites Christians to dinner, he declares, they are free to eat (I Cor 10:27). In fact, his advice reminds me of my mother’s admonition: "Eat what is set before you." There are, to be sure, some exceptions to this rule, to which we shall return later.

Some of the meat was not sent to market, but was consumed within the pagan temples themselves in feasts honouring the resident divinity. This is a difficult matter to evaluate, because such feasts may have been necessary for doing business in that society. We might think in this connection of the struggle by women to gain admittance to all-male golf clubs or dining establishments. Businesswomen have usually spearheaded these struggles. It is not, I think, the case that women genuinely long to trot around golf courses in the company of large and sweaty males in garish trousers. Rather, they know that connections are made and business transacted on fairways and around dining tables as well as in boardrooms. Those who wish to do business must belong, as much in ancient as in contemporary times. This is an entirely different pot of stew than what it might first seem!

There were, it appears, two opinions in the church about this matter. One party argued from the principles of strict monotheism that idols have no genuine reality. These were, in Paul’s language, "the strong." The opinion of the other party is more difficult to describe. It may be that it was held largely by newer and less knowledgeable Christians; hence Paul’s description of them as "the weak." These people may have supposed that idols represented some genuine reality of which they lived in superstitious fear. What is certain, however, is their conviction that Christians ought not have anything to do with idols.

It should be noted that the principles, or "knowledge," of those whom Paul calls "strong" is very nearly correct. There is indeed but one God, as I Cor 8:6 affirms. All other so-called "gods" are nothing at all: "no idol in the world really exists" (I Cor 8:4). To this they added another valuable principle, namely, that of Christian liberty. They claimed: "All things are lawful" (I Cor 10:23). This too is very nearly a correct statement. The second party, by contrast, apparently feared that eating meat sacrificed to idols was itself a recognition of the authority of the idol. In strict logic, a non-existent being can have no authority whatever. Surely Paul cannot fault the correct theology of the "strong," and will therefore correct the faulty theology of the "weak."

But that is not his course of action. In situations of church conflict, being right is never enough. The actual approach he chooses may well be instructive for those of us who must preach in situations of church conflict. Paul first concedes that idols have no genuine existence (I Cor 8:4). Note that in doing so he affirms the basic theological insight of those with whom he will disagree in practice. This is probably a good tactic to imitate for those who must minister amidst conflict. Where possible, it is wise both to agree with and to affirm the theological insight of those with whom we will end up disagreeing. It is even a good idea to imitate Paul in giving those with whom we will disagree a positive label, like "the strong."

The matter cannot be left there, however. As we have seen earlier, being right is never enough in the Christian faith. Indeed in this case and, one might suppose, in many others, correct principles can do the work of hell itself. In conflicts people are often preoccupied with the question of who is right. However, this is never the most important question. A far more important question is: "What happens to other people as a consequence of my choices?" Good preaching ought to help people ask the right questions. To put it in another way, it can help people put the issues they fight over into proper perspective. Paul’s approach in this chapter is a classic example of what in secular circles is sometimes called "reframing." Note, however, that the new "frame" into which he puts the issue is one determined by the core of the gospel. All must be done out of a tender care for "believers (literally, the brother) for whom Christ died" ( I Cor 8:11).

In this particular case, therefore, Paul urges the Corinthians to use their undoubted Christian liberty to abstain from meat offered to idols. It is not possible, he declares, to belong both to the idol, or even to the company of those who do business at an idol’s table, and also to Christ. The strong should make this choice out of love for the "weak," i.e. those who might be tempted by this inappropriate use of Christian liberty into idol worship. The identity of the weak may be obscured for those of us who rely on the NRSV. Out of an understandable desire to avoid gender exclusive language, and in order to avoid the awkward phrase "brother and sister," the translators have simply cut out the word in several verses. However, we must not allow the relational emphasis in Paul’s own words to be lost. The "strong" and the "weak" are indeed brothers and sisters and ought to have for one another the mutual love that belongs to such close relationships. But among brothers and sisters, knowledge is not the first and last word: love is. Or as Paul puts it more succinctly: "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (I Cor 8:1). Perhaps such an ordering of priorities that might still be of some value in situations of church conflict!

At this point, Paul indulges in what at first appears to be a lengthy aside. In chapter 9, he cites himself as an example of one who possesses Christian liberty while not insisting on or exercising all its rights. As an apostle, he could rightly claim full financial support from those to whom he is ministering. Using a variety of examples both from common experience and from the Law of Moses, he asserts his right to financial support from his churches. This right, he declares, he chooses to lay aside freely and willingly. The implication is clear: "Go and do thou likewise!"

My own general approach in these addresses has been similar: to point to what Paul is doing in I Corinthians and to say to my audience, "Go and do thou likewise!" Let me be very clear at this point. I am not advising anyone to imitate Paul by talking about themselves in the pulpit. In many cases the person of the preacher is, precisely, the focus of congregational conflict. In such situations to hold ourselves up as examples to be imitated will very likely prove counter-productive. In our society, people who do such things are considered to be vain and overly preoccupied with themselves. Indeed, that may also have been the case in Paul’s day. Evidently, I Corinthians did not immediately succeed as a letter of reconciliation.2 Perhaps in Corinth also people thought a preacher who talked about himself had an inflated notion of his own importance. Perhaps they were correct in this estimation. "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (I Cor 11:1), has always seemed to me one of the most problematic verses in the entire letter. The sinlessness of Christ is a Christian doctrine. The sinlessness of Paul is not. As a practical matter, if we judge it necessary to speak of our own experiences, it might be better to imitate the Paul of II Corinthians 12, where Paul speaks of himself in the third person, as if of somebody else, "I know a person in Christ…" (I Cor 12:2).

Nevertheless, this chapter does draw an important issue to our attention. The fact is that we inevitably take ourselves into the pulpit. The person and personality of the preacher is always significant and perhaps never more so than in situations of church conflict. Church fights frequently centre around the person of the preacher. "I am of Paul," "I am of Cephas," and so on are not merely ancient cries.

Ancient rhetoric knew well that the person of the speaker is a matter of first importance in communication. In ancient rhetoric, there were understood to be three modes of persuasion. The first was called logos. This was the careful arrangement of materials so as to convince the mind of the listener by means of rational argument, roughly what we might call the "logic" of the argument. Speakers ancient and contemporary know full well, however, that listeners are not persuaded by appeals to reason alone. A second and powerful mode of persuasion was pathos. Pathos involved an appeal to the emotions. So speakers ancient and contemporary characteristically tell stories that they hope will move their audiences on the level of feeling. A preacher might speak, for example, of a pastor imprisoned by the KGB for preparing young people for confirmation and of the fiancée who waited for him, in hopes of moving the listeners emotionally. The third mode of persuasion is called ethos. This third mode requires more extensive consideration.

Ethos refers to the persuasive power of the speaker’s character. That is to say, listeners are most likely to be persuaded by a speaker whom they trust. Moreover, listeners find speakers more credible when they believe them to share the listeners’ own values and experiences. Listeners tend to trust speakers who appear to resemble them. Of the three modes of persuasion (logos, pathos and ethos,) ethos may actually be the most powerful. If this is anywhere near the truth, it behooves speakers to consider how they present themselves. As a consequence, speakers characteristically emphasize early in a speech their connections to the audience. So, quite deliberately, knowing this to be a Baptist institution, with Baptists forming a large part of the audience, I chose in my introductory remarks to emphasize my connections to and familiarity with the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec. I mentioned preaching in Yorkminster Park Baptist Church and so on. This is typical and, for the most part, harmless behaviour on the part of speakers.

However, Andre Resner Jr. has argued in his very fine work, Preacher and Cross, that Paul adopts a different rhetorical strategy, operating on the basis of what Resner has labelled "reverse ethos."3 That is to say, Paul believes himself to be trustworthy not because he is like the listeners but because he is like — or more properly, conformed to — Jesus Christ. Even more specifically, Paul strives to be conformed to Christ in his cross and self-giving love. Paul does not say only, "Be imitators of me." He says, "Be imitators of me as I am of Christ" (I Cor 11:1).

This raises an important point for all those who minister in situations of church conflict. The character of the preacher is of the first importance for effective preaching in all situations, but never more than in situations of church conflict. In situations of church conflict, people often take sides for or against the minister. Therefore who we are affects how we are heard. There is no guarantee that a genuine reverse ethos will actually work with everybody. Some listeners will instinctively resist a Christ-like presence in the pulpit. But inasmuch as the church remains the body of Chirst and inasmuch as the Spirit operates in the Church, I believe that the majority of a church will recognize, in the end, a character that is genuinely striving to be conformed to Christ. And to that person they will listen.

It is true that all Christians have the duty of examining themselves to consider how nearly their lives are conformed to Jesus Christ. That often-difficult duty falls with particular weight upon the clergy. We preachers are often uncomfortable when we sense that people are "putting us on a pedestal." It must be remembered, however, that those of us who have been ordained doubtless took a public vow to "conduct ourselves in our private and public live as befits the gospel" or something very similar. We cannot evade the truth known to ancient rhetoric: character matters in preaching. The character and conduct of the preacher have a material effect on churches and particularly on churches in conflict.

But we must return to our text. It appears from chapter 10 that idol worship is not a threat just to the "weak" but also to the "strong." Idols may not exist, but idol worship is very real indeed. Indeed, anything that smacks of idol worship offends the one, true, living God. So Paul declares, "Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols" (I Cor 10:14).

In a sense, I Corinthians 10 is a health warning: "Idol worship is hazardous to your spiritual health." Health warnings often display pictures of the consequences of contracting disease. In this case, the ancient Israelites were the sufferers and the consequence of the disease of idolatry was the wrath of God. So at the beginning of this health warning Paul calls the Israelites "our ancestors," two words with remarkable significance. In Paul’s eyes, even the Gentiles in the Corinthian congregation are spiritual descendants of Israel. So too in the Christian faith "our ancestors" are always greater in number than our actual DNA might suggest.

In verses 1-4 Paul once again makes use of the identity-forming power of story. In this case, of course, he is referring to the story of the Exodus and the desert wanderings of Israel. He renders the stories of Israel contemporary to his hearers by his careful use of language. Thus, in his telling of the story, the Israelites did not simply pass through the cloud or the sea: they were "baptized into Moses." They were not simply fed with manna and granted water in the wilderness: they "all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink." This is not, of course, the language of the period of the Exodus: it is the language of the early church.

This kind of thinking employs the technique of "analogy," which is the recognition of a fundamental similarity (despite differences) between two realities. The experience of the Israelites is by no means the same as that of the Corinthians. There are, however, enough spiritual similarities that Paul can use the desert wanderers as an example for his readers. The fundamental similarity that makes the analogy between Israelites and Corinthians possible is the mixed blessing and danger of their respective spiritual situations. The Israelites had been rescued from Egypt and the Corinthians from spiritual darkness. Both Israelites and Corinthians had been fed by God’s hand, with the manna and quails on one hand and with the Lord’s Supper on the other The Israelites had been given water from a "spiritual rock."4 That spiritual rock, says Paul, was Christ. The equivalent to the miracle of water from the rock was the presence of Christ in the church. The Israelites are the ancient people of God and the Corinthians are, for Paul, God’s contemporary people.

"Nevertheless" – always a key word in the Bible – God was not pleased with most of them and struck them down in the desert. We can see now why Paul has worked so hard to establish an analogy between Israel and the Corinthian church. The Corinthians are indeed the people of God but this does not mean that they are secure from all danger. The blessing of God ought never produce complacency. Just as the Israelites were once punished, so might the Corinthians be punished. "These things occurred as an example to us, so that we might not desire evil as they did" (I Cor 10:6).

But Paul’s words are further shaped by the story itself. He quotes from Exodus 32:6, part of the story of the golden calf. He believes the spiritual situation of the Corinthians to be so precarious that they may rightly be compared to the children of Israel eating, drinking and playing, unaware that they have provoked the anger of their God. The Corinthians must not put Christ to the test — presumably by their participation in idol worship — as their spiritual ancestors tested God. Nor must they complain and grumble.

Behind all these verses is a very particular understanding of the nature of God. Indeed, it is precisely this understanding of God that may have caused trouble in Corinth, as it may well do the same in the churches in which we preach. To the Corinthians, God might be considered "an abstract divine principle that sets us free from polytheistic superstition."5 It would be terribly old-fashioned and even superstitious to imagine that such a God could become offended.

It is hard to say what concept of God is held by most of our listeners, but it is very likely that their concept does not make room for a wrathful God. A friend told me of entering a church in which hung a huge banner of Jesus. On the banner were the words, "Jesus says, I’m Okay. You’re Okay!" Such a Lord would never object to participation in whatever rituals our culture might offer us. But Paul’s God is quite different. To Paul, God is a jealous God who will not share divine glory with another. Preaching that God in a society which often seems to view God only as infinitely accepting may be the greatest challenge this text poses to us. It may even cause trouble!

Make no mistake. If we preach this way, we are more likely to cause conflict than to ease it. I do not believe that the Corinthians wanted their idolatry named. No more are our listeners eager to hear us speak of our idolatry.

What is our idolatry? I believe that most of us carry an idol around in our wallets. An idol is a graven image of whatever is most important in our lives, our object of ultimate concern. My own graven image is even golden, which means it is a graven image of particularly high status. It is not of such high status as a platinum idol, but perhaps one day I can aspire to one of those. Of course, I mean my credit card, which is a representation of my status in a society shaped by money. If I allow money to become my ultimate concern; if I believe that money will give me the good life; if, in the end, I trust in money for my welfare, then it has become my god. And the card that represents money is my idol. "Flee idolatry," warns Paul (I Cor 10:14). If my credit card has become my idol, Paul might even say to me, "Take a pair of scissors and cut it in half." If we preachers say that to our congregations, we will certainly not ease conflict; we will cause it.

But preaching in situations of church conflict is not just a matter of preaching soft nothings: "peace, peace, when there is no peace" (cf. Jer 6:14, etc.). Paul dares to write even in a situation of conflict and even in a letter where a chief aim is obviously to achieve reconciliation, the sometimes hard truth of the gospel. And here, I think, we preachers may truly be imitators of Paul. Churches in conflict need to hear the truth of their situation even if that truth is an unpleasant one. If we care about our churches we will indeed speak the truth, though always in love. And the truth we speak must be the truth of the gospel.

We preach the gospel in situations of conflict. What a simple idea: we preach, as always, the gospel. With all its comfort and all its challenges, we preach the gospel. We cannot do better.