The Limitations of Knowledge. The Power of Love.
Quite a few people have offered to take me clay pigeon shooting over the last few days. Not sure what gave them that idea?! Others have echoed the thoughts that a well-done steak ruins the meat. Ten years into life in this fair land and I’m beginning to agree. At least, now I have my meat cooked medium well. A little pink is a good thing.
I’ve also been asked why I’d take on a politically charged topic. Couldn’t I have achieved the same objective by tip-toeing around the subject? Since I surely could have and chose not to, what other motive could there possibly have been, outside of a leftist, socialist agenda?
On February 25, we took a snapshot of our congregation. Over seventy percent of those in worship that day completed the survey. I’ve had the privilege of beginning to analyze the results. At our Annual Church Meeting on May 6, we’ll go public with the key findings and some of the implications for ministry at Central.
For now, let me share one observation. What struck me immediately was that over ten percent of those completing the survey joined Central in the last year. As a comparison, in the year 2000, the total was eight percent (we’ve nearly the same number of surveys in 2018 and 2000). Here’s the kicker: a quarter of those who’ve joined us in the last year have never attended another church. Furthermore, there is twenty percent diversity in this group.
Over the last five years over fifty two percent of those who’ve joined the church are under thirty-nine years of age. Nearly a third of these are under thirty. When, last week, I called those of us too old to fit in these categories (!) to listen to the younger folks, you know why. They are not just out there; they are in here too. What’s interesting is that nearly forty two percent of the under thirties have never attended another church and over half of those have joined within the last year.
What’s the point? The framing stories of those God is adding to our church are different to many of ours. As I read these results I realized something; our ability to maintain this comes down to a number of factors. One of which is whether we churched folk are willing to make the adjustment needed to allow non-church, de-churched, returning to church folks; our younger generation integrate into our community. Doing that demands that we listen to their framing stories and adjust our posture accordingly.
That’s not easy for churched people to do. As I’ve been reminded on numerous occasions this week, Holland is a conservative town and conservatives don’t like their boat rocked.
Sadly, in rocking the boat last week, a number of people put a political agenda to my motives when in fact no such agenda existed. My motive is far simpler than that. God is forming a new community at Central and to embrace that move we must be willing to bear our cross and carry the cost.
What I didn’t mention last week in my reference to Acts 16 is important here. Acts 16 reveals that it is those with the most to lose who often respond the most aggressively. I didn’t mention this because I felt I was already rocking the boat a fair bit.
Look at the story again and we’ll discover that Paul’s beating and imprisonment was initiated by the those who correctly perceived that the salve girl’s freedom cost them the most.
When her owners saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities | Acts 16:19
The application in our context is far broader than money. Setting people free and integrating them into the community costs. That early Philippian church was quite a mix of people: Lydia and her family and now a slave girl. Protecting this fledgling church exposed Paul to hardship. Precisely because he was willing to lay down his rights and endure hardship even though he could have objected immediately, not only protected the church but saw a jailer and his family come to Christ. Paul embraced the pain of growing the church with lost people whose stories were nothing like his.
Our church, indeed every church, is called to make Paul’s example their experience. This essentially means that truly embracing the lost and the least exposes us to a sense of loss. Another way of putting this is that embracing the mission of Christ in the world asks the Christ follower to be vulnerable.
I hope you are beginning to get the picture. What we are beginning to see happen at Central has been possible because of sacrifice. Over the last year we have seen over one hundred and fifty children integrated into our Central Kids ministry because of the Playland alone – many of these families don’t have churched backgrounds. What’s amazing to me is that this was possible because we were willing to count the cost and give to our Stronger challenge.
This, however, is only our first step. The next step, perhaps the biggest step of all, is our willingness to make the attitude adjustment necessary to truly embrace people whose framing stories do not resemble our own. This, as we have seen this week, is not easy.
So, there we have it. That’s the motive. That’s the background. That’s why I shared my framing story. The responses I’ve received highlight the challenges. Changing our mindset isn’t easy in a nation where distrust reigns supreme.
Just as difficult perhaps is knowing what to do with our knowledge. By that I mean knowing what to do with what we know about some of the controversial subjects gripping our nation. If it’s true, and it is, that we are adding younger, growing more diverse and witnessing a broad array of framing stories, how do we tackle these divisive issues?
I’m convinced that I won’t serve our church well as a shepherd and leader by ignoring the topics. There’s a number of reasons for that, one of which is that irrespective of how long someone has been attending Central, the framework we use to form our opinions isn’t necessarily the Scriptures. Now, that’s a controversial observation and one that I’ll ask you to allow me to unpack at our Annual Church Meeting in May!
For now, let’s go back to the question of what we do with our knowledge when we encounter people with different framing stories than our own.
Over the last 82 days a group of folks have committed to read through the Bible. We’re less than a week from finishing. Today we read through 1st Corinthians and as we reached chapter 8 I saw the point I sensed God calling us to both recognize and prioritize. Namely, we’re called to be careful with the use of our rights because, as children of God, we have the responsibility to love.
Chapter 8 begins with the encouragement that, “We all possess knowledge.” That’s not a platitude designed to soften the Corinthians for the hammer blow he’s about to give. It’s his conviction that these Christians know something constructive about the subject they find themselves needing to address (see also Romans 15:14).
When it comes to the subjects gripping our nation, especially the two I covered last Sunday, we all know something. Some of that, indeed much of that, comes from our framing story. My framing story comes from a different country with different values. No matter what our framing story, the implication of 1 Corinthians 8:1 is that we’re all likely to possess knowledge about the topics that have the potential for division.
The next two and a half verses reveal that knowledge can be a liability unless it’s grounded and motivated by God’s love. “But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:1b-3).
I was struck by the way Paul says that knowledge, without agape love as its inspiration, is incomplete. One commentator puts the force of the phrase like this:
“If a person thinks that he has attained to some degree of knowledge, he has not yet reached the stage when he has any knowledge at all in the real sense of the word.” [Ellingworth and Hatton, First Corinthians, p.160]
Take a moment to grasp those thoughts.
No matter how knowledgeable we are on contentious issues it’s not enough. The reason that our knowledge, however profound, is incomplete is because it must be connected to the God who is love, loved us, and poured that love into our hearts for others. When that kind of love empowers our knowledge, we show we love God and conversely are known by Him. The idea in being known by God is that we receive His approval.
This is the background Paul provides the Corinthians before tackling the issue of whether Christians could eat meat sacrificed to idols. Hence verse 4: “So then…” In other words, “Knowing that your knowledge is unlikely to produce the desired effect unless it is rooted in and motivated by God’s love, let’s address this issue.”
The Apostle proceeds to build his case pointing out that what we eat or choose not to eat has no bearing on our closeness to God. Yet, in the very next verse, verse 9, he warns: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”
The words “exercise of rights” is the Greek word, exousia, from which we get the word authority. The use of rights is tied to the idea of exercising authority. Our knowledge of God, and of what has the power to bring us close to Him grants authority to us. Yet this authority is restricted in verse 9. When a person who both knows and walks in their liberty encounters someone who is ‘weaker,’ they are to curtail their authority. Paul’s motivation isn’t just that the weaker brother won’t feel guilty (v7), but that they won’t be sucked back into sin (v13) and idolatry.
Paul’s argument is that authority used without due consideration for others is indulgence and arrogance. True knowledge is anchored in love. Without consideration of another person’s well-being. Paul calls knowledge “puffed up” (v1b).
Having shown Paul’s desire to limit the use of authority and rights, we need to clarify what actually constitutes a weaker brother. This phrase is used so frequently and applied so liberally that it almost allows no exercise of rights at all! That can’t be Paul’s intention. Craig Blomberg, in his commentary on Corinthians says:
“Nothing in the context justifies an association of “weaker brothers” with those who are merely offended by a particular practice, notwithstanding the misleading translation of verse 13 in the KJV (“if meat make my brother to offend“). Even less justified is the application of these principles to the “professional weaker brother”—the Christian legalist eager to forbid morally neutral activities even though he or she would never personally indulge in those activities. Rather, the weaker brother or sister is the Christian who is likely to imitate a stronger believer in some morally neutral practice but feel guilty about doing so or, worse still, be led into that which is inherently sinful or destructive” [1 Corinthians, p.165].
People being offended by a particular practice isn’t a cause for another Christian to limit the free exercise of their rights. Nor is the term to be related to those who forbid Christians doing something they would never do themselves. I suppose a good example of this would be hunting, right? I’ve never hunted. So, for me to turn around and forbid hunting, a morally neutral activity I’d say (will I get discussion on that one???), is not a fair use of the weaker brother clause. My framing story can’t and shouldn’t be used to forbid someone from doing something just because I don’t do it. No, the weaker brother clause Is about guilt, sin, temptation, and that which is seriously counter-productive to the work of Christ in a person’s life. These are the areas where we limit our rights.
This morning I picked up Andy Crouch’s book, Strong and Weak. I have no idea why I chose it and I have no idea who gave it to me. It’s one of eleven books on my desk that I have been given to read [thank you church ;-)]. The premise of the book is that flourishing in life requires us to embrace authority and vulnerability in equal measure. A key challenge in not abusing authority, Crouch says, is refusing to exploit people and circumstances. Crouch contends that we’ll only reel in our authority when we love people enough to embrace the vulnerability and perceived loss that goes with it. Love, in other words, costs and the vulnerability to which it exposes us causes many to abuse authority (rights).
This is Paul’s point in verses 8-9. Getting close to God is possible through Christ apart from what we eat (v8). Yet, loving people challenges us to curtail those rights when those we encounter are detrimentally impacted by the exercise of those rights (v9). Here we have authority and vulnerability working hand in hand. Put another way, this is the why, when and how of periodically curtailing rights. Getting this wrong results in people “falling into sin” (v13).
Crouch’s idea, though not tied to the idol meat controversy of 1 Corinthians 8, is very helpful. When we put rights before responsibility, or in Crouch’s words, authority with no thought for vulnerability, relationships die.
“The first things any idol takes from its worshipers are their relationships. Idols know and care nothing for the exchange of authority and vulnerability that happens in the context of love - and the demonic powers that lurk behind them, and lure us to them, despise love. So, the best early warning sign that you are drifting toward Exploiting - seeking authority without vulnerability in your work, in your entertainment, in alcohol or coffee or chocolate (or whatever may be your drug of choice, in pornography or in romance novels) - is that your closest relationships begin to decay. It is those relationships, after all, that could grant you the greatest real capacity for meaningful action. But they also demand of you the greatest personal risk” [Crouch, p. 106-7].
Laying down our rights and assuming our responsibility to care not only saves relationships it brings the greatest joy! Using rights without due consideration for relationships is puffed up knowledge. No child of God, has the right to place their freedoms above their responsibility when doing so adversely affects those around them. That doesn’t mean we curtail our rights because some Christians don’t like it. It doesn’t mean that we allow people to call themselves weaker brothers and sisters to stop us from doing something that they’d never do anyway. No. It’s about protecting saints and allowing the weak and vulnerable the choice to grow strong.
Any church committed to reaching the lost, the last and the least is going to have to be careful about how it uses its knowledge. Any believer engaging with people with different framing stories has to be mindful of the way they speak and engage with the people around them. For community to work well in the church God is forming in this nation, we are going to have to recognize the limitations of knowledge and the power of love. Love gives knowledge power.
My experience of the evangelical church across the world tells me, this is going to be a hard lesson to learn.
Thankful for the Spirit guiding our path,