Sometimes I forget how unusual churches are. We have people of all ages and abilities. We have people from every background and ethnicity. We have people at different stages of learning and maturity—and people who are knowledgeable in some areas of the life of faith and immature in others. We have people—in fact, we only have people!—whose life experiences influence their understanding and expressions of faith, and all of whose life experiences are different. Yet in church, we try to create community that includes all of us, young and old, learners and teachers, wise and “weak,” alike and different.
Paul’s teaching to the Corinthian church addresses the differences among the believers in that diverse city. Some of them shared Paul’s Jewish background; they knew God as the one true God. Others came to Christian faith from pagan traditions, where food was sacrificed to many gods then sold or shared for the people to eat. Wiser, more mature Christians understood that the pagan gods were mere idols; only God is God, and food offered to powerless statues is only food. But the newer, less knowledgeable believers could not easily separate their old beliefs and feelings from their new practices of worship and faithfulness to Jesus. For them, it was a stumbling block when Christian leaders ate the food of idols. This was more than a difference of opinion; it was a seemingly direct offense. The once-pagan believers had rejected the old gods and this worship tradition to follow Christ… how then could mature Christians knowingly partake of the food of idol worship?
The Corinthians’ challenge may not seem applicable to us today, but Paul’s purpose is just as true for us: “We know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (8:1). It would have been easy—it is still easy—for the Christians who are more knowledgeable to disregard the “stumbling blocks” of those who just have more to learn. But for Paul, this is not just a case of “young” believers needing more education. Perhaps they do—perhaps we all do—but in the meantime, the important thing is building up the community. This happens not through advanced classes or intensive training or lectures on doctrine and practice. Community is built on and through love.
When we love one another, no matter how different we are, we are invested in one another’s learning and growth. We are invested in one another’s struggles and successes. We are invested in one another’s histories and feelings and feelings about our histories. When we love one another, we gladly give up the blocks that cause our loved ones to stumble, and we take up the building block we share: the love of Jesus Christ, “through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (v. 6).
- When is the last time you learned something new? What was it like to be a beginner and a student in that area? Who did you look up to and learn from, and why did you look to them for guidance? How did your opinions about that area of learning change as you grew from a beginner to a more knowledgeable participant?
- Churches include (or should include!) people at every stage of learning about the Bible, Jesus Christ, and the life of faith. How should we accommodate and care for people who are beginners in the way of following Jesus?
- What “stumbling blocks” might be obstacles for new believers but not to more mature Christians? What is the difference between a choice or action being a “stumbling block,” and simply having different beliefs about some choices or actions?
- Paul says of food offered to idols that eating it or not does not actually matter: “we are no worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do.” What matters is not the physical food but how the choice to eat affects others. Think about one such “stumbling block” that might be an obstacle to new believers, but that in and of itself does not make us better or worse. How do you think it helps new believers for us to avoid such stumbling blocks? Do you think it is also important for people to grow to maturity so these things will cease to be stumbling blocks at all? How does that growth happen?
Nikki Finkelstein-Blair is the lead editor of Connections. She is a graduate of Samford University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary. She and her husband Scott and sons Sam and Levi live in St Louis, Missouri. In recent years, Nikki has written Smyth & Helwys curricula as well as devotionals for d365.org and Baptist Women in Ministry. She weaves clergy stoles, knits almost anything, and dreams of making her dreadful novel drafts into readable books. She blogs about faith and making things at amovingyarn.wordpress.com.
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