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A question about our "rights"

Kevin wants to know about Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 9:21 concerning becoming all things to all people—is it permissive or limiting?

My understanding is that it is both a permissive and limiting text.

When I was growing up, our mother would always tell us before we went somewhere to "Have fun and behave." A permissive, but limiting text if ever there was one! And that's the way we understood it. We were to have fun, but there were definite boundaries.

Paul limited the exercise of his rights in order to expand his outreach to others (as well as to insure that no one stumbled due to him). It's a little bit of a paradox--he saw his biggest freedom as the freedom to not always exercise his freedom! 

I see things starting in chapter six with the problem of Christians dragging each other into court. Paul tells them that it’s a loss for them no matter how the ruling turns out (6:7). “What not rather be wrong? Why not rather be cheated?” This is clearly an example of forfeiting your rights for the greater good.

This kicks off a discussion that embraces a number of issues from Corinth that Paul needs to deal with, yet all of these have this in common—they involve how Christians use their freedom in Christ. So from chapters six through ten, we find Paul sharing these principles governing our liberty:

  • it must be beneficial (6:12),
  • it must not be enslaving (6:12),
  • it must not be a stumbling block (8:7-13),
  • it must cause not hinder the gospel (9:12),
  • it must be constructive (10:23),
  • it must bring glory to God (10:31).

As you might surmise from looking at this list, determining what we’re going to do in any given situation is rarely a single-level decision. We are called to take into account multiple factors. When this is expanded to a group of Christians determining a course of action, it involves even more variables as their will inevitably be different perceptions about what is constructive, beneficial, a stumbling block, etc.

There are a couple of things worth noting. In the context, a stumbling block is not something that someone disagrees with, has a different opinion about, or even strongly opposes—it is defined as something that could cause a less knowledgeable brother or sister to sin (8:13). This is where the bar is set and we need to make sure it isn’t lowered. The criterion Paul points to is the conscience (8:10,12). We all can think of decisions others made that we didn’t believe in but nonetheless didn’t violate our conscience. I’m not sure this kind of thing is talked about enough or stressed enough in our teaching and people get into a “my way or the highway” mentality. There is this third way of approaching things that too often has not been a part of our tradition—probably because it requires some maturity to practice it.

The other point is that love must be dominant rather than knowledge—that’s the overarching principle of this section (8:1-3). It’s not that love and knowledge are in opposition to each other, it’s that they should work in concert (‘Love rejoices . . . with the truth”-13:6) in such a way so that our knowledge never manifests itself in unloving ways. We must temper our knowledge with love so that we are willing to forgo “our rights” or we really do not know as we ought to know (8:2).

This business of giving up our rights is downright un-American but totally Christ-like. May we live as people who are free enough to give up our rights for the good of God's kingdom.

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