Imitators of Christ. 10:23-11:1
This short passage concludes Paul's discussion on eating food offered to idols, chapters 8-10. It underlines his basic philosophy when dealing with humanity, to act not for our own good but the good of others that they might be saved.
v31. The freedom we have in Christ has led some of the members of the Corinthian church to act without due consideration toward others. In eating and drinking foods offered to idols they have caused scandal and ill-feeling within the church and even led fellow-believers to fall from their faith. There may be nothing in an idol, although Paul does remind his readers that Satanic powers often infests pagan worship, yet that is not the point. What is important is acting positively in a way which brings glory to God. God is not glorified if our actions have negative consequences.
v32. His advice to his readers is that they don't "cause anyone to stumble". That is, that they don't place a barrier before someone that makes it difficult for them to hear and respond to the gospel, and that they don't similarly trip-up a believer leading them to renounce their faith. Paul lists three such groups.
i] Jews. A whole range of cultural and religious peculiarities could hinder a Jew from hearing the gospel.
ii] Gentiles. Strict religious peculiarities may get in the way of a Gentile hearing the gospel.
iii] Church of God. The gathered assembly of believers made up of converted Jews and Gentiles, each with their particular sensitivities which, if prompted by unthoughtful behaviour, may lead them to renounce their faith.
v33. Rather than causing others to stumble, he sets out to "please". That is, he sets out not to cause offence. The gospel itself carries with it offence, and there is certainly no point compounding the offence with other unnecessary factors, eg. religious scruples for Gentiles, or no scruples for Jews. Paul seeks to act in a way that is not so much profitable for himself, but rather is profitable for others - for the many rather than self. The ultimate end of his behaviour is that the many might be saved.
v1, chapter 11. The chapter division here is not helpful. Paul has given some clear advice on the life-style of a Christian. Rather than bound by set standards of behaviour, a believer should behave toward others with that person's eternal salvation in mind. This, says Paul, is the way he acts, and it was the way Christ acted, and therefore his readers should follow his example.
Integrity in personal relationships
A friend of mine recently went into a car yard to purchase a second hand car. The sales staff were extremely friendly, courteous and helpful. In fact, by the end of the transaction he felt that he was their friend, until he had actually signed the sales document. At that point they headed for the hills.
I wonder if Paul was really suggesting that we should befriend people, be nice to them, agree with them, say nothing that might upset them, socialize with them, love what they love and hate what they hate.... so that we might get an opportunity to sell them the gospel? Was he really saying that when he said "I try to please everybody in every way..... so that they may be saved"? I think it goes by the name "friendship evangelism" - how to make people believe you really care for them so that you can influence them and get them to do what you want them to do. "I'm nice to you, I'm your friend, so will you come with me to my church's seeker service?" All a bit like a Tupper Ware party or Amway line. I'm sorry to say that many believe we should actually run our church services in the same way. They argue that church should be run, not for those who attend, not for those who think they are about meeting with Jesus, but for potential converts who may, if we manage the group dynamics of the meeting in a clever way, get hooked on the gospel.
Our passage for study is often taken out of context and misapplied to the business of evangelism. Take note, Paul says the example he is setting was already set by Christ. In no way did Jesus soft-sell the gospel. In no way did he grease its access by becoming either a religiously scrupulous Jew (Pharisee) or an easy-living Gentile. He lived as a member of the Kingdom of God, in particular as its Messiah, which has its own social framework apart from either the compromised religion of Israel or corrupt secular society. In proclaiming the gospel he was himself, not a fraud.
Clearly, we should take care not to hinder a clear understanding of the gospel by the abuse or otherwise of social custom. For example, Paul worked to pay for his evangelistic enterprise so as not to align himself with the paid teachers of the day. He also maintained his Jewish traditions when he was with Jews. Yet above all we must understand that Paul's prime concern in chapters 8-10 is for the "weak" brother who may be led astray by the "freedom" of the "strong" brother. He wants to see the weak brother "saved" and not led to reject Christ by the unthinking application of Christian freedom.
So rather than doing what we want to do, we do need to consider the welfare of the other members of our Christian fellowship as well as "the lost". We should seek their good rather than ours, and if that means limiting our freedom, so be it.