1 Corinthians 8-10 is an often-neglected bit of the New Testament (except for a few verses in chapter 9, usually read out of context). But actually it provides us with a really helpful pattern for working with difficult issues in the Church.
The problem in Corinth was the issue of meat sacrificed to idols. In first century Corinth, most meat was slaughtered in the context of worship at one or other of the many temples. It was then either served at public feasts, served at guild meals or sold in the meat market. Membership of most trades required being in a guild; they generally met in pagan temples. If you ate meat that had been sacrificed to idols, it was often understood as sharing in the worship of the god to whom it had been sacrificed, just as Communion was seen as sharing in Jesus' sacrifice. The Corinthian church was obviously divided on the issue, and had asked Paul for advice.
So how does Paul handle this difficult situation?
- Come up with the best Biblical-theological case on both sides (8:1-7; 10:1-12; 10:14-22). Some people think Paul is contradicting himself here, but actually he's stating the strongest arguments on both sides before coming to a conclusion. So often when we try to have debates now in the church, people only state one point of view and as a result are rejected by the other side. Paul clearly understands both sides, and states both arguments well. The arguments here are Biblical / theological in character - Paul argues from theology and the Shema (8v4-6), from the history of Israel (10v1-11), from the nature of communion (10v16-21).
- Recognise that both sides are probably right, and identify the real issue. If both sides are supported by good scriptural arguments, both are probably right. If they look like they contradict each other, we need to see why they don't really. Here, Paul does it by seeing the gap between eating meat and actually participating in the sacrifice, which is an attitude of mind or heart on the part of the worshipper. [It is of course very possible to have bad arguments from Scripture too; I'm not saying those are right.]
- Recognise explicitly that many people won't have done all the theology, and will be responding from their gut. Honour them and their consciences (8:7-13). This is again something we often miss today, and in some situations one side's consciences may say not to do something and the other side may say to do it, and it's genuinely hard to honour both, but we should try anyway.
- Follow the example of Jesus, who laid down his rights for others, but don't slip into legalism. Maintain the importance of Christian freedom, but let it be trumped by love. As soon as people start talking about their rights, they show they've missed the point. The point of rights for the Christian is that we lay them down for others. That's what Paul means by "follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" in 11v1. Jesus, being in very nature God, laid down his rights for us. Paul, having the right to financial support and to live as he wanted within the "law of Christ", gave those rights up for the sake of those he was ministering to. So we should also give up our rights for the sake of each other, even if that means avoiding offending their over-scrupulous consciences.
A couple of quick applications to current issues in the C of E:
People who talk about women's right to be bishops (for example) don't really understand what it is to live as a Christian, let alone to be a bishop. If women do have that right, they should be willing to lay it down for the sake of their brothers and sisters who would be offended by it. And those brothers and sisters should probably lay down their right not to be offended for the sake of preserving unity and allowing women to serve in the capacity of bishop.
What the homosexuality
squabble debate desperately needs is people who are willing to articulate both sides of the Biblical argument and show how they fit together. So often what is produced by both camps is hideously one-sided, and sometimes just ignores important pastoral issues or runs roughshod over the consciences of those who in good conscience disagree, even if they do so without good reasons. Yes, if we disagree with someone, we should seek to persuade them, but we should do so in love - whether love for the knee-jerk homophobes or for the "out and proud" types.