The "Yes, but..." Church

The Sunday School class I help teach is working through 1 Corinthians. A few weeks ago I was preparing to teach chapter 10. If you don't recall/know, the latter half of chapter 10 picks up Paul's discussion of eating meat sacrificed to idols which he began in chapter 8.

Meat sacrificed to idols is not an issue we can readily relate to. But what struck me about Paul's discussion about this issue in chapters 8 and 10 is how exceedingly difficult it is to map the interface of church and culture. As we watch Paul try to guide this new church as she interfaces with the pagan Corinthian culture we see Paul spin out a dizzying array of situations and how to deal with each. Interfacing with culture, if these texts are any indication, is very difficult.

Here's the issue before Paul: Is it permissible to eat meat if it had been used/sacrificed in a pagan ritual?

I think both the Corinthians and the modern reader want Paul to simply say Yes or No. That would be very easy to both understand and to implement. But such hard and fast rules would attenuate the the ability of the Corinthians to "be all things to all people."

So, rather than getting a Yes/No response from Paul, we see a different refrain: Yes, but...

"Yes, but..." is much more flexible, but it is also complex and requires discernment. Is it permissible to eat meat if it had been used/sacrificed in a pagan ritual? Yes, Paul answers, but...

For example, if you read the chapters, Paul says the following:

Is it permissible to eat/buy meat if it had been used/sacrificed in a pagan ritual?

General Answer:
Yes, an idol is nothing.

No, if it causes a believer to stumble.
Yes, you can buy this meat in the marketplace.
No, you cannot eat it as a part of a pagan ritual.
Yes, you can eat is as a guest, but, if a weaker brother is present, you should refrain.

In short, Paul is trying to guide the Corinthian church as she seeks to interface with and minister to the larger Corinthian culture. Paul could help the Corinthians by giving them some very simple rules to follow. He could turn them into a Yes or No Church, a church who reasons about issues in black and white categories. But Paul doesn't do this. He is trying to turn them into a Yes, but... Church. Which means a discerning church. But a Yes, but... Church is so much more difficult to manage. Discernment is hard and even error prone. Why doesn't Paul have them take the easy way out?

I think because only a Yes, but... Church can be responsive to the call of God in the world. Situational ethics are sticky business. But if you get out in the world situations are what you'll have to deal with. Rules do not guide. Only wisdom can help.

This is one reason I don't like Christians going on and on about the Ten Commandments. It's not that I have anything against the Ten Commandments. I just don't find them very helpful past a certain superficial point (e.g., I agree not to kill anyone or steal anything.). But the concern is that if we don't push the Ten Commandments into the larger American culture (because, presumably, non-Christians simply LOVE to kill and steal) that ethics will become relative and contextual.

My feeling? That is precisely the ethic we need.

"Yes, but..."

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

8 thoughts on “The "Yes, but..." Church”

  1. What's your take on Jesus' comments in Matthew 5-7 when he says, "You have heard that it was said . . . . but I tell you . . .

    Is Jesus giving God's original intent of these commands? Or Is he seeking to contextualize them? Or both?

    I have given considerable thought to the idea of church and culture. My take is that most of our religious convictions are culturally imbibed instead of theologically formulated. That's why we get such resistance and division when we seek to discuss openly certain "belief" systems or we seek to change long held beliefs. Even when these "long held beliefs" or practices are based on poor theology the emotional attachment to these beliefs "forbids" the one holding them from considering other options or making the needed changes.

    What are your thoughts?


  2. I had a ministry interview at a church one time that was looking for all "yes or no" answers to the hot questions of the day. I gave them nothing but "yes, but" answers. They got mad and asked me later, please answer the following questions with short, consise answers. I haven't talked to them since.

    Unfortunately, to many Christians, "yes, but" means you are soft on truth. What if the early church was "yes, but" on the nature of Christ or on the formation of the canon? Well, if they were, Christianity would sure be a lot more interesting today, and there probably would have been a lot fewer people killed in the name of orthodoxy.

    Theological ambiguity is scary, but oh so fun.

  3. Hi Steve,
    I think we agree.

    Here are some thoughts on your questions. What is good is always contextual and relative. There are few absolute goods. Even killing might be "good" in certain contexts. Thus, as context, culture, milieus, and situations morph and change, ethical practice will be like picking our way through the minefield. Interestingly, in the OT and NT "wisdom" is intimately tied up with ethical practice and decision-making. Wisdom isn't the "application of knowledge," wisdom is ethical decision-making: What is best here? Wisdom is the ability to find the path of God in extraordinarily difficult moral situations, where competing goods vie for attention and prioritization.

    Think about the Christian commitment to "love." What does that mean precisely? If we believe that Jesus loved everyone then love might mean in one context "Let the little children come to me" and, in another context, "Woe to you, you scribes and teachers of the law!" Love is contextual and relative.

    True, there must be some common thread across those situations. What is that thread? It seems to me its a fundamental effort to seek the good of the other. That might mean "Come" or "Woe!" but both are other-directed. I think Kant summed it up best: We treat others as an ends in themselves and not as a means to an end.

    I also think, at the end of the day, there are often no "right" answers. Often there are multiple good answers each with solid reasons. We must admit that Christian persons and communities will not converge on a single answer. But I think that is a strength. God is probably doing too many things to reduce his work to a single response. God might be at work in many different ways (e.g., home school vs. private school vs. public school?) and we'll need Christians to spread out to cover all those "goods." That is, rather than seeing Christian ethics as a laser, where we all come out in a homogeneous beam, we are like a prism where we cover the ethical bandwidth (to mix my metaphors) saturating the entire spectrum of where God wants us to be (obviously with some outer boundaries). The question is, can the Christians of different "colors" get along? Can we see the good in all those choices without expecting that is good or right to reduce to a single response to the world?

  4. "Discernment" is not an easy mode to adopt. Black and white is easy, it helps us lump people into camps or categories, and it gives us a reference point. You can say, "!0 years ago, we were Black." Or, "Historically, we have always been White."

    Gray is harder. Keep pushing for gray!

  5. Richard,

    i don't know if you are familiar with Harvey Cox's book, When Jesus Came to Harvard (or some such). Cox emphasizes the role of imagination in our ethical/moral decisions. Jesus lays down very basic principles but we must use our imagination (constrained by the principles) to dtermine how to act in a given situation. I think Cox would agree with you.



  6. m and W,
    I agree. Here are two things I wonder about:

    1. How much is personality involved in all this? Some people, the majority it seems, are just concrete, B&W thinkers.

    2. How much is death anxiety a part of all this? I think B&W is preferred because it draws a clean, clear line in the sand. It seems that lots of people need that clear, clean line to verify for themselves that they are on the "right" side of the line. Once the line gets blurry anxiety goes way up. Why? I think because they have been robbed of a tool of self-verification that they are on God's "good" list (i.e., bound for Heaven). That is, if the line gets blurred how can you tell if you were going to Heaven or Hell? I see death-concerns all over this thing.

    I have read Cox's book but forgot that connection. I'm going to have to pull my copy when I get home!

  7. Death concerns indeed!
    Something similar might be said over the homosexuality question. Straight people (like me!) obsess over the question of whether or not certain sexual behavior is appropriate for Christians as if our post-mortem destination depended on it!
    Some probably think it does. A better 'post-mortem' theology frees us from this anxiety and makes room for the practice of discernment. In a sense, the stakes have to be lowered, or at least changed, for there to be enough breathing room to consider alternatives...
    My two cents (which is really only a short meditation on Dr. Beck's two cents).

  8. I like your thoughts. Thanks for the detailed response. I think our finiteness keeps us from being able to understand apparent contradictions in ethics (killing or not killing, come or woe etc.). I was blessed to hear Tony Campolo not too long ago as he examined some great thinkers like Einstein and applied their thinking to religion. He used Einstein to explain the concept of a God who lives above space and time and who acts in a realm that is not bound by cultural and time constraints. Obviously what is important to God and how he views reality is far different from my cultural and time bound views. These cultural and time bound views often prevent me from behaving in "what's good for the other person" approach as God does. It also prevents me from accepting widely varying viewpoints because these viewpoints somehow "contradict" my take on reality.

    I hope some of this makes sense.


Leave a Reply