Luther in his commentary on Galatians used the image of a narrow path between two ditches for the Christian life. The narrow path is justification by faith through the grace of Jesus. The left ditch is legalism which is believing that my salvation depends to some extent upon my keeping of the law. That law could be the divine law like the 10 commandments. That law could be human laws, like the laws of the Papacy at the time of the Reformation around indulgences, pilgrimages, relics and other “religious works”. To the extent that you think any of these merit anything before God, we have fallen into the left ditch. The right ditch is antinomianism. Big word which is probably best understood as lawlessness. Captured in the ditty, “state of grace, oh happy condition, sin as I please, and still have remission.” We are in the right hand ditch if we think Christ freed us from sin to go sin more or to deny that sin exists.
It is my anecdotal feeling that people within the church have more trouble with that left ditch. We tend to be “older brothers” in the prodigal parable. But people who are lightly connected to the church today get themselves in the right ditch. As a fellow pastor friend said, “you can directly read a very simple passage of scripture, and they will reply ‘it doesn’t say that.’” But there is a flip side of this. There are things that are neither commanded nor forbidden. For example, the number of candles in the sanctuary. It is rather easy to find someone within the church who will give you an exact answer. (A common one would be “two, one representing the law and the other the gospel.”) And if that exact answer is not followed, well, the place is going to hell. Someone lightly connected might simply say, “however many look pretty.”
In the back part of 1 Corinthians – our Epistle reading for this week is 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 – Paul is responding to questions relayed to him from the Corinthians in a letter we don’t have. And I take most of his answers as sanctified wisdom. There may be times it doesn’t apply, but the principles are solid and can be applied in a variety of situations. A big problem in Corinth was that the butcher shop was the local pagan temple. If you wanted meat, it had most likely been sacrificed to idols. Can a Christian eat such meat? Paul’s answer might be a little surprising. Basically, “Yes, you are buying meat, you are not supporting the sacrifice.” “We know that an idol has no real existence.” Hence buying meat that was offered to “nothing” is not tainted. There is no lingering voodoo magic or anything else associated with that meat.
However. Paul continues that “not all possess this knowledge.” We all know people that would fear lingering magic. We all know people who have very settled ideas on things that in truth are neither commanded nor forbidden. And if my eating that meat, or putting in another candle, or some other such thing is going to cause my fellow believer to question their faith, out of love I will refrain from doing this. Yes, I might have superior knowledge, but love trumps knowledge. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
But there is an immediate problem with this which is rampant in our day. Call it the Tyranny of the Weaker Brother. Weaker brother is how Paul refers to the one whose conscience would be wracked over something that in truth is neither commanded nor forbidden. When people realize that they can get their way by such a claim, these claims multiply. Because in Christian love the stronger brother has given in. But within Paul’s saying – “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” – is an answer. The love of the stronger brother is not to leave the weaker in ignorance. Such love would not build up. Love would seek to free the weaker brother from unnecessary stumbling blocks. There are enough things that are commanded and forbidden that we do not need to create greater burdens.
Christian love is the path between the ditches. It is a life together keeping each other on the narrow way.