The point of the picnic

19 Sep

I rarely give significant theological thought to meat, so while my last post asked about the propriety of serving idol meat at the Corinthian church picnic, most readers of this blog (the vast majority of whom have no reason to worry about the morality of eating meat offered to idols) could guess that I was up to something else.


The most contentious issue in any potential Christian liberty/Romans 14/1 Corinthians 8-10 situation is often whether the activity under debate is truly a thing indifferent. The brother who feels liberty to partake is (obviously) quick to insist that it is indifferent, but the brother whose conscience is pained by the activity almost inevitably insists that the activity is forbidden to the believer. For him to acknowledge otherwise (that is, for him to concede that the activity is an adiaphoron) is to acknowledge that he is the weaker brother. Such acknowledgment not only means accepting a certain stigma, but it also demands that the he cease his efforts to convince others that he is right.

If we shift topics from meat to music, those of us pressing for musical conservatism are asked to see music as an adiaphoron, and ourselves as the weaker brother. For the sake of discussion, let’s concede that argument: music is a thing indifferent; those who cannot in good conscience use certain music are weaker brethren who should not seek to restrict the liberty of their stronger brothers.

Even granting all of this, it seems to me that the employment of the very music which pains the conscience of the weak brother in the gathered worship of the church is relevantly akin to the Corinthian church serving idol meat at the church picnic. (For those who insist that idol meat is not a thing indifferent, substitute the unclean meat from Romans 14; the point goes through either way.)

I concede that what I’m suggesting here invites the potential of being handcuffed by a perpetually offended minority of the church; undoubtedly, there are practical limits of this kind of deference. Nonetheless, I still think that the basic principle is sound.


Posted by on September 19, 2011 in Worship


10 responses to “The point of the picnic

  1. Scott Cline

    September 19, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    You know that I’m in substantial agreement with you regarding musical aesthetics and meaning, Michael; so, what follows is not the bracing of one with something to defend. God knows how much flak I take over this issue. But, I have to say, there aren’t many evangelical church members out there, anymore, who feel uncomfortable with pop styles in worship. The average pastor could read this post, agree, evaluate his membership, and see no need to change. This ceased being a discussion in most otherwise good churches a long time ago.

    • Michael Riley

      September 19, 2011 at 5:03 pm


      Good point; I can’t disagree. In most churches, the resistance would only be felt if the leadership sought to implement something more conservative.

  2. Don Johnson

    September 19, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    Mike, I don’t think the two passages are related. That is really a huge problem in interpretation and application. Those who want to see the passages as related weigh heavily the arguments of 1 Cor 8, and thus distort the overall prohibition of 1 Cor 8-10. The issues in Rm 14 are clearly matters that are completely indifferent. And, in reality, 1 Cor 8 actually is quite different from Rm 14. Some of the same terminology is used, but the issues are quite different.

    BTW, there are some situations even in our culture that could be literal applications of 1 Cor 8-10 – think certain Asian restaurants/cultures.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • Michael Riley

      September 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm


      This is why I said to use the Romans 14 examples, if you disagree with me about 1 Corinthians 8-10. I certainly agree with you that these two passages are not talking about the same thing.

      But the point is that, in at least one of these passages (if not both), there is a category of things indifferent. My argument depends only on something being in this category; for the sake of this illustration, I really don’t care which thing qualifies, or in which passage we find it.

      If Romans 14 speaks of things indifferent, change the question to being a picnic at the church in Rome, and ask whether Paul would endorse the church serving meat that causes consternation for the weaker brothers. The point works either way.

  3. jon

    September 20, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    Perhaps I’m missing something but it doesn’t seem like Paul was concerned about the “consternation/emotional duress” in either passage? 1 Cor 8:11 warns about ruining/destroying (apollutai) him. Romans 14:15 also warns against destroying him (apollumi). It seems that Paul was concerned about them falling back into idolatry, not about doing something they would find reprehensible.

    • Michael Riley

      September 21, 2011 at 9:50 am


      I’d certainly agree that we cannot see offense in these passages as a matter of mere annoyance. My use of the term consternation in my earlier comment has to be read in light of my repeated mentions of the weaker brother feeling obligated to violate his conscience.

      This same ambiguity is found in your closing sentence, about the weaker brothers “doing something they would find reprehensible.” If reprehensible merely refers to distaste or preference, I agree with you. If, however, reprehensible carries with it the sense of moralrevulsion, such as that which accompanies the thought of doing evil, then I would maintain that we are in the ballpark of Paul’s concern. Certainly, if I can’t allow my freedom to embolden the weaker brother to violate his conscience, it seems necessarily true that my freedom can’t be the basis on which I insist that the weaker brother do that which he believes to be immoral.

      • jon

        September 21, 2011 at 4:00 pm

        Sorry my last sentence was less than lucid. For me to do something that a “weaker” brother would find reprehensible, and thus not do because he finds it so, to me does not fit this passage. Rather, if because I do, it emboldens him to violate his conscience and start a trend of disobedience, then I think we meet the criteria. I’m still not sure I understand the full implications of your necessarily true?

        Let me ask it in a different context. If our church roof badly needs repair, but we do not have the capital on hand to fix it, and we have members who have a “moral revulsion” to taking out loans which they believe to be sin, what should the body do?

        I’m arguing if that the “anti-loaners” are only bothered by the decision, and do not being taking out loans of their own, then the church should take out the loan and maintain the building. Would you advocate something different and why?

        The crux of the passage in 1 Corinthians seems to be whether we are causing them to participate in actions which they cannot distinguish from their former lifestyle (read weak and easily influenced), and consequently lead them back into the former life. Perhaps I’m just wary of the “you can’t tell me to do something I believe is wrong” logic. It is far too open to personal hobby horses (My taxes support abortion. Abortion is sin. Paying taxes is sin. I think with good biblical warrant I can tell that believer to pay his taxes).

      • Michael Riley

        September 21, 2011 at 4:15 pm


        Replies only nest two layers deep; I’m not sure if this will show up in the thread where I want it to, but consider it to be a reply to your most recent comment.

        The broad point that you raise is exactly the problem that I noted in the last paragraph of my original post: that of believers with various scruples holding the entire church hostage to their idiosyncratic consciences. This is a real, practical pastoral problem, and I have no desire to suggest that it is easily solvable.

        Your loan analogy is interesting, and (it seems to me) largely on point. That said, it is a level removed from the question of meat-eating (or singing). If the loan is taken in the name of the church, that person has no direct individual tie to it. He has no legal, personal obligation to pay on the loan.

        By contrast, in the case of the church serving the unclean meat, or of employing for congregational worship songs that some believers would consider (morally) unfit, the church is asking for the direct, unmediated participation of the congregant. This, I suggest, raises the stakes a bit.

        Given the loan scenario, suppose that a substantial number of the people in the church do believe that debt is unethical. (This whole scenario presents problems, because this position runs into what I would consider insurmountable exegetical obstacles. Let’s pretend, for the sake of the argument, that these obstacles don’t exist). If a substantial number of people in the church do believe that debt is unethical, should the pastor unilaterally engage the church in debt?

        I think we’d all agree that for him to do so would be a problem pragmatically: he’s likely to find himself unemployed. But even laying that possibility aside, does he have any obligation to avoid putting his congregation in a position in which they believe that they are sinning?

  4. Don Johnson

    September 20, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    Mike, I agree with where you are going with this (if I understand you correctly), but I disagree that the point works either way. Rm 14 are things truly indifferent, 1 Cor something that would be indifferent if it were not in the idolatry context.

    With things truly indifferent, we are not to fuss with one another about them. When something is not indifferent, either inherently or by context (association), then we must make a fuss about it. (‘Fuss’ is my theological word for the day!)

    In applying this to the music issue, those in favor of contemporary music are attempting to say it’s a Rm 14 thing (or a 1 Cor 8 thing because they don’t understand 1 Cor). In fact, those of us on the conservative side are saying it is at least a 1 Cor thing, it is at least not indifferent because of associations. But in fact, we also tend to think that it is not an indifferent thing at all, for some music, in any context.

    Hope that makes some sense.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3