On a whim, as a freshman in college, I got my belly button pierced. Through a program sponsored by my Christian college, I was in London studying abroad for six weeks. I did not drink or smoke or even dance, at least not on campus. So, getting my belly button pierced seemed like a harmless, spontaneous, act of independence.
And honestly, I liked it. I had my belly button pierced for about a year, when I began volunteering with my church’s youth ministry. One of the middle school girls found out about my piercing. She told me that she had always, at least for her 13 years of life, wanted to get her belly button pierced. Then, she began using my piercing as justification for her to be able to get one.
When her mother told me about the fight they had about it, the Apostle Paul’s words echoed through my mind: “‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24).
I decided for the sake of this student to take out my beloved belly-button ring. I did not believe it was a sin for me to have this piercing, but it was causing a young Christian to stumble. This student and her relationship with her mother were more important than my Christian freedom.
My belly-button piercing is a juvenile example, but this was my first experience of giving up my freedom for the sake of a weaker Christian. This lesson is about our behavior as Christians as it relates to Christian freedom. The emphasis is on criteria for determining whether a behavior is appropriate for a Christian.
What is Christian freedom anyway? Simply put, Christian freedom is the liberty we have after we accept Christ; we are liberated from the power of sin and death for eternity. We do not have to worry that our behavior will lead to condemnation; we are secure in our salvation.
The problem with this is that when some Christians hear they are free, they turn it into a license to do whatever they want. In 1 Corinthians 8-10, Paul addresses a pressing issue within the Corinthian church—whether or not to eat food that has been sacrificed before idols. He tells the Corinthians they are free to eat this food, but that does not mean they should. Just as I am free to have my belly button pierced, but that does not mean I should.
It is hard for us to imagine a world where animals were slaughtered before idols and then the meat sold in the market or used at the temple restaurant. But in Corinth, the temple was like a club or civic organization. Significant events of daily life like weddings, the birth of a child, and birthday parties often were celebrated at the local pagan temple. At the temple, the animal was sacrificed before the idol and then the meat served to guests.
Today, this would be like renting a room for a party at the church or community center and using their caterer. This notion is so foreign to us that we might just skip over these verses and move on to other texts we feel apply to us more. However, in our increasingly secular world, we can learn from Paul’s advice to them.
Sign up for our weekly email newsletter.
Paul tells the Corinthians it is best not to eat food known to have been sacrificed before idols. They could eat it, because there really is only one true God; the idols have no power and are not really gods. It will not hurt them to eat this food. However, for some weaker Christians and for nonbelievers who think that the idols are powerful, for their sake, Paul says, “But be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9).
As Christians, we are free, Paul says, but to win more people, we willingly submit to them. Paul’s overall point in this entire section is to help the Corinthians see the freedom they have is not a liberty from responsibility or a license to behave any way they like. Instead, it is freedom for the service of God and his purpose.
How do you determine if a behavior is appropriate for a Christian? A few years after I got my belly button pierced, I spent the summer working at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, and going through Young Life’s Discipleship Focus program. That summer, a group of us from the program went to a comedy club for an evening show. From the very beginning, it was clear that this comedy was not family friendly; in fact, it was vulgar. We kept looking around at each other trying to decide whether to stay or go. We had paid for the tickets and as a college students money was scarce and precious. We ended up sitting through the entire show feeling uncomfortable.
When we got back home, we talked with one of the Discipleship Focus leaders about the night. He gave us some great advice. He said, “The Christ living within you was uncomfortable.” The Christ within us was letting us know this was not a suitable place for a Christian to be. Yet, we ignored him.
When you hear that still small voice, the Spirit whispering, “This is wrong.” It is time to take action and get out of the situation. But too often we ignore that voice, that gut feeling that lets us know, and over time, its influence fades.
Not long after the comedy club incident, I was at the movies with a friend. Twenty minutes into the movie, I realized it was not a film I should be watching. This time, instead of staying and allowing the Christ within me to writhe, I got up and left.
As we strive to become more Christlike, we have to take Paul’s words seriously, “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive” for our growth as Christians or for the unbelievers around us who are watching (1 Corinthians 10:23).