In today’s New Testament reading (1 Corinthians 6:12-20), Paul engages in a bit of debate with other teachers who are twisting the gospel. “I have the right to do anything,” they say; “But not everything is beneficial,” he responds. “I have the right to do anything,” they insist; “But I will not be mastered by anything,” he replies.
Paul, we must remember, believed in ‘rights’ and had a deep appreciation for the freedom that we receive in Christ. After all, he spent much of his ministry opposing those who wanted to clothe the message of grace in a suit of legalistic observance. That’s why he tells believers in Corinth that they have the ‘right’ to eat what they want: “Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (1 Cor. 8:8). That’s why he tells the Colossians that they have the ‘right’ to worship when they want: “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (Col. 2:16). And that’s why he admonishes the disciples in Galatia: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).
But a the same time, Paul knew that just because we “can” do something doesn’t mean we “should” do something. We’ve got rights, but their use (and abuse) can easily harm us and lead us into new forms of bondage. And perhaps even more important from a Christian perspective: We must not be concerned only with the way in which our use of rights impacts us! We must also consider the way that our rights impact others. That’s why Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians, “If what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall” (1 Cor. 8:13); and that’s why he tells the Galatian believers, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Gal. 5:13).
I’m grateful to live in a nation where we have so many rights. But I do fear that the manner and the spirit in which we’re using these freedoms is often leading us into bondage and placing others at risk. I wonder, therefore, how many of our current debates would be radically transformed if just the Christians in our country decided to embrace the attitude that Paul exemplified: I have the right to do anything…but I won’t indulge in what isn’t beneficial. I have the right to do anything…but I won’t become a slave to any of the tools and opportunities that culture has to offer. I have the right to do anything…but I will gladly sacrifice my rights in order to protect and to bless others.
Perhaps it is only in becoming slaves to the mind of Christ that we will be truly free.