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1. The Christian’s Perspective And The COVID-19 Pandemic

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At the end of World War II Langdon Gilkey wrote a book entitled Shantung Compound. Gilkey, along with 2,000 other “Westerners” was interned by their Japanese captors at a Presbyterian encampment in the Chinese province of Shantung. The camp was not designed to handle this many internees, but it was Gilkey’s assignment to allocate living accommodations for all of the internees. This presented a monumental challenge. It also afforded Gilkey the opportunity to observe his fellow-internees behavior under pressure. His book describes how people changed (sometimes for the good; often otherwise) when under duress.

As I recall, Gilkey described a situation where there were two identical rooms. One of the rooms had 11 occupants, the other 13. Sounds like a “no-brainer” does it not? But the arguments given by the residents in the 11-person room (for not adding one more person) were incredible. In another instance, there was one accommodation which had two bedrooms. A pastor insisted that he and his wife should have this accommodation so that he could have a study, instead of allowing a family with several children to live there.

It is beginning to look and feel like Shantung Compound in the United States and elsewhere, thanks to the COVID-19 Pandemic. There are a good number of people who are insisting on exercising freedoms they formerly enjoyed, even though doing so might be detrimental to others. Even some Christians are voicing this “Don’t hinder me from exercising my rights” point of view. The Bible challenges such thinking.

A Christian’s Right to His Rights (1 Corinthians 8-10)

It is a good time to review a couple of biblical passages and review the Christian mindset, and how it should impact our lives in this “Shantung” moment. Let’s begin by considering Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, focusing particularly on chapters 8-10.

The issue at hand is “meats offered to idols.” As I understand the text, the issue really isn’t over the meat itself (see 1 Corinthians 10:27), as much as it is over participating in the idol-worship ceremony where this meat is sacrificed, and the meal is shared with the “worshippers” (see 1 Corinthians 10:18-22). There were those who had come up with a seemingly scholarly argument which allowed them to eat idol-meats. In chapter 8, verses 4-6, some reasoned in this way: “There really is only one true God (our God), and thus idols are meaningless, since they represent ‘gods’ who do not even exist. And since idol-worship is really not the worship of any god, it is of no consequence. Thus, attending idol-sacrifice meals is permissible, including the eating of the animal sacrifices offered there.”

Paul does not immediately reject this argument (which he will do later, in chapter 10, and which has already been decided at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:20, 29). He first argues that even if this were a legitimate option, there are those for whom doing so would be sin. And if one’s eating meats offered to idols encouraged one who thought this wrong to do so anyway (because others did so), then causing that brother to sin would be sin on our part as well (1 Corinthians 8:7-13).

Paul sets out to demonstrate the proper Christian attitude toward the exercise of one’s liberties by using himself and Barnabas as examples. He and Barnabas, as apostles, had the legitimate and biblical right to be supported in their ministry – which assumed income enough to lead about a wife (1 Corinthians 9:1ff.). This was a right exercised by the other apostles (9:4-5). It was a right that had both the Old and New Testaments support (9:7-12). There was no question as to whether being supported was a right that Paul and Barnabas could legitimately exercise.

And yet they chose not to accept (or ask for) financial support, for the sake of the gospel, and those who might embrace it for salvation.

15 But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing these things so that something will be done for me. In fact, it would be better for me to die than– no one will deprive me of my reason for boasting! 16 For if I preach the gospel, I have no reason for boasting, because I am compelled to do this. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward. But if I do it unwillingly, I am entrusted with a responsibility. 18 What then is my reward? That when I preach the gospel I may offer the gospel free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights in the gospel. 19 For since I am free from all I can make myself a slave to all, in order to gain even more people. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew to gain the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) to gain those under the law. 21 To those free from the law I became like one free from the law (though I am not free from God’s law but under the law of Christ) to gain those free from the law. 22 To the weak I became weak in order to gain the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some. 23 I do all these things because of the gospel, so that I can be a participant in it (1 Corinthians 9:15-23).

Paul’s reasoning is simple and easy to follow. There are a good number of folks who preach for the sake of selfish gain (see Acts 8:9-23; 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 1:11). Unbelievers observe them (as some might observe some televangelists today) and conclude that all Christian ministers must only be in it for the money. Thus, being supported financially can be a hindrance to the gospel. And so, to remove this hindrance (or at least minimize it) Paul supported himself. Indeed, Paul worked with his own hands to support himself and others (Acts 18:1-4; 20:34*; 1 Corinthians 4:12; 1 Thessalonians 2:9), for the sake of the gospel. How could anyone accuse Paul of being motivated by financial gain, when his ministry was a financial sacrifice?

This right to be financially supported was legitimate and consistent with the practice of Old Testament ministers and New Testament apostles. Nevertheless, Paul set this right aside for the sake of the gospel and the sake of those who would be saved through it. Did it make life and ministry more difficult for Paul? Yes, but Paul was convinced that it was worth the sacrifice. I believe that this statement by Paul sums it up,

All things are lawful for me”– but not everything is beneficial. “All things are lawful for me”– but I will not be controlled by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12; see also 10:23).

The Christian life necessitates giving up certain rights and liberties for the benefit of others, albeit at our expense. Jesus would call this, “taking up our cross.”

The Philippians’ Rights, and the Good of Others (Philippians 2:4-11)

4 Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well. 5 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, 6 who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. 8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross! 9 As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow– in heaven and on earth and under the earth– 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:4-11, emphasis mine).

Things were not going “smoothly” for Paul, or for the Philippians:

29 For it has been granted to you not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are encountering the same conflict that you saw me face and now hear that I am facing (Philippians 1:29-30, emphasis mine).

Some of the Philippian saints were at odds with their fellow-believers (see Philippians 4:2-3). Paul’s call to unity is based upon the practice of humility – putting the interests of others above our own desires. The supreme example is that of our Lord Jesus, His incarnation, and sacrificial death for sinners.

At Shantung Compound, and in many parts of the world today, people are seeking their own interests and demanding their “rights,” in spite of what the impact it may have on others. In Philippians chapter 2 Paul will go on to show how humility works itself out in terms of ministry to others. Timothy, unlike many others, put the interests of the Philippian saints above his own, and thus Paul will send him, with the commendation that he is a man who in genuinely concerned about their welfare (2:19-20). Epaphroditus, too, was a man who modeled humility. He put his own life at risk by going to minister to Paul’s needs (2:25-30). And then there is Paul, who out of concern for the saints, sent away the two men who would most have benefitted him, if he had kept them with him to minister to his needs.

In these days when personal sacrifice is desperately needed, let us carefully consider what rights we can and should set aside for the good of others, and for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Related Topics: Christian Life, Cultural Issues, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

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