[Text: 1 Corinthians 10:31]
Check the corners of your mind just now – got any Bible verses rattling around in there? Chances are high that you do, whether you’ve been deliberate about memorization or not. Hum the right notes, and the musical ones will sing to the surface! Even if you learned some bits of the Bible in your childhood and they’ve gotten dusty from neglect, you know they’re still in there when you suddenly recognize a phrase or sentence in a passage, like the face of an old friend in a crowd of strangers.
Children’s Bible education programs that promote the memorization of verses are tapping into a reality of the human mind as a work-in-progress. Childhood seems to be the optimum time for learning things by rote, as expressed by the adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” (though I’d add that all old dogs are not created equal, and “where there’s a will, there’s a way”). Those familiar with the Classical model of education might recognize this emphasis on rote learning as the first or “grammar” stage of schooling, the years that Dorothy Sayers colorfully dubbed “the Parrot Stage.” It’s proven the ideal time to absorb “Dates and Pounds-and-ounces and the names of funny kings” – and Bible verses, too.
What’s the good of memorizing these building blocks? Simply that you’ll then have them on hand when it comes time to build something out of them – you won’t have to go gathering materials or brushing up on your “twice-times” when you enter into later stages of learning that require more complex thinking. Analysis, comparison, problem-solving, and evaluating are higher-order mental skills made possible by lower-order input. So the Parrot Stage in Classical education proceeds on the premise that the young parrots will be put to some more challenging mental activity at a later date.
Unfortunately this isn’t usually the case in the church. The bright idea of motivating young children to memorize isolated verses is not typically followed by instructing older kids and adults to put the isolated verses back into their contexts. Rather than the direct teaching of biblical books, the preference in our circles is for topical classes that address felt needs or contemporary issues, or perhaps for reading the latest publication of our favorite Christian author. As a result, the singled-out verses and passages that have been stored away in many minds never progress past the Parrot Stage; and in my observation, this has contributed in turn to the churchly phenomenon that I call Christian Fortune Cookies.
Fortune-cookie fortunes, like horoscopes, operate on the principle that anyone can discover a personal application of the words with just a little thought. A word or phrase will resonate with the reader’s immediate situation, and – voilà! – the impersonal swiftly becomes the personal. Think about the implications of such a practice for a head stuffed with out-of-context Bible verses, each one like a separate paper slip of wisdom. For those of us who value these words as the very words of God, they have even more significance than a paper fortune in an edible wrapper: they are meant to govern and guide our lives, coming as they do from our Father the King.
But the meaning of these favorite and familiar phrases ought to be governed and guided by the surrounding context of sentences and syntax designed by whichever biblical author had charge of that passage or book.* If Christian readers are not taught to attend to the context of those conveniently memorized verses stored in their heads, they’ll treat the biblical words exactly as they would a Fortune Cookie fortune. Any meaning – the most important, it seems, being personal application – will have to be extracted by way of word-association, assumptions, and guesses to the point that the original author might no longer recognize his own verbalized thought in its new and individualized form.
Take, for example, what we tend to do with 1 Corinthians 10:31. You’ll probably recognize it: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” At first blush this appears to be a handily universal imperative that we can stick in our back pockets and carry around with us. “What it means” is obvious: all of your actions and activities are to be done so as to give God glory! As a friend of mine in our college fellowship group once asserted in all sincerity, “I brush my teeth to the glory of God every night!”
But trouble comes when we start to compare interpretive notes. What I intuitively think is intended by “to the glory of God” may not be your conclusion at all. I vote for “prayerfully, with a song in your heart towards the Lord!” while you promote “evangelistically, speaking up about Jesus in order to win converts!” I clean my teeth contemplatively; you seek to have fruitful conversation around the brush.
As a matter of fact, Paul had a specific meaning in mind for both “whatever you do” and “to the glory of God,” which we can see clearly in the rest of our chapter 10. Writing to Christian believers in a pagan setting, he was mindful that they would need to make decisions about certain things related to eating meals with friendly unbelievers when the dish on the table contained the leftovers of a pagan sacrifice. To eat, or not to eat? was the question. So — “Whatever you choose to do,” Paul says, “whether you eat or not, do it considerately.” Sometimes it would be best to refrain, so that they didn’t confuse their hosts regarding the reality of pagan gods.
The larger principle governing this passage – clearly present throughout the whole letter – is, consider the other guy before you go ahead and exercise your Christian liberty. So doing anything “to the glory of God” means putting no obstacle in the way of God’s fame running in the world, simply by being considerate. Even more specifically, it means caring for your unbelieving friends so that their reception of the gospel is not made more difficult than it would be already.
A careful look at the context can move us from a child’s knowledge of the verse to an adult’s level of comprehension. Learning what Paul originally intended with this sentence narrows the focus of our former fortune-cookie fortune considerably; but what we are left with is somehow more profound than our earlier ideas. It’s certainly more heart of Paul . . . and of God.
*And yes, we do want to remember that there’s a dual authorship involved in the Bible; these words are ultimately from God, too. But let’s take some time to track with the human author’s purpose and reasoning, as we would do with any written text.