For me, 1 Corinthians 11:29 sums up ethics in light of the gospel (click here for the whole lesson). That is, what Paul writes here about conscience is for me a lens through which all questions of right behavior gain their focus. “For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else's conscience?” That’s the gospel in libertarian form. If it’s right for me, then do it.
Paul is addressing a problem that the Christians in Corinth have been having. It was common in that day for meat to be offered to idols and then sold in the marketplace for common consumption. Christians, who were forbidden from participating in idol worship, were caught in the middle. What if I go over to a non-Christian’s house for supper and they put some meat on a plate in front of me? Can I eat it? Paul says, “Yes…as long as you don’t know where it came from.”
That statement—and my understanding of ethics—depends on a two-fold assertion. First, Paul’s approach is built on the conviction that Christians aren’t spiritually harmed by the meat itself. That is, whether a rib eye has been offered to Athena or bought in an idol-free market doesn’t matter. Meat is meat. Superstitious, empty idol-practices can’t harm a Christian’s liberty established in Christ. Second, Paul tempers that claim by emphasizing the importance of the psychology of belief. If the host identifies the meat as having been given to idols, the Christian should refrain—but not for his own sake but for the sake of the host. To eat that meat would be to confuse the host even though it wouldn’t really matter for the one eating it. That means the ethics of behavior have more to do with psychology than with physicality.
What does that mean for us? It means that we’ve been set free from a morality that is based on simple rules and instead have been attached to a system that stresses something more important than rules—relationship. Some Christians say alcohol is bad. Some say it’s a jolly good thing. What’s the answer? Well, it depends on who’s around. If drinking is going to impair one’s relationship with God or influence another’s relationship with God, then it’s probably a bad idea. If everyone can agree that Scotch is a fabulous gift of God, then we’re A-OK. That’s a simple example, but it runs much deeper.
Jesus didn’t come to set us free from the Law because the Law was bad. He came to show us that relationships matter. We should base our behavior on our relationship with God and on the community’s relationship with God.