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Text and Context in Dialogue

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Dialogue: a new legalism?

The following dialogue grew out of correspondence between Rev. Graham Simpson and the editor. We reproduce it in full here in the hope that it will help readers to see how a substantive discussion can take place in the context of real respect and brotherly love.

Dear Mark,

In Lifting the Yoke (VOB August 2004) you have given us not only a predictably informative article but also a predictably provocative one. To be provocative (e.g. "the shortest route to a hypocritical, unregenerate church", p. 18 col. 2) may be felt necessary to stir up some response in a context where attitudes are determined by an unexamined tradition and communicated by decree from the pulpit. However the danger in being provocative is that it may push one to overstate the case, and the pendulum can easily swing to the opposite extreme. This seems to me to have happened in a statement such as the following: "So not only is the believing member of a Hindu family free to receive tika, on the basis of the Bible he is obligated to do so" (p. 17 col. 3; emphasis in the original article). The position which you advocate, is again described as "obligation" elsewhere (p. 18 col. 1). It is hard to see how replacing one piece of legalism with another is a way of encouraging Christian maturity and avoiding "a hypocritical, unregenerate church".

I make no claim to expertise in the area of Hindu traditions and their religious significance to those participating in them. However, I would like to respond to the claim that the article is an example of biblical exegesis (p. 14 col. 3). The unwary reader may be led to regard what has been written as an adequate statement of the Bible's position on the issues raised. This response is itself not an adequate piece of exegesis, which would require much more space for a detailed examination of all the relevant texts and their contexts, but some comments are possible.

As a matter of principle, it may be asked on what basis the law regarding the honouring of father and mother is presented as an absolute by which all else is then evaluated. The Bible itself is much less simplistic, and indeed Jesus indicates that allegiance to him involves a willingness to put parents in something other than first place (Matthew 10:34-37, Luke 9:59-62); an example is found in Mark 1:19-20. One may suggest that a more basic principle of the Christian life is expressed in phrases such as "for my [Jesus'] sake and the gospel" (Mark 8:35) or "obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29) or "love God with all your being" (Matthew 22:37-38). Of course, in an ideal world one will keep all biblical commands equally, but the world is not ideal and inevitably from time to time choices will need to be made. I do not comment on whether or not receiving tika is one such situation. But my point is that it is not helpful to create a new legalism. This procedure is made worse when it involves elevating one commandment to a supreme and absolute position in a way that the Bible itself does not do.

May I also be permitted to refer to one of the key New Testament passages in this whole debate (1 Corinthians 8-10) which is mentioned in your article but receives less than adequate attention. The suggested paradox between action and intention (p. 16 col. 2) does not seem to me to be very obvious in the text. There are other issues and I draw attention to the following points in this section as important:

  1. In both 8:4-6 and 10:14-22 Paul is clear that the issue is not the food itself, which whether offered to an idol or not is still the same food. It is not the food that is the problem but the context in which the food is eaten. Thus, food that happens to have been offered to an idol is no different from food from the same packet (so to speak) which has not been so offered, and may be eaten without any further concern. This point invalidates the claim (p. 16 col. 3) that "most Christians in Nepal, at least in the Kathmandu Valley, are already eating prasad on a regular basis (though they may not know it)". The fact that food has at some stage has been offered to an idol is irrelevant to someone who later buys that food at a different time and different place. We surely do not consider prasad to be a magically imparted quality which permanently attaches to a particular item of food, giving it the ability to affect one who subsequently eats it in a religiously neutral context.

  2. As indicated above, the real issue is context, and the context is hugely important. The bread we eat at the Lord's Supper is no different, as bread, from other loaves baked from the same batch of dough and eaten at a normal meal at home. But eating it in the context of the Lord's Supper makes us participants in the body of Christ (10:16), and identifies us with Christ in his death. This is the basis of the stern warnings about eating this bread in an unworthy manner (11:27-28), for to do so is to make a mockery of Christ's sacrifice for us. In a similar way, the food offered in sacrifice to an idol is no different as food than if it had never been so offered. But the context in which it is offered and eaten makes the worshipper a partner with the demon represented by the idol (10:20). The idol itself likewise is nothing more than a material object (8:4, 10:19), but what it represents is something from which believers are firmly instructed to flee (10:14). It seems to me impossible to rationalise what here is clearly indicated as wrong and somehow suggest that it is not so wrong after all.

  3. The issue of context is also extended to the individual believer. In a sense each believer is a separate context. We can certainly demonstrate biblically that it is perfectly acceptable to eat meat that has been offered to an idol (though not to participate in the ritual in which it is offered). But Paul recognises that winning the argument is by no means the whole point. "Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled" (8:7).

Consideration for such a brother or sister is a major concern of Paul's in this whole section of his letter. Regarding tika it may be possible to argue that it has no religious significance; I do not know and so I make no judgment on that issue. But for the believer who thinks otherwise, especially perhaps a new believer who has participated in the practice for 50 or 60 years, you cannot just make a dogmatic statement to the contrary and expect that this will solve all problems and avoid the "defiled conscience" of Paul's statement. Surely this therefore means that to start talking of the obligation to participate in certain elements of Hindu ritual is quite out of place. Such an approach is at best pastorally insensitive and at worst potentially disastrous.

These comments are not intended to discourage discussion of the issues involved, which I am sure require reconsideration and a willingness to allow that traditional Nepali Christian attitudes may not be biblically well founded. In fact I have little doubt that such discussion is an urgent need in the interests of a mature church. But my plea here is for a more balanced and nuanced use of the Bible in this discussion than we have seen in your article.

Graham Simpson

Dear Graham,

Thank you for your response to my article. As I understand it, your critique is formulated on two levels and I shall attempt to respond to each in turn. Firstly, and generally, you suggest that by using a word such as 'obligation' I may be creating a new legalism. I have wrestled with this issue for a long time and I suspect I will do so for a while longer. Your suggestion can be turned into a general question: Is the believer in Christ obligated to do anything? If I assert that believers must respect their parents am I introducing a new legalism? Surely the Bible itself, as I tried to show in the article, does this very thing. It is not introducing a new legalism, because it is not asserting that one can be saved by observing this command. But it is, nevertheless, placing a demand upon the believer in the form of a principle. That principle has to be worked out in particular contexts. What I was trying to demonstrate was that in the Hindu Nepali context the receiving of tika is a particularly significant means of showing such respect.

Now in this context you suggest that I have elevated one command (to honour one's parents) above all the other commands. If I have done so then I readily admit I have made a mistake. I may have, as you suggest, overstated my point, in which case your letter is a helpful corrective. But there is a reason for this: the verses you have quoted (Matthew 10:34-37, Luke 9:59-62, Mark 1:19-20, Acts 5:29) have themselves been elevated so high that one might be forgiven for thinking that other commands no longer apply. So if my article comes over as simplistic that is my error. I hope that through it, and through this dialogue, there might be a greater awareness of the fullness of the Biblical demands so that nobody can use a single verse to justify their rejection of others. The abuse of parents is not a new phenomenon. Our Lord himself confronted the Pharisees' on this very point (Mark 7:9-13). My hope is that my brothers and sisters in Christ here in Nepal will take such passages more seriously.

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The second point is particularly on my 'exegesis' (or lack thereof) of 1 Corinthians 8-10. Perhaps I was not right to use such a word as my dipping into this passage was certainly not a thorough examination of the text (something I may not be qualified to do). Particularly though, you make several points. I will respond to each in turn.

  1. You assert that the point Paul makes in 8:4-8 and 10:14-22 is that the context is what makes the difference between whether one is having fellowship with demons, or merely eating. You rightly contend that prasad does not have a "magically imparted quality which permanently attaches to a particular item of food". But local people believe that it does have such a quality. So from the Hindu point of view the meat we all eat here is prasad no matter the context in which it is eaten. I am suggesting that many believers in Christ continue to carry such a view with them in their discipleship. This is why most believers in Nepal will claim that the mere eating of prasad (regardless of context) is sin.

  2. Again you assert the importance of context and I am sure that this needs to be looked at more. Allow me, though, to simply ask a practical question: at what point does prasad cease to be problematic? If it has been offered to an idol in the home and then sent to you in your home is it still defiled? The location may now be distant but the intention of the giver is clear - he wants you to receive the blessing of the deity. You have not participated in the ritual. Everyone knows you are not devoted to that deity. But they want to do the customary thing and give it to you anyway. If this is acceptable, what about if you are in the room when the ritual is performed but have been a passive observer?

  3. I agree that each believer is a particular context and therefore needs to be advised individually. Some people have especially tender consciences regarding prasad. This seems to have been the case in Corinth (8:7-13). Usually in studying this passage it is assumed that the weak believer is the one that will be emboldened to eat even though he believes something bad might happen to him by doing so. However, this does not explain 8:7 & 8. In 8:8 Paul states that, "food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do." Surely Paul is talking to those who might be trying to get near to God by eating food sacrificed to idols otherwise he would say "we are no better if we do not eat and no worse if we do". For those of us who have never been tempted to trust in images it seems hard to accept that a believer might be thus tempted. That is exactly what they did before turning to Christ. But perhaps those from such a background could testify to such a temptation? Surely idolatry is not such a unique sin that no true believers are ever tempted to commit after coming to Christ?

    It seems to me that this reading fits better with 8:7, in which Paul states that, ?not everyone knows this?. What? That an idol is nothing and that Christ is unique (8:4-6). Is it possible that true believers are not sure about the uniqueness of Christ? Could they really be thinking that they might get some benefit from the idol whose dedicated meat they are eating? And that is why Paul is especially at pains to instruct them that, as an idol is nothing, they will not get anything out of it. But I struggle at this point in my understanding of the passage because Paul goes on in v.9 to say 'however' when I would have expected him to say 'therefore'. So is the person he is talking about in 8:9-13 the same as in vv.7-8 or a different person?

    Suppose it is someone who is emboldened to eat even though his conscience forbids him to do so simply because he thinks it is wrong? If it is then we need to be very careful with such a person as you have pointed out. But here I am suspicious. I remember the story of my Malayalee friend who, while working in north India for two years grew a moustache, as is the custom there. While visiting his church back in Kerala a church member came up to him and told him, "Brother, your moustache offends me. Cut it off". To which my quick-tongued friend replied, "Brother, your tongue offends me. Cut it off". My own experience (very limited I admit) leads me to suspect that the new believer often does not have an overly scrupulous conscience towards prasad until he comes into contact with other believers who make it a point to impart such an attitude. That is why I talk about 'Lifting the yoke'. I believe a yoke has been placed about the necks of new believers by making them overly sensitive about tika and foods. Discerning how to deal with such a believer pastorally is not easy and hence your concern that my advice might be potentially dangerous, which caution I accept. But surely equally dangerous is the flat command to avoid such substances because it gives the impression (intentionally or not) that the idol really is something, an impression Paul took great pains to correct. My intention is not to create confusion but dispel it.

Ever learning,

Dear Mark

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to your further points. For the sake of readers who may be starting to wilt by this point I will try to keep my comments as brief as possible, and instead of attempting to deal with every detail I will focus on some of the central points. In particular I will not try to provide adequate discussion of all of the exegetical details of 1 Corinthians, on which others have written commentaries. Justice cannot be done to this in a few throw-away lines in a response of this nature. But let me say that it is worth noting the possibility of some of the statements of 1 Corinthians 8 not being Paul's own sentiments, but quotations of the views of others, as suggested, for example, in the NRSV translation.

  1. Obligation and legalism. You don't have to read much of the New Testament to know that a believer certainly does have obligations. But the obligation to honour one's parents is not the same as specifying in what way this honour is to be shown. When you require the obligation to be expressed through a specific rule, that is legalism. Legalism is not only an issue for the question "how must I be saved"? The history of the church has been full of legalistic requirements placed on those who firmly believe that they are saved by grace.

  2. Prasad or not prasad? In your article you say that Kathmandu Valley residents "are already eating prasad on a regular basis (though they may not know it)" (p. 16 col. 3), implying that some do NOT know, whereas in your response (point 1) you say that local people believe that meat offered as prasad (most locally slaughtered meat, you say) does have a magically imparted quality, implying that everyone DOES know the nature of the meat they are eating. Both points cannot be correct. Do we have any firm data about what local Christians actually believe, or is there perhaps some guesswork here? Later in your response (in point 3 where you say "leads me to suspect") you seem to acknowledge your uncertainty about the attitudes of new believers.

    In any case the principle here is clear: there must be no compromise regarding the lordship of Christ (e.g. 1 Corinthians 10:21). If eating meat considered to be prasad is seen (by either the eater of the meat or the giver) to invite the blessing of deities other than Christ, has one compromised one's allegiance to Christ or not? I think the answer is clear; others may disagree.

  3. Idols and demons. While the idol as a physical object is nothing, the worship offered before it is certainly not nothing. In 1 Corinthians 10, the juxtaposition of verse 19 and verse 20 makes the conclusion unavoidable that a person sacrificing to idols (verse 19) is in fact sacrificing to demons (verse 20). In that sense I would maintain that an idol does indeed represent a demon or demons. No doubt Krishna and his friends are figments of the imagination, but the point seems to be that under whatever name the worship is offered the underlying reality is the spiritual world of the demonic. It should be remembered that the worship offered in temples in Corinth was offered to "respectable" named deities. In this respect some interesting near-contemporary papyrus documents from Egypt have come to light, containing invitations to meals in honour of Sarapis, similar to the meals to which Paul alludes. (I have the texts of these if you are interested.) Paul describes all such worship as worship offered to demons. As you have said yourself that idol worship is demonic, I do not think that we are saying anything different from one another.

  4. Offending the weaker brother. The Malayalee story is amusing and, incidentally, a good example of legalism among Christian believers. Both parties are guilty of two serious errors. (a) The teaching about avoiding offence to a weaker brother are instructions for ME about MY behaviour, as a guideline for evaluating the effect of my behaviour on others. They are not given in the New Testament as a stick with which to beat someone else; that is, they do not entitle me to tell another how he or she should behave. (b) The verb "offend" is misunderstood. Paul is not speaking about behaviour which someone else merely does not like. Rather, the verb is speaking about spiritual ruin. One suspects that someone's moustache is not likely to cause anyone's spiritual ruin (even for the tender conscience of a Malayalee)! In any case, this example is hardly in the same category of seriousness as the implications arising from the issues you have raised in your original article.

  5. Pastoral guidance. I have made it clear that I don't pretend to know enough about local practices and understanding of tika and prasad to make judgments about specific situations. So I don't really know whether a new believer does or does not have "an overly scrupulous conscience towards prasad until he comes into contact with other believers who make it a point to impart such an attitude". However, I question whether it is wrong, as you seem to imply, for other believers to try to offer guidance. Whether the guidance currently being offered is the most helpful is a matter which, as I have said, I do not wish to judge.

It cannot be assumed that a new believer's conscience is a safe guide. Every person's conscience needs to be formed, primarily through instruction in the Scriptures. If the church, presumably usually through its leaders, seeks to guide the conscience of the believer (whether new believer or old), surely we cannot take issue with that as a matter of principle. After all, that is what you as a bideshi are seeking to do through your article!

Best wishes.
Graham Simpson

Dear Graham,

I want to add a few points to round off our dialogue. You question my statements about prasad (point 2). I have to make a distinction between the fact (as I understand it) that people believe that prasad has a special quality but may not know that the meat they buy at the butcher's is, in fact, prasad (as they understand it). So they can, indeed, 'know' the one without the knowing other. It is not a contradiction.

The Nepali church does indeed have a responsibility to inform the conscience of the new believer. My concern is that a believer who has made a clear break with idolatry - I have yet to meet one who hasn't - but who has no problem with eating prasad will be pushed into accepting a position that he has not internalized. Then there is the phenomenon of certain practices going "underground" - i.e. believers actually eating prasad with their Hindu families when no other believer's eye is on them - but resolutely stating that it is a sin. The conscience is wounded and a whole lot of behaviour that they previously knew to be sin no longer seems so bad.

Photo by Hae Kwang Cheong

I have to admit that my data on Christian attitudes towards prasad is anecdotal. I have met mature believers from a Hindu background for whom prasad is nothing but ordinary food. But I believe they are a small minority. These believers, however, are part of the church too and they also want to guide the conscience of new believers.

I am grateful for the opportunity to interact with you and trust that others will find this dialogue helpful as they think through these critical issues.

bhakti. bhakti, nom. devotion, love, loyalty