Not All Things Are Profitable
1 Corinthians 10:23 is a powerful scripture, but it is often misunderstood and misapplied. It reads, “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify.” The first and most obvious component of this verse that is challenging is the statement that “all things are lawful.” What does that mean? How far should this be applied? Is Paul, and therefore God, saying that we’re allowed to do anything -- literally?
Obviously, if we bring in some other scriptures we’re given a more complete picture. It’s always important to consider the totality of what God has to say before coming to a conclusion (especially one that seems to have some pretty far-reaching applications). John writes, “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). So, sin is not lawful. Whatever Paul means in First Corinthians, he cannot be including sin in the term “all things are lawful.” Also consider James 2:9, which clearly states that when you sin you are convicted by the law and considered a transgressor. We will be judged by God’s law (James 2:12-13), so our behavior must be in line with Him.
Getting back to our original question, Paul means that all morally neutral behaviors are lawful. In the context, he gives some examples, such as eating meat sacrificed to idols. Back in chapter eight of the same epistle, he explains that an idol is nothing. It is just an object without any supernatural powers. God alone is deity. So a piece of meat that’s been offered to an idol as a sacrifice has no inherent power or significance. It’s just meat that’s been cooked by ignorant pagans in front a silly statue. Nobody is hurt spiritually by either partaking of it or abstaining from it. It is a morally neutral behavior.
In chapter nine, Paul also writes that he attempted to “be all things to all men” (verses 19-23). When it came to customs, language, clothes, diet, etc., etc., he accepted other people and accommodated them, even going as far as participating with them in behaviors that did not necessarily run contrary to God’s will.
But what happens when we disagree on what is morally neutral? What if one Christian is strongly opposed to the behavior of his brother or sister?
First, it’s important to establish scriptural boundaries for any conversation. You might approach the conversation by saying, “Can we at least agree to use the scriptures? Can we keep definitive, Biblical conclusions and personal opinions where they belong?” Second, can we make sure that we’re not rushing to be the one who gets his/her way? It sometimes seems like brethren are racing to be the first one to stake a claim to the higher ground. One says, “I just understand this subject better than you. I’m more nuanced, more spiritually mature. I don’t believe my behavior is sin -- it’s just a ‘Romans 14’ opinion and you’re too thick to get it.” Of course, nobody would ever actually say that, but that’s the idea being conveyed.
Can we all be patient and humble enough to look past “getting my own way” and see the point Paul is getting at? In our rush to win arguments or justify questionable moral behaviors, we forget the next verse. “Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor” (1 Cor. 10:24). If something is not profitable, edifying, or beneficial to my brethren -- not just MYSELF -- then my responsibility is to seek the profit of others (1 Cor. 10:33).