Discernment: The Key to Applying Paul’s Ethical Principles to Specific Situations (Thurs. August 11)

The word for today is “edify.”  In today’s reading of 1 Corinthians 10:28-11:7, Paul outlines even more ethical principles on the question of whether believers should eat the meat of pagan sacrifices.  Just before our reading, he writes, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify” (1 Cor. 10:23).  And in today’s passage, the apostle writes, “Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or the church of God (OSB vs. 32).

But how do we decide what is “edifying,” that is, what builds up the faith and love of others and what tears it down?  And how can we to determine what is offensive and what is not?  Today we will review Paul’s moral instructions about eating the meat once offered to idols and identify the key to the application of Paul’s ethical principles.

When Food Offered to Idols May be Eaten

In our previous readings, Paul already offered two principles on eating meat:  1) Do not scandalize the consciences of others, and 2) To avoid the temptation to idolatry do not eat anything associated with idols.  But now Paul returns to the question again.

The reasoning behind the apostle’s additional teaching in today’s passage is the change in the situation.  Besides consuming the sacrifice in a temple, the apostle mentions two other circumstances when the food offered to idol might be eaten.  The first is meat sold in the marketplace.  The second is meat served in a pagan friend’s home.

In both cases, the faithful need not ask whether the food had been offered to idols before being put on sale or served.  Believers can give thanks to God for providing the meat and eat it.  However, if someone points out that the food has been offered to idols, one should not partake of it.  One should refrain for the sake of the one who has a troubled conscience about it (vs. 28).

The General Principle Not to Give Offense

These cases apply the general principle that one should not “give offense” to anyone–Jew, Gentile, or the church (vs. 32 ).  The Greek term comes from the thought that one should not “cause another to stumble.”  Rather than being a “stumbling block,” the believer is to “please” others, that is, to “satisfy” or “win the favor” of others (vs. 33)  (Strong’s #700).  In other words, one should seek the “profit” of others, that is, seek the advancement of others (Strong’s #4851).  This act of goodwill is ultimately for the salvation of others (vs. 33).

In summary, Paul counsels that whatever the believer does in whatever circumstance should edify.  The Greek word means literally “to build a house.”  Thus, to edify is to construct, confirm, or strengthen (Strong’s #3618).  Thus, to rightly judge between eating and not eating idol food, one should ask, “Will it build up the faith and spiritual life of my fellow believer?  Or will it tear them down?

For Reflection

But how is one to decide what will give offense and what will please others, what will be a stumbling block and what will profit others, what will offend the conscience of others and what will edify them?  Paul assumes that the believer possesses the overarchintg virtue that guides the use of all the other.  It is diakrisis, that is, “discernment” or “discrimination.”

The  Philokalia on Discernment

The Philokalia defines diakrisis as “discrimination;” It is a spiritual gift that enables one to distinguish between thoughts, to evaluate them and to treat them according. The glossary says that such discernment is a  lamp that the soul uses to make its way “along the spiritual path without falling into extremes” (St.-Nikodimos 1981, Kindle Loc 34506).

The manual of the ascetic life says that it is the “mother of all virtues and their guardian” (al 1981, Kindle Loc 2417).  Discernment distinguishes between what is good and what is evil (al 1981, Kindle Loc 2419). Thus, without it, no virtue can do its work of guiding our lives (al 1981, Kindle Loc 2392 and 2415).  Therefore, the Philokalia teaches that we should do nothing without it (al 1981, Kindle Loc 2392).

Accordingly, in his review of Orthodox ethics, Professor Perry Hamalis writes that diakrisis is key to Orthodox moral decision-making.  “It is the virtue through which norms are interpreted and applied to the specific case in whatever way promotes the growth in holiness, the salvation of the unique persons involved” (Hamilis 2013, 8).

In other words, discernment perceives what must be said and done in the specific circumstance for the particular person.  Discernment is “inner sight,” that is “insight” into the hidden thoughts and motives of those involved in the moral question.  Therefore it can judge what is beneficial and not harmful and what is helpful and not a cause of stumbling for others.  In summary, without diakrisis, moral principles are empty words, and ethical teachings are hollow.  But discernment makes moral principles effective.  It provides the link between ethical guidance and moral action.

How We Gain Discernment

But how do we gain the crowning virtue of discernment? According to the Philokalia, “it is the greatest gift of God’s grace” (On the Holy Father of Sketis and On Discrimination Loc 2361).  But this gift of the Holy Spirit. it is given to those who have trained their minds by practice.  They advance from feeding on spiritual milk to the solid food of wisdom and understanding (Hebrew 5:14).

Works Cited

al, St.-Nikodimos et. 1981. “On the Holy Fathers of Sketis and on Discrimination.” In The Philokalia: the Complete Text. New York: Farber and Farber.

Hamilis, Perry. 2013. Eastern Orthodox Ethics. In The International Encyclopedia of Ethics, edited by Hugh LaFollette: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

St.-Nikodimos, et. al. 1981. ” Glossary.” In The Philokalia: the Complete Text. New York: Farber and Farber.


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