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Ethical Issues in the Pauline Epistles
Ethical Issues in the Pauline Epistles (Part 2)
This article is a continuation of Ethical issues in the Pauline Epistles (Part 1) which dealt with ethical issues such as the relationship between Jews and Gentile Christians; and Behavior of the believers. Here, in part 2 of this same topic, the discussion continues by taking into account additional essential moral aspects such as – Abuse of Christian Freedom; Public worship; Home codes. The General church must have a clear understanding of the aspect of these matters in order to be the true church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Ibid, pp. 521-2.
Abuse of Christian Liberty
The Corinthians, in their letter to Paul, raised questions about the propriety of eating the flesh of an animal offered in a pagan sacrifice. According to David Lowery, the Corinthians’ questions were probably related to: a) the acceptability of buying pagan sacrifices sold in the market; b) the acceptability of eating the meat as a guest in a friends home; c) the acceptability of attending one of these pagan sacrifices and enjoying the meal of celebration, which followed in the vicinity of the temple.13 Basically, these issues relate to the freedom and rights of the Corinthians. For the more mature Corinthian Christians, as Paul explained, ‘an idol is nothing at all and there is only one God, and as such eating food offered to idols was, in itself, unimportant. However, not all Corinthians agreed that an idol was nothing. The conscience of the weaker brothers who were led participates with the stronger brother. Therefore, Paul’s response was that, although the stronger brothers can be justified for exercising their freedom, yet they failed to observe one basic and underlying principle – that is, love. Although their knowledge of idols gave them freedom to participate, yet out of love for their weaker brother they should have refrained from eating. Therefore, Paul advises that Christ’s example should be followed. In this situation, it will mean giving up one’s freedom or right for the sake of the weaker brother.
With regard to public worship, three of the issues that the apostle discussed were as follows: a) The condition of the woman in worship (I Cor. 11:2-10); the condition of Christians as the Lord’s supper (11:17-34); and the state of spiritual gifts (Chapter 12-14).
a) Position of Women in Worship
The problem with women in the Corinthian Church was about head covering. As David Lowery said, ‘It seems that the Corinthian slogan, everything is permissible; had been applied to the meeting of the Church as well, and the Corinthian women had expressed that principle by throwing away their distinctive dress. More importantly they seem to have rejected the concept of subjugation within the Church (and perhaps in society) and with it any cultural symbol eg a head covering), which might have been associated with it.’ From the above quote it could be seen that the issue is not just about covering the head, but rather the disobedient behavior of women in public worship. Lowery further observed that Paul first laid down the theological basis of his counsel regarding this matter. Paul said that it was an act not of liberation but of degradation for a woman to throw the veil off him and she despises her spiritual head, the man. Paul argues that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man and the head of Christ is God. So the woman had to put a veil on her head to honor the man.
b) The state of Christians in the Lord’s Supper
Ibid, p. 529
Ibid, p. 530.
According to Lowery, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper with his disciples, the bread and the cup were part of a meal, with the bread probably broken near the beginning and the cup after to take at the end. By the time Paul wrote, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in two parts, which reinforced the participation of the bread and the cup at the end of a communal meal. The worship with the bread and the cup came to be called the Agape. However, in Corinthian celebrations the agape meal had become an occasion marked not by love for fellow Christians but one of self-centred indulgence. Paul noted that experience to build the Church actually has the opposite effect – ‘your meeting does more harm than good’. The Lord’s Supper should be a commemoration of an outstanding selfless act, which is Christ’s death on behalf of others. Instead, the Corinthian has turned this monument into an experience of selfishness and brought discord to the body. Paul made the theological significance of the Lord’s Supper very clear to the Corinthians. They were to celebrate in memory of what Christ has done for them – his death, burial and resurrection, and also in hope of his return.
c) State of Spiritual gifts
Corinthian believers manifest in their worship service the many gifts of the spirit. But the way believers use their gifts causes problems and brings chaos in their services. Especially the spectacular gifts, like tongues. They consider these gifts as a sign of the gift of spirituality.
JD Douglas correctly observed that one of the special features of Paul’s Epistles is the fact that the so-called household codes return (Eph. 5:22ff, col. 3:18ff, I Tim. 2:8ff, Titus 2 :2ff) although as Douglas said they are conservative in tone, yet they are clear signs that there are issues in the Churches that demand these codes.16 One of these `home codes, which deal with with the relationship between ‘masters and slaves’, is discussed. This particular relationship has been chosen because Paul had to address this issue in a concrete situation between Philemon the slave and Onesimus his slave who was on the run.
In his commentary on the Epistle to Philemon, Edwin C. Deibler wrote, ‘Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, had fled after he had robbed the master clearly (Phil, 18). His journey somehow brought him to Rome, where in God’s providence he came into contact with Paul. Through this contact, Paul led Onesimus to know Christ as Saviour.’ Paul decided to send Onesimus back to his master, but he was very worried about how Philemon will react. Therefore, in his letter to Philemon, he challenged him on the basis of their relationship with Christ to accept Onesimus as a brother.
In this article and the corresponding article some of the ethical issues raised in the Pauline epistles have been discussed: 1 Jewish and Gentile Christian relations. 2. The behavior of the believers. 3. Abuse of Christian freedom. 4. Public worship. 5.Household codes. The format used was as follows: first, the theological basis for Paul’s ethical teaching was examined. In this examination it was found that Paul bases his teaching on the doctrine of Christ – his burial and resurrection, and on his example of humility and love. The basic principle in Paul’s ethical teaching is that the church or the church of Christ is a new community of believers who can only influence the world positively and make disciples of all nations through their constant Christian testimony.
JD Douglas, New Bible Dictionary (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1962), p. 354.
Edwin C. Deibler, Philemon: A Knowledge Commentary of the Bible (Illinois: Victor Books, 1983), p. 769.
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