Let Anyone Who Thinks He Stands

For decades Seventh-day Adventist young people were warned that if they entered a movie theater, their guardian angel would stay outside. The controversy over visual entertainment and Christians crosses denominations. 

In 1882, Ellen White wrote in Signs of the Times: “A great responsibility rests upon the husband—house-band—to bind the household together, by the ties of kindness, love, and harmony . . . When about to accompany his wife and children to the theatre or the ball-room, let the professed Christian ask himself, Can I seek God’s blessing upon the scene of pleasure? Would my master be a guest at such a place? Will angels minister to me there?”

Francis M Wilcox, editor of the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald from 1911 to 1944, presented a series of editorials expressing concern over frequenting theaters and the content of movies. Wilcox’s died in 1951 around the time television arrived in the homes of North Americans. Incidentally, Adventists approached the use of television more casually, without clear-cut warnings and guidelines. In general, television was much more widely accepted among Seventh-day Adventists than movies and movie theatre attendance had been.

In 1959, the following statement was published in the Church Manual: “We earnestly warn against the subtle and sinister influence of the moving-picture theater, which is no place for the Christian" (SDA Church Manual 1959, p. 145).

Gradually, with the addition of VCRs and DVD players, movies came to dominate the lives of many Adventists. Watching movies at home has become a normal part of life, and the old admonitions about avoiding movies by staying away from theatres proved to be both outdated and hypocritical. Unfortunately, today many young Adventists seem to embrace movies and other visual media without much discernment and with little concern about potential media effects.

“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed [“be careful,” NIV] lest he fall.” (1 Cor 10:12, ESV). This well-known warning was written by Paul to Christians in Corinth. The fact that this exhortation begins with the word “therefore” implies that it was given in a specific context in which a concrete situation was being addressed. 

In 1 Corinthians 8-10, Paul is addressing a question being debated among believers in Corinth. He begins this section with the words, “Now concerning food offered to idols…” (8:1). Paul is referring to meat sacrificed in the pagan temples and shrines. What was left over from the “god’s table” was often sold in the marketplace. Paul agrees that eating such food in and of itself is harmless since “an idol has no real existence” (8:4-6; 10:25) and “food will not commend us to God” (8:8). A closer look at his counsel, however, shows that beyond the act of eating meat previously offered to the gods and later sold in the market, the Corinthians were also inclined to partake of meals at pagan temples (1 Cor 8:10; 10:19-22).

In the temples in Corinth, there were dining rooms where the meals could be eaten. These meals varied from religious to purely social. For Paul, even if the Corinthians were there purely for social reasons, this was a problem for two reasons: (1) Some believers whose consciences were still sensitive concerning the practice of eating foods offered to idols (8:7) might see “you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple” and “stumble” (8:10-12); and (2) though idols have no power (10:19), the temples in which they are worshipped are the habitation of demons (10:20). “I do not want you to be participants with demons,” Paul says. Besides, “You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (10:21).

So why were the Corinthians confident that their presence in an idol’s temple did not pose a threat to their spiritual well-being?  Two reasons: (1) They were resting on their “knowledge” that “there is no God but one” (8:4-6). In other words, their monotheistic (one God) view of reality, which was based on truth, eliminated their fear of the “gods.” (2) Those who think they “stand” (10:12) do so based on a sacramental view of baptism and participation in the Lord’s Supper, creating a false sense of immunity from external spiritual dangers. 

Note how Paul references Israel’s experience in the wilderness (10:1-11) before his warning, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands…” (vs 12). Just as God rescued Israel from Egypt (vs 1), so he saved these Corinthians from paganism and the worship of “mute idols” (12:2). The Israelites were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (vs 2). Here is an obvious allusion to the Corinthians’ baptism into Jesus. The Israelites also “ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink” (vs 3). Here is an allusion to the Corinthians’ participation in the Lord’s Supper. Paul’s warning is clear: Israel being “saved” from Egypt and partaking in God’s blessings was not a guarantee that they would inherit the promised land. The fact that the Corinthians had been “called” (1:2) is no guarantee that they will not be seduced by idolatry and thus fall short of the prize (9:24-27). 

Paul is insisting that the Corinthians take warning from Israel’s story. “Do not be idolaters as some of them were,” referencing the golden calf incident (10:7b; cf Ex 32:6). “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did,” alluding to the worship of Baal at Peor (Num 10:8a; cf 25:1-9). Some Israelites at Shittim were “invited…to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.” The Israelites did what the Corinthians claimed the “right” to do. “We must not put Christ to the test as some of them did,” pointing back to Israel’s complaint against Moses and God (Num 21:4-9). The Psalmist appealed to the same story, “They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved” (Ps 78:8).

Paul’s warning—“Let anyone who thinks that he stands be careful lest he fall” (10:12)—was given in the context of an issue (eating foods offered to idols in a pagan temple) that is no longer relevant. However, the principles involved transcend the specific situation he was addressing. Is it possible that the former alcoholic who overcame addiction might benefit from Paul’s warning and conclude that it is not safe to frequent places where they may be vulnerable to temptation, or perhaps even disassociate with those who drink “socially”? What about the man (or woman) whose life has been transformed by Jesus, but who has a past with pornography? Are there movies, websites, events or people that should be avoided? Some elements in our society appear harmless (and they may very well be), but they pose a spiritual threat depending on various factors. 

Undergirding Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 10:12 is an understanding of (1) the weakness of fallen humanity (Rom 8:3) and (2) the powerful evil forces still at work in our world to reclaim those who were delivered from the domain of darkness (Col 1:13). “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” Paul reminded the Ephesians, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).

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