1 Corinthians 8:1, 11-13 – Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that all of us possess knowledge. This knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.. . . And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
There are numerous difficult topics of debatable “freedoms” over which Christians disagree. The use of alcohol, watching certain movies, or shopping at particular stores are all examples of such issues. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul addresses an issue of a similar ilk from the first century. His handling of that issue back then speaks volumes to how we should handle such issues today.
In Corinth, many in the culture had come out of an idol worshiping background. Part of worshiping an idol involved “offering” food to your false god. The food would be taken and set before the statue. The idol worshiper believed that the god received sustenance and pleasure from the food, though the actual piece of meat did not disappear (a belief that can still be found in many cultures today who offer food to idols or to ancestors). The meat that had been “offered” was then sold—presumably at a reduced cost—to be eaten by those who were willing to do so.
Now, it is interesting that Paul begins his argument with the issue of knowledge. He points out that we all have knowledge, but warns that there is a danger to that knowledge that we will address later. For most of the chapter, he then explains how there is nothing wrong with meat that had been offered to a statue. He declares without hesitation that there are no gods; there is only one God. Thus, the meat that is supposedly offered to a statue or to dead relatives is simply meat that has been set out. Nothing has changed about the meat. Since the false gods are nothing and since dead ancestors can not receive nourishment from food from this world, Paul argues that there is nothing wrong with eating that meat. Thus, he declares that, by knowledge, Christians have the right to eat such meat.
This type of “right” is what many Christians cling to who demand to be allowed to indulge in their freedoms. They argue, and often quite strongly, that the Bible does not forbid a particular activity. They point out that, while the Bible forbids drunkenness and sexual immorality, that standard does not preclude responsible drinking or movies that do not explicitly portray sexual immorality. So, these Christians, from their knowledge, declare themselves free to responsibly partake of these pleasures. (And let me honestly admit that I have most certainly been in this camp in times past, even writing a lengthy paper on the topic in my seminary ethics class.)
However, let us look again at the warning that Paul makes about this knowledge. Paul never denies that the knowledge is true. In fact, he affirms the truth of the statement that meat sacrificed to idols is no different than any other meat. However, he also points out that this knowledge can puff us up, make us arrogant, instead of building us up in love. Paul acknowledged the rightness of the argument of certain groups, but then said that it is more loving for them, in their particular setting, to avoid indulging their freedom for the sake of Christian love and unity. Because the exercise of freedoms by one person can have a devastating impact on the life and conscience of another believer—one whose conscience may be admittedly weaker—, Paul declares that he will willingly give up his rights and freedoms in order to build up the body in love.
The question about alcohol, movies, and certain other “freedoms” actually ought not be a question of knowledge. Instead, the question needs to be one of Christian love. If you consider yourself to be a mature believer, you need to recognize that no simple pleasure here on earth is worth doing harm to another believer, even one who might have an overly strict view of a topic in your opinion. How could you ever argue that you are behaving in a way that honors God is you, for the sake of earthly pleasure, do something that tears down the fellowship of the local church or hurts another believer? The fact is, Christian love and kindness is far more important than food, drink, entertainment, or clothing. We ought not hesitate to give up things that might be OK in our opinion in order to make sure that we can be as loving as possible toward others in the church with whom we disagree.
Let me also add that the solution to this problem is not to simply choose to indulge your freedom when you think others are not looking. This leads to a life of sneaking down the aisles in your local grocery or video rental store, hoping that no other believer with a weaker conscience happens to see you. I’m sorry, but there is no way that you can do that out of Christian love.
As my parenthetical statement above indicates, I have not always taken the position here spelled out about issues of Christian liberty. I admit that freely, and I honestly have since had to repent of my attitude. My former position was one of selfishness rather than community, of knowledge instead of love. I Argued on behalf of pleasures and perceived rights instead of on behalf of unity in the body of Christ. Part of that argument came from a deep and right desire to call people away from legalism and to a biblically informed standard of living. I still make such a call. But I also make a call for Christians to live out of love, even when that love forces you to give up what your knowledge tells you may be OK. I am sure of this: no person will ever give up a freedom here on earth for the glory of God and the sake of his church who will not be rewarded with an infinitely higher pleasure in the kingdom of God that is coming.
So, ask yourself if you allow your knowledge to do harm to the body. Are you so smart that you hurt people? Do you swing your education or scriptural understanding around as a club, desiring to bash in bad beliefs? Do you indulge in freedoms that you actually have to hide in order to not offend others? Is your driving force for how you live knowledge or is it love and the glory of God? It is time to live for God’s glory, guarding with all your might the church, the bride of Christ. If that means that you or I get rid of things which give us temporal pleasure in order to better love others, let us do so with joy, looking forward to a far greater reward from our God.
Dear Lord, I confess to you that my attitude has not always been love before knowledge. I pray that you will forgive me for any moment in my past where I have flaunted freedoms or damaged others through what I would approve. I recognize that such living is not out of love. I thank you for showing me this in your word, and I ask that you will help me to always live for your glory and for the betterment of your church. Help me to willingly give up unnecessary freedoms if that will better help me to love others in your name. Also, please help the rest of your church to learn to live out of a God first and others next before self mentality. Help us to live lives of openness, feeling the need to hide nothing from one another because all we do is loving and glorifying to you.