1 Corinthians 8:1-3 – 1 Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.
In Corinth, a controversy stirred as to whether or not a Christian could eat meat that had been offered in the temple of an idol. Such meat was later sold in the market and certainly might be on the table in a person’s home. Some believers believed that to eat that meat was to participate in the worship of the idol. Some thought differently.
As Paul begins to address this issue—an issue I do not intend to be central in this post—he talks about a dangerous sort of knowledge. At the end of verse 1, Paul writes, “This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up.” What is the “knowledge” that puffs up? How does it contrast with love? And how might this all apply to the lives of Christians today?
Contextually, it appears that the puffing up sort of knowledge has to do with a knowing of the truth that leads a believer to poorly treat a weaker brother or sister in the Lord. Because Bob knows that whether or not the food has been sacrificed to an idol, he is unkind when Jim is uncomfortable with it. What might Bob do? Perhaps he eats his food and makes a point to let Jim know what he is doing. Perhaps he dumps a truckload of knowledge on Jim’s head about this food whenever they are together. Perhaps he lets himself feel superior to Jim because Bob knows something that Jim simply is not knowledgeable enough to understand.
How then is love a contrast with knowledge? After all, none of us think that knowledge in and of itself is a bad thing. Love builds up. Whereas knowledge might fill one’s head with one’s own superiority, love will focus us on the good and the needs of others. Love will teach us to value the good of others even above our own comfort for the glory of God.
Consider Bob and Jim again. Bob knows that there is no worshipping of the idol if he happens to have a steak that was served in a home where idol-worshipers live. Jim is uncomfortable. What would love have Bob do? If Bob is not puffed up, Bob will certainly refrain from making fun of Jim for his confusion. Instead of mocking Jim for his lack of knowledge, Bob will speak wisely, gently, and even kindly to Jim. Perhaps Bob will seek to help Jim understand what Bob knows. Perhaps Bob will listen to Jim to better understand him even though Bob does not agree with him.
Will Bob then refuse to ever eat meat? Interestingly, this is something Paul said he would be willing to do if it would help in 8:13. However, I do not assume that this means that every Christian, in every circumstance, must put away every part of his life that others do not understand. Just before Paul talked about not eating meat, he particularly mentioned a hypothetical situation in which people were to see him eating in an idol’s temple, a place where people could be very confused as to whether or not he was participating in the worship of that idol. Paul’s greater point is that he would not want to do another person harm because of knowledge without love.
How might this apply in today’s world? Of course we could take this chapter and try to develop an exacting standard relating to liberty of conscience issues that are divisive in our culture: alcohol, entertainment, etc. But rather than focusing on the issues, I am focused as I write on the love side of things. I do not think that this passage is intended to tell us how to come down on the meat or no meat, drink or no drink, movies or no movies issues. Instead, I think that a greater point exists that we should treasure our brothers and sisters in Christ. We should love and build one another up. Sure, sometimes love means that you will forego your rights for the sake of another person’s conscience. Sometimes love will mean that you are careful as to how or even where you exercise your liberties. But always, absolutely always, love should prevent you from thinking yourself superior to a brother who does not understand what you understand. Love will keep you from mocking that brother for his views. Love will keep you from dumping a truckload of knowledge on a brother’s head before first caring for and hearing that brother’s heart.
Want to make an application that is closer to home for many than alcohol or meat sacrificed to idols? OK, how about modern issues like COVID or CRT? You can, and in fact probably should, have strong opinions about these issues. You need knowledge here. And I would not suggest that you avoid expressing that knowledge. However, as you express your knowledge, are you showing yourself puffed up? Are you seeking to build up others? Or are you looking to dunk on someone on-line so that you can show how witty you are and how stupid the people are who disagree with you?
No, I’m not saying that there is no room to disagree. Neither am I suggesting that one’s beliefs related to those issues is irrelevant. Some of our social hot-button issues include significant baggage that could led others to dangerously unbiblical views. And, yes, we must warn against those views. But love builds up. Love teaches far more than it smashes. Love warns without seeking to squash the one warned. Yes, eventually, love will tell the church that the teaching of wolves in sheep’s clothing must be abandoned and anathemized. But I would suggest that, when this must be done, it is done with a broken heart far more than with a snappy flourish.
You’ll have to figure much of this out for yourself. And I surely do not want to encourage you to lower your guard on biblical truth. But I recommend that you also look into whether or not you have already lowered your guard on love. Are you puffed up? Do you build others up? If you are going to make a mistake, on which side are you more likely to err? Defend the word of God with zeal. Build others in the family of God up with joy. It’s hard to balance these two, but we must if we are to look like Jesus.