Puffed Up or Built Up

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.

Right Doctrine, Wrongly Applied

Have you ever heard a person say something that, for the most part is totally true, but which you know has some real wrong in it too? This happens when we try to comfort each other, explain mysteries, confront each other, and in a number of other places. If we are not careful, if we are not loving, we will say right things, or mostly right things, in a very wrong way.

In the book of Job, we know that Job’s 3 friends are not helping. The Lord strongly rebukes them for their useless counsel. But take a look at this 6 verse chapter, and think about how much Bildad said that was completely true.

Job 25

1 Then Bildad the Shuhite answered and said:
2 “Dominion and fear are with God;
he makes peace in his high heaven.
3 Is there any number to his armies?
Upon whom does his light not arise?
4 How then can man be in the right before God?
How can he who is born of woman be pure?
5 Behold, even the moon is not bright,
and the stars are not pure in his eyes;
6 how much less man, who is a maggot,
and the son of man, who is a worm!”

Bildad is talking, and I would suggest that most, if not all, of what he says here is technically true. For sure, he is correct in verses 1-4. Perhaps verses 5 and 6 are problematic, especially in the maggot imagery. But in truth, he, in those two verses, seems to be coming from proper theology. This chapter says that God is high, holy, and mighty. Sin-stained creation is not holy to him. Mankind in our sin cannot be holy to him, not without him granting us a holiness from outside ourselves. For the most part, Bildad is right.

So what is wrong? Bildad is speaking his true theology at a nasty time and with a nasty assumption. In his way, Bildad is arguing with Job. This really is not a good time to argue with Job. The poor man has lost everything and is deeply hurting. Is now really the time to straighten every part of him out? Job is making some mistakes, for sure, and they will be corrected. But maybe Bildad needs to be loving his friend more than fixing him.

IN his nasty assumption, Bildad is assuming that he knows the heart motivation of the Lord. Bildad is assuming that he can say with certainty that the reason that Job is suffering as he is stems from the sinfulness of Job. Bildad is rebuking Job because God is obviously, to Bildad, punishing Job for his sin. And when Job retorts that he has not sinned to earn this punishment, Bildad says that no person is sinless enough not to earn God’s punishment.

The problem with Bildad’s assumption is that, in that assumption, Bildad is wrong. God is not punishing Job for Job’s sinfulness in this experience. In chapters 1 and 2, God points out the righteousness of Job and the narrator of the story tells us that, in those chapters, Job did not sin with his lips. Now, as the argument with his friends progresses, Job does sin, which is why he repents at the end. But Job is not suffering for his own sin. Job is going through a hardship because this is the will of God to the glory of God.

We should recognize, dear Christian friends, that we, like Bildad, can say very true things in very wrong and unhelpful ways. If we apply a theological truth to a situation that we do not understand, we can speak truth and be dead wrong. And if we speak theological truth in a loveless, uncaring, nasty way, we do not honor the Lord. Instead, we do harm to people that we are supposed to love.

I’m not at all suggesting that we not correct those in need of correction. I’m totally for us challenging people when they are in sin or when they preach falsehoods. There are many who claim Christ and who have bought into big lies from the world. We want to stand strong on the word as we challenge those positions. But I would suggest that we begin these conversations with as much love and respect as we can muster. And even if the conversation gets heated on the other side, let us remember to be the people who do not have to lose our cool, because we are the people standing on the word of God.

But when you have a hurting, Christian friend, a friend in deep emotional distress that is obvious, perhaps that is not the best time to drop a theological bomb on them. Be a friend. Be a comfort. When they are able to think with you again, help them straighten out their doctrine. Never belittle the word of God. But also do not crush the hearts of people made in the image of God.