Please turn with me in your copies of God’s word to 1st Corinthians chapter 8. The 8th chapter of 1st Corinthians.
A couple of weeks ago we kicked off this short series of 2 sermons through chapter 8, and we made it through verse 3.
As we noted then, in chapter 8 Paul is dealing with an issue that isn’t immediately clear to us, and that is the issue of whether a Christian can eat meat that has been sacrificed to a pagan idol. That’s not a live issue for us today, most likely, but it was certainly a big issue in the pagan and Greek city of Corinth, where most of the meat in the city had, at some point, been connected with pagan worship rituals.
So, Paul is answering the Corinthian believers who had asked him whether or not eating this idol-meat was sinful. And what is helpful for us is to see is HOW Paul answers the question, because HOW he answers that specific question related to idol meat will teach us how WE need to act in parallel situations today. That is, situations that are less black and white, and more gray.
These gray areas of Christian ethics are in the realm of Christian liberty, or we might say, matters of Christian conscience. These are the questions that are not directly and explicitly addressed in scripture.
We know that theft and murder are wrong, but what about the kinds of clothes we wear, or the food we eat, or the activities we participate in, or who we vote for, or any other number of things. These are the gray areas where believers in churches are especially tempted toward either thoughtless participation, or judgmental abstention.
And to combat these twin temptations, Paul instead grounds the whole conversation in love. That’s what we talked about last time. Love is the Christian virtue that is to circumscribe every area of Christian liberty, and every area of Christian ethics.
But before we get any further, let’s begin by reading chapter 8:
Now concerning[a] 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.[b]
4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating[c] in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged,[d] if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers[e] and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
Let’s begin by looking at verses 4-6 and noting the Basis of Christian Freedom. The Basis of Christian freedom.
I won’t spend too long here, because Paul’s point is fairly straightforward. He says in verse 4, “as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” Regarding the specific question of meat sacrificed to idols, Paul agrees with the words of the Corinthians, mostly likely from the stronger, or the more mature brothers, who argue that idols aren’t really anything. Idol’s don’t have an existence, they aren’t real, and so eating meat isn’t a problem. That’s how they would argue.
I can eat this meat, even though it was slaughtered and offered to Aphrodite, or Zeus, or whomever, it doesn’t matter, because we all know there isn’t but one God, the God of the bible.
Paul goes even further in verse 5, “5 For although there may be so-called gods [little g] in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”
Paul’s statements are significant here for us, and for several reasons. First, note briefly how Paul’s monotheism is in no way at odds with his distinction between the Father and the Son, Jesus Christ. Contrary to those who might say that the doctrine of the Trinity was invented after the New Testament, Paul here expresses a very clear understanding of both the unity of the godhead, AND the personal distinction between the Father and Son.
But secondly, note how Paul is picking up a big theme from the Old Testament, about the impotence of idols. It recalls the words of Isaiah 46, which laments about:
“Those who lavish gold from the purse,
and weigh out silver in the scales,
hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god;
then they fall down and worship!
7 They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it,
they set it in its place, and it stands there;
it cannot move from its place.
If one cries to it, it does not answer
or save him from his trouble.”
Isaiah reminds us that the idolatry of this world is so silly. We fashion the idol, we carry it around, and then we bow down to it, and ask it for help. Psalm 115 speaks of this same theme when the psalmist says,
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
5 They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
6 They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
7 They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
8 Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.
The foolishness of idolatry is clear to us.
It reminds me of a story from when I went to Indonesia for a summer as a missionary.
But lest we thing that such pagan foolishness is no longer a threat, how many of us bow down to a different idol, an idol of our own making? It could be the idol of our own performance. We’re terrified of what people might think about us, so we slave away trying to be the best, or the funniest, or the smartest. We’ve made our reputation or our performance the idol that we worship, and in doing so, we become just like it: unstable, and mute. We become shaped and controlled by our fear of man, just like an idol is shaped and controlled by another.
Or maybe we bow down to the idol of mammon, of stuff, of possessions. We clamor for the next thing. We tell ourselves that if I just had this or that, THEN I would be happy. THEN I would be content. THEN I would be safe. But in reality, we are bowing down to the idol of our own greed, and in doing so, we become like it. Insatiable, and always controlled by another.
It’s a good reminder for us that idolatry didn’t stop in the first century. It’s just as tempting for us today. Whatever we put our hope in, our trust in, whatever brings us ultimate joy and happiness and security, that’s the little “g” god that we are idolizing.
But such worship is foolishness. Paul would have you hear about another God. The true God. The ONLY true God, who sent his son Jesus Christ to be the Lord of your heart, and to liberate you from enslavement to these impotent idols. If you’re trusting in your performance, or trusting in your stuff, or in anything else other than the creator and Lord of the universe, then hear the good news of the Bible.
Hear about how you can be liberated from enslavement to a god who is never satisfied. Hear about how you can be set free from the hamster wheel of never being good enough, never meeting the standard, never being pretty enough, or funny enough, or smart enough. Hear about the God who sent His own son to be the perfect substitute in Your place, and to atone for your failings, and to instead give you perfection. His performance was enough. His life was perfect, and by trusting in Him, you’re granted that same perfection.
Your record becomes clean. Your life becomes sufficient. God the Father sees you, covered in the perfection of the Son, and because of the Son’s sacrifice in your place, you’re made a part His family.
Unlike the pagan gods, you don’t have to serve this God perfectly enough to make him like you. Rather, He’s loved us in Jesus Christ. And because he’s loved us first, we now love him. That’s true worship, and that is the basis of REAL Christian Freedom.
The bible teaches us that when we come to Christ by faith, we are TRULY liberated. We’re set free. And he who is set free by the Son, is free indeed. We’re liberated from having to earn our way to God through our performance. We’re liberated from the opinions of man, from being enslaved to what other people think about us, and what other people tell us to do. We’re freed to obey God and God alone, which is always for our good and our joy.
This is the freedom that is only found in Christ. Come to Christ and believe, and taste of this joy. Come to Christ, and have this freedom for yourself. He’s the only way to find peace, to find rest for your soul, and to find freedom in this life and the next. That’s the basis for Christian Freedom.
Having looked at the basis of real freedom, let’s move on and look at the context of Christian Freedom. The Context of Christian Freedom. Paul has so far agreed with the freedom loving Corinthians. Those stronger brothers who were correct in their belief that idols are really nothing, so it is of no consequence to eat meat that has been sacrificed to them.
But what Paul does in verse 7 is to remind the stronger brothers that they aren’t alone in the church. No man is an island, to quote John Donne, and so we need to remember others. Look at verse 7:
7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.
Paul says that: Not all have this knowledge, that idols really are nothing. Some of the brothers, who were weaker in their conscience, still associate their former Pagan ways with the meat. That means that when they are offered the meat, or they see a stronger brother eating the idol meat, it brings back to them memories and feelings of their days of pagan idolatry. Maybe they are mis-informed about the true nature of idols and evil spirits, or maybe not. Maybe they are aware that idols are really nothing, but they still have a conscience-sensitivity toward the idol meat and the temple worship.
Either way, both the idol-meat, and the seeing of their brothers in Christ partake of it, were causing them to stumble. To have their conscience defiled, Paul says.
Let’s pause here for a minute and talk briefly about the conscience. Our conscience is a moral capacity given to every person, by virtue of them being made in the image of God. Paul says in Romans 2:14-15 that the work of the law is written on everyone’s heart, each of us. That means, when a conscience is working properly, we don’t have to convince people that murder is wrong. We don’t ordinarily have to argue with people about the immorality of theft.
However, our conscience is not infallible. After the fall in Genesis 3, each of us has a conscience that is prone to mis-calibration, to not working quite right. And so our moral compass can be off. It’s not totally gone after the fall, but it is prone to false readings. Our conscience will make us feel guilty, when we might not need to feel that way. Conversely, our conscience might not convict us, even though we are guilty.
In fact, one of the blessings of the gospel is that our guilty conscience can be cleansed. Our world projects upon us an ever-fluctuating standard of guilt and innocence. It tells us to indulge wherever we want, and then at the same time tells us we’re never good enough.
Most popular psychology exists to help us ignore and silence our conscience, which from birth is screaming to us about the nature of righteousness, and the fact that we know God exists and is the judge of all mankind. Romans 1, for example tells us that every person knows God exists, and we try to suppress that truth in unrighteousness, in part by ignoring our conscience.
But when we come to faith in Christ, we have help. As it relates to our conscience, we have the Holy Spirit who helps us re-calibrate our conscience. We use the truth of God’s word to help us re-align what FEELS right according to our conscience, and what we KNOW to be true according to scripture.
But, even after we come to faith in Christ, our consciences aren’t perfect. Each of us, because of our upbringing, our own personal experiences, our own dealings with sin, each of us have areas in our lives where we still are the weaker brother.
That’s the interesting thing about this passage. The church doesn’t have just two camps: the weak and the strong. Each of us is more or less mature on any given issue. That means that you may generally be a stronger brother, with your mind and conscience normally attuned with the truth of scripture, BUT, on another issue, you might actually be weak.
You may be a mature leader in the church, but on the issue of idol meat, or sabbath observance, or alcohol, or any other issue of Christian liberty, you find out that you are still weak.
None of us likes to believe ourselves to be the weaker brother. We like to think of ourselves as the stronger, more mature believer. We like to think of ourselves as those who are guarding righteousness, and preserving the reputation of the church, and keeping far afield from temptation.
That’s exactly what the weaker brother was doing: trying hard to stay away from temptation and sin. But in doing so, they were adding laws to God’s law, and binding the freedom of the stronger brother, who just wanted to eat some meat.
The weaker brother thinks he’s being wise and safe, but he’s actually constricting the genuine freedom of another brother. He’s taking away freedom that Christ has given.
That’s why in this whole issue of Christian liberty, Paul started this chapter talking about love. About building up others. And that’s why we all need to have great charity, great humility, whenever we’re talking about the gray issues. We must exercise the self-control, and think the best of our brothers and sisters, and of their motives, because in each area of liberty, WE MIGHT BE WRONG.
Our conscience MIGHT be mistaken, might be mis-calibrated. So, we need to remember our own fallibility, and let it drive us back to scripture, to see what God’s word says about the issue at hand.
But we also need more than humility. We need to remember love. Because in these discussions, the context is important. Go back the issue at hand. Paul agrees that the stronger brother was free to eat meat. That’s true. No sin there.
However, the brother eating meat isn’t in a vacuum. He’s not alone. Your actions have consequences. Look at verse 10: 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating[c] in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged,[d] if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?
Paul is warning them that a lack of consideration of your context, and of the other brothers and sisters among the body of Christ, can lead you to HARM the weaker brother. He’ll be tempted to see you, and to violate his own conscience, and partake in the liberty, even though his conscience forbids him. Social pressure, peer pressure, can be a powerful motivating factor toward sin.
That’s a problem. The bible makes clear that it is neither wise nor safe to ignore our conscience. If we make a practice of ignoring our conscience, it will eventually become numb, become calloused. IN fact, Paul tells timothy about a group of people who had seared their conscience. They had so neglected God’s moral compass in our hearts, that they were no longer able to discern right and wrong in some areas.
So, the weaker brother will be tempted to partake in a legitimate freedom, like eating idol-meat, but do it in contradiction of his own conscience, thereby sinning against himself, because, as Paul tells us in Romans 14, whatever is not done of faith is sin.
They violate their conscience, defile it, and the effect is verse 11:
11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers[e] and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.
A lack of love, of consideration of the weaker brothers, leads to you sin against the God who has saved you, and saved your brother. It’s no slight thing to exercise your freedoms without proper consideration of its effects on others. We must consider the interests of others ahead of ourselves.
That’s what we studied at length last time: how in Philippians 2 we see Christ as the perfect example. He considered the needs of others as more important than his own, and willingly enslaved himself, even unto death, that we might be forgiven and freed.
Christ even forgives us of our lack of love, our lack of consideration of others, so that we might be freed to give careful attention to the needs of our weaker brothers in the body of Christ.
And that freedom found in Christ grants us the ability to retain a proper perspective of our freedom. That’s my final point for today: The Proper Perspective of our freedom. The Proper Perspective of our freedom.
Look at verse 8 again: 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.
Eating idol meat doesn’t make us holy, and neither does abstaining from it. Exercising our liberty, or choosing not to, it doesn’t matter. We’re no more righteous one way or the other. The same is true in any area of Christian freedom. What matters, is how our freedom impacts those around us. Verse 9:
9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.
Don’t let your freedom make others stumble. Don’t let it become scandalous, don’t let your freedom become a point of temptation for others around you. Consider them, and their conscience as more important than any of your exercises of freedom, even legitimate freedom. That’s the call of love.
That’s the standard that Christ has set for us.
Now, I know what many of you are thinking. You have the same question in your head that I’ve had this whole time when reading this passage. Paul, are you telling me that I will always be at the mercy of the weakest brother in the congregation? How long will I have to subject myself to the weakest conscience? Forever?
Look at verse 13. Paul says, “13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
Paul’s own example is that he is willing to forgo his own freedoms, as long as necessary, for the sake of loving a brother well. That’s love. That’s Christ-like sacrifice.
Now of course, we don’t want our weaker brothers to remain weak forever. We all want to mature more and more in the cause of Christ. But there will always be an influx of immature believers in the church. New converts and young persons are always joining the congregation, and their weaker consciences come with them. So, there is always a fresh source of weaker brothers for us to love well.
Furthermore, we need to have great discernment here, in these matters of freedom and conscience, and weaker and stronger brothers. Great wisdom is needed to discern between a weaker brother with a legitimate conscience issue, and a person who just delights in fault-finding and legalism. That’s a tough call sometimes. And we must discern the difference, because a weaker brother with a legitimate conscience issue needs to be lovingly-shepherded, but an arrogant, fault-finding, legalistic brother needs to be rebuked and admonished.
That’s why God has gifted and set apart elders and deacons in the church, to help prayerfully navigate some of these issues. Sometimes it is not so clear what we are dealing with. So, we must prayerfully open God’s word, and consider our own hearts in every disagreement.
To sum up, I think that Paul would say that a healthy congregation would look like this: love-filled Christians seeking not to offend, and growing Christians seeking not to be easily-offended. Love-filled Christians seeking not to offend, and growing Christians seeking not to be easily-offended. That’s the dynamic found in a healthy church.
Let me bring this to a close with some practical wisdom for us, in the area of Christian freedom. When we are dealing with the gray areas, with things that are not explicitly spelled out in scripture, how can I know whether or not I should partake?
I’m borrowing here from the wisdom of other pastors like John MacArthur and Alistair Begg. But here are 6 practical guidelines for considering our freedoms, 6 words, all beginning with E, to help us think through our decisions in Christian liberty:
- Expedient. Is this activity expedient? 1 Corinthians 6:12- “All things are lawful for me, Paul says, but not all things are profitable, or expedient.” Is what I want to do useful, is it wise, is it helpful? Is it expedient?
- Emulation. Emulation. I’m thinking here of 1 John 2:6- “The one who says he abides in [Christ] ought himself to walk in the same manner in which he walked.” So, we ask, is this freedom, is this activity, something Christ would do? Am I emulating Christ by participating in this freedom. If so, then our action is not only permissible, but good and right.
- Example. Example. Are we setting the right example for others, especially for our weaker brothers and sisters? If we emulate Christ, others will be able to emulate us, and follow our example, just like Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:12: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”
- Evangelism. Evangelism. Is my testimony to the world going to be helped or hindered? Will unbelievers be drawn to Christ or will they be turned away from Him by what I am doing? Will it help me obey Colossians 4:5- “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.”
- Edification- Will I be built up and matured in Christ; will I become spiritually stronger? I’m thinking here of 1 Corinthians 10:23: “All things are lawful, but not all things edify, or build up.”
- Exaltation– Exaltation. Will the Lord be lifted up, exalted, glorified in what I do? God’s glory and praise ought to be the supreme motive behind what we do. 1 Corinthians 10:31- “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.” Is this activity going to bring praise to God?
There we go, 6 Es to help us think through our freedom.
 List adapted from: John MacArthur, sermon “The Limits of Christian Liberty,” Commentary on 1st Corinthians (Moody: Chicago, 1984), 197.