The Bounds of Christian Freedom, Part 1

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Christian freedom is a crucial doctrine for a healthy church, and for a healthy Christian life. And the doctrine of Christian liberty or Christian freedom is perennially debated. The question might be boiled down to a simple one: what is sin? Or we could flip the coin in the other direction: what is righteousness?

In some areas those questions are easy. Can I murder my neighbor? Well of course not. Can I steal from him? Surely no. But in other areas, it is not so easy to determine what is right and what is wrong. That’s where we need to have a clear doctrine of Christian liberty, because without it, we can unnecessarily constrict people’s REAL freedom in Christ. We don’t want to bind consciences like the legalistic Pharisee’s did, because Jesus’s harshest words were reserved for them.

But we also don’t want people running off into the other direction either, engaging in sinful behavior under a sub-biblical understanding of freedom. Being free in Christ doesn’t mean being free to sin.

So where do we find that balance, of genuine freedom combined with prudent restraint? And how can avoid the pitfalls of legalism and sinful license?

Paul helps us with these questions, and provides for us principles that will help us navigate. Today we’ll look at the controlling principle in these discussions: and that is love. Let’s begin by reading chapter 8 in its entirety, but today our time largely stay in the first three verses. 1 Corinthians 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. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.[b]

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.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 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.

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. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 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.

We’ll notice in these first three verses 3 things today. We’ll first look at a pagan practice, then a problematic principle, and a proper principle. A pagan practice, a problematic principle, and a proper principle.

Let’s begin by looking at verse 1 and noting the pagan practice. Reminding ourselves of the original context of this debate will help us better clarify the principles Paul uses in his rebuttal.

I doubt any of us has had an ethical debate this week regarding whether or not we can eat meat sacrificed to pagan idols. However, by digging into what the debate was really about, we will be better able to see how this historical debate can be applied to a number of different ethical issues today.

Paul begins this chapter by turning his attention to a question that the Corinthian church had written to him about in a previous letter. If you look back to verse 1 of chapter 7 you can see that explicitly when he says: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote,” and then he goes on in chapter 7 to address their questions about marriage and divorce and singleness and sexuality.

Now in chapter 8 he’s answering their questions about meat sacrificed to idols. If you had been a citizen raised in Corinth, you’d know exactly what Paul was talking about. The Corinthians were part of a polytheistic society; they had gods for everything, little “g” gods. If you were traveling and wanted protection, there was a god for that. If you wanted a good harvest, a god for that. If you wanted military victory or economic prosperity or fertility or healing, there were gods for all those.

But not only were there many gods, they believed that whole world was also full of spirits, we could even say demons. The water, the air, the woods, the sky, even food, potentially full of spirits, many of which were out to do you harm. Thus, by giving sacrifices to the appropriate gods, you were not only seeking the favor and blessing of that specific god, you were also seeking to rid yourself, and your food, of this demonic presence and activity.

They believed that by burning the sacrifice to a god, you would shew away the wicked spirit attached to the meat, and thus prevent the demon from entering inside of you when you ate the meat. Meat sacrifices were a big deal.

Add on top of that all of the economic connections, and the meat sacrificed to idols was almost inescapable. The sacrifices brought to the pagan temples would be used to compensate the priests, and it would also be used to help fund the government. Then the rest of the sacrificial meat would be sold to markets.

The Corinthians would largely be limited in their grocery shopping to meat somehow connected to pagan ceremonies. It would be similar to us going to the butcher counter at our local grocery store and seeing all the rows of meat (all the chicken, the ground beef, the steaks, all of it) and knowing that every piece had been sacrificed to buddha, or to Vishnu, or to Allah.

It would be nearly impossible for some believers in Corinth who had contact with other gentiles to avoid facing question: will you eat meat sacrificed to idols, or will you abstain? If a relative was getting married, or somebody was having a birthday party, or somebody was coming of age, all of these kinds of occasions would be accompanied by a feast, which almost certainly had meat that had been sacrificed to some pagan god.

So, the questions were real, they were pressing. Some of the gentile believers probably refused to partake of the meat because it brought back to them, old memories of their pagan lives and the wicked worship that they used to give to these false gods. Or maybe they were afraid of their still-pagan family members seeing them eating the meat and thinking that they had abandoned their new faith in Christ.

Other believers were less conscience-bound. To them, meat was just meat. They knew that the meat was not magically made evil because it was burned in a pagan temple, and they knew that those pagan gods didn’t even exist anyway, and they remembered Jesus’s teaching that it is not what goes into a man that contaminates him, it’s what comes out of his mouth. So, they were freely partaking, without let or hindrance.

And there comes the rub. We have many things in scripture that are clear. Many questions are black and white. For example, some things are always clearly prohibited. Murder is wrong. Adultery is wrong. Lying and theft and pride, all wrong. Similarly, we have things that are clearly always proper: gentleness, kindness, patience, self-control, against such things there is no law, Paul says.

But what about in between? What about all the gray?  What about all the things that the bible doesn’t address, like meat that has been sacrificed to idols? This is where the Corinthians were battling. And, honestly, this is where most of the strife in churches comes from. It’s usually not the black and white issues that cause the tension in churches. It’s usually the gray.

  • What do we do when somebody makes a decision we don’t like?
  • Can we celebrate Halloween or not?
  • What counts as modest clothing, and what is immodest?
  • Who am I allowed to vote for?
  • What kind of activities are permissible on the sabbath, and what aren’t?
  • What kinds of movies, or music, or books can a Christian ingest?
  • Or how about this one: should Christians get a vaccine or not?

Now we’re seeing how this strange passage about meat sacrificed to idols is relevant for us. Now we can see how the rubber is going to meet the road.

So now that we’ve noted the context, let’s keep moving and note how Paul begins to address the problem in our second point. Look at the next part of verse one and we’ll see a problematic principle. A problematic principle.

Paul says, “we know that “all of us possess knowledge.”” The quotation marks around this are placed there by the translators of your text, and they indicate that this was some sort of slogan. Perhaps Paul was quoting back something that the Corinthians had written to him in an earlier letter. Or maybe it was a common phrase. Either way, it seems that the stronger, or more mature, or more enlightened believers in Corinth were using this phrase in a way that has unhelpful and unloving.

They were saying, as we see further down in the chapter, “Now we all know that Idols are nothing, and we know that there is no God but one.” These more mature believers had an accurate depiction of reality. They were technically accurate. But that wasn’t the problem. Keep reading in verse 1:

This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. Their knowledge, which my translation has in quotation marks, is leading them to the wrong place, to a place of arrogance, of unloving behavior, of harming their weaker brothers and sisters, as we see later in the chapter.

Now let me say a quick word about knowledge, and then we’ll come back to love. Paul is not saying here that knowledge is not needed, or that it necessarily produces arrogance. Paul is not against knowledge, in fact, his entire letter and the whole of his theology and ministry presuppose that knowledge is necessary for a godly life and for salvation.

Paul’s statement in verse 2 that, “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know,” should not be taken to mean that if you learn something you become less learned. Some people get hung up on this verse in a way that pushes toward a nihilistic, or even self-defeating view of knowledge and learning.

That we can’t actually ever know anything at all, and if that is the case, then we need to pack it up and go home. If that’s true, then preaching is useless, the bible is useless, schools are useless, and learning is an entirely futile exercise.

But that’s nonsense.

It clearly doesn’t mean that because ten times in this letter, Paul says, “Do you not know? Do you not know?

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? (1 Corinthians 6:19)

Do you not know that we are to judge angels? (1 Corinthians 6:2)

And if you know it, it should make a difference. And so, he’s not saying knowing things is wrong. He must be saying there’s a kind of imaginary knowledge. That’s not real knowledge. If you asked, “What would that be? What are wrong kinds of knowing?” Well, one answer would be, “If it’s puffing you up, you don’t know.” You know, but you don’t know. Your knowing is defective. Your knowing is broken.[1]

So, to summarize Paul’s theology of knowing here, we might say that you can have two different kinds of knowledge. Two different ways of knowing, each brings a different result. We might could say, to borrow another biblical phrase: you know knowledge by its fruits. The quality, or more precisely, the legitimacy, of your knowledge, is seen in what it produces. Wisdom is known by her children. And so is foolishness.

False or incomplete knowledge puffs you up, makes you proud, makes you less loving towards others.

You’ve met this kind of person. He’s always right, and he’s quick to make sure everybody knows it. He’s always got an opinion, and never met a debate that he doesn’t think he can win. He’s impatient with everybody else, because he’s the one that clearly sees all the problems, has all the solutions, and can’t understand why people don’t just do what he says.

He’s never open to reason, because “why should he be?” There is never a possibility of him being wrong. Have you met this kind of person? They are quite unpleasant to be around. And if we’re really honest, we all have a bit of this left in each of us.

We all have our opinions, and we all thing we’re right. And when we meet someone that disagrees with us in some gray area, about meat sacrificed to idols or any other area of Christian liberty, we don’t always respond in love, do we? Sometimes we get wrapped up in the debate and trying to win the argument, that we forget the person we’re talking to, and we forget what Paul says: that the aim of our charge is love, not winning arguments.

This kind of pride, produced by flawed knowledge is dangerous. It deceives us into thinking that we are always right, that people would have all their problems solved if they just listened to me. It’s a kind of knowledge that is divisive: it divides churches, splits family relationships, and drives people away.

But it doesn’t just do that. The bible tells us that “God opposes the proud.” That means that this kind of knowledge doesn’t just produce relational problems on earth, but it makes God my enemy. Divine opposition comes to those who are proud.

And that’s what each of us are born with: God as our enemy because we are proud. We’re born alienated from God, separated from his presence, foreigners to his household, fugitives of the law who will surely come under his just wrath for our unloving pride, and our faulty knowledge.

But praise be to God that he is not prideful like we are. He isn’t a God who brow beats us with his knowledge. He isn’t a God who speaks to us in condescending arrogance, and shames us because of our ignorance.

Rather, God speaks to us in ways that we can understand. Even though his knowledge is infinitely beyond what we could ever grasp, God speaks to us and uses his knowledge to edify, to build up, and to love.

With knowledge He spoke, and created a universe and a people who could experience his Love. When Adam and Eve violated God’s law in the garden, God spoke a word of grace and promise, which offered hope that they would again taste of his loving presence. When Israel sinned again and again against God, He didn’t crush them in wrath, but continually pointed them back to HIS OWN love for them.

And when the fullness of time came, God spoke finally through his Son, the very word of God, who came down to us and loved us in just the way that we needed. This holy Son possessed the perfect knowledge of God, and yet he wasn’t proud. He lovingly instructed his people, correcting when necessary, but always working for the good of His people, because he loved them.

His love for them was so complete that he was willing to give up all of his liberties for the sake of his weaker brother. He’s the ultimate stronger brother, more mature brother, who had perfect and complete knowledge and freedom, and yet he willingly gave up all his rights and preferences, and died on the cross for a prideful weaker brother like you and me. He laid down his life in humility in order to save arrogant fools like us. He loved the unlovely, providing a way for them to be forgiven.

Do you know this gospel? Do you know this Jesus? More directly, have you trusted in this Christ? Have you been forgiven of your pride, of your using your knowledge to judge others, or demean others, or treat others as ignorant fools, rather than using your knowledge to love and edify?

If you haven’t trusted in Christ, then know that you are still bearing the full opposition of God. He remains your enemy until you submit to him as Lord, and if you remain in your prideful opposition to him, you will have him as your judge for all of eternity.

BUT, if you see your sin and rest in Jesus as the only savior, you can be forgiven your ignorant boasting, and you can be remade into a new creature, a person re-born, and being remolded into the image of Christ. You can be taken from pride into humility. Taken from hateful arrogance into loving meekness, by the power of the holy spirit.

Trust in Christ, and only then can you know, only then can you love. That’s the only solution to the flawed Corinthian principle that pridefully says “We all have knowledge.”

But if that is the flawed principle, let’s move onto reflect upon the proper principle. That’s my third and final point, the proper principle. If the flawed principle is that we all know, but this knowledge puffs up, then the proper principle is this: true knowledge is circumscribed by love. True knowledge is circumscribed by love.

That’s what Paul is saying. “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up.

 The mature Corinthians had knowledge. They knew what was going on. They knew that meat doesn’t defile a man, nor does abstaining from meat save a man. They knew that idols were nothing. But the problem is what they were doing with their knowledge. They were using their knowledge, their Christian freedom, as a weapon to harm their weaker brothers and sisters.

Rather than using their freedom as a tool of love to build up the body, they were flaunting their rights, and in doing so demonstrating that they had neither true love, nor real knowledge at all. That’s what verse 2 says:

If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.

 If he thinks he’s really smart, he’s got nothing. If someone boasts in their doctrinal learning, they demonstrate that they haven’t gotten a clue. That’s a wonderful irony of the Christian life, that I’m sure we’ve all seen.

Some people have a head full of biblical and theological knowledge, but they don’t know the first thing about loving others, and so their head knowledge is useless. And what that means is that the most immature believer, the babies in the faith, have more real knowledge than the guys who have PhDs in Greek and Hebrew, but don’t know how to love.

I don’t want to get too far ahead, but chapter 13 is all about this.

Paul says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge … but have not love, I am nothing.” I am nothing, Paul says, without love.

You may think you’re really something. That you’re the mature believer who has doctrine figured out. You’re mature enough to know that this liberty or that liberty is how Christians really ought to behave. That’s fine and great.

But if your knowledge of doctrine doesn’t make you love your weaker brother better, then you’re useless. In fact, you’re worse than useless, Paul would say. You’re annoying. You’re an irritating Gong. All of your pontificating about “it’s my right to do this,” and “We ALL Know there’s nothing sinful about engaging in this or that,” all of that talk is hateful garbage if it doesn’t help you love others and edify the saints.

Paul would have us all know this, verse 3: 3if anyone loves God, he is known by God. And if he is known by God he will love God’s people.

Let me ask you a question: Do you want to test your knowledge, do you want to find out if you’re really as mature as you think you are? Then answer this question: how do I react when MY FREEDOMis hindered by an immature believer?

How do I react when my freedom is impeded by another believer who is less mature than me?

  • How do I feel, When I can’t do what I think is fun, or what I want to do, because somebody else’s conscience is wrapped up a little too tight?
  • When I can’t wear the clothes I want because of somebody else’s conscience.
  • When I can’t drink because someone else might stumble.
  • When I can’t dance, can’t date, can’t go to the party, can’t watch the movie, can’t whatever.

That’s a real test of mature love. Because if we’re honest, our first reaction, especially has hyper-individualistic Americans, is to demand MY RIGHTS. Don’t tread on me and my freedoms. Don’t come in here with your legalistic demands. I’m a Christian. I can eat meat, I’m free to engage. Don’t you dare bind my conscience with your ignorant knowledge.

If you could just reach my maturity, my doctrinal knowledge, THEN you’d see that I’m right to partake. I’m not going to subject myself to the weakest brother around me, because then I’d be a slave to others, to the most immature, to the least learned among us.

Have you felt that pull? I know that I have. I can begin to begrudge the weaker brothers, to hold them in contempt for limiting my fun, or my freedom. Or I begin to see them as my personal doctrinal construction project, where if I could just debate them enough, to intellectually weary them into submission through argumentation, then I could have MY freedom back.

I’m not concerned with loving them, I’m concerned with loving MY freedom, my preference, mycomfort, my fun. It’s a very me centered view of Christian freedom. Making sure I’m never a slave to anyone else’s weak conscience.

I’m so thankful Christ didn’t act that way. I am willing to hate my brothers and sisters rather than become enslaved to their conscience, to their weaknesses. But did you know that scripture says that Christ willingly became enslaved for us.

That’s what Philippians 2 is all about. Turn real quick over to Philippians 2. This, I trust, will be helpful for us because this passage addresses what we’ve been looking at today: pride vs. humility, loving subjection vs. hateful domination. Limiting personal freedom for the sake of love.

Philippians 2, look at verse three where Paul begins with the ethical, and from there moves to the theological rationale. He starts with don’t be prideful, and then explains how Christ shows us what this looks like:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. [they are more important, I am less important. That’s the framework of humility, verse 4]Let each of you look not only to his own interests [we might could say don’t look only after your own Christian freedoms], but also to the interests [or freedoms] of others. [verse 5] Have this mind [there is knowledge again] among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,[a] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, [that means slave] being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Christ’s freedom, his right, was to remain as Lord over all things. But because of His love for his people and his love for the Father, Christ gave up his station as Lord in heaven, and came down, emptied himself, stripped himself of his status, and willingly took the form of a slave. Christ is our example in this: his love for others led him to willingly constrain his freedom and enslave himself.

Another passage in Hebrews 12 says “for the joy set before him, he willingly endured the cross.” His love drove him to joyfully submit, to willingly endure. That’s a high standard.

Do I joyfully limit my freedom, out of love for others? Am I willing to quickly and joyfully forsake my freedoms, so that others might be loved well by my abstaining?

These are tough questions. And none of us is perfect at this. We’ve all flaunted our freedoms, we’ve acted without regard for our brothers and sisters. We’ve all justified the exercise of our freedom, without first considering how others might be tempted by it.

In short, we’ve all behaved selfishly, divisively, and sinned. Sinned against our brothers, and sinned against Christ himself. That’s what 1 Corinthians 8:12 says: by sinning against our weaker brothers we sin against Christ himself.

It’s no slight sin for you to thoughtlessly engage in something without first considering its effects upon the body, upon our brothers and sisters. It’s no trivial matter. You’re sinning against the Son of God himself.

But we’re not left without hope. Christ was perfect, even though we so often fall short. Christ was loving, even when we were hateful, selfish, and inconsiderate. And we can be known and loved by God, not on the basis of our perfect obedience, but on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection in our place.

If we’re trusting in Christ, we’re forgiven. That’s the good news. We’ve been made right, and adopted into God’s family. And we’ve been given all the promises of God, promises that are more than enough to sustain us, even when we might be called to give up our freedoms here, for the sake of our weaker brother. And when we so model Christ, we honor his sacrifice, we love our brother, we demonstrate that our knowledge is genuine, and we’ll see, that often our demanded rights were not so important after all, not when compared to loving our brothers and sisters for whom Christ died.


[1] John Piper, “The Life of the Mind and the Love of Man,” 1/5/2022).


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