1 Corinthians 8:1-13

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Week 8 – Freedom to Refrain from our Rights

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

By Brandon Wingler

Introduction

            We have all probably had to ask ourselves at one point, “How much should I let other people’s views determine how I should act?” At times the question might be over matters that, for many of us, may seem relatively harmless, such as whether it is okay to read books with magic in them, such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Other times, the issues may seem more impactful, such as whether one can or should watch a certain movie that contains mature elements such as language or violence. Then there are those highly divisive and often contentious issues like whether it is okay for a Christian to drink alcohol (without getting drunk, of course). Ultimately, as Christians, some of the major concerns behind these questions are how others will interpret our actions and whether our actions might cause another Christian to do something sinful and stumble. 

Take alcohol for example. Within Scripture, there is no universal prohibition against the act of drinking itself. Yet Scripture does place limits on drinking, particularly not to get drunk (“And do not get drunk with wine…” – Ephesians 5:8). We might conclude from this, “So I shouldn’t get drunk, but I can drink and that’s fine.” However, let’s imagine one (among many other) hypothetical scenarios that could complicate this statement. Pretend you are at a family dinner and one of your family members in attendance struggles with alcoholism. Should you take advantage of your right to drink in such a situation? After all, drinking in moderation is not sinful, in and of itself, right? But could your actions be sinful in this context? Is taking advantage of your right to drink the loving thing to do?

As Christians in our contemporary context, we have to wrestle with questions like these, not just with alcohol, but with other issues as well. In this passage, Paul offers up instructions to the Corinthians about whether it is right to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. What we will see is that Paul is concerned not just with knowledge in this situation, but with love. He will urge the Corinthians to adapt their behavior and actions out of love for their Christian brothers and sisters when doing so will prevent these Christians from stumbling into sin.

Read 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 together

Study Questions

  1. What does this passage say about God, who He is, and what He does? (Father, Son, and Spirit)
  2. What does this passage teach me about me?
  3. What comfort/promise/challenge can I take away from this passage?
  4. How will I respond or live differently because of what I’ve read?

Passage Specific Questions

  1. What does it mean to cause another Christian to stumble?
  2. How do we navigate contentious and divisive issues in such a way that we do not stray into legalism (adding to the law) or antinomianism (subtracting from the law; the belief that there are no moral laws God expects Christians to obey)?
  3. Can you think of any activities or issues today that might cause a Christian with a weaker conscience on that issue to stumble?
  4. How do you know when or if some area of Christian freedom you enjoy is or could be a stumbling block to a Christian with a weaker conscience on that issue?

Commentary

8:1-6 – In chapters 8-10 (and the first verse of chapter 11), Paul now turns to questions raised about food. As we read this section and chapter, we should keep in mind that Paul is writing to a particular group of Christians in a particular location at a particular time. There are times where Paul’s instructions will be universal and part of God’s teaching for all Christians for all times. There are other times where these instructions may be limited to a certain group of people in a certain time, such as many of the Mosaic laws about food given to the Israelites. Throughout all of these times, we can learn valuable lessons about how we ought to live as Christians and we can extract general principles from examples even if the specific issues and instructions are not direct correlations to the ones we face today. As we read Scripture, we should always be careful to determine whether an instruction or command is universal and binding for us today or if it was situational and binding only for a certain time for a certain people.

            With that said, Paul’s writing here is addressing a specific set of issues that greatly impacted the Corinthian church but probably doesn’t impact many of us today. The set of issues concerned food, specifically that which was sacrificed to idols. In Corinth specifically, and other cities more broadly, it was common for pagan temples to offer animals in sacrifice to a god (or gods) and then sell off the leftover meat to local butcher shops and marketplaces. Leftover meat was also sometimes served in dining rooms in the temple for dinner parties and other group gatherings. As we learn about the Corinthian church and its members, we come to understand that many of them were wealthy, well-connected to society, and would probably have been accustomed to attending the pagan temple for dinner parties and other social events. Many of the Corinthians would also be coming from a background where they once worshiped and even sacrificed animals to these false idols and gods. Many questions arose from these issues. If a Corinthian believer was invited to a meal at the pagan temple, were they allowed to go and should they go? Were they allowed to buy and eat meat sold in the marketplace if it may have been offered to an idol? If a nonbeliever invited them to their house and served meat that may have been offered to an idol, should they accept or reject or simply abstain from the meat? These issues were of great importance to the Corinthians and there was some measure of disagreement over how to resolve them.

So what does Paul have to say about this? First, Paul addresses the fact that some of the Corinthians have knowledge on this issue but he also warns them to be cautious and humble in their knowledge because “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Paul’s major concern is not only about just being correct and right when it comes to questions of how Christians ought to live. Paul’s major concern is that we would exhibit love and seek to build and edify one another instead of tearing each other down. Paul is not saying that there are unknowable truths or implying in any way that correct knowledge and love will contradict each other. Instead, I think Paul means to warn us that we can be correct in our knowledge but often run the risk of not trying to apply that knowledge or share that knowledge in a loving way. There are certainly times where we must be firm in our convictions and stand against false teaching, deception, and other problems. However, we are always to be a people characterized by love as God defines love (and not necessarily in the way the world defines love). The point of knowledge is not to make ourselves look bigger but rather to live in accordance with God’s will for our lives and to point others to Christ.

When it comes to gaining knowledge and wisdom on the issues in our lives, we must always seek such things from God and from His word. Proverbs 1:7 states, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” We should also be humble to realize that we never have full knowledge and wisdom on all the issues, so Paul says in verse 2 that “if anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” We can absolutely progress in our knowledge of the truth. However, we must be careful that we do not become conceited, puffed up, and arrogant in the process because our knowledge in this life will always remain incomplete and partial.

Paul then states that “if anyone loves God, he is known by God” (v. 3). This wonderful truth reminds us that God knows those who belong to Him and also challenges us to be people who love God. We cannot love God without also loving one another and seeking to build each other up. As we read in 1 John 4:7-8, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” In a future letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds them, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). As Paul addresses the issue of food, he is clear that he wants the Corinthians to keep love for God, love for neighbor, and the spiritual reality that they are a new creation at the forefront of their mind.

In verses 4-6, Paul shares his agreement with the Corinthians who have knowledge that “an idol has no real existence” and “there is no God but one…. 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 emphasis here is to clearly state that Christians worship one God, they do not worship false gods and false idols, and that idols and so-called gods and lords do not have any real power in comparison to the Lord. Therefore, Paul implies that eating food sacrificed to idols is not wrong because we know that the food is from God and belongs to God. In chapter 10, Paul instructs the Corinthians to “eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof’” (1 Corinthians 10:25-26; Paul’s quotation from Psalm 24:1). So, at first glance, Paul seems quite clearly to be saying that the Corinthians can eat meat sacrificed to idols and they are in the clear.

8:7-13 – However, Paul then quickly adds a qualifying statement to this remark: “However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as if really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled” (v. 7). So we must not hastily interpret Paul in this passage to be saying that all Corinthian Christians can now begin eating meat sacrificed to an idol in every venue or that they can continue to attend events in the pagan temple and everything will be fine and dandy. Instead, Paul will give some qualifying remarks in the next couple of chapters to give a fuller picture of the issue and demonstrate how Christians ought to live. This reminds us that context is important and we should always read Scripture by considering the passages before, the passages after, and the whole counsel of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.

Paul makes clear that the eating of food, particularly meat, will not earn us any righteousness or favor with God and neither will abstaining from the food. He then warns the Corinthians to be careful that they do not make their right to eat the meat a “stumbling block” for those Corinthians whose consciences were troubled by such actions. The Greek word for “stumbling block” in this passage refers to something like a stone in a pathway, an obstacle that causes progress to be hindered and causes people to trip. As we consider our actions, we should be careful that we are not causing others to trip and stumble and thus hindering their progress. Paul asks the Corinthians to consider that if they eat in a pagan temple, a believer whose conscience is troubled by their former association with idols and idol worship may then conclude that they ought to also eat meat sacrificed to idols and attend events at the pagan temple even though to do so would cause them to betray their own conscience. Paul delicately balances the fact that eating meat is not sinful with the fact that knowingly troubling another believer in their conscience is sinful, because to do so is to act in selfishness as opposed to acting in a self-denying love that seeks to build up.  

Ultimately, Paul urges the “strong” Corinthians to be considerate of the “weak” Corinthians. The “strong” Christians were those who knew the idol was nothing and ate the food without their conscience being troubled. The “weak” Corinthians were those whose conscience was troubled by the eating of meat and the attendance in pagan temples because they still wrestled with their former association of worshiping and sacrificing to these idols and false gods. Paul concludes, “therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (v. 10). Later in chapter 10, he states, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24). Paul then urges the Corinthians to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). The message here is clear: we should be willing to forsake that which we may have liberty to do if it means that we build each other up and not cause each other to stumble. The guiding principle in our lives is to glorify God in all things (see 1 Corinthians 10:31) and to serve others in such a way that we can help them to see Christ and to trust in Christ (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 and 10:32-33).

Today, very few of us probably wrestle with this issue in the same way the Corinthians did and we are very unlikely to do so unless we visit a culture where pagan temples and worship to false gods and idols is common. So what can we take away from this passage that would still be applicable to us today? I think a general principle we can gather from this passage is that we ought to consider whether our actions are done out of selfishness or out of love. A right action done out of selfishness is no longer a right action (and a wrong action done with good intentions is still a wrong action). I think another general principle is that we should be willing to give up things, even if only for a time or in certain situations, if we know that those things may present an obstacle to ministry to someone, such as abstaining from pork around a Muslim or a Jew. I think we also see Paul in the next chapter offer up some personal examples and applications of this principle in his own life and ministry.

I do think, however, we should be careful in all of this that we do not try to bind other’s consciences and make absolute statements about what others must do just because we have strong opinions in one particular area. This leads us to the error of legalism. At the same time, what one person sees as right may not be right for another person. This is not to say that we should be people who act as if all truth is subjective and we can live however we so desire to live (example: “Well that might be true for you but it isn’t true for me”). This leads us to the error of antinomianism. Rather, we should acknowledge that there is objective truth and we should always be wise and considerate of other believers and attempt to live in such a way that we do not intentionally cause them to stumble by our actions, even if our actions are not, in and of themselves, sinful. Our actions should be motivated out of love and not out of selfishness. This is true whether we seek to love people through abstaining from a freedom we have in Christ or helping someone mature as they see the freedom available in Christ. This is not always an easy application, and there will probably be many times and opportunities where loving, humble Christians come to disagreement over various issues in various ways where things are not always “black and white” but rather are more “gray.” But in all things, we should act with love, wisdom, patience, and grace, while constantly asking the Holy Spirit to provide us with insight and guidance on how we ought to live and how we can build one another up in love.

The Main Point

We should seek to live in such a way that our actions are the result of love, not selfishness, and that we seek to build each other up through love rather than puff up through knowledge. If something we are free to do will cause another believer to stumble, we ought to be willing to sacrifice our freedom in that area out of love for our brother/sister in Christ.

A Few Relevant Scriptures

  • 1 Corinthians 9-11:1 – Paul’s instruction on this issue is further explained in this section and offers a more complete illustration and application.
  • Matthew 15:11 – Jesus tells the people, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.”
  • Acts 15:19-29 Gentile Christians encouraged not to eat meat sacrificed to idols in order to not strain Jewish Christians or create an obstacle to ministering to unbelieving Jews.
  • Romans 14:3 –“Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.”
  • Romans 14:13-23 – Another passage in which Paul repeats his instruction concerning food, conscience, and ensuring that we do not cause our brothers and sisters in Christ to stumble.
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