One time US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” This subsequently became known in legal circles as the “harm principle.” What is true in the legal world is also true in the ecclesiastical world. This “harm principle” is at the heart of 1 Corinthians 8–10.
Paul teaches, “Your liberty to do what is permissible ends where my spiritual well-being begins.” In other words, my liberty of conscience is to be governed by brotherly concern.
Our church, like, I suspect, most churches, is composed of members from diverse backgrounds: existentially, culturally, and religiously. Therefore, some will face spiritual struggles and temptations that others will not. Nevertheless, each of us is called to exercise brotherly concern in our corporate commitment to building up the body of Christ. We dare not run roughshod over the consciences of each other; rather, we must take care to build one another up in Christ.
We saw previously the danger of swollen heads and shrunken hearts, resulting in injured saints. When head knowledge eclipses heart devotion to Jesus Christ, the Lord is dishonoured and his people are disheartened. Pastor Paul will have none of it as we see in these next three very important chapters.
Paul answers a query from this church concerning the permissibility of eating food offered to idols as well as the permissibility of attending functions at an idol temple. Those “in the know” exercised their personal liberty doing so, but to the detriment of other church members who did not “know” this kind of liberty. It seems that those who felt full liberty in this area wanted Paul to set the others straight. It is clear from the opening three verses that these were rather smug towards those whose consciences would not allow them the same liberty. Perhaps the latter were hyper-critical towards those with “knowledgeable liberty.” The unity and wellbeing of the congregation was under threat. Paul therefore admonishes brotherly concern for one another. We need the same admonishment. I want to unpack this wise admonishment as we study vv. 4–13 under three major headings:
- A Settled Confidence (vv. 4–6)
- A Sensitive Conscience (v. 7)
- A Selfless Concern (vv. 8–13)
A Settled Confidence
“Therefore” indicates a connection with what has just been written. In vv. 4–6 highlight a settled confidence:
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.
(1 Corinthians 8:4–6)
Paul has pastorally admonished those claiming to be “knowledgeable” that their first duty is to consider love for God and love for those whom God knows and loves (v. 3). If love does not temper their doctrinal knowledge then they really know nothing at all.
Having established this foundation, Paul concedes that their knowledge was correct concerning the illusory nature of idols. “Yes”, he agrees, “You are correct that ‘an idol has no real existence’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’” He further affirms the importance of Christians being settled in their theological confidence that all other “gods” but God are empty and useless because non-existent, regardless of them being popularly referred to as “gods” and “lords.”
Paul is affirming the old covenant Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4–9), but with a new covenant addendum: This one God is revealed in the one Lord Jesus Christ, who is God (v. 6)! Regardless of the issue he is addressing, he just can’t resist pointing his readers to the Lord Jesus Christ! I suspect that, when our church faces various challenges of body life, being pointed to Jesus will pretty much resolve the matter as well.
Paul shared the settled confidence of those “in the know” concerning the non-existence of idols. They are all shams and scams. Christians should neither be intimidated nor otherwise influenced by these religious illusions.
We should have a brotherly concern that each member of our church be well-grounded in biblical monotheism, including love of the one true God.
A biblically settled confidence that there is only one God will equip us to avoid the folly of idolatry, including idolatry of money, sex, success, family, and education. The latter looms large on the horizon at present. Young people, don’t fall for it. Yes, study, prepare, get proper rest, but don’t live for your exams. Don’t live for your matric results. Don’t live for a university exemption. Rather, seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, which will put your studies in their proper perspective. Parents, you need to demonstrate this settled confidence. There is only one God, and his name is not “Distinctions.”
Let us help one another to grow in this settled confidence/conviction about who God is and who the “gods” are not. We all need this knowledge. As we grow in this understanding, we will also find ourselves with more liberty in this life. That is, we will not be fearful of the unreal. We will be less prone to being “offended” by matters of biblical indifference (Romans 14). We will more freely love our brothers and sisters, being zealously committed to helping them to be “free” as well.
A Sensitive Conscience
Paul next addresses those with a sensitive conscience: “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” (v. 7).
Paul moves from a pastoral affirming “therefore” (v. 4) to a pastoral admonishing “however” in v. 7. Not everyone, Paul says, has this settled confidence. Rather, because of their “former association with idols” they “eat food as really offered to an idol.” And, of course, since they are Christians, “their conscience … is defiled.” The words means “to be soiled,” “to be stained,” or “to be polluted.” That is a terrible condition for anyone’s conscience, particularly for a Christian who, by nature, desires to please the Lord, whom, of course, he or she loves.
In the context, Paul defines a “weak” conscience as one who does not have the settled confidence of vv. 4–6. That is, this Christian struggles to overcome the sense that the idol is a real rival to God. He cannot merely dismiss the ritual of offering meat to an idol as completely meaningless. Rather, his conscience tells him that, by either eating meat that was offered to an idol or by eating a meal in a temple, he is committing idolatry. And as Paul will make plain, this is not only a problem for the Christian with a weak conscience; it should also be seen as a problem for whose conscience is strong in this area. After all, because we love the brethren, because we are concerned about the spiritual welfare of our brother and sister in Christ, we will want to guard them from committing idolatry—at least to their own mind.
What could this look like in our own context?
In some instances, some might be expected to participate in a funeral ritual that emphasises pleasing ancestors. Though you may know it is all a false illusion, nevertheless a Christian with an overly sensitive conscience might believe they are committing an act of idolatry by even attending the event.
Others might struggle with the same doubts when it comes to eating food that has been declared hallel.
Some Christians believe that they should boycott businesses who promote godless causes. For example, there are some in South Africa who will not buy from Woolworths during pride month, believing that their purchases will support that agenda. I know that I am not supporting this ungodly agenda when I purchase items at Woolworths, but my brother or sister might be of the view they are doing precisely that.
Though I know the Bible does not condemn moderate use of wine, another Christian may feel very strongly that to drink a glass of wine is tantamount to disobeying and dishonouring the Lord.
We are not yet dealing with how we should respond to any of these matters; we are simply highlighting Paul’s point that we need to have a sensitive concern for those with a sensitive conscious. Don’t assume all have the same biblical understanding that you do. Understanding this, be careful how you respond. This brings us to the last, and longest, point in the passage.
A Selfless Concern
In vv. 8–13, Paul instructs those who have knowledge how they should respond to those without knowledge. In a word, they are to be selfless toward them, which brings us back to vv. 1–3, where the priority of love is enjoined. He exhorts three things in this regard.
First, he charges sensibility: “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (v. 8).
Verse 8 should be seen as related to what has gone before, and yet it is the beginning of a new paragraph. That is, Paul moves from focusing on those with a “weak conscience” to those who should be concerned for them.
Paul reminds those with knowledge that whether one eats meat (offered to idols) makes no difference one way or the other concerning ones relationship with the Lord. By using the word “commend” (to stand, substantiate, recommend), Paul makes the point that, when it comes to one’s acceptance before the Lord, what and where one eats is irrelevant. As he has already said, it is through the Lord Jesus Christ that the Christian “exists” as one who belongs to and worships the one true God. He is the way, the truth, and the life by which repentant sinners are reconciled to God.
Now, of course, those with knowledge already know this (vv. 1–4), so why does Paul say this? Because he is emphasising that one’s relationship with the Lord is priority, not social climbing. Let me explain.
As indicated previously, social life was intertwined with religious life in the ancient world. Religious temples were intertwined with trade guilds, commercial life, and social relationships. Hence, to cut oneself off from these temples was tantamount to being ostracised. To not be involved in the temples was to make one worse off communally, even financially. To engage in functions at the temple was indeed to make one better off in the commercial world. But when it came to one’s relationship with the Lord, they made no difference at all. That is the one relationship that mattered. It should therefore be the priority of those with knowledge. It should also be their major concern for those with less knowledge. In other words, before exhorting those with knowledge how to respond to those with a weak conscience, he simply says, “Since you are accepted by the Lord, who cares if you are accepted by the world?”
When it comes to the exercise of our liberty, consider, first of all, the wonderful blessing of belonging to the Lord: that he accepts you. If you are God’s child, if you are in Christ, you have all you need. You don’t have to be a success in your trade, popular in your social circles, or affirmed by your unbelieving family. What you do need is to know, and rejoice, and rest in the wonderful gospel blessing that we are accepted—commended—in the beloved (Ephesians 1:6).
Brothers and sisters, let us be scripturally sensible about what really matters. When we are, we will be well-positioned to be sensitive.
In vv. 9–12, Paul makes a strong appeal to those with a stronger conscience to be aware of those in the church who are not so knowledgeable, but who have a weak conscience in the matter of that which is in any way associated with idolatry. His appeal is that they be sensitive about the exercise of their liberty—about the exercise of their rights/liberty of conscience.
But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.
(1 Corinthians 8:9–12)
Perhaps this should be in inverted commas. Paul may be indicating their self-claimed rights. Nevertheless, he exhorts them to be sensitive in two ways.
First, be sensitive that your rights don’t ruin a bother in Christ (vv. 9–11). The exhortation is quite straightforward. Acknowledging their right to go to temples for various functions, while acknowledging their right to eat food that has been offered to idols, Paul cautions them to “take care” (“pay attention,” “beware”) of tempting a brother or sister to sin by this right.
What Paul envisions is a well-grounded church member engaging in a temple related function that “encourages” (literally, “builds up”) someone who believes it is an idolatrous act to participate. The liberty of the knowledgeable actually becomes a “stumblingblock” to the one with a weak conscience. This word translated “stumblingblock” is used in the New Testament with reference to someone “stubbing” their faith, resulting in apostasy; that is, “stumbling into unbelief” (Romans 9:32–33; 1 Peter 2:8). Specifically, Paul is saying that those insensitively exercising their liberty of conscience set an “example” that “may lead weaker brothers and sisters in Christ to consciously participate in an activity that they consider idolatrous” (Ciampa and Rosner).with the result that they continue down that path into apostasy and the “weak person is destroyed.”
Paul’s use of “destroyed” indicates more than a Christian being perplexed, confused, and wrestling with a guilty conscience. This is a strong word, most often used in the context of eschatological destruction. Most famously, perhaps, is its use in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” That is, those who believe on Jesus Christ will be saved from eternal perishing under the wrath from God. Schreiner concludes, “The stumbling envisioned here is fatal, denoting final judgment; hence Paul does not address a trivial matter.”
Paul is giving a hypothetical warning, lest those with a settled confidence inadvertently lead a fellow church member to everlasting ruin. Paul identifies such as “the brother for whom Christ died” (v. 11). We need to pause and consider these sobering words.
At first blush, it appears that Paul is indicating that Christians can lose their salvation. If the person for whom Christ died can be lost, where is the eternal security? Where is the perseverance of the saint? I believe there is a nuance here. Again, Paul is speaking hypothetically in one sense, but actually in another.
As he continues to address the issue of idolatry, he will conclude with strong words in chapter 10, citing the apostasy of Israel as an example of the spiritual (and otherwise) destruction associated with idolatry. It is clear from what he will say there that God destroyed those who outwardly associated with God’s people. Peter uses the same imagery in 2 Peter 2:1: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.”
True believers persevere, but many associate covenantally with brothers and sisters in Christ, benefiting externally from Christ who died for his own, who may not be “the real deal.” In fact, they may be “weak” because they have not yet been won.
The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is not like its caricature: “Once a person professes faith they are saved and saved forever.” Not at all. Rather, the Bible teaches that those who have been born again will, over the long, haul give evidence of this. They will run the race that has been set before them as they look to the author and the finisher of their faith (12:1–2). This race is run with the help of others; it is run successfully with the aid of fellow Christians who share and show and strengthen with brotherly concern.
In other words, saints persevere both individual and corporately. If someone stumbles along the way and is disqualified, church members need to be sure they were not guilty of tripping them along the way. We must assume that Christ died for everyone who professes that he did so. This motivates us to practically demonstrate brotherly concern and hence the restriction of our liberty. That is, don’t get in the way of the gospel.
If someone falls away, God forbid they should point a condemning finger at us. And for those who persevere to the end, let us be lovingly selfless in our lifestyle, thereby not making their race more difficult than it already is. God forbid a fellow church member is bruised and battered from a fall because we caused them to stumble. If Christ died for them, we can be sure that he will pay attention to how we treat them.
Obviously, this indicates the real possibility that church membership will sometimes include, inadvertently, unbelievers. We need to be sensitive, particularly as the church grows numerically, that some may not be in Christ—yet. And thus we must be sensitive how we exercise our freedom in Christ.
Another area in which liberty requires brotherly sensitivity is with reference to people coming to faith from an Islamic background. In the sphere of missiology, this is particularly relevant in our day.
There is an increasingly influential movement in Muslim background evangelism whereby new converts are encouraged by those who have a settled confidence concerning theological truth to remain in the trappings of Islam. That is, new converts—particularly in closed countries—are told that they can continue to go to the mosque but, while there, pray to Yahweh. They are encouraged to involve themselves in Islamic rituals, even though they are aware that they are empty and false. Of course, the purpose is to provide protection from persecution and, purportedly, to provide witnessing opportunities to family and friends. When you think about it, this would be the precise argument offered by those “in the know” in the church of Corinth to those with a “weak” conscience: “Go ahead and participate in the temple gatherings. Don’t make a fuss. Rather keep an evangelistic door open. Don’t come across as a ‘nay-sayer,’ for you will be ostracised, or worse.” But how does Paul counsel? He says, in a sense, “What will it profit a person who violates their conscience [saving their skin] but loses their soul?”
At issue, as we will see more clearly when we come to chapter 10, is that it is never right for a professing Christian to play around with their conscience and therefore it is never right for another Christian to even hint that it is. Eternity is at stake. Perhaps the person is not yet a Christian, though outwardly they profess to be. Therefore, if a door is left open for apostasy, we had better close it. It is a terrible thing for someone to perish through our self-centred refusal to put their well-being before our own.
One final example: The worldly counsel provided, even sometimes by Christians, to “not make waves” and therefore go along with the crowd, may lead to eternal ruin, to everlasting damnation of a person’s soul. Be careful. Be sensitive. As Paul will say in 2 Corinthians 6, come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord.
Consider the eclectic nature of ZCC and other African traditional religions. It is a terrible thing to be guilty of paving the way for someone’s spiritual destruction, whether that be temporal misery or eternal separation from the one true and living God.
Second, be sensitive that your rights don’t ruin yourself (v. 12). The phrase in v. 11—“the brother for whom Christ died”—is a powerfully stark statement meant to alert those “in the know” to be sensitive to what is at stake. Christ’s sheep are valuable to him. If we harm them or put them in spiritual harm’s way, we are putting ourselves in spiritual harm’s way. When we are careless rather than concerned about the spiritual well-being of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are guilty, not only of sinning against them, but also of sinning against Christ.
The word “wounding” means “to pummel with a stick with repeated blows.” It is used twelve times in the New Testament, several times to record how the soldiers struck Jesus before his crucifixion (Matthew 27:30; Mark 15:19). It is also used to in Acts 18:17 to describe how the mob took the ruler of the Corinthian synagogue and beat him during Paul’s evangelistic ministry and the founding of this church. Most likely, Paul’s use of the word would have struck a cord with the congregation. He paints a graphic picture of the effect that an insensitive, unconcerned church member may have on another who is struggling because they are not as scripturally and emotionally settled on a particular issue of conscience. He reminds them that, like Christ’s enemies, they are sinning against, even in a sense “pummelling,” Jesus Christ. This should make us very sensitive to consider one another.
Jesus warned against insensitive, dismissive treatment of fellow church members when he said,
Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.
When Jesus confronted Saul on his way to kill Christians, he demanded an answer to “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” But, of course, Saul had been persecuting Christians, those who belonged to Christ (Acts 9:4). The point, of course, is that to sin against those who belong to Christ is to sin against Christ himself. To do so is to invite his judgement. To do so is to invite self-ruin. Let us be careful. Let us be sensitive. Let us have brotherly concern.
Finally, Paul urges his readers to be sacrificial: “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (v. 13).
As I read these closing words, I think I can hear the voice of Queen Elsa (or is it Idina Menzel?) declaring “Let it go!” Well, maybe not, but, essentially, that is Paul’s exhortation.
When Christians exercise brotherly concern, they are willing to sacrifice their rights, willing to forego their “privileges” for the sake of their fellow church members. Paul begins the chapter with an appeal to love and closes it with this example of love. If eating meat offered to idols, thereby exercising his legitimate right to hang out at a idol temple, might lead to a brother or sister in Christ tripping up, resulting in spiritual detriment, he will never eat meat. This is a strong negative statement implying “forever.” Paul was willing to become a vegan if that would help his brother to follow Christ!
Paul appreciated the value of a Christian. Do we? Or are we obsessed with our rights and with our privileges?
Paul believed in the wrath of God and was therefore willing to forego temporal rights and pleasures and opportunities to help someone avoid this wrath.
In other words, Paul was truly a follower of Jesus Christ and therefore he lived sacrificially. I recently spoke to a young mom, who had been speaking to her daughter about the crucifixion. Her daughter said, “Mommy, I wouldn’t want to die on a cross. I wouldn’t want thorns pushed onto my head. I would so, ‘No thanks. Toodles.’” The mom wise responded, “Aren’t you glad that Jesus didn’t respond that way but rather he was willing to be crucified for you?” That is a good gospel response.
Jesus sacrificing his life out of loving-concern is the pattern for those whom he is not ashamed to call his brothers (Hebrews 2:11). Since Jesus laid down his life for us, we must be willing to lay down our life for our brothers (1 John 3:16).
When we realise, and experientially appreciate, the death of Jesus Christ for us on the cross, when we realise and experientially appreciate that Jesus rose from the dead for our acceptance before God, and when we realise and experientially appreciate that the Lord Jesus Christ intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father, preserving us until our resurrection to glory, we will realise and experientially appreciate how his concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ is to be our concern as well.
Brothers and sisters, let us sacrificially love one another, giving up whatever rights might cause us to wrong another.