Love builds up the Body – 1 Cor. 8:1-13
In 1 Cor. 8 we come to a question that is very common in our Christian lives today: "How much should I let other people's views control my actions?" That is, "Do I have to limit my Christian freedom by the narrower views of other Christians?"
This is a problem every Christian faces. People have different opinions about what a Christian should or should not be allowed to do. In our day and age we do not have the same problem that the Corinthians were dealing with. We do not have any debates whether you should eat meat that was offered to idols. (Just for kicks, how many of you struggled with this issue in the last week? Hmmm, I guess not.) The Corinthian church was dealing with this problem, and the answer that Paul gives them teaches us a principle that still applies to many situations today.
The best place to buy a good roast or a good steak in Corinth was right next to the idol temple. In these pagan temples they offered living animals as sacrifice – similar to the practice of the OT. And like the Jews, the pagans reserved some of the meat for the benefit of the priests and also for public sale. The best meat markets were right next door to an idol temple. Everyone in town knew that, if you ate some of that meat, you were eating meat that had been offered to an idol. Therefore, the question arose in the church: "If a Christian eats meat offered to an idol is he not participating in some way in the worship of that idol?"
There was a group within the church that said, "Yes, that is exactly what he is doing. When these pagans here in the city see a known Christian sitting down at the local Pony Corral right next to the temple, and enjoying a steak that had been offered to the idol, they will think that person is going along with the pagan ideas about that idol. Furthermore, he is a stumbling block for the weak Christians who might easily be led back into the worship of an idol by these actions."
And there was another party that said, "No, this is not true. There is nothing to an idol -- it is just a piece of wood or stone. How can you worship something that really does not exist? Let us enjoy our freedom and eat this meat without any question. It is perfectly good meat, and it would be wrong not to barbeque it." This created a division within the church.
We recognize immediately that this problem is still common in the church today. Some Christians for example will not have a Christmas tree because that custom originated with the pagans of Northern Germany who decorated a tree at the winter solstice. Others will not use Easter eggs because this idea also originated with the pagan spring festivals when the egg, the symbol of fertility, was offered to a pagan goddess. And we also organize a Halloween Alternative event as sort of a protest against a pagan feast where children dressed up as ghosts and goblins go from house to house begging for candy.
Now, if we are going to be consistent, we should really not use the names of the days of the week and the months either because they are named for pagan gods. There is "sun"-day and "moon"-day; there is "Thor's"-day (Thor was the god of war); and there January is named for the Roman god Janus, the two-faced god who looked backward to the old year and forward to the new – you get the picture…
Many of these issues are no longer a problem for us, but you can see how the principle is a very difficult one to settle.
This is what they were wrestling with there in Corinth. Paul recognizes the two groups that have an interest in the problem. On the one hand there was the "Freedom Party" that boasted in their knowledge. They stated boldly, "all of us possess knowledge." "Everybody knows that an idol is nothing." In Verse 4 it says “an idol has no real existence," and "there is no God but one.” “Everybody who has some common sense knows that these pieces of wood and stone have no real power. They are just made up ideas and superstitions. Therefore there is no reason not to eat this perfectly good steak."
Some Christians said: "We know there is only one God, and we worship him. When we eat this meat we are not worshipping these pagan gods. It’s not a big deal, we’re just enjoying the juicy steak." They based their actions upon their common sense “knowledge of the facts”.
Paul says, "You’re right. There is only one true God… the Father, from whom all things are and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ."
The knowledge these people had was right. But Paul suggests that there is a problem with knowledge. Although we do not have this meat-eating problem, there are many parallel issues that concern us in the church today.
Some Christians are disturbed about the matter of drinking. Should a Christian drink? Is it wrong to take alcoholic drink in any form -- wine, beer, cocktails, whatever -- or is all that forbidden to us? Is it a sin for a Christian to drink alcohol –especially in light of stiff drinking and driving laws? Some raise the question about smoking, and about public dancing at a party? What about movies and television? What about keeping Sunday as the Lord's day? These and many more issues can divide Christians.
The question is, how do we deal with these issues? It is interesting that almost all of these issues are usually settled on the basis of some "new fact" – a new insight, knowledge or scientific discovery.
Paul simply points out that they have their facts straight. Their knowledge is correct.They are absolutely right that “there is only one God, and the idols have no real power.” But, there is something wrong about saying, “See, I told you so.” Paul says, "knowledge puffs up"; knowledge creates pride; it makes you feel morally and spiritually superior. We only have to listen to some of the arguments we hear today to see how true that is. It does not make any difference which side you are on, on the “freedom” side or on the “verboten” side, knowledge tends to create a sense of pride.
Some say, "Look at those worldly Christians. I would not do the things they do. How can a Christian take a drink? What a terrible thing. He shoulnd’t work on Sunday – (funny they never say that about the Pastor)." These people are truly offended by these “un-christian acts”. They look down on those who feel free to do so, and point their finger at them.
Others say, "Oh, that legalistic brown-nose. What a stick in the mud. When are they ever going to come out of the middle ages? Why don't they just grow up? Why don't they realize that we are free of restrictions through God’s grace?"
This too is a snobbish put down, and a failure to recognize the fact that people hold these convictions sincerely. Again, knowledge creates pride. It puffs up and makes us feel superior to those who are still limited in their understanding.
Paul says, "If any one imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know." When we think that some attitude, or action, or freedom that someone exercises is wrong, we always see things only from our point of view. We never really give any weight to the other person's point of view.
Paul says that he who thinks he knows something does not see very clearly yet. Therefore, we should be careful about our sharp judgment on someone who feels differently and who has freedom to act in a different way. Paul says, “Knowledge alone doesn’t cut it. Doctrine alone is not enough. There has to be something else to settle this kind of problems. You need love.
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Love looks at somebody else's situation, not always one's own. Knowledge is self-centered, but love reaches out to include someone else in your thinking. Love builds up the community of faith. "Furthermore, love opens up a sense of intimacy with God,... if one loves God, one is known by him."
If you love God you are responding to the love of God for you. This is especially evident in your tolerance for the view points of others.
Where is the other person coming from. What are their experiences that have shaped their understanding of the Christian faith? Understanding God’s patience and tolerance with us helps us to be more patient with others.
When we remain stuck on our point of view we base our action on the assumption that everybody understands the reason for what we are doing. But love does not do that. Love looks at the individual. Love says, "Not everyone has the same understanding that I have come to. They may not see things the way I do."
The apostle suggests that their conscience is weak. They need instruction; they need to be educated; they need to develop in their faith. The Bible says that those who do not have the freedom to do some of these things are weak -- they are the "Weak Party." If you do not have the freedom to drink wine or beer or a cocktail, Paul would say that represents a weakness because it does not acknowledge the freedom and liberty and even the example that our Lord and the apostles themselves gave.
But what do you do with weakness? Do you kick it in the face? Do you trample on it? Do you parade your strength and show off your freedom in the face of weakness? Of course Not. Rather you help them overcome their weakness. We do not put them down; we do not make them feel rejected. We reach out to them; meet them where they are, and help them along.
Our struggle is this, "Why should I not enjoy what I feel free to do if I have no bad conscience about it?" Paul points out that it doesn’t really matter whether you eat meat or not, or whether you drink wine or not, or whether you feel free to smoke, or dance, or go trick-or-treating on Halloween. That momentary pleasure is trivial; it is not really all that important. But, what is important is a brother’s or a sister’s spiritual growth. To restrain yourself for the sake of another is a gracious, godly, Christian thing to do.
Therefore, we have to consider our influence on others, and see that what we want to do may not be very important at all, compared with the possible danger to another's spiritual life. This has a bearing on how we act in public, on whether we are willing to show off our freedom in somebody else's face.
If we do something that we know will hurt somebody, we are really sinning against Christ because we are insisting upon fulfilling some momentary satisfaction at the expense of another's spiritual welfare. However, this applies only when there is a clear case, or a real and present danger of destroying somebody spiritually. Verse 10 says, "if any one sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol's temple, might he not be encouraged, [and here is the key] if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?"
The problem is very often not so much a question of somebody's conscience being weak; but rather that somebody's intolerance is great. That is different – and it’s a form of spiritual manipulation. There are many situations where people are in no danger of losing their faith, or not growing in the Lord, because they see someone exercise the freedom that they have in Christ, yet they raise a complaint. They are annoyed by something, and try to stop what others are doing with a clear conscience.
Paul would say that out of Christian consideration for others we should never show off our freedom before anybody who feels strongly about a certain issue. If we feel free to take a glass of wine, we would only do so if we felt there was nobody at the table who would have very strong feelings against it.
Just because people may hear about this someplace else, and be offended by it, is no reason not to exercise liberty because they may actually be helped by that; they may be challenged to rethink the reasons for their limitations, and their conscience may be freed to grow in the Lord.
The church has often tried to limit the behavior of Christians to the conscience of the lowest common denominator, that is the weakest brother in the church. I believe that it doesn’t help the church to grow when one individual holds the church hostage. In any case, that is not what Paul is advocating. He is not talking about a battle of the wills. He is talking about someone who is going to be permanently damaged by an action.
"Therefore,” he says, “if food is a cause of my brother's falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall." That is, love requires self-control in these areas. And Paul gladly gives in. He says, "When it is a case of actually offending somebody I would give up my right gladly." Paul is talking about what he does in the presence of someone.
Dr. H.A.Ironside tells of an incident that illustrates this passage. On one occasion he was at a picnic of Christians, and there was present a man who had been converted from Islam. A girl brought a basket of sandwiches up to this man and asked if he would like some. He said, "What kind do you have?" "Oh," she said, "I'm afraid all we have left are ham or pork." He said, "Don't you have any beef?" She replied, "No, they are all gone." "Well," he said, "then I won't have any." She, knowing that he was a Christian, said to him, "Well, sir, I am really surprised. Don't you know that, as a Christian, you are freed from all these food restrictions, and that you can eat pork or ham or whatever, if you like?" He said, "Yes, I know that. I know I am free to eat pork, but I am also free not to eat it. I'm still involved with my family back in the Near East, and I know that when I go home once a year, and I come up to my father's door, the first question he will ask me is, 'Have those infidels taught you to eat the filthy hog meat yet?' If I have to say to him, 'Yes, father,' I will be banished from that home and have no further witness in it. But if I can say, as I have always been able to say, 'No, father, no pork has ever passed my lips,' then I have admittance to the family circle and I am free to tell them of the joy I have found in Jesus Christ. Therefore I am free to eat, or I am free not to eat, as the case may be."
That little story sets this whole problem in proper perspective. We do not have to have our rights. We are free to give them up anytime the situation warrants it. Though we have the rights, we also have the right not to exercise them for the sake of love.
As we continue to be transformed into the likeness and image of God, may the Love of Christ guide our actions. May we be filled with wisdom, compassion and understanding as we journey together along the way.