Liberty Versus a Brother’s Conscience

Paul leaves the topic of marriage to address a new set of questions concerning idolatry. This question plus several others are used to address a broader issue of how brethren are to relate to one another, especially when brethren don’t have the same depth of understanding concerning a topic.

Like the other questions asked of Paul by the Corinthians, we are told the topic, but we are left to guess how the actual question was worded. From Paul’s answer, it appears there was disagreement over whether meat that came from an idol temple should be eaten by Christians. The problem arose because the idol religions raised funds by selling unused meat from their sacrifices through the market places. Sometimes a person would not know if a cut of meat being purchased came from a butcher or from a temple to some idol.

The Problem of Knowledge (I Corinthians 8:1-3)

Before answer the question, some foundation needed to be first laid. Humans have an unfortunate tendency toward pride. When we "know" something, we assume that everyone else knows the same thing. When someone else doesn't have precisely the same knowledge that we possess, then we look down our noses at the poor ignorant man. We all need to be knowledgeable, but not to wrap a barrier around ourselves. Love for our fellow man motivates us to share our knowledge and in that sharing, we all grow stronger in God's Word. Always the important point is: Is the person obedient to God? It is not important whether they happen to agree with me or not. It is a difficult point because we tend to decide that whatever I know must be what God wants. Yet this very approach rules out that I might be wrong. When I judge matters against myself, I become the standard instead of God. But in our arrogance we assume that those who have come to a different conclusion are doing so on purpose -- it could be true, but it also could be a lack of growth.

Our own knowledge can distract us from the goal. What we know focuses on ourselves. But Christianity is about serving others (Mark 10:42-45; John 21:15-17). When someone lacks knowledge it is an opportunity to teach (Romans 14:19; II Corinthians 10:8; Ephesians 4:11-16). Knowledge’s value comes in the sharing, not in the possessing, of knowledge.

When a person thinks they know everything about a subject, they are deceiving themselves. There is always more to be learned, but a person who thinks he knows it all doesn’t learn and therefore becomes even less knowledgeable about what he thinks he knows so well (Galatians 6:3; I Timothy 6:3-5).

It should be our love for God that then drives us to do the best for our brethren (I John 4:11-12; 5:1-2). Love then gives us humility and a perspective that what is important is the approval of God and not man (Psalm 1:6; II Timothy 2:19; Galatians 4:9; Matthew 7:23). Such a viewpoint will give us a better perspective when address which actions are right and which are wrong.

The Truth about Idols (I Corinthians 8:4-6)

Idols don’t really exist. Oh, there are things people worship, but they are figments of people’s imagination. Idols aren’t alive (Deuteronomy 4:28; Psalms 115:4-8). They can’t move on their own (Isaiah 45:20; Jeremiah 10:5). They are simply objects created by men (Isaiah 2:8; 40:18-20; 44:9-20; Acts 17:29) modeled after inferior things (Romans 1:23). Only God truly exists. Even if others insist on their existence, as many do, there is still only one God. Just as there are many rulers in the world, but to the Christian, there is only one Lord.

There is one Father. From this personage of the Godhead, all things exist (Genesis 1:1; Acts 17:28) and we exist for Him (Ezekiel 18:4). There is one Lord. By Jesus Christ, all things exist (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2) and we exist through Him (Colossians 1:20). The Father is the source of all that exists and Jesus is the agency by which it was formed. Thus we belong to God since we are from God and it is through the work of Jesus that we can approach him.

Paul is not saying there is a contrast between the Father and Jesus Christ – that only the Father is God and only Jesus is Lord. God is one. The Father and Jesus are both God, though the Father being the head represents best God in His entirety (Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13). Jesus currently has all authority (Matthew 28:18-20) and thus best represents the rule of God. Each shares the same traits, just in differing degrees (Romans 11:36; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 2:10). The one God and one Lord is being contrasted with the many gods and the many lords of the Gentiles.

Literary Styles: Parallel Statements

Common as a form of poetry in the Bible, parallel statements gives the reader similar but different statements. It is by examining both what is the same, as well as what is different, which gives a deeper appreciation of the subject at hand.

In this case:

yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him;
and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.

The parallelism shows both the similarities of the Father and the son as well as the slight differences in the roles they play in the universe.

How Liberty Can Harm the Weak (I Corinthians 8:7-13)

Tying the two points: that knowledge can be dangerous and the knowledge that idols are not truly real, Paul points out the danger of simple emphasis on the truth. Not everyone understands that an idol is the figment of men’s imagination. Many have grown up with idols and strongly associate the eating of meat with idolatry. They would not be able to eat without thinking that they were supporting idolatry (Romans 14:20-23).

Food is food and doesn’t make a person better or worse for eating it or avoiding it. This is an important point in the discussion because it means at the most fundamental level neither the one with the knowledge nor the one without the knowledge is in sin.

One with knowledge could eat, even in an idol temple, and not consider it as worship. However, those watching who don’t understand won’t come to the same conclusion. It is possible because of peer pressure to go ahead and partake even though it bothers them and thus their conscience becomes defiled by their doubts.

Therefore, knowledge can cause can harm another even though the knowledge is accurate and true. And the sin is not just against the person who then acts in doubt, it is also a sin against Jesus since he died for their sins, and acting in doubt is a sin.

Paul resolves that if he must give up meat to keep another from stumbling, then it is worth the price. In other words, a strong Christian is expected to give up some of his liberties if that will help a weaker Christian to remain faithful. Christianity isn’t about demanding our rights but looking out for the safety of others (Philippians 2:3-4).

Class Discussion:

  1. Is anything that a person thinks is wrong, actually wrong?
  2. If there is something good which one brother wants to do, but another brother has doubts about whether it should be done, does this discussion apply (James 4:17)?
  3. If someone thinks there is nothing wrong with a little white lie, is Paul saying it would be all right, but he should avoid it so as to not harm a brother’s conscience?
  4. Is Paul saying that Christians could attend worship services to an idol?
  5. Assume that a denominational church is selling an item at a really good price as a fundraiser, would it be wrong to purchase the product? Could it be wrong in some circumstances and harmless in others?

Concept Study: Strong versus Weak

  1. Make a list of all the verses in I Corinthians where some form of the listed words or their synonyms are used.
    1. Jot beside each reference what you learn from the verse about the concept.
    2. Organize those ideas. Which verses address the ideas of who, what, where, when, why, and how?
    3. Write a paragraph about what the concept means, addressing who, what, where, when, why, and how.
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