Last week in chapter 7 of 1 Corinthians Paul began answering questions that the church had specifically asked him. The first major set of questions they had had to do with marriage. They asked things like:
-Is it better to get married or stay single?
-Is it ok for a widow to get remarried?
-Should an individual get a divorce if they become a Christian and their spouse doesn’t believe?
After answering their questions about marriage, Paul turned to another controversial subject in the letter he received from the Corinthian church: “Can Christians eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols?” You may wonder how this question has any relevance for us today, but it’s actually incredibly relevant as it speaks to the issue of Christian freedom. We face this issue all the time as we consider and debate things such as:
-Is it right for Christians to watch TV shows or movies with cussing/violence/nudity/crude joking?
-Should a believer drink alcohol or smoke?
-Should you allow your children or teenagers to play violent video games?
-Is it ok for a believer to play the lottery or gamble?
-To what extent can/should a Christian get involved in politics?
-Should you shop at a store that allows either gender to use whichever bathroom they choose?
-How should Christians view debt?
-Is it ok to get tattoos or piercings?
-Should you use birth control or not?
-How should we view end-of-life decisions and procedures with regard to hospitalization?
-The list could go on and on…
What we will find in 1 Corinthians chapters 8-10 is that Paul gives four basic principles that serve to guide believers in making personal decisions about “questionable” areas of the Christian life. The principle that we will be looking at today is that KNOWLEDGE MUST BE BALANCED BY LOVE.
In order to understand the confusion that the Corinthian church faced, we need to understand that there were two sources of meat in the ancient world: the regular market (where the prices were higher) and the local temples (where meat from the sacrifices was always available). The members of the church who were stronger in their faith realized that idols could not contaminate food, so they saved money by purchasing the cheaper meat available from the temples. Additionally, if non-Christian friends invited them to a gathering where sacrificial meat was being served, the strong Christians attended it whether it was being held at the temple or at their house.
These things offended the weaker Christians. Many of them had come to know Christ and made the choice to leave their life of pagan idolatry so they couldn’t understand why their fellow believers would want to have anything to do with meat that had been sacrificed to idols. This created the potential for division in the church, so the leaders asked Paul for counsel. As he instructed them, Paul called to their attention three important factors: knowledge, love, and conscience.
Knowledge (1 Cor. 8:1-2)
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.
If you remember back to chapter 1, the Corinthians were proud of their spiritual knowledge (1 Cor. 1:5). They knew that an idol was nothing more than a depiction of a false god who existed only in the minds of those who worshiped it. So for them the conclusion was logical: A nonexistent god could not contaminate food offered on his altar.
How might this attitude look today? Let’s consider the example of drinking alcohol. While many Christians do not drink alcohol and feel that it is wrong to do so, the fact is that Scripture never teaches that we shouldn’t drink. Alcohol was a regular part of the culture in which Jesus lived and we never hear Him teaching, or even practicing, abstinence from alcohol. In fact, His first miracle was to transform water into wine to rescue a family from embarrassment at their wedding. However, Scripture does teach us in Ephesians 5:18 that we are not to “…get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, [we are to] be filled with the Spirit.” Based solely on Scripture, without taking anyone else into consideration, it’s easy to make a logical argument that drinking alcohol is perfectly fine. So why is there any disagreement about this subject?
There are several lines of argument against Christians drinking such as the desire to be above reproach. This idea comes from the list of qualifications for pastors in 1 Timothy 3:2 where Paul gives the instruction that a pastor should be, “…above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach.” It is good for a Christian to live a life of such morality that their faith, and more importantly, the goodness of God cannot be called into question. Another line of argument against drinking is the consideration of those who have come to faith and found freedom from alcohol addiction. This is why many churches today serve Welch’s Grape Juice instead of wine during communion – we don’t want to trip up anyone who used to have an addiction to alcohol with a practice that should serve to draw them closer to the Lord.
So why were the weak Christians in Corinth upset with their fellow believers when their position (regarding the fact that meat couldn’t possibly be contaminated by gods that didn’t actually exist) was so logical? Because you don’t always solve every problem with logic. A child who is afraid of the dark is not assured by logical arguments. We need to understand that knowledge can be a weapon to fight with or a tool to build with, depending on how it is used. So we need to remind ourselves that KNOWLEDGE MUST BE BALANCED BY LOVE. If knowledge is used to “puff up” our pride then it cannot be simultaneously used to “build up” someone else’s faith. As Christians, we are commanded often in Scripture to build one another up. The author of Hebrews said, “…let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Heb. 10:24-25)
Verse 2 tells us that a know-it-all attitude is evidence of ignorance. The person who actually knows truth is typically aware of how much they don’t know. We need to remember that knowing doctrine doesn’t necessarily lead to knowing or living for God. It’s very possible to grow in Bible knowledge and yet not grow in grace or righteousness. The primary test is love, which is the second factor Paul discusses in today’s passage.
Love (1 Cor. 8:3-6)
But the man who loves God is known by God. 4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
Love and knowledge must go together. Ephesians 4:15 expresses this when it explains that we need to “speak the truth in love.” It’s been said that, “Truth without love is brutality, but love without truth is hypocrisy.” Knowledge is power and it must be used in love. The strong believers in the Corinthian church had knowledge, but they were not using their knowledge in love. Instead of building up the weaker saints, the strong Christians were only puffing up themselves.
Paul’s desire was for the stronger saints to help the weaker saints to grow. Some people have the false notion that the strong Christians are the ones who live by rules and regulations and who get offended when others exercise their freedom in Christ; but that’s actually not the case. It is the weaker Christians who need the security of law and are afraid to use their freedom in Christ. It is the weaker Christians who are prone to judge and criticize stronger believers and to stumble over what they do. This judgement and criticism, of course, makes it more difficult for the stronger saints to minister to their weaker brothers and sisters.
It is here that love enters the picture, because “love builds up” and puts others first. When spiritual knowledge is used in love, the stronger Christian can take the hand of the weaker Christian and help them to stand and walk so as to enjoy their freedom in Christ. You can’t force-feed immature believers and transform them into giants. KNOWLEDGE MUST BE BALANCED BY LOVE; otherwise, we will end up with “big heads” instead of enlarged hearts.
So what does this look like in practice? Let’s go back to the alcohol example. If you are a Christian who drinks alcohol and you know that a fellow believer has either struggled with alcohol in the past or is of the opinion that Christians should abstain from drinking, then out of love, you could choose to not drink or talk about drinking around that person. If you invite them over for a meal, out of love and a desire not to trip them up, you could choose to abstain from drinking for that meal.
Now you might be wondering why it’s you that has to change and not them. “Why is it all on me? Why shouldn’t they get over themselves and realize that this is ok and deal with it?” There are a couple of reasons for this. First, it is always the stronger person who has to help the weaker person in life. Whether it’s stronger mentally, emotionally, or physically, if you want a relationship with someone who is weaker, you have to help them. This is what we do for our kids – we don’t look down on them for not knowing as much or not being as physically strong, we help them because we love them. Secondly, we do this because our model is Jesus. Jesus willingly laid down everything so that we could have access to Him. So as we follow Him, we also are to willingly take up our cross, lay down our rights, and love others so that we can build them up.
Knowledge and love are two important factors. KNOWLEDGE MUST BE BALANCED BY LOVE if we are to use our Christian freedom in the right way. But we see a third factor in verses 7-13.
Conscience (1 Cor. 8:7-13)
But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. 9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.
Conscience is that internal court where our actions are judged and are either approved or condemned. Conscience is not the law, but it bears witness to God’s moral law. The important thing for us to consider is this: conscience depends on knowledge. The more spiritual knowledge we know and act on, the stronger our consciences will become.
Some Christians have weak consciences because they have been saved for only a short time and have not had as much opportunity to grow. Like little children in the home, they need to be guarded carefully. Other saints have weak consciences because they don’t want to grow. They ignore their Bibles and Christian fellowship and remain in a state of infancy (1 Cor. 3:1–4; Heb. 5:11–14). But some believers remain weak because they are afraid of freedom. They are like a child that’s old enough to go to school, but is afraid to leave home and must be taken to school each day.
Paul tells us that the conscience of a weak Christian is easily defiled (1 Cor. 8:7), wounded (1 Cor. 8:12), and offended (1 Cor. 8:13). So for this reason, the stronger saints must defer to the weaker saints and do nothing that would harm them. It might not harm the faith of a mature saint to share a feast in an idolatrous temple, but it might harm his weaker brother. 1 Corinthians 8:10 warns that the immature believer might decide to imitate his stronger brother and thus be led into sin.
We are commanded to be careful not to be a stumbling block to others. This doesn’t mean that we have to pamper those who are weaker in the faith, it means that our goal should be to build them up and help them grow rather than demanding our rights. KNOWLEDGE MUST BE BALANCED BY LOVE. We are free in Christ, but we must take care that our spiritual knowledge is balanced by love, and that we do not tempt the weaker Christian to run ahead of their conscience.
Where knowledge is balanced by love, the strong Christian will have a ministry to the weak Christian, and the weak Christian will grow and become strong – this is our aim as a church. As the Body of Christ it is our goal at all times to strengthen and respect each part of the Body that God has given us, that He might be glorified and that the body might be built up to unity and strength.
As you interact with others you must balance your knowledge with love so that others might be built up in the Lord.
The way you relate carries great weight, so relate in love.