Saturday, 11 December 2004 17:29

Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (21)

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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (21)

1 Corinthians 8:1-7

Broadcast: July 12, 1998; Message Number 1480

Christian Liberty (1)

In his first letter to the Corinthians the apostle Paul answers several questions put to him by members of the church at Corinth. In chapter 7 we saw how he dealt with the issue of marriage and celibacy and now in the next three chapters the apostle turns to another question on which the Corinthians sought his advice, namely whether Christians should be allowed to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. To us this is a non-issue, of course, but the principle involved here does concern us because it has to do with Christian liberty. Do we as Christians have the freedom to participate in activities or enjoy things which are not expressly forbidden in Scripture? If the answer is yes, how far does this freedom go? Are there not some restrictions that need to be observed? If so, what are they?

These are crucial question which Christians of every generation have asked. In New Testament times one of the issues was eating meats offered to idols. Today we face different issues, but the underlying principle remains the same. How do we deal with questions about so-called adiaphora or things indifferent? Adiaphora are things about which Scripture is silent or unclear so that it is hard to say they are either right or wrong, good or bad.

On most things, of course, the Bible is very clear. We can speak with absolute authority on the sinfulness of stealing, committing adultery, murder and other commandments. In addition, Scripture forbids and commands other things that can be directly related to the Decalogue by implication or extension. These should not be viewed as questionable issues. They are either right or wrong.

There are, however, many things that Scripture neither commands nor forbids. They don't fall into the category of black or white, but belong to the so-called gray areas. Believers may differ as to what exactly constitutes a gray area, but few will disagree that there are such things as adiaphora. The best we can hope for is a willingness to tolerate each other and to respect each other's opinion. What is crucial, however, is that we understand the importance of the doctrine of Christian liberty. "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free," Jesus says in John 8:32. "It was for freedom that Christ set us free," Paul affirms in Galatians 5:1.

But Christian liberty is not without boundaries. It does not mean freedom to sin. There are two extremes to which people go in regard to things indifferent. One is legalism; the other is license. Legalism believes that every act and every type of behaviour is either black or white. Legalists classify everything as either good or bad, whether the Bible mentions it or not. They draw up exhaustive lists of do's and don'ts. As long as a person does the things on the good list and avoids the things on the bad list he is considered spiritual, no matter what he's like on the inside.

On the opposite extreme is license. Like legalism, it has no gray areas, but neither does it have much black. Almost everything is white; everything is OK as long as it is not strictly forbidden by Scripture. As long as your conscience is clear you can do as you please. That seems to have been the tendency among those Paul is addressing in I Corinthians 8. They were believers. They observed the commandments spelled out in Scripture, but beyond that they wanted to enjoy their freedom in Christ without any restrictions.

But they should not just go by their own consciences. They must also respect the consciences of their weaker brothers and sisters in Christ who had difficulties with some of the things which they, the supposedly stronger ones, were doing.

In response to the specific question about eating food offered to idols, Paul gives a general and universal principle that can be applied to all questionable behaviour. The principle is this: enjoy your liberty, but take care lest this freedom of yours become a stumbling-block to the weak. Here is a lesson also for us today: Before we exercise our Christian liberty in things not forbidden by Scripture we should consider how it will affect others, especially fellow believers.

The problem referred to in this chapter was a very pressing one for the Christians in Corinth. With the exception of the small Jewish community, the whole population of Corinth practised idolatry. The worship of idols and all that went with it had become very much part of their social life. Birthday parties and other social gatherings always involved some sort of sacred ritual. Much of the food being served would be sacrificed to idols. The person giving the party might buy a steer and bring it to the priest to prepare it for the feast. The priest would butcher the animal, burn the fat and the entrails as a sacrifice to the gods, keep a choice portion of the meat for himself and give the rest to the worshipper who would then serve it at his party. Any meat that was left over was sold wholesale in the public market.

Some of these idol feasts were held right in the temple and sometimes Christian friends and relatives would be invited. Most parties, however, were held in private homes. After the meat was sacrificed to the idol in the temple, the worshipper would take his portion home with him where it was shared with the guests. This presented a problem for some Christians. Was it right for them to attend such social gatherings?

Moreover, the public markets themselves were full of sacrificed meat. The priests would sell surplus parts of the sacrificed animal to local butchers. Of course, it was impossible to distinguish sacrificed from unsacrificed meat on the butcher's hooks. This presented quite a problem for conscientious Christian housewives when they went shopping.

We have already seen that the Corinthians were a contentious lot. They were carnal and immature. So bitter quarrels arose over the issue of sacrificial meat. Some had rock-like convictions against eating any kind of idol meat, no matter where it came from. The converted Jews would eat nothing but kosher meat. They were probably joined in their abstinence by many who before their conversion had been particularly zealous idolaters. They would rather become vegetarians for the rest of their lives than take a mouthful of idol meat!

The group that opposed them was carnal too, but their thinking was clearer. They rightly identified eating meat as an indifferent thing or an a-moral issue. They had rejected idolatry when they became Christians, but they saw nothing wrong with eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. They knew that idols did not exist. What difference did it make if the steer was butchered in a temple or in a butcher shop? The meat was the same. These people went ahead and ate the meat where and when they pleased, even in the temples themselves. By doing so, they infuriated their brethren who thought that eating such meat was sinful.

Those in favour of eating meat without asking any questions felt that they had legitimate reasons for doing so and apparently they mentioned them to Paul. This is implied in what the apostle writes to them in answer to their question. "Now concerning things sacrificed to idols," he writes, "we know that we all have knowledge." The Corinthians possessed much knowledge, but it was not the right kind of knowledge. It was gnosis which means doctrinal and speculative knowledge which tends to make its possessor proud. The Corinthians thought they knew enough about Scripture and theology to figure out that pagan gods and idols had no objective existence and that food sacrificed to them was food only. Consequently, they felt free to eat whatever they wanted, no matter what others in the congregation might think.

Paul tells them that this kind of knowledge is dangerous. "Knowledge puffs up," he cautions. It makes a person proud, "but charity [or love] edifies. If any man thinks he knows anything he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. But if any man love God, the same is known of Him." Paul does not mean to belittle knowledge as such, certainly not knowledge of the Word and of doctrine. But knowledge alone, even of the Bible, is not enough. There has to be knowledge balanced with love. The Corinthians had plenty of the former, but very little of the latter. This does not mean they were wrong about this business of idols and food sacrificed to them. In verses 4 to 7 Paul shows that he is in basic agreement with them. Idols have no objective existence; they exist only in the mind of their worshippers. There is only one God, the One from Whom are all things and for Whom we exist. There is one Lord, Jesus Christ by Whom are all things and we exist through Him.

Therefore the Corinthians had a legitimate reason for exercising their freedom to eat food offered to these non-existing deities. Yet, they were wrong in the way they exercised this freedom. They did so without considering the sensitivities of their fellow believers who had great difficulties with this issue. Paul reminds them of this neglect on their part. "However," he says, "not all men have this knowledge."

Not all believers are as smart as you are, Paul says somewhat sarcastically. These strong and mature Christians should have some patience with their weaker brethren who cannot keep up with them in this matter of Christian freedom. They had recently come out of paganism and still carried a lot of baggage in their minds about idols and demons. They understood that idols were false gods, but they had not yet fully grasped the fact that there was only one true and real God. That's why they had a problem with eating meat that was sacrificed to idols and especially eating it in or near a pagan temple. To them this presented a temptation to fall back into their former sinful lifestyle.

If such weak Christians follow the example of their stronger brothers and sisters and eat what their consciences tell them not to eat, they violate their conscience, and that is sin. Therefore, until a believer understands that a certain activity is not a sin in God's eyes, he should not take part in it. Paul says something similar in Romans 14:23: "He who doubts [or is not sure whether he should do a certain thing and yet goes ahead and does it] is condemned if he eats because his eating is not from faith and whatever is not from faith is sin."

What Paul is emphasising here in I Corinthians 8, however, is that anyone who causes such a weaker brother to defile his conscience and his faith, causes that brother to sin. I may be sure that something is perfectly acceptable, but love for my brother whose conscience does no allow him to do it, should caution me not to exercise my freedom in that instance.

Must we always yield to the wishes of conscientious objectors? Some Christians have so many scruples that they find fault with everything others want to do. This question will be answered in the next study.

Additional Info

  • Audio: 1205154511
  • Speaker: Rev. C. Pronk
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