Saturday, 11 December 2004 17:29

Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (22)

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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (22)

1 Corinthians 8:8-13

Broadcast: July 19, 1998; Message Number 1481

Christian Liberty (2)

In the previous study, I Corinthians 8, Paul discusses the thorny issues of Christian liberty. The Corinthians were divided over the question whether it was right for a Christian to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Some thought it was OK because idols don't exist, so whether meat was offered to them or not made no difference. Meat was meat. Others could not dismiss the issue that easily. They felt it was sinful to consume food that was dedicated to false gods. Their conscience did not allow it. Paul cautions the former not to push their rights too far. If by their eating they offend their fellow believers, they are not acting in love. These weaker brothers may even be tempted to go along and eat such consecrated meat against their conscience in which case they commit a sin. As the apostle says in Romans 14:23, "He who doubts [or is not sure he is doing the right thing] is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin." Out of consideration for the scruples of fellow Christians there are occasions when love dictates that we voluntarily give up our Christian liberty.

But is there not a limit to such self-imposed restraints? Must we always yield to the wishes of conscientious objectors? Some Christians have so many scruples that they find fault with everything others do. The slightest changes in liturgy upsets them. The most modest proposals to introduce something new and different are rejected out of hand. In many churches it is not the strong, but the weak who are in charge. What they say and what they want carries all the weight. As a result, many Christians are sighing under the tyranny of the minority.

This can be a real problem and the Bible has something to say on that subject; not here in I Corinthians 8, but in the next chapter, as well as in the letter to the Romans. In Romans 14:3 the apostle pleads with both strong and weak Christians not to judge and condemn each other for the positions they take on issues, like eating meat and observing special days. "Let not him who eats despise him who eats not, he says, and let not him who eats not, judge him who eats, for God has received him." Would that we took this advice of the apostle more seriously and that we were more tolerant of each other when it comes to non-essential things.

These things are not as important as some Christians tend to think. As Paul says in verse 8, " Meat does not commend us to God, for neither if we eat are we the better; neither, if we do not eat are we the worse." In God's eyes it makes no difference whether we partake or abstain from such things as eating. The word commend here means to bring near or introduce. So neither eating or not eating will bring us closer to God or make us acceptable to Him. It has no bearing whatsoever on our spiritual relationship to Him. What matters is, do we believe in Christ as our Lord and Saviour, do we love God and serve Him from a sincere heart? These outward things are spiritually neutral and do not affect us one way or another. As Paul says in Romans 14:17, "The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost."

What does affect our spiritual standing with God, however, is the way in which we exercise our Christian freedom in these morally neutral areas. That's why Paul warns these strong Christians not to take their freedom too far. "Take heed," he says in verse 9, "lest by any means this liberty of yours becomes a stumbling-block to those who are weak," etc. Just because you enjoy your liberty in Christ you are not at liberty to do anything that will hinder another Christian in his spiritual development.

If a weak Christian sees a strong Christian eating in the temple, the weak brother will likely be tempted to go against his own conscience and start eating there himself. The result will be, as Paul reminds the stronger brother, that through your knowledge the one who is weak will perish or be ruined, even though Christ died for him.

I do not think Paul means that such a person will lose his salvation; certainly not over a spiritually neutral issue such as eating meat. Rather, he sees the strong believer's behaviour as an impediment or hindrance to the weak brother's sanctification. It is never right to cause another believer to go against his conscience. To do so runs the risk of ruining a brother for whom Christ laid down his life (Acts 20:28).

Paul clinches his argument by stating that by wounding a brother's conscience when it is weak, the strong brother sins against Christ. It is not just a matter of sinning against a fellow Christian, but of sinning against the Lord Himself. And who would want to do that? Paul's conclusion is both definite and clear. Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again that I might not cause my brother to stumble.

This then is the basic lesson of this chapter: When it comes to doubtful things, a Christian's first concern should not be to exercise his liberty to the limit, but to care about the welfare of his brother in Christ. Paul models this principle by his own example and states it with an emphasis that reminds us of Christ's even more radical statement in Mark 9:42 when He said: "if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck."

What we have learned about Christian liberty from chapter 8 is not the whole story. There is more to come on this subject in the next two chapters. But what we do find in chapter 8 is foundational. Paul here gives us three timeless principles by which Christians must learn to live.

1. What is safe for one Christian may not be safe for another.

2. Knowledge must always be balanced by love.

3. No Christian may insist on exercising his or her freedom in Christ if doing so proves detrimental to other Christians.

What is the contemporary significance of all this? As mentioned earlier, the issue of food sacrificed to idols is of no concern to us in our situation. What we have to do, then, is look for modern equivalents and analogies to which we can apply the principles laid down in these chapters.

Here are a few issues that often give rise to disagreement and strife among Bible-believing Christians: smoking, drinking alcoholic beverages, watching TV or going to movies, wearing potentially suggestive clothes---short skirts, low-cut sun-dresses, listening to music that has a beat which some find objectionable but others enjoy, playing games that sometimes involve gambling but not necessarily, how the Lord's day should be spent, attending church once or twice, whether women should wear a head-covering to church, etc., etc.

Many of us were brought up in homes that had definite rules on all these things; rules that we thought were written in stone and clearly taught in Scripture. But times have changed. Increasing contacts with Christians from other backgrounds and different customs have forced us to re-evaluate our hallowed traditions and views. Consequently, some of us are not so sure any more about a number of things that we never used to question. The solution, I believe is to be found in studying Scripture rather than in digging in our heels and clinging to traditions for traditions' sake. Scripture will not always give us chapter and verse for every practice, but it will give us principles which can guide us in our evaluations and decisions as to whether a certain practice is right or wrong, wholesome or harmful, conducive or detrimental to the good of others.

We must beware of the extremes of legalism and permissiveness. Some people are very legalistic. They impose absolute rules on their churches and families as to what is or is not allowed. The result is often that their tightly controlled children will later rebel and throw everything overboard, including Biblical commands and precepts.

Others impose few or no rules on their families and this too leads to undesirable consequences. Such children usually grow up without self-discipline and fail to internalize values that are necessary to guide them through life. We must train ourselves and our children to engage in responsible and moderate behaviour that glorifies God and builds character.

Let me close by suggesting a few ground rules that should govern our behaviour, especially in things indifferent. In deciding about whether or not to participate in any behaviour that is doubtful we should ask:

1. Is this activity or recreation helpful to my spiritual development or is it likely going to interfere with my progress in the Christian race? (See Hebrew 12:1)

2. All things are lawful for me, Paul says, but all things are not expedient or profitable. Is what I want to do useful or only desirable?

3. Am I setting the right example for others, especially for weaker brothers and sisters?

4. Is what I want to do going to help or hinder my witness as a Christian? Will unbelievers be drawn to Christ or turned away from him by my behaviour?

5. Will the Lord be glorified in what I do? God's glory should be my aim in everything I do. "Whether then you eat or drink or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God," Paul says in I Corinthians 10:31.

If these questions can be answered satisfactorily, we cannot go far wrong in deciding what to do in doubtful situations. It will give us a clear conscience and keep us from being cramped all the time, afraid to enjoy life and its many blessings. Paul wrote to Timothy, "Beware of those who forbid people to marry and who command them to abstain from meats which God has created to be received with thanksgiving, for every creature of God is good and nothing to be refused if it be received with thanksgiving." Our God is a generous God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. He came to us in Christ, not only that we might have life, but that we might have it more abundantly.

Additional Info

  • Audio: 1205154626
  • Speaker: Rev. C. Pronk
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