Texas allows motorists to make a right turn when the traffic signal is red—if the way is clear. This gives drivers liberty and keeps traffic moving. At some intersections, however, signs read, “No turn on red.” These corners are exceptions because they are potential danger spots. By turning on red at one of these intersections, a motorist could cause a serious accident.
Similarly, in the Christian life we have been given great freedom, yet there are certain potential danger spots that can cause a serious accident between brothers and sisters in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 8, we have a dangerous intersection concerning meat offered to idols. Paul had perfect freedom to eat meat offered to idols. He knew that there was only one true God and that idols were nothing. Eating meat offered to them was neither right nor wrong. But not all believers felt that way. A person with a weak conscience had believed that the meat was defiled by the idol, and therefore it was off limits. Paul recognized the need to take special care, lest by eating he would influence such a person to eat, thus violating his conscience. Concern for weaker believers kept him from exercising his liberty.
As Christians, we are free in Christ—free to engage in social practices and customs not specifically forbidden by biblical commands. Yet, the Holy Spirit may prompt us to refrain from some legitimate practices. Then the principle of love must take precedence over the principle of liberty. A mature Christian will heed the “no turn on red” sign to keep from causing a weaker believer “to have a serious accident.” In 1 Cor 8:1-13, Paul will explain that we are not only responsible for ourselves but for one another. To put a spin on the words of Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9), Paul will insist, “You are your brother’s keeper.” You do have a responsibility to look out for your brother’s welfare. With this high calling in mind, Paul lays out two principles to guide us.
- Recognize that love is more important than freedom(8:1-6). Whether Christians should eat meat which had been offered to idols was a pressing question in the church at Corinth. For Paul, however, the more important question was how such issues were dealt with by the church. It had become a matter of pride on both sides of the question, so Paul begins at that point. In 8:1-3, Paul rebukes the Corinthians’ pride and insists that love trumps knowledge. He begins his argument with these words: “Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge” (8:1a). The phrase “now concerning” clues us into the fact that Paul is once again responding to issues raised by the Corinthians in a previous letter. “We know that we all have knowledge” probably represents another Corinthian slogan (cf. 7:1). Some in Corinth were justifying their position by claiming a certain knowledge that idols were only things of human manufacture and did not represent any true reality (8:4).
In 8:1b, Paul grants the fact that believers can champion this knowledge, but such knowledge can easily lead to pride and arrogance. Paul puts it like this, “Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies.” This is one of the most powerful one-liners about Christian community found anywhere in Paul’s letters. Paul’s point is: Those Corinthians that are boasting of their freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols are acting arrogantly, without demonstrating love and respect for their brothers and sisters. Yet the real aim of Christianity should not be knowledge but love. Knowledge apart from love makes one prideful. Hence, we must always be cautious. A famous preacher used to say, “Some Christians grow; others just swell.”
Are you “puffed up” in your knowledge? Do you look down on others who don’t know as much as you do? Paul tells you to recognize that “love edifies.” The word translated “edifies” means “to build up.” Originally, the word was used of the formation of buildings. However, Paul uses this word figuratively throughout his letters to describe the development of Christian character. The Christian life isn’t how much you know, or how strong you are, or how much Christian liberty you possess, but how much you love. You are your brother’s keeper.
One of the dangers of being a Bible fellowship is that we may be strong in knowledge but weak in love. Francis Schaeffer once said, “If we do not show love to one another, the world has a right to question whether Christianity is true.” Therefore, we must strive to remain humble at all times and manifest love to all that we come in contact with. You are your brother’s keeper.
Paul continues his challenging words in 8:2-3: “If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know.” The grammar in this sentence assumes that this is a present problem in the church at Corinth. The force of the verb tenses in 8:2 suggests a paraphrase: “If a person thinks that he has attained to some degree of knowledge, he has not yet reached the stage when he has any knowledge at all in the real sense of the word.” Paul is simply saying that if we think we are all knowing, we can be confident that we are not.
Our knowledge as finite human beings is never final—we can always know more and achieve deeper insights. Socrates once said, “Knowledge is proud that it knows so much; wisdom is humble that it knows no more.” The truly wise person clearly grasps how very limited his knowledge and understanding is, even in respect to the grey areas.
Paul adds a very unusual comment to 8:3: “but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him.” Again, the grammar makes it clear that there are those in Corinth who love God. Paul prioritizes love over knowledge. Accumulating all the facts about God that one can will not result in the most realistic knowledge of Him. One must also love God. If a person loves God, then God knows him in an intimate way and reveals Himself to him (2:10). Consequently, it is really more important that God knows us than that we know Him. When He knows us intimately, He will enable us to know Him intimately. Logically, not only will God enable those who love Him to know Him better, but He will also enable those who love Him to understand other subjects as well. Paul said this to establish the priority of love over knowledge in determining our behavior in various situations. You are your brother’s keeper.
In 8:4-6, Paul resumes his discussion of knowledge after digressing briefly in 8:2 and 3 to comment on the superiority of love over knowledge. In these three verses, Paul will staunchly argue against idols and put forth a profound understanding of God. He writes, “Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” The expressions “there is no such thing as an idol” and “there is no God but one” (8:4) are slogans the Corinthians apparently used to justify their behavior. Paul agrees with the slogans in part, but corrects them to show how the Corinthians have misused these ideas. He explains that even though idols are fictitious gods, nevertheless, people ascribe worship to them (8:5). Yet, Paul reminds the Corinthians that there is only one God worthy of worship—God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The way the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ are spoken of together here is a clear indication of the deity of Christ. Calling Jesus “Lord” is a way of affirming His deity and oneness with Yahweh (cf. Phil 2:11). Hence, Paul is arguing that in the same way that the Godhead is one, we should seek to be one in the body of Christ. Love is more important than freedom.
[The heart of Paul’s argument, especially as it relates to Christian community, comes in 8:7-13. Even though, at least in theory, all members of the Corinthian church understand that idols have no real existence (8:1), many are unable to put this knowledge into practice. Old links between idol food and idols are impossible to forget.]
- Limit your freedom for the sake of love(8:7-13). In this section, Paul will challenge us to look out for our brothers and sisters because we love them and have their best spiritual interest at heart. In 8:7-8, Paul writes, “However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat.” The weak Christians in Corinth felt it was a sin to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Because of their upbringing, earlier habits, or former lifestyle, the weak still believed that they were participating in idol worship by eating the meat. The Bible suggests that some in Corinth could not shake their past. In the first century, thrifty church members saved money by purchasing marked-down meat in the market. Some church people later discovered that the meat was marked down because it had been used in the ritual worship of pagan deities in the city. Now what? Reaction was split. Some Christians refused to buy it. Others had no problem with the bargain meat.
Meat used in ritual worship was apparently divided three ways: one part was burned on the altar; another part was given to the pagan priest; and the third part was given to the one who brought it as an offering and who believed that the gods enjoyed the aroma of the burning meat. Leftovers not used by the priest were then marked down and sold at a substantial discount in the local market where it could be purchased by the people. The one who had brought the offering might also have served a portion to Christian friends at a dinner party.
The urgent questions were: Should Christians buy the marked-down meat? Should they serve it to guests? The believers of the city of Corinth disagreed.
As believers in Jesus Christ, we must be sensitive to our spiritual brothers and sisters. We must learn to defer to them when it is appropriate. For, in the end, what difference does it really make whether we eat or not?
Unity within the church. In the early years of the church, as Gentile converts began joining Jewish believers in local fellowships, an issue arose concerning the eating of meat. Greco-Roman society was saturated with idol worship, and it was common for meat sold in the marketplace to have been consecrated as a sacrifice to false gods prior to its sale. The Jews would have nothing to do with such meat, wary of “unclean” food-handling practices and believing that to partake of consecrated meat was to give tacit approval of idol worship—kind of a “second-hand” idolatry. The Gentiles rejected the notion that such meat was tainted and held that they could eat meat sacrificed to idols without endorsing idolatry—they had not actually offered the sacrifice, after all. The matter was becoming a point of contention within the church.
The church in Syrian Antioch, comprised of both Jews and Gentiles, struggled with this issue (Acts 15). The Jerusalem Council settled the matter by urging Gentile converts to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:29). This decision was made not to promote legalism but to keep peace within the church. Since eating meat offered to idols was a divisive issue—carrying the possibility of scandalizing fellow believers—abstinence was expedient. Compliance with the council’s directive assured that, at the next church potluck, a Jewish believer could eat the brisket he was served with confidence, knowing it had never been part of a sacrificial cow. And the Gentile believer could not be accused of participating in idol worship.
With its ruling, the Jerusalem Council affirmed the need for deference, or consideration for the scruples of others. The principle is one of self-denial; we should be willing to lay down our personal rights for the sake of maintaining unity in the body of Christ. Spiritual growth takes priority over personal preferences.
Causing a weaker brother to sin.
The “weaker” brother is not someone who simply objects to a certain practice, but one who is in danger of falling into sin. To illustrate, let’s say there are two 1st-century Christians named Demetrius and Clement. Both are former idolaters, now saved by faith in Christ. Demetrius shuns everything to do with his old way of life, including the meat sold in the marketplace, because, for him, eating such meat would constitute a return to paganism. Clement avoids the temple and refuses to participate in the pagan festivals, but he has no problem eating the meat from the market. Clement understands (correctly) that an idol has no power to corrupt good meat, and, for him, eating such meat is a non-issue. Then one day, as both men are in the marketplace, Demetrius sees Clement eating meat that was sacrificed to idols. Demetrius is horrified, but Clement laughs it off and encourages Demetrius to eat some, too. When Demetrius hesitates, Clement cuts off a piece and hands it to him. Demetrius—emboldened by Clement’s confidence—eats the meat. Biblically, both believers have sinned. Clement sinned by violating the conscience of a fellow believer. Demetrius sinned in that he essentially returned to idolatry—at least, that’s what his conscience is telling him. More importantly, Demetrius is learning how to ignore his conscience—a very dangerous thing to learn.
The principle here is that the conscience of a weaker Christian is more important than individual freedom. Doing something “permitted” should never hinder the spiritual health of someone else.
Maintaining a pure testimony. In 1 Corinthians 10:25-32, Paul again emphasizes the believer’s liberty and what should limit that liberty. If you buy meat for your own use, don’t inquire where it came from; it doesn’t really matter whether it was sacrificed to an idol or not. “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). However, if you are invited to dinner and someone there says, “This meat was offered to idols,” then graciously refrain from eating. Since your associate obviously considers the meat to be “tainted” by the idols, do not eat it for his conscience’s sake—even though your own conscience is fine. The Christian glorifies God when he limits his freedom for the spiritual benefit of others.
Here is a summary of the Bible’s teaching on eating meat sacrificed to idols:
Eating meat offered to an idol is not inherently wrong. Meat is not “defiled” because it was taken from a pagan sacrifice. God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). However, some Christians consider meat offered to an idol to be defiled, and for them it is, since they must follow their conscience. Their scruples should be respected by other Christians with a stronger conscience. Love dictates that all Christians make allowances for their weaker brothers.
However, Paul does have a word of warning in 8:9: “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” The phrase “take care” is a command that we must continually obey. Christ’s interest in the weaker brother is greater than His interest in you exercising your freedom. Paul acknowledges that we have “liberty” in Christ. Christian liberty is one of the central truths of the New Testament (John 8:31-32, 36; 2 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:1). Yet, it is possible to use our liberty and become a “stumbling block” to the weak. A “stumbling block” is not an act that offends a person; it is an act that leads a fellow believer into what is sin for him or her. A stumbling block is not just anything that causes someone to be offended.
Practically speaking, there are number of illustrations that come to mind. I really enjoy Asian food. Yet, over the course of my life, I have entered into various Asian restaurants only to find idols. Now I recognize that these idols are nothing; however, I would not take a new Christian who had been saved out of Buddhism or Hinduism to such a restaurant.
Paul now illustrates his point in 8:10: “For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols?” The “knowledge” that Paul is referring to goes back to 8:1-4. Strong believers know that there is only one God (8:4). Weak believers are influenced by their past. Thus, strong believers are to act lovingly toward other believers, even weak ones, superstitious ones, legalistic ones, ascetic ones, or baby ones!
Let’s consider another scenario. Do I have the biblical freedom to stock my refrigerator with Bud Light? The answer is “yes.” However, what would happen if a young man in our church was visiting at my home and when I opened the fridge he saw a case of beer? After seeing my stash, he might think to himself, “Well, if Wayne drinks freely, then maybe I can too.” Yet, what if this young man comes from a family of alcoholics and has determined he doesn’t have the freedom to drink? My example could have a disastrous effect on him. In the end, I choose to abstain from this biblical freedom for the sake of others. I am brother’s keeper.
In 8:11-12, Paul shares these disturbing words: “For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” By partaking in an activity I may have the freedom to enjoy, I can potentially “ruin” my brother. Paul does not mean ultimate spiritual destruction, for he calls this man a “brother, for whose sake Christ died.” The destruction for the weak brother is that he reverts to his old pagan ways. The stress is on weakening the faith and ruining the Christian life of the brother, or stunting his Christian life and usefulness. Paul takes this seriously and states that this is a sin against Christ! You are your brother’s keeper.
Paul concludes this chapter by using himself as an example. The point being: We need to remember that there is something more important than our freedom to do as we please. That something is the spiritual development of other people. In 8:13, Paul writes, “Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.” What a Christlike attitude! He exhorts us by example, “Don’t look at your freedom; look at their need.” Our first concern should not be to exercise our freedom to the limit, but to care about the welfare of our brothers and sisters in Christ. There is an emphasis on the term “brother,” which occurs four times in the last three verses. You are your brother’s keeper.
The Bible places the burden on the strong. The sin is not in exercise of your liberty, but in exercising your liberty at the expense of fellow believers. If somebody else might be hurt spiritually, a strong Christian should give up the freedom to participate. The highest principle governing my choice in disputable matters is love for a fellow believer who might disagree with me on that issue.
There are two extremes when it comes to nonessential issues. One extreme is license: If the Bible does not prohibit a practice then there is freedom under grace to participate. The other extreme is legalism: A judgmental certainty about these issues that demands total abstinence. We must educate younger and older believers in the body of Christ so that they can learn what true Christian liberty is. We must also train believers to not cause other brothers and sisters to stumble.
Giving up my freedoms sounds like I live a boring, joyless life—I may never enjoy my liberties in Christ because somebody might be hurt. Paul’s teaching requires that I defer to those who may be close by or to those who may see my actions and be hurt by them. If I deferred to all Christians everywhere, I probably would not even get out of bed in the morning! On every doubtful issue there is a weak Christian somewhere who believes my actions or ideas are sinful. It is unlikely that they all attend my church or are in my circle of acquaintances. My responsibility is to love those nearby who disagree with me and to respect the consciences of other Christians with whom I come in contact.
Freedom and discipline have come to be regarded as mutually exclusive, when in fact freedom is not at all the opposite, but the final reward of discipline. It is to be bought with a high price, not merely claimed…. The [professional] skater and [race] horse are free to perform as they do only because they have been subjected to countless hours of grueling work, rigidly prescribed, and faithfully carried out. Men are free to soar into space because they have willingly confined themselves in a tiny capsule designed and produced by highly trained scientists and craftsmen, have meticulously followed instructions, and submitted themselves to rules which others defined.
Perhaps you are thinking, “Aren’t there some Christians who just sit on the sidelines taking potshots at other Christians, trying to find some fault?” Yes, there are. In fact, I know some, even in this church. “Do you mean that I have to limit my liberty for legalists like that?” No. Paul is talking about an action which might cause a weaker brother to stumble, not just make a pharisaical Christian frown. If we governed our entire lives by the frowns we receive from legalistic Christians, we’d be living in straightjackets indeed.
But distinguishing between the legalist and the weak brother is sometimes very difficult. Discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and only He can make known in any given case what an individual ought to do. We desperately need, in the words of Heb 5:14, “to have our senses trained to discern good and evil.” God does not ask us to give up our liberty to the legalist. But if a weak brother is sincerely trying to grow, he deserves every sacrifice we might make. We are our brother’s keeper.
In July 2005, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, was asked by ESPN reporter Andrea Kremer to explain his decision to ride his motorcycle without a helmet. Roethlisberger response was, “I don’t wear a helmet because I don’t have to. It’s not the law. If it was the law, I’d definitely have one on every time I rode. But it’s not the law and I know I don’t have to. You’re just more free when you’re out there with no helmet on.” Unfortunately, Roethlisberger was involved in a serious motorcycle accident in June of 2006, less than one year later. A 62-year-old woman failed to yield at a Pittsburgh intersection and Roethlisberger was thrown into the windshield of her Chrysler Town and Country. His bike was totaled, and emergency surgeons spent over seven hours repairing a broken jaw, a fractured skull, missing teeth, and several other facial injuries. After being released from the hospital, Roethlisberger apologized to the fans, his family, and his team for risking his health (and life) unnecessarily. In another interview, he was no longer focused on taking advantage of his individual freedom: “In the past few days, I’ve gained a new perspective on life. By the grace of God, I’m fortunate to be alive.” He also added that, if he ever does ride a motorcycle again, “It will certainly be with a helmet.”
Roethlisberger, who happens to be a Christian, had the freedom to ride his motorcycle without a helmet. Yet, he endangered his life and potentially many other lives. What do I mean? Well if Ben Roethlisberger, the youngest quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl doesn’t need to wear a helmet, why should I? I’m sure many people watched this interview on ESPN and considered this freedom.
Spiritually speaking, beware of repeating this type of mistake and leading a brother or sister into sin. You are your brother’s keeper.