How to Treat Our Christian Freedom with Care

T-laydownrights.png

God gives Christians a lot of freedom. He has plenty of instructions for us that keep us safe and close to Him, but He also leaves much to enjoy freely and without concern. However, there is the case of a perfectly permissible action causing another to sin. That’s a problem. Our knowledge and our rights will have to take second place. 


Wednesday in the Word

Come with me as I walk through a passage of Scripture phrase by phrase, reviewing its context, interpreting, and offering an application. Some of us - including me - learn best by watching somebody else. That’s what I am inviting you to do today as I study through 1 Corinthians 8:

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.
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.”  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 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.
But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.”

The issue of meat sacrificed to idols is definitely not a contemporary point of strife in the church.  So let me explain this. In Paul’s age, unbelievers worshipped many different gods. They sacrificed food to them, which was basically burned as an offering and then made available to eat. Many of the new believers, who came out of that culture but found faith in Christ, struggled with the idea of eating this meat sacrificed to false gods. This very act seemed like dabbling in idol worship or not fully distancing oneself from falsehood. 

On the other hand, there were believers who had likely followed Christ longer and had gained knowledge of the faith. They knew - as we will later explore - that this was a non-issue. Christians do indeed have the freedom to eat food that was previously sacrificed to idols. 

Imagine the new believer strolling through town and witnessing his friend, whom he has come to know as a mature believer, eating meat sacrificed to idols in the temple. Maybe the strong believer sees him and waves him over. The new believer is at an impasse. What should he do? Going over there and eating that meat seems like a sin or going back to his old ways of idol worship. However, if his mature friend is doing it, maybe it’s ok.  That gut feeling won't go away though, and he can't help but feeling like he’d be sinning. Now what?!

This situation must have been common for Paul to address it here. Let’s see how he suggests we handle it.

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.

My Bible makes a note here - maybe yours does, too. It says early manuscripts translated the last two verses like this: “[those who] think they have knowledge do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves truly knows.” 

What’s the main point of the paragraph? Love is more important than knowledge. That’s right! “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:2

Check your pride, Christian! You may have the right answer, but what are you doing with that knowledge? Are you using it to love and serve people, or to lord it over them and puff yourself up? Many of us need to humble ourselves and consider how we use our knowledge on matters of the faith and Scripture. 

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.”  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 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.

Here is what mature believers know: Food is food. Idols don’t exist. They are someone’s made up object of worship. They are nothing. Food sacrificed to nothing is basically just cooked food. It’s fine to eat. God has already pronounced all food clean (Acts 10). “That friend I’m waving over is being silly. Just eat the food. Trust me! God doesn’t mind.”

Paul agrees with mature believers first point. The food is ok to eat. His argument is correct. Christians are allowed to eat meat sacrificed to idols. But here is the thing…

But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

Your friend is not comfortable eating this meat. He feels pressured to do something he doesn’t feel right about. He is in the middle of an internal conflict: “I don’t think I should eat this meat, but my mature believer friend is eating it, so maybe it’s ok. On the other hand, eating this feels like I’m going back to my old life of worshipping idols. I wish that gnawing feeling in my stomach would go away. What do I do?” 

We learn something interesting. If you do something you believe is a sin - even if it really isn’t - you are sinning against your conscience and are defiled. The act itself may be something we would consider “neutral”. It neither brings us closer to God, nor does it separate us from Him. However, if in our weakened faith we do something we believe to be sinning and continue to do so, that decision is sin in God’s eyes. Why? I’d venture to say it shows our lack of commitment to stay faithful to God’s command - or what we believe to be God’s command. 

So how should the mature believer - whom Paul addresses here first and foremost - respond in this scenario? He is in the right, after all. This meat is okay to eat, and he has a right to do so.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.”

We are back at our beginning scenario. The mature believer has a right to eat this meat at the temple. However, Paul warns him. If exercising his right makes his brother in Christ sin against his own conscience, he is in essence a stumbling block to him and causing him to sin against God. In return, causing another believer to sin is a sin against Christ. I hope none of us desire that. 

Paul makes a strong statement, saying he would rather give up meat altogether than causing another believer to sin. I believe he may have said so in the spirit of Jesus warning us to gauge out our eyes before they cause us to stumble (Matthew 15:9). Just as Jesus did not tell us all to mutilate ourselves, I don’t think Paul is telling us to give up everything that could possibly cause someone to stumble. Rather, we should be willing and ready to go to extreme measures to keep ourselves and our siblings in Christ from sinning. 

Sadly, even believers today have a tendency to insist on their personal rights with little regard to how it will affect others. The Bible’s warning is clear: Put love over knowledge and over your personal rights. Love is more important than these. 

Here are a few questions I tend to have on this issue:

Does the weaker believer have to stay weak?

I don’t think so. The Bible encourages the more mature believer to teach his brother or sister in Christ. I don’t think it would be wrong - on a separate occasion - to talk through this issue and explain, with the use of Scripture, that eating meat sacrificed to idols is indeed not a sin. However, while doing so, the mature believer should always encourage the younger one to pray and listen to God and his conscience. If he doesn’t feel right about eating the meat, he shouldn’t. 

What about strong believers with overly cautious rules?

When I begin to consider how this scenario would play out today, I think of issues like drums in church, drinking a glass of wine, or dancing at weddings. There are believers - even mature believers - who would disagree with these practices. Personally, I have searched Scripture and do not find any of these to be a sin. So how should I behave towards my mature brothers and sisters in Christ?

I would likely still refrain from drinking wine if I invited them over to my house. However, if we happened to separately visit the same restaurant, I would be less concerned. I’d know they would see me across the room with a glass of wine but knowing their faith to be mature, I’d be less concerned that my act would cause them to stumble and drink alcohol despite their conscience. They likely have a strong, thought-out conviction that will not waver at the sight of seeing me with a glass of wine. 

How can I know what may cause someone else to sin?

Reading this passage, we can assume that the two men in question knew each other. It sounds distinctly like the mature believer knew exactly that his friend - maybe even someone he mentors or with whom he attends church - would struggle seeing him eat the meat sacrificed to idols. It was such a common issue, that he may even expect to have someone (one of the many new believers who would find this act sinful) walk past him eating this meat at the temple. 

In today’s culture, we often get frustrated that seemingly anything we say can be offensive to somebody. We yell out that we have freedom of speech, and the other shouldn’t be so offended. That may be true, but is it loving? 

I am not suggesting we walk on eggshells 24/7 or constantly question any act we do in public. However, especially if you are mentoring someone or know of a group’s weaker faith, consider how your actions may affect them. It’s better to lay down your rights to something temporarily than to cause someone to sin.

What are some modern-day examples of “meat sacrificed to idols”?

I’d actually love to hear the answer from you. Comment below with an example you have seen. What biblically permissible action may cause an internal conflict for a new believer? 

Is this all Paul has to say about our personal freedom?

Paul continues on this subject for the next couple of chapters. In 1 Corinthians 10:23-24 he concludes, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.”

Let that be our guiding principle. Believer, lay down your rights for one another in honor of the One who laid down His life for you!

I highly recommend reading and studying chapters 9 and 10 to get an even more comprehensive understanding of what Paul is teaching on this subject. If you’d like to know how, remember to request your FREE copy of my ebook, “10 Steps to Approaching the Bible with Confidence.” Let me send you the download instructions today.