Love Over Liberty

We continue this morning with our study of I Corinthians as we move now into chapter 8. This chapter deals with a question that is very relevant to our Christian lives today, and that is, “How much should I let other people’s views control my actions?”  Or, to put it another way, “How much do I have to limit my liberty as a Christian by the narrow, restricted views of other Christians?”

            Now, the specific question that Paul is going to deal with in this chapter is one that we don’t wrestle with much today and that is – Is it okay to eat meat that’s been offered to idols?  There are some places in the world where that might still be an issue, but I’m going to guess that nobody here this morning has struggled with that question this past week.   But the answer the apostle Paul gives to that question is a principle that applies to many situations that we face today.

            I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you that some of the biggest debates in the church have been about what Christians can or cannot do.  For example, when Sueanne and I were in college, we weren’t allowed to play with a standard deck of cards in public.  We could play Rook, but we couldn’t play Go Fish.  Men’s hair couldn’t be so long that it touched the collar.  The list of things forbidden in many churches included smoking, dancing, mixed swimming, going to rock concerts, women wearing pants to church, going to movies, playing golf on Sundays, and getting tattoos and piercings.

            Those are just some of the many questions that Christians have discussed and debated and wrangled over for the past 50 years or so, and some of those issues are still being discussed in some churches today. And the reason that Christians are in such disagreement about these matters is because these are things that the Bible doesn’t specifically address.  And so, the question gets asked a lot, “Is it okay for me to do this or that?”  And we often come up with different answers to that question.

            I heard about one preacher who was rebuked for eating at a Pizza Hut because the Pizza Hut served alcohol. What do you do with that? What’s the Christian thing to do?  Do you just dismiss it as coming from a legalist?  Or, for the sake of unity, do you allow someone else’s convictions to control your life?

            He also said his grandfather believed that pool tables were sinful because, where he grew up, pool tables were in the pool hall, and that’s where bad things happened.  And so, he thought it was inappropriate for Christians to have a pool table in their homes.  What do we do with that?  What’s the Christian thing to do?  How do we respond?

            There have always been, in every culture, some “gray areas”.  Now, we know that there are some things that are definitely wrong.  The Bible says not to kill, steal, commit adultery, lie, and so on. And we know that those things are wrong.  It’s very clear.

            And there are also some good things in the Bible that we’re told to do, like loving your neighbor and meeting people’s needs and taking care of your children, and loving your wife, and so on.

            But in between all of those good things and bad things, there are a lot of things that the Bible never talks about that are in kind of a gray area.  And in every society, and every culture, Christians need to make a decision about what’s right and what’s wrong for them.  But how do we decide?  How do we know what’s right and what’s wrong in those gray areas?  Well, this morning, Paul is going to help us try to sort this out.

            Beginning in verse 1, “Now concerning food offered to idols…” (I Corinthians 8:1).  Specifically, Paul is talking about meat which had been offered to idols.  Let me give you a little bit of background.  In those days, there were two places that you could buy your meat.  First of all, you could buy it at the general market, or you could buy it from the butcher shop at the temple down the street.  

            Now remember from our previous study that the city of Corinth was a very religious city with many temples, many pagan gods.  And typically, whenever a sacrifice was offered at a temple– even the Jewish temple in Jerusalem — the meat that was offered was divided into three parts– one part was burned up in the sacrifice, one part was given to the priest who officiated, and then the third part was taken home by the person who brought the offering and they could enjoy that as a meal with their family.

            Because the priests would offer so many sacrifices, they had way more meat than they needed.  So, what they would do to make some extra money is, they would go down to the butcher shop at the temple, and sell the meat to them.  And then the temple shop would sell that meat on the streets. And so, you could go down to the temple butcher shop and see some nice cuts of meat hanging there, and you’d buy the meat, and you take it home.

            So, it was a very common thing in that day to buy your meat from a temple where the animal had been sacrificed to an idol, a pagan god.  So just imagine you go to somebody’s house for dinner and they tell you what’s on the menu.  “Tonight, we’ve got a prime rib that was offered to Zeus this afternoon.”  And as a Christian, you’re thinking, “If this meat has been offered to Zeus, I can’t eat that.”  And it became a real problem for some of the Christians, especially those Christians who were converted out of those pagan religions and eating the meat brought back a lot of memories of how they used to worship.

            To complicate matters even further, in those days, the temple or the temple courtyard was where a lot of the social life happened in the city.  That’s where they held wedding parties, birthday parties, social gatherings.  And so, a lot of Christians found themselves in that environment on a regular basis because they were invited by their neighbors.  And again, the question came up, “Is that right or is that wrong?”

            Now before I take a look at Paul’s answer, I suspect that most of you have already formed an opinion in your own mind regarding this matter.  There are some of you who are thinking, “I don’t know if I could participate in anything that was related to the worship of a pagan god.”  But there are others of you who are thinking, “Hey, if it’s a steak dinner, I don’t care where it came from.”

            And that’s the way it was in the church at Corinth.  There was one group that said, “When your pagan neighbors see you as a Christian sitting down in the pagan temple, enjoying a steak that’s been offered to an idol, they’re going to think that you don’t have any problem at all worshiping that idol.” 

            But there was another group that said, “No, that’s not true.  The truth is, there really are no false gods.  That idol isn’t a real god.  It’s just a piece of wood or stone.  And besides, we’re not in a worship service, we’re just eating a meal.  We need to enjoy our freedom and eat this meat without any question because there’s nothing wrong with it.”  And so, there was this division within the Corinthian church.

            And while none of us has had to decide what to do in that situation, we’re not really as far removed from this problem as you might think.  We talked about this in our Wednesday night class a couple of months ago.  Is it wrong for a Christian to go to a yoga class and repeat a mantra?  There are some Christians who feel that it’s perfectly all right, it’s just exercise and focusing your mind.  You’re not worshiping anything.

            But there are others who say, “No, yoga has its roots in Hinduism, and when you say a mantra, you are repeating the name of a heathen god.  And so, whenever you repeat that word, even though you may not understand what it means, you are in some way going along with the worship of that god.”

            In a similar way, there are some Christians who believe it’s wrong to have a Christmas tree in their home because that was a custom that originated with the pagans of Northern Germany who decorated a tree at the winter solstice.  There are others who refuse to use Easter eggs because that practice originated with the pagan spring festivals when the egg, the symbol of fertility, was offered to a pagan goddess.

            So, what do we do with all of these activities that have a connection with pagan worship?

            Verse 1, “Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up.  If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.  But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” (I Corinthians 8:1-3).

            You’ll notice that the phrase “all of us possess knowledge” is in quotation marks.  Now, there were no quotation marks in the original Greek, so this has been added by the translators to let you know that Paul seems to be quoting something that some of the Corinthians were saying.  They were saying, “Paul, we don’t really need any advice on this topic because we know what’s right.  All of us possess knowledge.  We’ve got it all figured out.  We’re not struggling with this.” 

            And while there’s certainly nothing wrong with having knowledge – knowledge about God, knowledge about God’s Word, knowledge about the truth – Paul lets us know that knowledge has a tendency to puff us up, to make us arrogant, to make us proud, because we feel more spiritual than other people who don’t understand things as well as we do.  And it doesn’t make any difference which side you are on, on the liberty side or the restricted side, knowledge tends to create a sense of pride.

            For example, you may have grown up in a legalistic environment where everybody seemed to not only have the answer to every question, but they had the right answer to every question.  Which meant that everybody else was wrong, and if you didn’t agree with them, then there’s a good chance you’re not going to make it through the pearly gates.  Because we’re right, you’re wrong, and we are the people who have all the knowledge.

            But we need to be careful.  Because it’s easy for us to look at legalists and think about how misguided they are.  Why don’t they realize that we’re free from all these restrictions that they’re trying to place on people?”  It’s obvious that we understand grace so much better than they do, and it’s obvious that our way of seeing things is so much better than their way of seeing things.  Knowledge makes us all arrogant.

            “This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up.” (I Corinthians 8:1).  Knowledge makes me arrogant and arrogance makes me feel superior.  But love keeps me focused on the people that God wants me to serve.

            Paul tells us there’s something else wrong with knowledge – it’s always incomplete. “If any one imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.”  Whenever we are convinced that some attitude, or action, or freedom that someone else is holding is wrong, we’re always seeing things from our point of view.  We don’t give much weight to their point of view.  We don’t consider that perhaps their way of seeing things may be just as right, or maybe even more right, than ours.  We don’t see all the factors involved.  We think we do, but we don’t.

            And all of this is building up to Paul’s argument that something else is needed to settle these kinds of problems. You can’t figure out what to do merely on the basis of, “Well, we know such and such to be true, and therefore, we are free to do whatever we want.”  Paul says, “No, knowledge alone is not enough.  We need love.  Knowledge puffs us up, but love builds others up.”  Knowledge is self-centered, but love will always look to others.

            At the end of the day, God’s truth should make us love God more and be more faithful to serve him.  And maybe it helps to see that there’s a difference between knowledge and truth.  Knowledge is information; knowledge is reasoning.  And we need to remind ourselves that one day, when we stand before God, there won’t be a quiz.  We’re not stockpiling knowledge so that we do better on the quiz.  Truth is what we believe; truth is what we embrace; truth is what moves through our head into our heart and makes us love God more and serve him more faithfully.  If my truth does not cause me to love God more and to love others more, then it’s a truth that I haven’t yet properly come to know.

            So, now we get to the specific issue in verse 4: “Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’ — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (I Corinthians 8:4-6)

            So, what is Paul saying here?  Well, he’s not saying there’s no such thing as idolatry. What he is saying is that idol isn’t actually a real god, it doesn’t have any power.  There is no other God; there’s only one God.  And so, all their stones and wood and the things that they worship, at the end of the day, they have no real power; they really are nothing.

            As a result, they have no power to contaminate this meat. Think of it this way: if you bought a package of hamburger meat at the store and you brought it home and you placed it in front of a tree and you worshiped that tree and then somebody took that hamburger and threw it on the grill and ate it, there’s no evil in that meat. That tree has no power to infuse evil into that meat; it’s just a tree.

            And that’s what Paul is saying.  That’s the reality of the situation.  Our God is the only true God, and he is the only God with power.  There is no power or life in a piece of stone or a piece of wood.  So, Paul says, “We know that.”  The pagans may not know that and so, they go to their temple and they do their thing and they worship that piece of wood.  But we know the truth.  All of us Christians, we all know, and we are all in agreement.

            But there are some things that you can’t work out with logic.  Even though you know the truth, you know that an idol is nothing, there’s not a real god there, there’s no power, that’s just a statue that people are bowing to and talking to.  But you know better. You know it’s just a piece of wood, nothing more. But not everybody thinks that way. Not everybody in Corinth thought that way.

            So, for you to make decisions based only on logic, it’s not the wise thing to do.  And I would suggest that those of you who are parents don’t do that.  Suppose you have a young child who’s afraid of the dark. The dark? You know better. There are no evil monsters that suddenly appear when you turn off the lights.

            But suppose you sit down with that child and you say, “Now, let me tell you the logic behind things in the dark.  The things in the dark are the same as the things in the light.  It’s just that you can’t see them.”  Do you think they’re going to say, “Oh, okay, I see how you’ve explained it and now I don’t have a problem with it.”  No, they still have that feeling.  And so, you accommodate that, don’t you?   Maybe you let them climb into bed with you.  You’re sensitive toward the fact that explaining things doesn’t always change how they feel.

            And it’s the same way in the church.  And so, after Paul says, “We know that an idol isn’t a real god”, he says in verse 7, “However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” (I Corinthians 8:7).

            Paul says most of us in the church understand that an idol is really nothing more than a piece of wood or stone, but not everybody gets that.  There were some Christians in that church who came out of pagan worship.  That was their way of life.  And they had just recently come out of that to Christianity and they’re still struggling to separate themselves from that meat and their activity in the temple courtyard.  So, to them, they feel like that’s morally wrong. Their conscience says, “Don’t do that.”  It’s going to drag them right back into their pagan lifestyle, and their conscience is defiled.

            In verse 8, Paul goes on to say, “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.  Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.”  (I Corinthians 8:8-12).

            Paul says eating that meat won’t make you more spiritual; it won’t make you less spiritual.  Your decision on this matter really has no bearing on your own spiritual life.  But it has everything to do with the spiritual life of your weaker brother or sister.  And if you have the attitude, “There’s nothing wrong with eating this meat, so that’s what I’m going to do.  I don’t care what anybody says.”  

            You have the freedom to do that.  But your liberty has now become a stumbling block to someone else, and that’s means it’s wrong.  Rather than helping your Christian brother or sister to progress in their faith, you’ve actually knocked them back, maybe even back even into the stuff that was destroying their life before they became a Christian.

            Paul says, “Oh, and the way, this person whose life you’re negatively affecting, keep in mind that’s someone that Jesus died for.” And so, when we say, “I have a right to do this, and nobody’s going to take away my liberty!” Paul says, “Wait a minute!  Jesus was willing to die for that person.  Is it really too much to ask for you to give up a little bit of your liberty for the good of that person? Because love always – always — takes priority over liberty!”

            In fact, Paul goes on to say, “And by the way, if your influence causes someone to defile their conscience, causes someone to go backwards instead of forward, not only are you sinning against them but you’re also sinning against Christ.”  Which is some pretty strong language!

            Then, in verse 13, Paul sums it all up and gives us our guiding principle: “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” ( Corinthians 8:13).  Love always takes priority over liberty.

            So, let’s go back and review a bit.  First of all, what we’re talking about this morning are the “gray issues.” These are not absolutes.  There’s a difference between committing adultery and having a Christmas tree.  Adultery is always wrong; there’s no room for debate.  But there are other issues where we have different convictions. Just like these Corinthians, because of their past behavior, because of their lifestyle, because of their involvement in pagan worship, it made them vulnerable in certain areas.  So, I may have a great deal of freedom in an area where you have strong conviction that’s it’s wrong.  And you may have freedom in areas where I have conviction that it’s wrong.  And that’s okay, as long as we’re talking about these gray areas.

            Secondly, we’re talking about a weaker brother or sister. We’re not just talking about somebody who disagrees with us.  There are some people who constantly try to impose their convictions on you.  They believe that it’s wrong and so, they think that you should believe it’s wrong as well.  They’ll say, “I’m offended by what you’re doing,” and what they mean by that is, “You can’t do that because I have a conviction that I shouldn’t do it.”  But that’s not a weaker brother.  

            In fact, you need to ask them the question, “When you say you’re offended, are you saying that you are a weaker brother and that my involvement in this activity is tempting you to violate your conscience?”  And most of the time, they’re not willing to say that they are the weaker brother. In fact, they usually regard themselves as the stronger, more spiritual, brother.  And if you were as spiritual as they are, then you would see things their way.  For them this is not a matter of conscience.  It’s a difference of opinion.  And Paul does not require us to live our lives subject to other people’s opinions.

            Let’s go back to the Pizza Hut example I gave earlier. The preacher who was told he shouldn’t go to Pizza Hut because they serve alcohol.  The brother who said that to him had a history of an alcohol problem; it nearly destroyed his life and nearly destroyed his marriage. Fifty years ago, he gave it up. But, because of where he used to be, he was uncomfortable being in a restaurant where they served alcohol.  This preacher said, “I can appreciate that, I can respect that” 

            But then he asked him the question, “Do you consider yourself to be a weaker brother?  Is my eating in Pizza Hut tempting you to violate your conscience in this area?”  He said, “Absolutely not.”  The preacher said, “Then we just disagree. My story isn’t your story, and, as a result, I have freedoms where you may not.”  Fortunately, this brother was mature enough to say, “You’re absolutely right.” And that was the end of it.  Some stories don’t end quite that nicely.  But that’s how we have to work through these matters.  

            Let’s go back to the example of the pool table.  Suppose there’s someone who used to be a hustler in a bar playing pool.  And that table represents a lifestyle of alcohol and drugs and immorality.  This person comes to faith in Christ.  He’s a new believer, trying to come out of that lifestyle.  And every Friday night, we have a pool party in my house.  And every week when he comes over, he’s thinking, “I’m still pretty good at this. In fact, I think maybe I could go back and do that again.”  If at some point, I become aware of that, I have to deal with that.

            Does it mean I have to get rid of my pool table?  Probably not!  But I definitely need to rethink what we’re doing on Friday nights.  And what I absolutely can’t do is to say, “You’re being ridiculous; I don’t understand why you would feel that way.  There’s nothing wrong with a pool table so just grow up and get over it!”  There may be a legitimate issue that this person is struggling with and as someone who loves him, I need to contribute to his spiritual growth, not to his demise. Love always, always takes priority over liberty.

            We treasure our freedom as Americans and as Christians.  But we do not have to do everything that we have a right to do. We are free to give up our rights anytime the situation calls for it.  Because although we have rights as a Christian, we also have the right not to exercise them for the sake of love.

            Let us pray:  Father, thank you for loving us enough to send your Son Jesus to die on a cross for us, the ultimate sacrifice. And then you turn around and you ask us to be willing to sacrifice just a small part of our liberty for the sake of another. Lord, I pray that you would help us to understand that knowledge has a tendency to make us arrogant, it makes us think that somehow we’re superior to others. And when that happens, we don’t understand grace at all!

            Father, it’s also easy to get pretty defensive about our liberties and forget the weaker brothers and sisters around us. Help us to enjoy the freedom that you have given us in Christ, but help us to also be aware of those around us and, when necessary, understand that love always takes priority over liberty. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


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