Recognizing and Removing Stumbling Blocks
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 8:1–8:13
1 Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.
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.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 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.
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. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 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? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
Followers of Christ are often portrayed as falling somewhere along a continuum that extends from “legalism” on one side to “license” on the other.
On the one hand, “legalists” are characterized as those who establish their own standard of righteousness, and make it their ambition to not only adhere to that standard but do their best to make sure that others are adhering to it as well. On the other hand, those in the “license” camp have a more laissez-faire approach to their Christian life, believing that since Jesus’ death has saved them from their sin they are now free to live however they please while encouraging others to do the same.
It is likely that all of us know people who are represented by both of these positions. Churches are sometimes known to be one or the other when, sad to say, both are misrepresentations of authentic Christianity. Falling well between these two extremes, the Bible presents what is more than simply a moderating position, but rather the correct one. Through His once for all sacrifice, Jesus Christ has delivered every believer from the law of sin and death. And while it is true that Christians have been “liberated” in Christ, that freedom is not to be misused or abused. It is, rather, to be governed by a higher principle, the principle of love. It is this topic that Paul wades into in the 8th chapter of 1 Corinthians.
If you are unfamiliar with this chapter, then you are probably wondering what “food (being) offered to idols” has to do with you. The immediate and brief answer is “nothing. But upon further reflection the answer is “more than you might think.” In fact, Paul does not limit the entirety of his discussion on this subject to this single chapter. It is a topic that will occupy the next three chapters of this epistle.
That being said, there is plenty for us to digest within these thirteen verses. So, as we begin, let me try and set the scene in more contemporary terms. Specifically, this chapter addresses principles that are both common and relevant to us today, namely the exercise and restraint of our “rights” as Christians. More specifically, how we should respond to the so-called “gray areas” or “questionable activities” of life....things that may not be clearly addressed in Scripture...things that may not necessarily be “right” or “wrong” of themselves, but over which Christians holds differences of opinion or preference.
Among the more common questions I have been asked about in recent days are these:
- Is it permissible for a Christian to have a glass of wine with dinner? Or how about a beer after mowing the lawn?
- Is it wrong to enroll my child in a sport or activity that would cause them to miss Sunday school or church from time to time?
- Should I give money to a homeless person who I see at the Metro station each day?
- Is it okay for me to watch an R-rated movie?
- Should I post my political opinions on social media?
- Is it wrong to go into debt for a depreciating item?
There are likely items of your own that you might add to that list. What makes arriving at a clear-cut position on these and similar matters is that Christians will differ as to the propriety of an activity, given where they fall along the “legalism-license continuum.” Does this mean that we are left to ourselves to figure out what is the proper course of action for a believer to take? I think not. Many Christians in our day insist on our “rights” to do as we please, as if to say that “in Christ” we have “unlimited entitlement.” That simply isn’t true. Rather, this passage tells us that the determining factor in deciding between competing choices or decisions must be “love.” To put it succinctly, the extent of our love will be determined by the degree to which we are willing to restrain our liberty.
Within this passage Paul puts forth three factors for us to consider when facing a decision regarding the appropriateness or inappropriateness of an activity. To begin with...
The decisions Christians make must be based on knowledge (verses 1 and 4-6)
The “now concerning” phrase with which this chapter begins clues us in that a new topic is being addressed. We have seen it before (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:1), and we will see it again (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:1, et al) in this epistle. It appears as a “marker” that identifies the apostle’s responses that the Corinthian church had posed in an earlier letter they had written to him. The specific issue here was what is identified as “food offered to idols.”
This was a hot topic in 1st-century Corinth because animal sacrifices were a regular part of ancient pagan worship. Slaughterhouses, where meat was often purchased, stood next to the pagan temples. The meat sold at the slaughterhouses came from the sacrifices that had been offered. As a result, people prepared and served meat that had originated as a sacrifice in the neighborhood pagan temple. At the time of the animal sacrifice, some of the meat was burned, another portion went to the temple priests, and other portions of were either returned to the one making the offering or put up for sale in the slaughterhouses. On occasion the meat was used for a sacred banquet in honor of the deity. The question being raised by those in the Corinthian church was whether eating the meat that had been offered as a sacrifice would be considered as “worship” to that deity.
To spiritually-infant Christians who had come out of this pagan religious system, this would have been a major issue. We need to keep in mind that anyone who refrained from eating meat sacrificed to idols was socially ostracized and effectively banned from conducting business within the community. It would have been a heavy price to pay, and weighed into the response Paul gave.
Beyond that cultural and contextual background, what is most notable about this initial paragraph is the repetition of the noun “knowledge” and the verb “to know.” Paul had earlier reminded these Corinthian believers that they had been “enriched in...knowledge” in the things of the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:5), but that their “knowledge” had not yet produced in them the goal of Godly “wisdom.”
You will notice the quote marks around the phrase, “All of us have knowledge.” Here Paul appears to be quoting their arrogant boast regarding their supposed spiritual intellect. But in the next breath he chastises them because rather than using the “knowledge” they had received in a meaningful and productive way, instead they had become “puffed up.” In other words, they were “full of hot air.”
Correct decisions regarding debatable issues had to be based on correct knowledge, but for it to accomplish its intended purpose that knowledge had to be correctly applied. Take for example the matter of which the Corinthians had raised, namely “food (that had been) offered to idols.” Were they free to eat it, or would it somehow “contaminate” them spiritually? Would partaking of such meat be considered akin to worshiping that deity?
Paul adds to their “knowledge” by reminding them in verses 4 through 6 that “‘an idol has no real existence’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’” It seems that rather than quoting the Corinthians this time, he is pointing them to a higher source, namely the Scriptures. The reference comes out of Deuteronomy 6:4, a passage known to every Jew as “the Great Shema.” That word in Hebrew means “hear,” and represents the Lord’s clarion call to His people: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” It was known as “the Great Shema” because it immediately preceded the “Great Command,” which the people needed to perennially keep before them: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
Without a doubt, Paul had instructed the young Christians in Corinth in light of this command, just as we need to constantly rehearse it in our day. Admittedly, both then and now, there are many “so-called gods,”—idols of all sorts—to which people bow and swear allegiance. But there is only One Lord who is worthy to receive our worship and praise. That One is identified in verse 6, in what was clearly a confession of faith among the earliest Christians: “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”
Recognition of that is actually where “true knowledge” begins. Until we admit that each one of us is an “idol-worshiper” by nature and that the only cure for that sinful disease is to turn from our “idols”—including the most prominent one, ourselves—and receive the forgiveness of the merciful God provided through the death of His Son, we will continue to wander aimlessly down dead-end streets. Even as Christians, we must remind ourselves daily that we “we exist” for Him and live for Him as our one and only, exclusive Lord. Apart from this “knowledge,” our ability to decide prudently will not only be handicapped but be rendered ineffective altogether.
Therefore, the decisions Christians make with regard to questionable matters must be based on “knowledge”...the right kind of “knowledge.” But “knowledge” alone is insufficient. Returning to verse 1 and advancing into verses 2 and 3, the apostle further points out that...
The decisions Christians make must be motivated by love (verses 2-3)
Remember that Paul has already said that “‘knowledge’ puffs up.” By itself what we claim to know amounts to little or nothing. Something must be added to it to give it value and worth...and that something is “love.” “‘Knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up.” What kind of love is he talking about? Although he will expound on that subject most fully in chapter 13, notice how he explains what he is referring to in verses 2 and 3. He writes, “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.”
Among the most noble virtues toward which the Greeks strived, were “γνωσιs,” “σοφια,” and “λογοs”—“knowledge,” “wisdom,” and “rhetoric”—and ideally in that order. One must “know” before he could become “wise,” and he must demonstrate “wisdom” before his speech would be considered credible. An individual must possess all three qualities before it could be said that he truly “knew” something.
Picking up on this line of reasoning, Paul reminds his readers that no one fully knows any subject as fully “as he ought to know.” There was yet one more virtue that needed to be added to the other three if their “knowledge”—certainly of the things of God—was to be complete, and that something was “love”—“αγαπη” love. Paul is reminding us here that we are all “in process,” caught in between the “already” and the “not yet.” It is in chapter 13, verse 12 where we are reminded that “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now, I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been known.”
Writing in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, C.K. Barrett has said, “Being a Christian, and building up the life of a Christian church, does not consist in acquiring and teaching a number of propositions about God, even when they happen to be true.” As someone has said, “no one cares how much we know until they know how much we care.”
In spite of what some people think, no one has as arrived at full and complete “knowledge.” There is always something more to learn. Therefore, its attainment is something toward which we should be striving after day by day. All of us should be committed to “lifelong learning.” And that is particularly true for the followers of Christ. Peter exhorts believers to “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). One casual reading through the Bible won’t get us there. Neither will a passing interest in the Gospel. God is looking for “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” and long to be filled (cf. Matthew 5:6), and make it their life’s ambition to be found pleasing to Him.
One day “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14), but that day has not yet arrived. Until it does, we must strive for it, being motivated to pursue it by the “love” of God. Only when a person has “love” can he or she be said to “know as he ought to know.” Only then is the Christian able to answer difficult questions and make the hard decisions with which he will be confronted.
Before moving on to the third point in Paul’s discussion, a further comment on verse 3 is in order. There Paul writes, “If anyone loves God, he is known by God.” Doesn’t that seem a little strange? Wouldn’t we have expected him to have said, “The one who loves God knows Him?” Instead we find a surprising yet deliberate twist: “Whoever loves God is known by God.” By stating it in that manner, Paul appears to be deflating the pride of these Corinthian “know-it-alls.” The apostle is reasoning that “all of us possess knowledge,” but the “knowledge” that ultimately counts is not the knowledge that we “possess.” What truly counts is not so much our knowledge of God, but rather God’s knowledge of us. He alone is the omniscient One, and it is to His superior intellect that we all are forced to yield.
This is not merely a rhetorical twist in Paul’s argument, but a fundamental theological and spiritual insight that ought to promote a proper humility about whatever knowledge we do possess. To again quote Paul, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
As we move into verses 7 through 13, we come to the application of the principles Paul has been laying down in the first six verses. The decisions Christians make must be based on knowledge, motivated by love, and here we see that...
The decisions Christians make must be approved by conscience (verses 7-13)
Verse 7 begins with a strong adversative...“However” (“αλλα”). It is here where Paul begins to answer the original question that had been presented to him: “What are these Corinthian believers to do regarding “food offered to idols”? Were they to eat it, or to abstain?
As noted, the “gray areas” of your life and mine are quite different from those that were facing the Corinthians. Answers for both them and for us are not easy and clear-cut, especially when they involve others who may be weaker or less certain in matters of faith. Nevertheless, there is a biblical principle that applies to situations that fall into this category. Whenever we as Christians encounter a “questionable activity,” we must begin with knowledge of the Scriptures. The application of that knowledge must be prompted by love. And in the third place the action we take must be approved by conscience. All three of these factors must align if the decisions we make are to be commended.
When speaking of “conscience,” let us be clear that I am not advocating “conscience alone,” as in the expression, “Let conscience be your guide.” Instead I am referring to a “conscience” that has been sanctified as a result of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19). The worst counsel one could give to an unbeliever to say, “Let conscience be your guide.” But for a maturing believer in Christ—one who loves the Lord and is regularly and diligently into His Word—it is sound advice.
One commentator defines the conscience as “a kind of moral referee that pronounces the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of one’s actions.” That is not meant to imply that conscience is in any way infallible. But it does suggest that when founded upon biblical knowledge and motivated by love, it can serve as a reliable “moral compass.” Granted, the conscience can be “seared” (cf. 1 Timothy 4:2), but when one is walking in faithful obedience to the Scriptures, that will not be the case.
We must remember that Paul is writing to Christians—immature Christians, to be sure—but Christians nonetheless. Many of them, as verse 7 indicates, had only recently been delivered out of the pagan religions in which the idolatrous sacrifices in question were being offered. These were the ones whose consciences were most weak and most easily defiled by partaking of the meat that, perhaps only hours earlier, had been offered up to a pagan god.
Paul’s immediate response to their moral dilemma is found in verse 8: “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15(:20) had briefly broached the subject, but at issue there were the Jewish food regulations in the Mosaic Law.
Those who are serious about living for Christ regularly face questions for which there will be no “chapter and verse” answers to which we may readily turn. Paul, however, did provide for us a “guiding principle” earlier in this same letter. Writing in chapter 6, verse 12, he agreed with the Corinthians who had said, “All things are lawful for me,” but to that claim he added two caveats. First, he reminded them that “not all things are helpful” in his Christian walk; and, secondly, he added, “I will not be dominated by anything.” What he meant by those rejoinders is that freedom without boundaries leads to slavery. Therefore we must be careful in how we exercise our liberty in Christ.
That is precisely the point Paul reintroduces throughout the rest of this chapter. Beginning in verse 9, he gives this exhortation: “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” This is the main thought of the entire chapter. Yes, there is “liberation” from the restraints of external rules and regulations that is granted by those who are “in Christ,” but with that “liberty” comes the responsibility to exercise one’s freedom without placing obstacles in the path of those who do not yet understand. Within this context, a “stumbling block” (“προσκομμα”) refers to something that “trips up” another and slows their spiritual progress. As Leon Morris explains, “The person who insists on doing anything allowable has not learned the way of Christian love.”
Paul proceeds to expound upon this in verses 10 and 11: “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.” The growth of a “weaker” brother or sister in Christ can be easily stunted or gotten “off track” altogether if he or she is not following a Godly example. That is why it is so important for the church to be committed to faithfully discipling one another. Sin maintains its inherent power in emboldening us to abuse God’s forgiving grace, thereby encouraging others to misuse their freedom in Christ as well. Should that happen, the voice of conscience is silenced and no longer able have its restraining effect.
The apostle’s warning further intensifies in verse 12 when he adds, “Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, (now get this!) you sin against Christ.” I’m not sure that we take Paul’s words seriously. Do we truly recognize that when care so little for the spiritual well-being of a fellow-believer that we are actually “sin(ning) against Christ”? If you happen to be one who has somehow missed that truth, then consider the words of Jesus who one day cautioned His disciples in the presence of a group of vulnerable and impressionable children, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
When Paul says that it is possible for us to “wound the conscience” of another, the word he chooses is “τυπτω,” which means “to strike vigorous blows against so as to injure.” Not only is the “conscience” of the weaker believer damaged, but the ministry of Christ is harmed as well.
Paul brings his argument on this point to a close in verse 13, with this resolution: “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” By imposing this restriction upon himself, the writer employs the strongest possible negation that the Greek language will allow (“ου μη”). Were we to translate it literally, it would read, “I will not ever—no never—eat meat.” Paul is not, of course, endorsing a vegan lifestyle. Rather, he is asserting that the prevention of a weaker brother stumbling in his or her walk with the Lord is of greater importance to him that his own personal “right” to exercise his liberty in Christ.
How counterintuitive Paul’s instruction seems to many of us today. Especially in the Western church there is a growing sense of “Christian entitlement,” which says, “I am free in Christ to do as I please, and if that bothers you then deal with it!” That attitude is the very antithesis of what this passage is teaching.
Healthy and maturing Christians are neither legalistic nor licentious. Rather they are the ones who recognize their liberty in Christ and allow it to be governed by love. It may accurately be said that the test of our love as Christians is determined by the degree to which we are willing to limit our liberty for the benefit of another.
The New Testament has a great deal more to say about making Christians’ involvement and participation in so-called “questionable activities” for which the Bible does not provide clear and immediate answers. This subject will surface again as we work our way through the next two chapters of this letter over the next couple of Sunday mornings. For now, however, let me leave with you some related thoughts to ponder.
- We have said that the decisions that Christians make must be based on knowledge. Biblical knowledge is the foundation upon which the decisions we make as Christians is to be based, but it is only the beginning.
- We also said that the decisions that Christians make must be motivated by love. As our insight into spiritual truth grows, it must always advance to the next step, which is love. Love is that God-given quality that enables us to put the well-being of others ahead of our own.
- And then we said that the decisions that Christians make must be approved by conscience. As our knowledge of the Scriptures increases, we must resist the temptation that leads to “spiritual pride,” whereby we exert our “rights” in the name of “Christian liberty.” There is a greater goal before us, and that is the building up of others. It is important to realize that the “rights” or “privileges” we have been given in Christ are shared privileges. They are given for the good of the entire body, not simply for us as individuals.
What strikes me from this passage is that the real issue here is not so much on “offending” someone within the church. It is rather on setting an unhealthy example that might lead someone—namely a weaker brother or sister—to stumble. For instance, if I am aware that a brother or sister has a specific spiritual weakness or has come out of a particular lifestyle in which certain behaviors were part of that culture, and they see me engaging in or endorsing those behaviors then I likely have placed a “stumbling block” before then. Therefore, in love, I should be more than willing to set aside my liberty for their sake.
I’ll conclude by saying that the personal behavior of Christ’s followers is not dictated not by knowledge, freedom, or law, but by love for those who are with us in our community of faith. Everything that one does that affects relationships within the body of Christ—from the strongest to the weakest among us—should be motivated by our care for our fellow brothers and sisters for whom Christ died. We should bear in mind that the lack of care for Christ’s Church is a lack of care for Christ.
As someone has pointed out, “I don’t have the right to give up my liberty, but I do have liberty to give up my rights.”