When Members Insist on Their Way

1 Corinthians

Lesson Focus: This lesson is about Christian liberty and the need for believers to act in love with the good of others and the glory of God in mind.

Let Love Rule: 1 Cor. 8:1-3.

[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.

Christians today are apt to find it a little strange that there was any doubt as to the attitude of Christians to meat which had been offered to idols. It seems to us so obvious that they could have no association with idolatry. But it was not so easy as that to a new convert at Corinth in the first century. The situation was complicated by two facts. First, it was an accepted social practice to have meals in a temple, or in some place associated with an idol. The kind of occasion, public or private, when people were likely to come together socially was the kind of occasion when a sacrifice was appropriate. To have nothing to do with such gatherings was to cut oneself off from most social intercourse with one’s fellows. Immature believers, firmly convinced that there was but one God, might well reason, “How can there possibly be any harm in eating before a block of wood or stone? What difference can it make if meat has been offered to a non-existent deity?” Secondly, most of the meat sold in the shops had first been offered in sacrifice. Part of the victim was always offered on the altar to the god, part went to the priests, and usually part to the worshippers. The priests customarily sold what they could not use. It would often be very difficult to know for sure whether meat in a given shop had been part of a sacrifice or not. Notice that there are two separate questions: the taking part in idol feasts, and the eating of meat bought in the shops, but previously part of a sacrifice. Many things might be said, Paul begins with the obligations of Christian love.

[1-3]  Now concerning is the same formula as that rendered in 7:1. It indicates that this is another matter which had been raised in the letter from the Corinthians. It is not unlikely that their letter had stressed the place of knowledge. Paul may even be quoting from it. At any rate he agrees with the importance of knowledge, and joins himself with them in its exercise. The use of all of us may be a gentle reminder that the knowledge on which the Corinthians prided themselves was by no means unusual, but the common possession of Christians. Paul proceeds to contrast knowledge with love. Pride so often accompanies knowledge, but it is the very antithesis of the genuine Christian spirit. Whereas knowledge puffs up, love builds up. Paul’s second point is that knowledge here on earth is, at best, incomplete. No matter what a man thinks he knows, he does not yet know as he ought to know. There is no point in priding oneself on what inevitably is partial and incomplete. There is probably also the thought that he who thinks he knows really does not know. Love, by contrast, has permanent effects. There is a typical Pauline turn of construction here. The really important thing is not that we know God, but that He knows us: he is known by God. When a man truly loves God he is brought within the sphere of those on whom God is graciously pleased to set His knowledge. What Paul has done in these three verses is to give a very gentle rebuke to those who gave too high a place to knowledge. Love rather than knowledge should be the Christian’s determining consideration.

Avoid the Stumbling Blocks: 1 Cor. 8:4, 7-13.

[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." [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.  [ESV]

[4]  Paul builds his case against eating idol food by affirming their belief in the one God (we know that) and their rejection of the reality of idols. They have not recognized the full ramifications of their confession that there is only one God, who requires absolute allegiance. Idols purport to be images of various gods; but if the gods do not exist, then idols do not exist. The creedal statement there is no God but one echoes the basic Jewish confession in the Shema [Deut. 6:4]. The knowledge that an idol has no real existence probably provided a theological justification for some Corinthians to think that they could attend feasts in idol temples with impunity. Idols are simply images of a deity that does not exist, except perhaps in the imaginations of their worshipers, and food sanctified to something that does not exist cannot affect Christians in any way. Because of their knowledge about the one true God, they attached no religious significance to whatever rites may have been celebrated in connection with the food or whatever words of consecration were pronounced over it. The problem, however, is that their knowledge is overly simplistic. Paul agrees with the theological principle behind their behavior, but they have misapplied it.

[7]  Verse 7 raises the questions of who is included in the not all, and what is this knowledge. It appears that Paul is describing those Christians with weak consciences [8:11]. But if they are Christians, how could they be unaware of the foundational truth that there is but one God? This knowledge in verse 7 includes the knowledge that God is one, and idols have no existence, plus the inference that this truth permits them to eat idol food as ordinary food, not as sanctified food. The knowers ‘know’ that idol food is nothing but ordinary food hollowed by some empty hocus-pocus. The weak, however, regard it as idol food, sanctified and dedicated to the god. Certain actions trigger old memories and associations. Their old way of life forms their consciousness so that their minds have a reflex reaction when it comes to idols. For those with this knowledge, the banquet may be only a social occasion, but it is not so for those with a weak conscience. Eating sanctified food had always been an act of worship that honored the god lurking behind the idol. Their minds are still infused with old conceptions that spring up involuntarily. What does Paul mean by a weak conscience in this verse. Paul uses the term conscience to refer to that faculty of moral evaluation that judges whether an individual’s actions are right or wrong and directs behavior according to recognized norms. A weak conscience is one that is unable to make appropriate moral judgments because of a lack of proper edification. A weak conscience is prone to give assent to false judgments and to sanction actions based on faulty criteria, particularly when it has been defiled. It is untrustworthy because it does not possess the necessary knowledge. Paul fears that the person with a weak conscience might follow the example of those presumed to have knowledge and eat idol food as truly offered to an idol, that is, as a sacrificial act. This person will be led astray in his or her moral judgment to think that such polytheistic practice is permissible for a Christian. This person’s conscience is then defiled through idolatry. Paul’s focus in these verses is not on the person with the weak conscience. His goal is to change the activity of the knowers, who, despite their imagined theological sophistication, are in danger of being partners with demons [10:20] by causing the weak believer to sin. His strategy is to show those who presume to have knowledge that they also have a responsibility for the weak individual. This approach assumes that they would care about the plight of one with a weak conscience.

[8-10]  Food is seen as an indifferent matter that will not bring us before the Judge for condemnation. The knowers had seized on the fact that food is morally neutral to defend their position that it is permissible to eat food that had been sacrificed to idols. But Paul’s point here is that life is not lived in the theoretical abstract, and eating food sacrificed to idols can lead to partnership with demons [10:20]. Consuming food in an idolatrous context or food plainly associated with idolatry is not a matter of indifference. It can have deadly consequences due to its association with idols because eating this food can become a stumbling block to the weak. Paul sets forth an hypothetical example: if anyone sees you confronts directly those who claim to have knowledge and authority to eat idol food even in an idol’s temple. Paul assumes that the intention of those who would host a gathering at an idol’s temple must be idolatrous and not benign. He also assumes that any food eaten on the precincts of an idol’s shrine is contaminated by idolatry. Eating a meal there is participation in idolatry regardless of how Christian participants might have construed it in their own minds. Christians should not join in these feasts. But Paul does not come right out and say so at this point in his argument. He does not give his full assessment of what it means to eat in an idol’s temple here but delays until 10:14-22 to give his final judgment about such eating. Here Paul shows the potential detrimental consequences of their actions on others to persuade them to abandon such conduct. He warns them that as persons in the know, they might set a bad example for the new Christian whose weak conscience may be encouraged by the knowers eating activity to revert back to idolatry. An individual with a weak conscience happens to see the supposedly mature Christian reclining in an idol’s place and will be persuaded that such conduct is harmless and allowable for all Christians. The ever present idolatry in this culture would then exert a strong undertow that would drag the new believer with a weak conscience back into the dark world of demons.

[11-13]  Verse 11 elaborates what Paul has said in 8:10 by explaining what will happen to the weak. The verb destroyed is placed first in the clause for emphasis. The word means utter ruin or annihilation. Paul always uses this verb to refer to eternal, final destruction. The cause of this destruction will be your knowledge. Not only does knowledge not build up [8:1], it also can tear down when used in a careless, insensitive, and selfish way. Their vanity in their own knowledge and their lack of consideration for others can lead to spiritual wreckage for others. Paul underscores the gravity of this offense by specifying that this person who might be caused to stumble is the brother for whom Christ died. Identifying the person with a weak conscience as a brother places an emphasis on community. Christ’s death joined them together in a believing fellowship. In Christ, another believer cannot be ignored or sniffed at as one without knowledge and with a weak conscience but must be esteemed as a brother. This statement also harks back to the contrast between knowledge and love in 8:1. Christ becomes the model of love, who acts to save others. It is this behavior that the Corinthians should imitate. Verse 12 draws the consequences of the statement in 8:11. Paul labels their actions sin, not merely an offense to the brother, and makes it even more serious by branding it sin against Christ. Their actions confuse the weak believer causing them to believe that such idolatrous actions are not wrong. Paul’s strong language implies that the knowers will perish with their knowledge if they cause a weak brother to perish. Therefore marks a turning point in the argument. Paul shifts back to the first person singular and provides positive advice from an example from his own life. Given the serious nature of such sin, he personally will avoid anything that might put a weak brother at risk. He elevates the common interest above any self-interest that might cause injury to others. The word stumble means to cause offense or to lead into sin. Again, Paul emphasizes that the person in jeopardy is my brother, not merely someone with a weak conscience. I will never eat meat is hyperbole. Paul does not eat meat that is known to be sacrificial meat, and he does not limit his reference to sacrificial meat but refers to any kind of meat. He adopts this extreme position – abstaining from all meat – to underscore the heavy responsibility which a believer has toward his fellow-believers. Paul wants to show what love ultimately requires from believers and how it transcends knowledge. The argument moves from the lesser to the greater. If he would do this in the case of ordinary food, how much more so in the case of something so spiritually toxic as idol food? We should not infer from this principle, however, that Paul thinks it is permissible to eat idol food as long as those with weak consciences do not observe it or if it will not cause them to stumble. Ruling out eating idol food on the basis of the weaker brother principle does not affirm its appropriateness in other circumstances. It is instead an indirect demand to withdraw from idolatry.

Do All for God’s Glory: 1 Cor. 10:31-33.

[31]  So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. [32]  Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, [33]  just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

So introduces an inference from Paul’s arguments in 10:23-30 concerning Paul’s advice in the whole discussion of food sacrificed to idols. The ultimate aim of Christians is to please God, not themselves. Whatever you do excludes the possibility of compartmentalizing one’s life so that one might reserve a segment of it to do as one pleases. It also sounds a striking counterpoint to the maxim quoted at the beginning of this unit: All things are lawful [10:23]. Only those things that bring glory to God are permitted. As noted above, the basic structure of Paul’s argument in this section against idol food matches the structure of his argument in 6:12-20 against sexual sins, which begins with the maxim All things are lawful for me [6:12] and ends with the imperative glorify God in your body [6:20]. In 10:23, Paul echoes the same maxim, and in 10:31, he begins his conclusion with a similar imperative. In this context, offense would come from blocking another person from coming to faith in Christ. The command summarizes his warning in 1 Cor. 8:7-13 that they should do nothing to imperil the salvation of a fellow Christian, a member of the church of God. In that case, it meant never darkening the door of an idol’s temple where one might be seen by another Christian with a weak conscience who then might be persuaded from this example that participation in idolatry was permissible for Christians. If such careless sporting with idols served as a tripwire that might hurtle another back into the demonic sphere of idolatry, it would bring divine judgment on both the one who is destroyed and the one who caused a fellow Christian to stumble. The certainty of God’s judgment on those who cause another to trip and fall [Matt. 18:6] created a healthy fear that dictated Paul’s actions. He will do nothing that might cause another Christian to fall [1 Cor. 8:13] or that might unnecessarily hamper others from accepting the gospel of Christ. He also will do anything to make an opening for others to accept the gospel of Christ. His overriding concern as an apostle is how to gain followers for Christ. Consequently, he pays heed to how others perceive the faith and actions of Christians. One must avoid doing anything that might turn potential converts away from the gospel or that might cause Christians to betray their faith. This approach demands far more than simply trying to avoid hurt feelings. To bring glory to God, Christians must behave in ways that lead others to a saving relationship with Christ [9:19-23]. In the context of his arguments about idol food and idolatry in chapters 8-10, Paul is concerned that the Corinthians’ cavalier behavior might cut the ground out from under a fellow Christian who is already wobbly in the faith or solidify the ground on which an idolater stands in resistance to the gospel’s message of one God and one lord. Being blameless with respect to the church of God, then, means doing nothing that might cause Christians to founder in their faith by giving them license to revert to idolatrous practices. Being blameless with respect to Greeks means doing nothing that might validate the legitimacy of their resistance to God. Being blameless with respect to Jews means doing nothing that might give them the impression that Christian teaching condoned idolatry and that becoming a Christian would entail abandoning the basic confession of one God. The division between Jews, Greeks, and the church of God is thus to be explained by the fact that each has different reactions to the conduct of Christians, not that Paul thought that Christians were a third race. Paul’s concern is much broader than some internal squabble in the church. The issue of food offered to idols directly affects the church’s witness to the world and its ability to win converts. Paul concludes his instructions by returning in verse 33 to his own example. As an apostle, he understands himself to be the norm of behavior for his churches. The verb please would seem to refer to a willingness to oblige others in all things. But Paul is not a pleaser in the sense of the flatterer who approves of everything and never raises an objection and thinks it is his duty to avoid giving pain to those with whom he comes in contact. The term needs to be understood in the context of his rendering service to Christ. As Christ’s slave, he also renders service to others regardless of the cost to himself. For Paul, the individual’s profit must be subordinated to what builds up the community of God and strengthens its divine mission in the world. His conclusion, that they may be saved, reiterates what he says in 9:22 and shows how this principle controls all that he does. The many does not refer to the church community but to the majority of people inside and outside the church.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Describe the situation that Paul is dealing with in chapter 8. What is the knowledge he discusses in 8:1-2 [see 8:4]? Why is this knowledge causing the knowers to be puffed up?

2.         What is the relationship between knowledge and love? While you can have knowledge without love, can you have love without knowledge? How does love for God prevent knowledge of His truth from puffing up the believer?

3.         How was the eating of food offered to idols a stumbling block to other believers? Why does Paul say that causing a Christian brother to sin is a sin against Christ?

4.         What is the responsibility of the “mature” believer towards the “immature” believer? How does Christian love by the mature believer build up the immature believer (By not putting stumbling blocks in their path and by nurturing them with God’s Word so that they will grow in their faith and become mature believers [see Eph. 4:11-16])?


1 Corinthians, David Garland, Baker.

The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

1 Corinthians, Peter Naylor, Evangelical Press.

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