The believers conscience
What’s something that you will happily never eat again for as long as you live?
Since Chapter 1 Verse 10 Paul has been issuing the Corinthian church members with ways that they are thinking like the world and not like people who God has called to be holy. They are a people set apart by God to be used for his glory and yet they have behaved like little children who think they know better than their parents. Topics covered have included wisdom of the world verses wisdom from God, the abuse of Christian freedom and how to consider our commitments in this world, especially marriage.
We now move to the topic of Christian freedom in the context of what we do because of what we believe. You can imagine after reading Chapter 8 that, in Corinth, it would be easy to buy meat from the markets that has been sacrificed to a false god. Or that eating in the very place that the sacrifice was made was part of the city’s norm. That scenario may seem foreign to our own culture where we have no awareness of religious ritual behind the food we buy and eat. It’s not quite the same as some meats being labelled as Halal but it may be tied to restaurants we can enjoy a hearty take-away meal from which are decorated with religious statues. Some in our church may also be able to talk about the meals made in their homes of origin which are linked to idol worship. Because of our long Christianised background, however, we may not feel any issues around this subject and so applying it will be tricky.
As a side note, if the subject of halal food becomes a major talking point, it can be helpful to know a little on the subject – here is what I found on the Islamic Council of Victoria’s website. It seems to me that halal meat is not meat sacrificed to any god but is prepared in a way that is kosher (halal) for Muslims.
Read 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.e
4 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.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 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.
7 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. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 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? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 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.
What did you see?
- Be careful that our theology does not trump good relationship (1-3)
- Check off our points of theology – what do we know? (4-6)
- But check also our understanding of others – what do they know? (7-8)
- And so refine your application based on theology AND relationship (9-13)
Be careful that our theology does not trump good relationship (1-3)
“Now about…” Paul appears to be responding to questions asked by the church (see 7:1)
“…food sacrificed to idols…” Our world is very religious. All around us are festivals, traditions and practices performed regularly because of a deep-seated belief system. It may not be organised religion. The church in Corinth were subject to buying meat in the markets that were left over from animal sacrifices. Paul gives the advice later in Chapter 10 Verse 25, “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience…”
“We know that “We all possess knowledge.”” Where Paul gets this line from is curious. It could be a line from the letter they wrote to him and he is quoting back to them. It could be that it’s not a quote at all but a line from Paul that shouldn’t be in quotation marks (they don’t appear in the Greek). It could be a mixture of both given that Paul writes in Romans 15:14, “I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another.” He exclaimed earlier in the letter of 1 Corinthians that they ought to have someone wise enough to make good decisions over simple matters! And that they have the mind of Christ (2:16). Knowledge is a major theme in the bible which becomes wisdom when applied correctly. The fear of the Lord (knowing his character and supremacy) is the beginning of wisdom (reacting in reverence and respect). Now, everybody in the world possesses knowledge, but the context of what follows in Verses 4-6 implies that this is about knowledge of truth. We have brains and our brains are fed by the knowledge of God through his word.
“But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” We have here what appears to be a battle between two goods: knowledge and love. Knowledge in isolation (with your head stuck in the books or listening to sermons and debates) results in pride because we know things. It gives us confidence to speak in areas that we may not even have much experience in. Remember how arrogant the character played by Matt Damon was in Good Will Hunting? Love, on the other hand, is a word that describes care and empathy. Paul will write the great chapter on love toward the end of this book (Chapter 13) where he describes love as patient, kind and it is not proud or self-seeking. It is not opposed to knowledge though because love “rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor 13:6). It was once said that if the church in Corinth could understand and digest 1 Corinthians 13 then all of their issues that Paul tackles in this letter would have been solved. Love builds up. It is other person centred and is for the best of the other person.
“Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.” As we read the bible, one tool to use is looking for repetitive words. See how often Paul uses the word know! (Just wait till we get to the next sentence!) What could Paul mean by ‘think you know something but you don’t know’? Could it be that Paul is a little sarcastic here? Are his hearers being accused (again) of boasting in their knowledge as if knowledge is power? Let me rewrite Paul’s words as: If you are proud of your knowledge and like to tell people what is true, have you really grasped what it means to know. Knowledge does not lead to power but to wisdom. The Greek says something to the effect of (in it’s clunky fashion) “If anyone thinks “they know” about anything, they don’t know as it is necessary to know.” It seems that knowledge is not considered a place where you land but an ingredient to living – ie wisdom and relationship. Let’s be surprised by the next sentence shall we?
“But whoever loves God is known by God.” Are you still taking note of how the word ‘know’ is used? Here it is not about what we know but about Whom we are known by! Knowledge, in this verse, is not about facts or theory or doctrine but about relationship. We are known by God if we love God. Now, take this too far and you can become someone who thinks they love God but they don’t even know who he truly is because they have abandoned the truth of the bible and fallen in love with their own idea of God. So, knowledge leads to love. Or knowledge is applied in love. And isn’t being known by God the most important treasure? He sees us. He knows us. He cares.
We can easy turn bible reading and Growth Group into an activity of knowing our bibles when it is important for us to know ourselves, know one another and know and be known by God.
Check off our points of theology – what we know (4-6)
“So then…we know that…” Getting back to the issue they wrote about (food sacrificed to idols) Paul begins to check off the things that we do indeed know.
“An idol is nothing at all in the world…” To someone, an idol is everything or one of the most important things, because it represents or embodies a god or spirit or luck or ancestors or I don’t know. But to those who have come to know the living God, an idol is just a clump of wood, clay or shaped metal. Do you think your pencil sharpener has power over you? Well neither does an idol. That is good Christian doctrine and I love how Isaiah 46 compares a nothing idol to the everything God.
“…and that there is no God but one.” And we have now a doctrine that is unique to the Abrahamic based faiths (of which Islam is one). We believe in one God. Christians believe that God is in three persons – it is a truly Christian belief and one that is very important. Deut 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Israel were informed by revelation that God is one. He is not just the God of Israel but the God of creation and therefore the universe.
“For even if there are so-called gods…” Paul recognises that many believe in this god or that god or those gods. We use the word god to describe those with ultimate power and authority. It can be one being or many. It is an english word to describe an idea. It is not a name but a title. That title can be given by us to anyone or anything, because it is just a word. But the reality is this: is there truly an author of life who is sovereign (king) and to whom we should be thankful AND has this being given us knowledge to know him? Who is right about their religion? Well, who is getting their knowledge from God?
“…yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live;…” This is what we believe. Our belief is based on eye-witness reports, of profound events reported, and on a consistent word that has been written over thousands of years by an army of authors. The evidence is astounding. But this is what we believe. And notice how the Nicene Creed can be heard in this verse? We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.
“…and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” The doctrine of the Trinity is tricky, only because it is unique. But why wouldn’t God be unique? At a glance, Paul seems to be saying that there is only one God and we know Him as Father – plus and in addition to the one God, there is this guy named Jesus who is quite significant to us all and therefore we call him Lord – not God. BUT who else can you describe as ‘through whom all things came and through whom we live’?!! The Father is the eternal God, creator of everything – we come from him and all things are made through Jesus Christ. The doctrine of the Trinity is tricky, but it is a simple word to describe pieces of a puzzle that the bible hands to us. Some have said that the Trinity makes God confusing and why would God present himself in a confusing way? But God is God and it is amazing that he is complete in Himself – Father, Son and Holy Spirit are eternally united and other-person-centred. God is not nor ever lonely.
Now these are the things we know theologically. And praise God that we know so much about him! We don’t live in ignorance and we are not left to guess and wonder who is out there and is he or she or it or they looking after us? Are we even on their mind? This world is confusing and crazy and it makes no sense!!! Until I open up the word of God and am told to “be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10.
But check also our understanding of others (7-8)
“But not everyone possesses this knowledge.” Not everyone has been blessed with this clear understanding of the living God and the comfort of knowing that our God is not in competition with other people’s so called gods. For some, the world of many religions is a confusing place. But let’s read on to see who Paul has in mind…
“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…” Well, this has narrowed the market somewhat. We are thinking about people who have come out of a world/family/tradition of offering meat to idols and it is fixed in their minds as something significant. “Their former lives as pagans, in which they believed in the gods, continue to inform their experience in the present.” (Gordon D. Fee, The Epistle to the Corinthians, 1987, p378) Gordon also says one page later, “The fact is that their former way of life is woven into their consciousness and emotions in such a way that they old associations cannot be thus lightly disregarded. For them to return to the place of their former worship would mean once more to eat as though it were truly being sacrificed to the god.” Paul is specifically addressing the issue of food offered to idols but it may cross over to the greater issue of anything that seems like a ‘stumbling block’ to weaker brothers and sisters. Romans 14 has much more to say on the broader topic than what Paul says here in 1 Corinthians 8.
“…and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.” What is defiled? Their conscience. The principle here is that if you believe something to be wrong for you then it is wrong. It is not because your conscience is like the law but we have a moral obligation to be obedient to what we know to be right. If, in your heart, something seems wrong for a person of God to do or not do, then we must stop and talk to God about it before proceeding. Anyone could do a word-search in bible to read every verse containing ‘conscience’ and be rewarded for it. 1 Corinthians 4:4 says that a clear conscience does not make you innocent. A guilty conscience, however, is almost the same as sin. It is the internal boromoter of righteousness, which falls short of God’s final judgment but is our real-time boromoter that needs to be listened to none-the-less. A ‘weak’ conscience, then, refers to someone’s own guiding principle being too sensitive and not ready for Christian freedom.
“But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” Christian freedom teaches us that food does not bring us closer to or further away from God. Someone said to me recently that eating well and losing weight is good for the spirit – I think they said that it is spiritually important. This verse disagrees. I think they could have substituted the word ‘spirit’ with ‘self-esteem’ and that makes more sense. But there is no food, even food sacrificed to so-called gods, that will exclude you from the kingdom of God and no food that will bring you closer. This message has two applications 1) it teaches us not to worry about what food we do or do not eat for any spiritual reasons and 2) it teaches us that we are equally free to NOT eat something that we have a clear conscience to eat. If we are no worse off if we DON’T eat the food, but our weaker brother or sister will be better off, then let’s not eat!
So, our doctrine does not teach us to do whatever is lawful but directs us to love our neighbour and love God. In this chapter so far we have heard Paul say love God and be known by Him; know your neighbour and love them.
And so refine your application based on theology AND relationship (9-13)
“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” We may very well have rights. But it is not our right to insist on our rights and follow through with them. I think that knowing you are free to do something and proclaim something to be right, but holding your tongue or not participating in your right out of love for somebody else for their benefit, is humility. In living freely, we may lead somebody else into their own type of sin. So, we walk slowly and it is also our freedom to say no to perfectly good things for the sake of other people which is way better.
“…sees you eating in an idol’s temple…” This does sound funny to my ears. Like, why would you even want to do that! You can picture a scene where everyone is welcome to come and feast on some really good food, at a great price, with no prior ceremony to the gods needing to be present at but that you know everything you eat has been sacrificed to an idol earlier that day. So, you’re just going out for dinner but it just happens to also be a place of worship for some. It’s not just that you are attending this feast but that you are one of the many in the church who are ‘dragging’ weaker Christians along with you and telling them that it is totally fine to do this. But Paul says you don’t understand what you are asking the weaker person to do.
“So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.” What kind of destruction is this? Eternal? No, because Christ has died for this person. They are, like all who Paul is writing to, called by God to be holy and the church of God. They are saved by the blood of the lamb and there is therefore no condemnation. But their conscience is being defiled (Verse 7) and their weak conscience has been destroyed. Be careful not to import too much into one word. They are being damaged by the work that you are doing in them. Let’s remember too that we are keeping track of the use of the word ‘know’. And here, what they know is destroying somebody else rather than building them up. The antidote? Love! Love builds up but knowledge puffs up.
“…you sin against Christ.” Being unwise with our knowledge does worse than make us look foolish – it leads to sin. Christ died for them and you can’t even remove yourself from a meal for their sake.
“…I will never eat meat again…” What’s something that you will happily never “eat” again for as long as you live?
What did we learn?
We see here some simple doctrine yet profound about the God we worship – Father, creator, with Jesus Christ our Lord, and the mediator of all creation! And yet how we apply our doctrine must flow from the love that the doctrine produces. Being a person who loves the word but does not demonstrate love for their brother or sister is a person who has not learned properly.
Topic A: The relationship between doctrine and love. It is not enough to say that we read the bible to grow our theology or doctrine. But it is not sufficient to say that if we love then we don’t need theology. The bible feeds our doctrine and our doctrine produces faith and love. If it does not feed the latter then it is useless.
Bible → Doctrine → our way of life, love and faith
While on this topic of modelling the relationship between the bible and doctrine, the following flow is also wrong.
Doctrine/how we think → What the bible says
What the above means is that we do not understand what the bible says by starting with what we already know about God, the world and ourselves. The bible feeds and forms our doctrine and not the other way around. For example, we do not hold firmly to something like, “nobody (sinful man) can see God (holy) and live” and then struggle with any time that the bible describes encounters between God and man. Rather, we consider every word of scripture in its context and see the whole bible as an unfolding story that points us to Jesus – God in the flesh! It may seem obvious to say that the bible feeds doctrine and not the other way around but I am convinced that this is really most people’s approach to reading the bible until they learn to stop and listen to what the bible is saying and being ready to change and grow each time we read it.
Topic B: What things can we happily do without for the sake of another person’s conscience? Applying the text with comparisons is tricky since we need to grasp the lesson fully in order to view how broad the application is. You’d have to find an activity that, to someone else, was associated with false worship. It is not about offending people but about encouraging others to participate in something to their own spiritual hurt. I wonder if allowing people to continue to honour Christ with where they worship or how has some weight as long as it is not a limited practice forced on to all. There is no need to ‘cross yourself’ in church but some have this activity associated with the worship of Christ ingrained into them. To force such a person to stop may fit this area – while careful instruction over time would be a wiser choice.