1 Corinthians 8:1-13 (EHV)
1 Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone supposes that he knows something, he does not yet know the way he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, this person has been known by him.
4 So, concerning the eating of food from idol sacrifices, we know that an idol is not anything real in the world and that there is no God but one. 5 Indeed, even if there are so-called “gods,” whether in the heavens or on earth (as in fact there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 nevertheless for us there is one God—the Father, from whom all things exist and we exist for him—and one Lord—Jesus Christ, through whom all things exist and we exist through him.
7 However, that knowledge is not in everyone. Instead some, who are still affected by their former habit with the idol, eat the food as something sacrificed to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.
8 Food will not bring us closer to God. We do not lack anything if we do not eat, nor are we better off if we do. 9 And be careful that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone sees you, a person who has knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of this man, weak as he is, be emboldened to eat food from an idol sacrifice? 11 You see, the weak person is being destroyed by your knowledge—the brother for whose sake Christ died! 12 And when you sin in this way against your brothers and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food causes my brother to sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I do not cause my brother to sin.
Dear Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit upon us so that we may always speak and act out of love for our fellow Christian brothers and sisters who are one with us through faith in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.
You might recognise a variation of this phrase if you’ve ever had a pedantic parent who likes to use every opportunity to educate you on the technicalities of the English language, such as when you asked such a question like: “Can I have some chocolate?”
Your mother may have answered: Yes, you can, but you may not.”
She may then have explained, saying: “’Can I?’ is a question which asks about ability, where the question ‘May I?’ asks permission. So, yes, you can have some chocolate because you’re quite capable of going and getting it, holding it in your own fingers, and feeding yourself. However, you may not be permitted to have some chocolate right now because it’ll spoil your appetite.”
So yes, there are many things you can do, but that doesn’t mean you should.
St Paul uses a similar argument in regard to our freedom as Christians.
An example Paul cites is one about food offered to idols, which at first glance doesn’t seem like it would apply to us today.
He tackles this subject because in Corinth there were many temples and shrines to various idols and false gods, and many of them used animal sacrifices as part of their offerings so their idols and gods in might favour or bless them.
These sacrificial meats would often be:
a) left at the altar to these false gods,
b) eaten by the people who worshipped there for their special celebrations with family and friends, or
c) later taken to the marketplace and sold.
This raised such questions as: ‘Are Christians allowed to eat any of these meats, even though they’ve been sacrificed to false gods? And, even if we could normally avoid buying these meats, what happens if we’re invited to a friend’s house who serve up these meats which were originally offered to idols? Do we refuse and risk offending our hosts? Or, do we eat these meats without a care in the world, but risk alienating some of our own fellowship who would be offended by the fact we’re eating these meats?’
Just like today, you could imagine there may be a number of arguments among Christians for and against eating these meats, such as: “But we know the idols are just wood or gold or stone. We know there’s only one true God. We know this food isn’t going to get us any closer to Jesus or push us further away. We know it’s just plain food because those false gods don’t really exist anyway. So therefore, why don’t we just go ahead and eat these temple meals!”
On the other hand, some might say: “But we’ve left those types of practices in our past because we now have faith in Jesus as our Lord and God. He’s the only one we should worship. He’s the only one we should call upon to bless our food and families and service. Plus, if we live like everyone else, then how will anyone know we’re Christian? Look, I believe this is so serious that, if any of you eat these meats, then I’m not sure your faith is genuine anymore and I’m scared you may be in danger of falling away from faith in Jesus and going back to your old ways of idolatry!”
So, what’s Paul’s advice to this divided congregation who couldn’t agree on a solution, especially where there’s no clear instruction from God about what’s commanded or forbidden?
Well, his response is: “It depends,” but then qualifies his answer.
Firstly: “Yes, you can eat this meat, at least in the privacy of your home, since you know the idol is false, and you don’t at all mean to worship it. If you eat this meat in your own home, you’re not going to offend anyone else.”
But later on, in chapter 10 (where he talks about eating this meat in public), he says: “No, you can’t take part in those temple meals in public, even if it’s just a social gathering. This is because, when you eat that meal at the temple, you’re participating with any demons who may be present there. To eat that meal in public would also give the wrong witness to those who are struggling to stay faithful to Jesus.”
But you may wonder, what does it matter if they were to eat these meats privately or publicly?
Well, because it’s not all about you.
You see, as Christians, you’re always to be more concerned with the faith and conscience of those around you than you are with your own rights and freedom, especially if they have a weaker faith or conscience.
In this case, because it might offend your brothers or sisters in Christ, you can eat these meats in the privacy of your own home, but you may not eat it in public where it may affect the faith of others.
You see, Christian love always builds up and never seeks to tear down. Christian love always considers everyone else as more important than you and will never seek to impose your own selfish demands. Christian love always considers the unity of Christians as more important than any individual freedoms or rights.
Once you understand these things, this gracious and selfless approach can then be used for almost every other situation in the church.
For example, I heard of a congregation which had a long discussion over relocating the bible from the altar to the lectern. In many ways this makes good sense. The bible readings are read from the lectern instead of the altar, so that would be a more practical and liturgical place to put it.
In this case, the congregation discussed the pros and cons for quite a while, and then put it to the vote. It was nearly unanimous that they move the bible to the lectern. But then one member said something along these lines: “If that bible moves off the altar, I’ll never set foot in here again!”
Now, no matter what you think of such ultimatums, this Christian community, out of love for this one person, agreed they could move the bible, but chose not to. They exercised both their Christian freedom and their love for their fellow member. They chose to build up the body of Christ in love instead of dividing it over rights and entitlements and democratic votes.
Of course, this doesn’t always happen.
How many times have families and churches become divided because one person (or a number of people), chose to exercise their own rights or privileges over against their love for their brothers and sisters in Christ?
How many times has the unity of the church been held to ransom by an individual or a group?
How many times have people stopped coming to worship because of what they saw and heard fellow Christians saying or doing what they shouldn’t have?
Just because we can do something, it doesn’t mean we should, especially if it affects the unity of our community or the faith if its members.
Too many times in our Christian churches, love and unity have taken a back seat, when they should have been driving all our thoughts, words, and actions. Too many times we’ve sacrificed fellow Christians because we chose to exercise our rights instead of exercising our love and compassion for those who have weaker consciences. Too many times our unity has been fractured by our selfishness and pride.
One of the common themes running through most of the New Testament letters (and especially from those written by St Paul), is for Christians to practice love and unity. He even tells us that if anyone is to sacrifice themselves, it’s always the stronger Christians who will give up their rights and freedoms for the sake of the weaker ones.
Now, this never means we should dumb down our faith, our teachings, or our practices to the lowest common denominator, because there are certain things which are commanded or forbidden by God. We never compromise on what God teaches in his Word. But it’s often in those matters which are neither commanded nor forbidden that we often make into the most divisive ultimatums and fodder for our fights.
Paul teaches us that Christian love will always seek to build up the body of Christ. Christian love will be willing to sacrifice one’s own desires and freedoms for the sake of unity in the body of Christ. Christian love will always be concerned for those weaker in conscience within the body of Christ.
Why does Christian love always put others first?
Because that’s what Jesus Christ did for you.
You weren’t sacrificed for his glory, but he was glorified through his sacrifice for you. He didn’t puff himself up with pride and arrogance, but humbled himself for your sake. He didn’t try to get his own way, but was always concerned for the weak, the sick, the outcast, the downtrodden and the dying. Even though Jesus has authority to forgive sins, cast out demons and raise the dead, he never used his authority to lord it over you.
Thankfully, no matter how much you’ve hurt or offended others because of your own selfish desires or demands, it’s good news to hear that, where the blood of Cain once cried out for justice, Jesus’ blood now cries out for your forgiveness and mercy, and through faith you’re now innocent and washed clean by his blood.
Today, out of love for you, Jesus doesn’t offer you meat sacrificed to idols, but he offers you his body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and for the building up of the church. You eat and drink the one body and blood in faith believing this is given for you.
It shouldn’t surprise you to know there’ll always be more questions the church will be faced with. Some of them will threaten to divide us or trouble the faith of those weaker in conscience. In each case, God’s Word is our guiding light to decide on all matters of faith, doctrine and life. Where God’s Word remains silent and where he doesn’t command or forbid us to do certain things, our desire for unity and our love for those weaker in conscience will always guide us.
This means, whenever we come across a question of “Can I?” or “Can we?” in matters which are neither commanded nor forbidden, we’re to instead ask: “May we?” of “Should we?”
When we consider this question, we’re to remember the guiding principle of the love of Christ which always seeks to build up the Christian community and preserve it in loving unity. That loving unity is more important than getting our own way, no matter how noble our desires or intentions are.
After all, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should, especially if it affects the body of Christ or those weaker in conscience.
For this reason, may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in the love of Christ Jesus. Amen.