Exercising Our Freedom As Christians
[1st Corinthians chapter 8]
Today in my continuing chronological study of the writings of the apostle Paul I will, with God’s help, cover chapter 8 in 1st Corinthians. The first part of this chapter has to do with eating food that has been sacrificed to idols, which seems on the surface to be a rather antiquated notion. However, it has modern implications that are applicable to modern times which I will cover further down in today’s study. Allow me to begin at verse one:
“Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know what he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God. 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. For even if there are so-called “gods”, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 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.” (First Corinthians 8; verses 1-6 NIV)
In order to get a proper perspective on what the apostle Paul wrote, we must gain a little insight into the times in which Paul lived. The Christian faith as we have come to know it was in its infancy during Paul’s lifetime. The young and growing churches of his day were islands surrounded by a sea of pagan idol worship such as the pagan “gods” of ancient Greece and particularly the Roman Empire, which was the superpower of its time comparable to the contemporary United States. The pagans of that time sacrificed live animals and even human beings and (most horrifically) children. After the animal sacrifice, which was performed over an altar of raging fire, it was customary to eat the meat that had been sacrificed. As you know, one of the main reasons this was done was purely practical. There was no refrigeration in those days, so opportunities to supplement one’s diet with fresh meat was considered a luxury back then.
But with the advent of the early Christian church (there were no denominations in those days, that didn’t happen until much later, but I digress), the teaching that there was but one true God was considered quite controversial – even radical – during the times in which Paul’s words were written. So it is understandable that the act of continuing to participate in pagan rituals generated quite a controversy within the early church. The Bible portrays this most vividly in the book of Acts chapter 17 as written by the apostle Luke. Allow me to quote an excerpt from this portion of Scripture that best documents this topic.
“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there….. ‘Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with an inscription “to an unknown god”. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He himself gives all men life and breath and everything else….. Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overcame such ignorance, but He now commands all people everywhere to repent. For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising Him from the dead’”… (Acts chapter 17, verses 16 – 17 and verses 22-31 NIV)
And so now it is easy to comprehend that frame of reference from which Paul wrote 1st Corinthians chapter 8 that I quoted in the first part of today’s study. When Paul wrote “We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know what he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God”, he was giving a warning to the Corinthian church. Based on this passage of Scripture, it appears that there were people in the early church who genuinely believed in the saving power of Christ, but they still ate meat sacrificed to idols, presumably because they saw it as an opportunity to score a nice meal for themselves. In light of the fact that there was widespread poverty and destitution in those days, it is not hard to understand why some early Christians were doing this. It was as if to say, “Leave me alone and stop judging me by what I eat. I can worship Jesus and still eat meat sacrificed to idols. I can have it both ways and I see nothing wrong with that”. And so Paul is saying right back to them, “You people think you are clever by wanting to have things both ways, but you are not as smart as you think you are”. Paul was saying that people who loved God through Jesus Christ and through no one or nothing else have the purest hearts. On the other hand, people who ate at pagan temples had a conflict of interest. So Paul is warning them, “I will not judge you for what you are doing when you eat meat sacrificed to idols, but don’t be surprised if you find yourselves judged by God when your physical life is over”. Paul then continues in verse 7:
“But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block for the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall”. (1st Corinthians 8: verses 7-13 NIV)
Based on what Paul wrote in the above passage of Scripture, apparently there were some new believers joining the Church who saw a contradiction regarding the worship of the one true God as opposed to eating meat sacrificed in the pagan temples during this time. These new Church members viewed this as a spiritual conflict of interest, and it must have been driving some of them away. Or, they would copy those who ate in pagan temples and eat there themselves, only to be gripped by feelings of remorse after doing so since they were being taught that there is but one true God through Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of all mankind. This contradiction was surely causing quite a bit of dissent within the early church, compromising the faith of some of the new members, even to the point of leaving and going back to the pagan traditions that were no doubt taught by their parents, teachers and mentors.
In closing, there is a similar spiritual conflict of interest within the church today that drives away many who would otherwise accept Christ as their Redeemer. Instead of pagan temples, we have the contemporary “prosperity gospel” that confuses the Spiritual blessings of God with material blessings, sometimes even intentionally. Let me be absolutely clear about this. The conspicuous wealth of those who “preach” (I am using that word in the loosest possible terms here) this kind of message speaks for itself. Do ministers, evangelists and teachers need to be associated with some mega-church to be considered ‘successful’? Do they really need their own private jets, not to mention cars with six-figure price tags and sprawling mansions? These “churches”, which are supposed to be charities and ministries, are being operated just like the thriving businesses that they truly are. Most people can see right through that sort of thing. The few who don’t perceive this are the ones who are giving money to these “churches”, and in the process they are being taken for a ride by these phony preachers and “faith healers”. I don’t think it is so much a matter of knowing that there are those who see this spiritual sophistry for what it is, but it has been my observation for many years that these religious masqueraders who disseminate Biblical distortions simply don’t care whether anyone sees through it or not. To them, it’s all in a day’s work, and they pay themselves lavishly. Remember what Jesus said when He drove the moneychangers out of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, “You have taken my Father’s house and turned it into a den of robbers”. Those words of Christ are even more applicable today than they were when He first spoke them nearly 2,000 years ago. This is the very thing that bothers the conscience of new believers or potential converts when they see this kind of stuff going on, and so it drives away the very ones that Christ wishes to save. And so we have a very similar conflict of interest with very similar results, and the fact that there is 2,000 years of elapsed time is completely incidental to the cause of Christ. The second coming of Christ is very close, perhaps only months or a few short years away. How, then, should we be living? Let’s make sure there are no spiritual conflicts or contradictions within our own lives, and in so doing we can be good examples for everyone. Because that’s what Jesus is calling us to do.