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First Corinthians


1 Corinthians 8

This is a very flexible passage. It is cited to prove that a Christian should never drink; it is cited to prove it’s OK for a Christian to drink. It’s cited for a lot of things. So perhaps we had best read it for ourselves.

(1 Cor 8 NIV) Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. {2} The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. {3} But the man who loves God is known by God. {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 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. {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 freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. {10} 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? {11} So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. {12} When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. {13} 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.

The nature and nurture of knowledge

Paul deserves a little credit here. It’s fairly obvious what’s been going on; there is some sort of dispute in the church over a common practice of the time. Here’s the situation:

Remember, please, two facts: First, the Corinthians live in a society in which animals are sacrificed to idols. Second, there are no refrigerators at this time. Combine those two and you will find that the best place to buy a good steak is right next to the temple of some idol. So it wouldn’t be uncommon for a Christian to sit down to enjoy a good meal at the restaurant next door – which might even be connected with that temple. Two factions grew up:

· The first faction knew that this was outrageously immoral. It gives the appearance of a Christian somehow approving of idol worship, and therefore (when in doubt, don’t) is to be banned.

· The second faction just can’t see the point. They are, after all, intellectually mature Christians; they know there’s nothing to this idol worship stuff. What’s wrong with a good steak – bless it in God’s name and pass the barbeque sauce.

You know, Satan laughs to hear such things. Two groups of pious believers with but a single thought: the other guy is dead wrong. They’re both right.

A complaint about a good thing

We must begin with the fact that Paul is dealing with a complaint about a good thing. It is good for the Christian to have knowledge; it’s good for him to know that the idol is just so much lifeless stone and wood. How much worse it would be if the Christian still thought that idol had power over him! But you can see that even this good thing can be twisted by Satan. Watch the steps:

1. “Anywhere with Jesus I can safely go.” It doesn’t matter; as long as I am of pure conscience, I can go anywhere, eat anything. All belongs to the Lord.

2. This is so because I have more perfect knowledge than those bluenose types over there, who are so worried about this.

3. But see – this produces an attitude problem; just because I know more than you, I must be (somehow) better than you.

The problem comes down to pride, but of a very slinky form. In fact, if I know more of Christ than you, I am in some sense better than you – and, as we will see, that carries a certain responsibility. It should not also carry an attitude.

The unbalanced Christian

We don’t see too much of idol worship in America today; it’s very much out of date. But we do see a similar problem to what shows up here:

· These people were Greeks. They loved philosophy. Philosophical debates were a popular entertainment. But this led to an unbalanced form of Christianity; all mind, no heart.

· We’re American Christians; we have the opposite problem. We can’t tolerate “pointy headed liberals from Berkeley” telling us what to do! We know that the Gospel is an affair of the heart! (Does this sound familiar?) We tend to be all heart, no mind.

For that distinct minority in America, the intellectual Christian, this is a very trying circumstance. It explains the enduring popularity of C. S. Lewis’ works; no American Christian author would contemplate intellectual Christianity. We have to get our intellectual works from an Englishman.

Our Lord had a different view: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” Perhaps we ought to try it his way.

The result of imbalance

Paul tells us the result of any such imbalance: we look down on those who don’t do as we do. We become “puffed up.”

But see how Paul handles this problem: he doesn’t separate people into “them” and “us.” He starts out by saying, “we all have knowledge.” We might say today, “we all have heart.” Taking this not as a weakness but as a strength, he appeals as one of the strong to the strong. He admonishes those who have knowledge, not those who don’t.

“Knowledge stands in extreme need of love.” (Chrysostom)

Paul brings this home to us in three simple points:

· With knowledge comes freedom; but with freedom comes responsibility. Has your knowledge set you free? Then ask, what is the responsibility that comes with it? As always, in Christ, the obligation of the strong is to the weak.

· If you have knowledge, you naturally desire to make it perfect. But knowledge cannot be perfected in Christ without love! Therefore, to complete your knowledge, you must practice it in love.

· If you do, you will be “known by God.” It is good to have knowledge; good to have love; how much better to blend the two into perfection – and thus be known personally to God Almighty.


Will you bear with me for a few lines as we go through Paul’s logic? He is speaking to the Greeks, and logic they must have.

· The real truth is simple: these idols are worthless lumps of stone.

· There is only one God. There is only one Lord. (Note that even the titles are designed to proclaim the “one-ness” of God).

· This God is the creator of all things.

· This is the God for whom we live; he is the reason of existence, for he is existence itself.

· But all this is knowledge. Therefore, though this knowledge is great and wonderful (and it is), we must add to it the responsibility of love.

So then, the question resolves itself to, “what is the responsibility of one who has knowledge?” I answer in three steps:

1. I have knowledge; that requires love. Therefore, I must apply love in this knowledge.

2. I have freedom because of this knowledge; therefore, there must be responsibility which comes with it.

3. These two, as always, apply towards my weaker brother.

So then, I am to apply my knowledge, if you will, to assist in the intellectual life of my weaker brother – and do so responsibly, and in love. How can this be done?


If I am to understand how to do this, I must know the purpose of the intellectual life for the Christian. That – like all else in the Christian life – is the imitation of Christ. The primary intellectual vehicle is the conscience, for it is the conscience which is the chief intellectual barrier to sin. Sin is that which separates me from God; my intellect must oppose this – and that is conscience.

Now it clears up:

· The damage I do isn’t in the meat but in the conscience. That’s the damage I must avoid.

· I must do so by my actions, but considering my weaker brother’s conscience.

Note something clearly: we are talking about someone’s conscience – not someone’s irritated prejudices. If you are absolutely convinced that no Christian should ever drink alcohol, tell me how I weaken your conscience by doing it? Let us be gracious in Christian liberty towards each other – but always shouldering the responsibility of our knowledge in the light of our brother’s weakness.

I must now fire the warning shot. Suppose you think, “This is a lot of blather. How can I be so responsible?” Is it not clear that when you encourage your brother to weaken his conscience, you are tearing down his intellectual barrier to sin? In so doing, are you not sinning against him?

More than that; you are sinning against Christ himself.

· Christ died for that brother of yours; is that so trivial a thing that you can discount it?

· Is that brother of yours not a member – as you are – of the body of Christ?

Paul, of all the Apostles, is best qualified to speak to this. Do you remember the road to Damascus, and “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

A final note

The problem in Paul’s time was a surplus of intellectual Christianity; we now have a dearth. Consider the plight of the new Christian who comes to his faith with an intellectual or academic point of view.

· Do we encourage him to look beyond the facts and “just believe, brother?”

· If he has this gift of intellect, do we encourage him to use it – or tell him to forget it?

If you’ve never heard the intellectual voice in the church, perhaps there’s a reason.

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