By John MacArthur and originally published at gty.org
God’s Word does not give us detailed instructions for every aspect of Christian life. Believers are frequently confronted with situations, questions, and decisions that Scripture says nothing about. God’s people have been set free from the Old Testament law, but that freedom leaves us with a lot of important decisions to make in life’s gray areas.
And that reality is not unique to the modern church. The believers in Corinth faced several issues that were not addressed in the Old Testament or any of the apostolic writings they had access to. They wrote to the apostle Paul for guidance (1 Corinthians 7:1), and his answers give us helpful, biblical principles that ought to guide our decisions and how we use our freedom in Christ.
In particular, Paul exhorts his readers to be thoughtful about the exercise of their liberty, considering both the example they set for others and the effect of their choices on their own lives. We’ll look at his instructions to the Corinthian church over the next few days, starting with his admonition for them to consider each other in the decisions they make.
Causing a Brother to Stumble
Throughout his ministry, Paul repeatedly exhorted his readers to consider their influence on others and to avoid leading other believers into sin. In Romans 14:13, he wrote, “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.”
His words echo Christ’s dire warning to the person who leads others into sin: “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Luke 17:2).
That principle guides Paul’s answer to the Corinthians’ question. While some believers might feel free to exercise their liberty, he wanted to make sure their freedom to do so was not the priority. Instead, the priority must be the spiritual growth of the men and women around them. And he illustrates that very point in 1 Corinthians 8:13, saying “Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.”
Idolatry, Worship, and Food
Just like any other polytheistic culture, Roman society was highly superstitious. Not only did the Romans have a god or several gods for every aspect of daily life, they also believed in an array of evil spirits. Their sacrificial system was built around gaining and maintaining the favor of the gods and protection from the evil spirits.
Food sacrifices were most common, and particularly meat. The sacrifices were divided into thirds—one third would be burnt on the altar, while the other two were divided between the priests and the temple officers. And because idol worship dominated the culture, there was often a lot of meat left over, which was then sold in the marketplace.
It would have been virtually impossible for the Corinthians to avoid the sacrificial meat. Because it had been sacrificed—and therefore supposedly purged from the influence of evil spirits—it was highly valued, and usually served at banquets, weddings, and other social occasions. Christians could perhaps avoid some of those events, but if they had personal relationships with anyone outside the church, they would likely face the issue of eating sacrificial meat sooner or later.
It seems there was a divide in the church over how they should respond when confronted with meat that had been offered to idols. Many in the church had been saved out of the pagan Roman culture, and any activity related to idol worship—even the simple act of eating—might have greatly troubled their sensitive consciences and upset their spiritual growth.
However, more mature believers understood that the worship of idols was empty and vain, and that the meat was just meat. They ate with clear consciences, and likely were the ones writing to ask Paul for clarification and instruction in the debate.
Knowledge and Love
Paul’s answer indicates the Corinthians included in their letter a defense for eating meat sacrificed to idols. In 1 Corinthians 8:1, he acknowledges what may have been their first point of defense with the words “we know that we have all knowledge.” Taken on its own, that’s an egotistical statement, even if it’s partly true. It reflects a feeling of superiority from knowing and understanding God’s Word—a feeling Paul immediately undercuts in the latter half of the verse: “Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies.”
The mature Corinthians knew that the pagan gods were not real, and the meat offered to them posed no spiritual threat. But that knowledge turned their focus inward. The truth to them mattered as long as it affirmed their personal desires. They were insensitive to others, especially those in the Corinthian church who did not “have this knowledge” (1 Corinthians 8:7).
As Paul had previously said, “If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:2). Their arrogance proved they didn’t know as much as they thought. They might have had the right doctrinal knowledge, but practically in their relationships with other Christians, they behaved in ignorance. By failing to act in love, their knowledge was rendered worthless.
Paul’s response to the mature believers put the focus where it should have been all along: on the other group. Rather than relishing their liberty, they should have been concerned about the impact it would have on others. To put it another way, just because they could eat with a clear conscience didn’t mean they should. They needed to consider their brothers and sisters in the church, and how their own actions could offend, confuse, or weaken another person’s faith. By ignoring that, eating the meat was an exercise of their arrogance, not their liberty.
We ought to have that sacrificial attitude when it comes to exercising our liberty in Christ. Just because we know we have freedom doesn’t mean we need to explore it to the fullest. Instead, we ought to be willing to restrain ourselves in love for the benefit of others whom we might offend by our actions.