By John MacArthur and originally published at gty.org
When God’s Word doesn’t address an aspect of life—whether it’s an activity, entertainment, or some other experience—how do believers know what they can and can’t do?
The Corinthian church had the luxury of asking the apostle Paul for help with some of the gray areas they faced. While our questions have changed, the principles he laid out for them in 1 Corinthians bring clarity and help for the decisions we face.
One of the primary issues causing division in the Corinthian church was the practice of eating meat that had been offered to idols. Some in the church had no problem with it, while others were greatly troubled that believers would, as they saw it, tangentially take part in idol worship.
Paul’s response to their question indicates that those in the church who were eating the sacrificed meat were the ones asking, and defending their actions. As we saw last time, their defense was essentially that they knew it wasn’t forbidden. But Paul explained that their knowledge lacked consideration and love for their fellow believers, and it had made them arrogant about their freedom.
Idols vs. God
The defense of the meat-eating Corinthians was theologically accurate. Paul affirms it when he writes: “Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one” (1 Corinthians 8:4).
Throughout his ministry, Paul taught against idols and idol worship. In fact, he was notorious for it. A pagan silversmith in Ephesus named Demetrius stirred up others against Paul with these words:
You see and hear that not only in Ephesus, but in almost all of Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable number of people, saying that gods made with hands are no gods at all. (Acts 19:26)
Paul’s response to the Corinthians reflected that same conviction:
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 are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him. (1 Corinthians 8:5-6)
Whether the idols were manifestations of demons or outright fakes, they had no true power or authority. Paul contrasted the counterfeits against the true God of Scripture, affirming the orthodox theology of the Corinthians.
But they didn’t have everything right. Their biblical theology had not been applied biblically—they weren’t considering that “not all men have this knowledge” (1 Corinthians 8:7). Mature believers could easily see through the empty charade of idolatry. But newer believers weren’t necessarily as strong in their faith and understanding.
For men and women recently saved out of paganism, any association at all with idolatry would have been spiritually confusing. It would take the sanctifying work of the Spirit to renew their minds and break the grip of idol worship and the constant fear of evil spirits. They knew there was only one right God, but perhaps they still struggled with whether there is only one real God.
And even if they had proper understanding of those spiritual truths, they were still susceptible to the temptations of idolatry. “Some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled” (1 Corinthians 8:7).
New converts wanted to avoid contamination by the evil influences that for so long had ruled their lives. The pagan gods were not real, but the wicked practices associated with them were real and fresh on their minds. They recoiled from having contact with anything associated with their past paganism. Their consciences were not yet strong enough to allow them to eat food sacrificed to the very idols they had once worshiped.
Violating Your Conscience
If such persons, following the example of more knowledgeable believers, go ahead and do what they’re not comfortable doing, their weak consciences will be defiled. Even though the act itself is not morally or spiritually wrong, it becomes wrong when it is committed against conscience. A defiled conscience is one that has been ignored and violated. Such a conscience brings confusion, resentment, and guilt.
A person who violates his conscience willingly does what he thinks to be wrong. In his own mind he has committed sin; and until he fully understands that the act is not sin in God’s eyes, he should have no part in it.
In a parallel passage in Romans, Paul wrote, “He who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Defiled conscience is defiled faith. Such behavior brings guilt, despair, and loss of joy and peace. It may also lead to sinful thoughts connected with former sinful practices, and even lead a person back into some of them.
Unfortunately, thoughtful caution and concern for others is rare in the church today. Too many believers watch what they want, listen to what they want, go where they want, and do what they want without considering their influence on weaker brothers and sisters in Christ. In fact, believers with weak consciences are often treated like there’s something wrong with them if they don’t explore and enjoy all the facets of their liberty.
Paul’s point is that anyone who causes a weaker brother to defile his conscience and his faith helps lead that brother into sin. Knowledge may tell us that something is perfectly acceptable within our Christian liberty, but love tells us that if it’s not acceptable to a fellow believer’s conscience, we should not take advantage of our freedom.