By John MacArthur and originally published at gty.org
First Corinthians 8 is Paul’s response to a gray-area question dividing the church at Corinth. Paul doesn’t simply give the Corinthians a “yes” or “no” answer to their questions about eating meat sacrificed to idols. He helps them think through the purpose of their liberty and the implications of the activity. He wants them to consider the effect it will have on believers whose consciences are not so free. And while eating meat sacrificed to idols is not an issue most believers will face in the church today, Paul’s instructions give us a lot of practical help for the gray areas we will face.
What You Eat
As we’ve already seen, Paul’s answer to the Corinthians includes his response to the defense the meat-eaters had put forward for their actions. And while he agreed with them in principle, he brought other key elements of Christian living to bear on the situation.
Another truth with which Paul agreed was that eating or not eating food has no spiritual significance in itself. Neither act will “commend us to God” (1 Corinthians 8:8). Neither eating nor not eating will bring us closer to God or make us approved by Him. The general point is that doing things not forbidden by God has no significance in our relationship to Him. They are spiritually neutral. Food is an excellent illustration of that.
Common sense and concern for the bodies God has given us should make us careful about what and how much we eat. Gluttony is harmful and eating foods to which we are allergic is harmful. No sensible, mature person will do those things.
But, in itself, eating or not eating certain foods has absolutely no spiritual significance. Jesus made it plain that “there is nothing outside the man which can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man” (Mark 7:15). The Lord’s command to Peter to “kill and eat” was both figurative, referring to accepting Gentiles, and literal, referring to eating food previously considered unclean (Acts 10:9-16). And Paul told Timothy to receive all food with thankfulness (1 Timothy 4:4).
Where and How You Eat
Food doesn’t affect God or one’s standing before Him, but it can make a great difference for the conscience of some of His children. What would not otherwise be wrong for us becomes wrong if it is “a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9). Obviously some Corinthian believers could not handle such liberty; it pulled them back into the pit from which they had been delivered. If an immature believer sees us doing something that bothers his conscience, his spiritual life is harmed. We should never influence a fellow Christian to do anything that his conscience is protecting him from.
A mature believer rightly sees no harm for himself in “dining in an idol’s temple” (1 Corinthians 8:10) at some family or community event. He does not accept the pagan beliefs or participate in the pagan practices, but he can associate with pagan people because he is spiritually strong; he has spiritual knowledge.
But if a Christian whose conscience is weak sees another believer eating in the temple, the weak brother is likely to be tempted to go against his own conscience and do the same himself. Consequently, Paul says, “through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died” (1 Corinthians 8:11). The stronger believer causes the weaker believer to sin by leading him into a situation he cannot handle.
Violating Your Conscience
It is never right to cause another believer to violate his conscience. To do so runs the risk of ruining a “brother for whose sake Christ died.” Our Christian liberty must never be used at the expense of a Christian brother or sister who has been redeemed at such a price.
The voice of a Christian’s conscience is an instrument of the Holy Spirit. If a believer’s conscience is weak it is because he is spiritually weak and immature, not because the leading of his conscience is weak.
The conscience is God’s warning system to keep us away from spiritual harm. As we mature, our conscience allows us to go more places and do more things because we will have more spiritual strength and better spiritual judgment.
A small child is not allowed to play with sharp tools, to go into the street, or to be near dangerous machines. But those restrictions are gradually removed as he grows older and learns for himself what is dangerous and what is not.
God confines His spiritual children by conscience. As they grow in knowledge and maturity the limits of conscience are expanded. We should never expand our actions and habits before our conscience permits it. And we should never encourage—either directly or indirectly—anyone else to do that. As Paul wrote, “By sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ” (1 Corinthians 8:12). Causing a brother to stumble is more than an offense against him; it is an offense against our Lord.
Paul wrote that he would give up meat altogether rather than offend another believer (1 Corinthians 8:13). We should be eager to limit our liberty at any time and to any degree in order to help a fellow believer—a brother or sister whom we should love, and a precious soul for whom Christ died.