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Restricting My Freedom Because of Love (I Corinthians 8)

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.

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Introduction: Freedom Has Responsibility

Booker T. Washington, who lived from 1856 to 1915, was an American educator, author, orator, and adviser to several presidents of the United States. Between 1890 and 1915, Washington was the dominant leader in the African American community and of the contemporary black elite. Washington was from the last generation of black American leaders born into slavery and became the leading voice of the former slaves and their descendants.

In his autobiography entitled Up from Slavery, Washington describes the scenes among the blacks on the first night after the proclamation of their freedom. He states this:

"There was no sleep that night. All was excitement and expectancy. Early in the morning we were all sent for. The proclamation was read, and we were told that we were free and could go when and where we pleased. ... There was great rejoicing, followed by wild scenes of ecstasy. But the wild rejoicing did not last long. By the time the colored people had returned to their cabins, there was a marked change in their feelings. The great responsibility of being free seemed to take possession of them. It was very much like suddenly turning a youth of ten or twelve out into the world to provide for himself. Within a few minutes the wild rejoicing ceased, and a feeling of deep gloom seemed to pervade the slave quarters. Now that they were liberated, they found possession of freedom to be much more serious business than they had anticipated."

What these former slaves were realizing is that with freedom comes the responsibility to take care of yourself and others, such as family. The apostle Paul, in I Corinthians 8, is addressing this issue. He is continuing to answer questions that were given to him by the Corinthian church. We don't know the exact questions but can form some educated guesses from his responses.

In this passage, Paul seems to be answering the question: "May a Christian eat meat offered to idols?" There were conflicting beliefs amongst the Christians at Corinth. Some believed that eating food offered to idols was a sin. Other Christian believers thought that this was ridiculous. They argued that if idols were worthless things, because there is only one true God, then the meat offered to them was fine to eat.

The worship of idols saturated Corinthian society and the practice of bringing meat to sacrifice to the gods was a universal experience in Greek and Roman society. The food offered to idols was eaten in idol temples, but the leftover food was also sold in the market. The questions arose over that food. Should they buy and eat it? What if it were offered to them at a party? What would happen if you didn't even know that the meat had been offered to a false god or an idol?

Though we are living over 2000 years later and we no longer do such practices today, the principle behind what Paul is telling the believers at the church in Corinth is still valid today. That principle is that exercising love for one’s Christian brothers and sisters is more important than exercising the personal freedom that we have in Christ. We are responsible for one another and must care whether or not what we do can somehow bring harm to a brother or sister in Christ.

As members of the Body of Christ, we belong to one another. We will be joined together for all of eternity. Further, God loves and cares for those fellow believers. He wants the best for them, and it is part of our Christian responsibility to help them to grow in the knowledge of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Some are farther along in their understanding than others and we mustn't do anything that will interfere with the growth of a weaker brother or sister, or even destroy their faith completely.

Let's look at this passage more carefully and see how we can best apply its teaching to our lives today. Paul begins by showing the supremacy of love over knowledge.

I. The Supremacy of Love Over Knowledge (1-3)

First of all, Paul agrees with the group which says that an idol is worthless and that, because of this, it is all right to eat meat that has been offered to it. However, his point here is that he didn't want those who had this knowledge to flaunt their enlightened point of view.

In verse 1, the apostle seems to be quoting a slogan used by certain Corinthian believers as an arrogant statement by them used against those whom Paul calls 'weaker brothers.' It went like this:

"We know that we all have knowledge."

The apostle's response to this is that:

"Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies."

It wasn't that Paul was against having knowledge. But knowledge alone makes one proud, thinking that they are somehow superior to others. And it makes a person believe that he knows more than he does. What truly matters, more than knowledge, is that you love God and are known by Him.

The apostle's response is one of Paul's five attacks on the arrogance of some of the Corinthian church members who were belittling their weaker brothers and sisters with their knowledge. The truth is that they missed the whole point. The knowledge that they were given was to be used to help other believers in the church and not to put them down.

II. Knowledge Alone Tells Us the Truth About Idols (4-6)

It is in verses 4-6 that Paul goes into detail about his belief that the stronger brothers were correct in their understanding of idols. In fact, if a person would depend upon knowledge alone, it would tell us what idols really are and why we shouldn't be concerned about eating meat offered to them. He states:

"Therefore, concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and through whom we live."

If I am the only person I'm concerned about, then it is perfectly legitimate to go ahead and eat whatever I like without worrying over whether or not God will be offended. However, we are not in this Christian life alone. Love for my brother in Christ dictates that I curtail my freedom if it will hurt him or cause him to sin.

III. Love Dictates that we Curtail Our Freedom (7-13)

True love, the kind that God has, puts the needs of another person ahead of our own. So, out of love, we do our best to help that person become all that they can be in their relationship with the Lord. And we don't do anything that could get in the way of that happening.

It is interesting that in a parallel passage Paul addresses both the strong and the weak brothers, instructing them both on the loving thing to do in a dispute over what is right and what is wrong. Roman 14:1-4 tells us this:

"Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand."

Paul uses the term 'doubtful things' here, which literally means 'reasonings' or 'opinions.' In the opinion of the weaker believer, there were some things seen as sins that the Bible didn't specifically call sins. The mature believers, who knew that they weren't sins, were not to pass judgment or enter into disputes with those who were less mature. And neither were the immature believers to judge the mature. As we just read, we should let the Lord deal with each other since we are both God's servants. God will treat the true believer as a father does a son and will discipline him if there is a need to do so. That isn't our job.

But the apostle is instructing the stronger believer alone in I Corinthians 8 because the mature Christian should be better equipped to handle the immature believer with love and curtail his freedom since he is farther along in his Christian walk.

And the less mature Christian can be harmed because he is coerced to go against his conscience which is telling him that something is wrong. To cause harm to him in this way is not to practice love for that person but to be selfishly seeking your own happiness and fulfillment.

Though the knowledgeable believers were correct in their view of idols, the bottom line is that it didn't matter. If the weaker brothers and sisters saw them eating idol food, they might also eat and violate their own conscience. To go against their conscience was sinning. And a strong believer also sins in this instance, not because he is eating the meat. That is clean. He is rather sinning against his brother and thus against Christ.

This is how Paul puts it in verses 9-13. He says:

"But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble."

If we belong to Christ, we also belong to one another. To love Christ is to love our brothers or sisters in Christ. And that love is always demonstrated by actions. And those actions will put the needs of the other person ahead of our own. That is what Christian love is all about. Paul had as much right as anyone to eat and drink anything. However, he refused to do it if it would be detrimental to those whom Christ loved, and for whom Christ gave His life.

IV. Modern Examples of this Principle

As we come to the end of this study, you might be tempted to say: "What does eating meat offered to idols have to do with me today?" Are there any modern examples of this principle?" Well, there are lots of them but the standard example that I've heard often is that of alcohol. The Bible doesn't really tell a person not to drink. Paul's injunction is rather not to be drunk on wine but to be filled with the Spirit in Ephesians 5:18. Drinking and getting drunk is not synonymous.

Further, in a separate passage, Paul tells Timothy to have a little wine for the sake of his stomach and frequent illnesses (I Timothy 5:23).

And Jesus himself, in his first miracle, turned water into wine for a wedding feast in Cana (John 2:1-25).

However, there are those who would say that a Christian should never drink alcohol. Some argue that the wine in those days was little more than grape juice. Although, no one has ever gotten drunk on grape juice.

Also, there are those who are alcoholics who cannot drink because of their addiction. To drink in front of someone who is addicted to alcohol could cause them to stumble.

In either case, even if you feel free to do it, it would be wise not to drink around some people who might be offended by it. We need to show love and compassion for the weaker brothers and sisters in Christ in these situations. We should curtail our freedoms here.

The same might be true in the case of the observance or non-observance of the Sabbath in our day and age. That would include deciding which day we should or shouldn't observe it. Some would say that the Sabbath rest has already been fulfilled. They say that Christ has become our Sabbath. He is the promise of rest that God has made to us. We can only get true rest for our body and soul from Jesus Christ. Further, since Jesus Christ has become our Sabbath, then we can have that rest every day of the week if we want, it's up to us.

Some, on the other side of the argument, go back to the beginning of creation where God rested on the Seventh day and thus would have His people rest as well (Genesis 2:2).

Still others on the no sabbath observance side of the dispute, point to the apostle Paul in Colossians 2:16-17 where he tells us:

"So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ."

No matter where you stand on these issues, there is plenty of room for practicing love and not judgment by allowing people to live according to the dictates of their own conscience until the Lord moves them in the right direction.

Conclusion

In the end, the injunction of the apostle Paul in Romans 14:8 is still true. There he tells us:

"For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's."

We don't own ourselves. We're bought with a price. That price is the precious blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the one who gives us our freedom. Prior to that, we were slaves to sin.

Before we practice the freedom which He has bought for us, let us always remember to ask ourselves how that freedom will affect those around us. If it will harm them then may we be like the apostle Paul and vow never to do something that will cause our brother or sister to stumble. But rather may we always seek to do things in our lives that build up people and bring glory to the God who saved us. And then we can truly say in the end that our lives have mattered for eternity.

© 2022 Jeff Shirley

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