Christian Liberty and Love

The Apostle Paul responds to questions from the Corinthians in his first epistle. Chapter seven addresses concerns about marriage, and chapter eight with eating meat offered to idols. Although idol meat was the question, Paul’s answer leans heavily upon the underlying issue of Christian liberty. Some activities, though not sinful in themselves, should still be avoided because they harm others.

The Corinthians lived in an idolatrous society, and most of the church members were saved out of a pagan background. Much of their former social life involved meals eaten in pagan temples. No wonder, then, that questions relating to idol meat were high on their agenda. Two questions emerge. First, is it right to eat food at home which has been offered to idols, and second, should I refrain from eating at pagan temples? The Apostle Paul addresses both questions.

What We Know

All Christians know the truth about pagan gods, but knowledge can puff us up, which is why we need a generous dose of Christian love to build others up. Knowledge tends to promote overconfidence in ourselves fueling an inflated estimation of our knowledge. Yes, we know something about pagan gods which our neighbors do not, but none of us knows as much as we ought. Knowledge should make us humble, but often instead expands our pride. There is something more important than knowledge, namely love, which causes us to consider others and their needs, not trumpet our superior understanding. May our knowledge always be seasoned with love.

Understanding Idols

Idols are illusionary, the figments of warped imaginations. The gods worshipped by pagans do not exist except in the minds of their worshippers. There are many gods and lords, two titles commonly used for pagan gods, but they are only “so called gods.” They have no objective reality, because there is only one true God who is the source of all that exists. He is creator of all, the origin of life. Zeus, Venus, Apollos, and Mercury do not exist. Because this is true, eating meat previously offered to them is a non-issue. If an idol is nothing, then eating meat offered to an idol is no sin. Such activity, in and of itself is not wrong, because we are not worshipping a false god. We know these so called gods are nothing, and we are not venerating them when we eat food a pagan priest has consecrated to their honor.

What We Need to Know

However, we need to be more sensitive to our weaker brother. Some Christians have less knowledge than others. They have not yet fully absorbed nor consistently applied to daily life what they know about the true nature of idols. They worry that eating food offered to idols constitutes participating in idol worship. Their consciences have not been recalibrated to apply the truth about the nature of idols to the practice of eating food offered to idols. In their weak condition, they are in danger of violating and damaging their conscience by eating consecrated food.

It is true that food does not affect our relationship with God. Neither eating nor refraining commends us to Him. Weaker Christians may believe that eating idol meat displeases God and harms their relationship with Him. Stronger believers may think that eating idol meat pleases God because it demonstrates that they understand the Bible correctly. Both are mistaken. The act of eating or refraining affects our relationship with God in no way. It is a neutral act which neither pleases nor displeases Him.

But be careful with your Christian liberty. Recognize that the exercise of your liberty may harm others. To eat idol food may encourage your weaker brother to violate his conscience. Your knowledgeable eating is capable of inflicting damage. You need to understand the bigger picture. Yes, you have truth on your side when you eat, but there is more to consider than idols and their food. To flaunt your liberty in the presence of a weaker Christian, thereby tempting him to violate and damage his tender conscience is to sin against a brother, which is a sin against Christ. So, is eating food offered to idols a sin or not? That depends. To do so privately away from the presence of a weaker brother is no sin because the activity of eating is not, objectively, a sin. But to unlovingly tempt a weaker brother to violate his conscience is sin, not because eating is sin, but because tempting another to sin is sin.

There are times when mature Christians must be willing to forgo liberty for the good of another. Love is more concerned about others than self. The exercise of liberty is as much about knowing when to refrain as in knowing what is or is not sin. Parading your Christian liberty reveals both incomplete knowledge as well as weak love. The Apostle Paul does not abrogate his Christian liberty, but gladly forfeits its exercise in certain situations. “If food makes my brother stumble. I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13). The proper course is based upon love more than knowledge.

Christian liberty is not simply what I can do without sinning. It is also about how my actions will impact others. Some liberties can be safely exercised privately, but not publicly. Eating in the privacy of your home is fine. It is the legitimate enjoyment of nutritious food which God has provided. However, eating in a pagan temple is a different situation. If your actions are observed by those who do not fully understand truth, you may be responsible for promoting sin.

We must keep in mind that Christian liberty cannot be regulated by someone else. The possibility that my freedom could potentially harm another does not justify someone making a new rule which says no one may exercise this liberty because doing so could harm others. Paul’s instructions are directed to individual believers exhorting us to exercise Christ-like love toward others, and to self-regulate the exercise of legitimate practices. Paul does not condone anyone acting the Pharisee by regulating away a legitimate liberty granted by God.

Not every activity is objectively right or wrong. Some things are always wrong, such as murder, adultery, theft. Some things depend upon the situation, and require mature love to properly determine the right course of action. To some, liberty is all about knowledge. If I understand the Bible correctly and know that a particular practice is not forbidden, I have the liberty to do what I please. If others are troubled, that’s their problem, not mine. But Paul teaches that liberty is more about love than knowledge. If my practice contributes to a brother damaging his immature conscience, that’s my problem as much as his. Love motivates me to elevate the welfare of others above my freedom, no matter how legitimate it may be.

Contemporary Applications

Most of us will never be confronted with meat offered to idols. But Paul’s teaching has many application for us today. Let’s consider just one, the question of wine and Christian liberty. May those whose Bible knowledge gives them clear conscience to partake, season their practice with love. There are many who do not have the same level of understanding, and are troubled by the thought of imbibing. Their conscience does not allow them to drink. Is it right to flaunt my liberty in front of them? Should I mount a soap box and chide them for failing to recognize the blessings of wine bestowed by our Creator? Or, should I quietly restrict my moderate intake to the privacy of my home, where I may enjoy this liberty without harming others. A thoughtful reading of First Corinthians eight provides answers to these important questions. If wine makes my brother stumble, I will drink no wine in his presence, and I will promote no alcohol in his hearing. May God help us as we carefully consider these matters with understanding, humility, and love.

Greg Barkman 2018 bio


G. N. Barkman received his BA and MA from BJU and later founded Beacon Baptist Church in Burlington, NC where has pastored since 1973. In addition, Pastor Barkman airs the Beacon Broadcast on twenty radio stations. He and his wife, Marti, have been blessed with four daughters and nine grandchildren.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks, Greg. Definitely agree in spirit.

This, though...

The act of eating or refraining affects our relationship with God in no way. It is a neutral act which neither pleases nor displeases Him.

I don't think this is possible. While I would debate whether things can have any inherent moral significance, I have to believe that human action is always moral. But this isn't really vital to your argument -- because, in truth, there are actions God has not identified as morally good or morally bad in every circumstance. There are also actions God hasn't chosen to identify as morally good or bad at all -- and the evidence we have is debatable.

So both flexibility and ambiguity come into play, leaving us with space to try to be "fully persuaded in one's own mind" (Romans 14). Still, the act itself is always right or wrong for that person at that time under those circumstances.

As evidence for this view, doesn't every action performed by a being who bears the image of God either promote or detract from His glory? (Or promote in some ways while detracting in others?).

Love and deference toward one another are still the right course, regardless -- not because any actions are neutral, but because many actions are uncertain from our point of view. 

G. N. Barkman's picture

Aaron,

Thanks for the comment.  I think I understand and agree with you.  My statement was based upon the words of I Corinthians 8:8.  "But food does not comment us to God:  for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse."

How would you explain that verse in light of your comment above?

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

For me, I've got a couple of sticking points.  The first is that we don't have a whole lot of overt idolatry these days--we have wrong worldviews (secularism) and false religions, but apart from those coming out of something like Buddhism or Hinduism, not overt idolatry.  Even Buddhism and Hinduism don't tend to have the same feasts that the Greeks did where certain foods are almost inextricably connected to that idolatry.  The same thing goes, really, for the Romans 14 case, where the most obvious pointers to allowed meats and celebration of days would be Jewish scruples.  

Second, I've got some serious doubts about whether a Christian having a piece of meat or glass of wine really is going to be the thing that pushes a brother who is gluttonous or alcoholic off the wagon.  Or, to use another hot button issue, listening to music with a beat or such.  As I drove to work, for example, I went by at least seven stores that sell or serve fast food and alcohol, and those who listen to the radio or watch television (or go on the internet) are going to see and hear a lot of commercials for the same--or even read the newspaper.  

They can traverse that gauntlet, but the odd chance of seeing a brother with a big burger or glass of wine is going to trigger them?  Seriously?

Really, it seems to me that when we are dealing with a struggling glutton/drunkard/etc., there are great reasons for compassion, and when we get right down to it, there are great reasons for modeling sobriety in eating and drinking in the church as well (those 680,000 people who die each year from the "Standard American Diet" and lack of exercise for starters), but I just think we go off course when we try to use passages that have a setting we simply don't experience today.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

How would you explain that verse in light of your comment above?

I think Paul's point there is both outcome-focused and scaled. What I mean is that

  • Even though the act is either right or wrong, the resulting impact on relationship with God is in view
  • The impact is negligible (scale)

To Bert's observations: it's often not about whether our use of liberty will cause some huge disaster; it's about kindness, respect, and harmony. As Greg pointed out, love

Dan Miller's picture

Greg, My interest in this post is the nature of “weakness,” which isn’t the point of your article. Sorry about that.

Their consciences have not been recalibrated to apply the truth about the nature of idols to the practice of eating food offered to idols. 

Very interesting statement. This is a common view of weakness, certainly.  It hinges on the idea that the NT brought new rules or at least new ways to apply rules. 

The underlying rule here is God’s hatred of and command against idolatry. This hatred and command is unchanged in NT teaching. God hates idolatry just as much in Paul’s day as Moses’s. But let’s think through this from a few angles.

1. If I mean worship when I do it, then may I eat in the idol temple?

Started with an easy one. Obviously, “NO!” If you know that eating in the temple is/has been consciously done with respect for a idol or false religion, and you now love and fear the one true God, then you must forsake that eating. Concluding that clearly puts you in the “weak” category in ch.8 (7 “However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.”) So this conclusion makes you “weak” and “non-knowledgeable.” But exactly what “knowledge” are you lacking? Is it not devotion to the God Who is One the thing that makes this “weak” person abandon the temple? And haven’t believing Israelites been refusing association with idols because of Shema for centuries? 

There are more questions, but I’m not so sure that I see anything in this set of “weak” believers that constitutes ignorance or non-calibration of new knowledge. A Jew 2000 BC who recovers faith in God and destroys the family idols does so because “there is no God but one” (v.4). But about the other piece of ‘knowledge’ in v.4 (“an idol has no real existence”)? If there is new info that required believers to re-calibrate, perhaps it’s there. How has the truth of the non-existence of idols changed in the NT? I think the answer is that it has not changed. But the question must be considered on two levels. First, the reality of a false god. Some OT idols were simply wood; others had demons behind them. Same in the NT. Second, in the consciousness of observers and participants. Even if it is just a piece of wood fashioned as in Isaiah 44:9-17, to worship it is evil it is a first commandment violation. Perhaps that is the new knowledge? v.7 clearly connects non-possession of knowledge with consciousness of the idol as real. But can we really claim that as authentic NT teaching? Does the NT teach that all idols are nothing and food isn’t really being offered to a false god or a demon? 

G. N. Barkman's picture

Dan,  I've read your above post three or four times, and I'm still not sure I understand what you are saying.  It almost sounds like you are contradicting Paul in regard to the idol being nothing and eating food offered to an idol being a non-issue, as far as pleasing God is concerned. 

It seems to me that the issue is neither the idol, as such, nor food offered to idols, but rather what these items represent in the mind of the Christian who eats.  If the Christian thinks eating is an act of worship, he should not eat.  Even if he is unsure, but his conscience is troubled by the thought of eating, he should not eat.  The existence of brothers who do not yet have a clear conscience (the weak), means that strong Christians should restrict their eating liberty to occasions when weak brothers are not present.  Ideally, in the passing of time, the weak brother's conscience will catch up to the objective knowledge about idol food.

I don't see how you can transform the ones Paul designates as weak into those who really aren't weak after all.  If a Christian does not understand the true nature of idols and their food, Paul says he is weak.

Do I misunderstand what you are saying?

G. N. Barkman

Dan Miller's picture

Well, I appreciate that you read it 3 or 4 times. Interesting conclusion that I am transforming the ones Paul calls “weak” into the ones who aren’t weak. I understand why you say that - but I’m not doing that.

What I’m driving at is identifying the knowledge that the weak is missing.

... It almost sounds like you are contradicting Paul in regard to the idol being nothing and eating food offered to an idol being a non-issue, as far as pleasing God is concerned. 

I promise I am not contradicting Paul. Many scholars see Paul as contradicting himself (ch8 vs. ch10), leading to theories about 1 Corinthians being multiple letters patched together. But my view harmonizes ch8 and 10.

It seems to me that the issue is neither the idol, as such, nor food offered to idols, but rather what these items represent in the mind of the Christian who eats.

If the error of thinking (lack of knowledge) on the part of the weak is in his mind, then there’s two possibilities for the error: 1- Paul is either saying he’s wrong about what’s in his mind -or- 2- Paul is saying that what in his mind is incorrect.

 #1 is wrong. Paul isn’t saying that he doesn’t believe what he thinks he believes. Paul confirmed it by saying that the awareness in his mind defiled him. 

#2, then. The “weak” has an awareness in his mind that the idol is something worshipped. Is he wrong about that? Is Paul saying he’s wrong about that?

G. N. Barkman's picture

Clearly the idol is worshipped by pagan idolaters.  Are you saying it is worshipped by the weak Corinthian Christians?

G. N. Barkman

Dan Miller's picture

But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.

1 Corinthians 8:7

These are the weak. They had former association with idols (they worshipped in the past). And what does Paul mean by their present eating? I believe he means “If they eat”, they would eat with respect to the idol in mind and sin. And very possibly he was aware of some who sinned by doing so. 

G. N. Barkman's picture

How does this differ from my statement that their consciences were not yet re-calibrated to allow them to eat meat offered to idols with a clear conscience?

G. N. Barkman

Dan Miller's picture

It seems to me that the issue is neither the idol, as such, nor food offered to idols, but rather what these items represent in the mind of the Christian who eats.

 I agree that is the difference between these groups. The question is whether the NT (in fact Paul in this book) teaches that to eat in the temple is to participate in the sacrifice.

 Paul makes it clear in ch.10 that in his mind to eat in the temple is to participate in the sacrifice.

EDIT: But I’m not saying that the strong are wrong, either. Just that this difference about what they think isn’t better.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Why use the labels "strong" and "weak" if what the strong believe isn't better?

Is the key found in making a distinction between eating food sacrificed to idols in your own home as opposed to eating that same food in the idol's temple?

G. N. Barkman

Dan Miller's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

Why use the labels "strong" and "weak" if what the strong believe isn't better?

Is the key found in making a distinction between eating food sacrificed to idols in your own home as opposed to eating that same food in the idol's temple?

In response to your first question, I suggest slightly different question: Since the strong and weak have claim to knowledge, (*) what does “weak” and  “strong” means?

* if you don’t agree the weak has legitimate claim to knowledge, then my question is premature.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Dan,  it's obvious you've given this a lot of thought, and also obvious that you are trying to move my thinking in a certain direction in order to make a point, but I'm afraid you've lost me in the process.  I haven't lost interest in discussing the I Corinthians 8 and 10 passage, but I'm having trouble following you, so I'd better bow out.  Thanks for an interesting exchange.

G. N. Barkman

Dan Miller's picture

But I understand.

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