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.
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.
What does that bring to your mind? Perhaps you’re thinking of those Facebook debates over the Christian’s use of alcohol or arguments over personal standards. Perhaps it conjures bitter memories of judgmental Christians and legalistic churches.
What if, when we thought of Christian liberty, it brought to mind ideas such as “love,” “God’s glory,” and “service”?
Sadly, this isn’t typically how we frame the topic of Christian liberty—but it’s exactly how the Bible frames it. I fear that, in our discussion regarding Christian liberty, we jump straight to the application and ignore the overarching biblical principles that are designed to govern and regulate our exercise our Christian liberty.
First of all, what is Christian liberty? It is the reality that, because of Christ’s obedient life and sacrificial death, we are no longer bound by the Legal demands of the Mosaic law. Christ fulfilled the law and has brought us in union with Him. Now, we serve the law of Christ, the perfect law of liberty (James 1:25). Christian liberty is, without a doubt, a wonderful truth.
Churches and pastors that hold to a teetotaling position about alcohol because they believe that the use of alcohol is off limits for Christians are going to have an easier time dealing with this issue. For the record, I don’t believe that “easier time” is a justification for holding to such a strict position regarding alcohol. But my purpose here is not to convince anyone that it’s okay to drink beer.
"Paul didn’t command the stricter Christians of Romans 14 to get with the program and start eating meat as Jesus allowed. Nor did he command the meat-eaters to end their carnivorous ways on the outside chance they might upset the vegetarians." IX Marks
In chapter 5, Naselli and Crowley discuss “Twelve Principles about How to Disagree with Other Christians on Disputable Matters.” #1 is “Welcome those who disagree with you (Rom. 14:1-2).” Here they re-define the weak conscience:
The weak person’s conscience lacks sufficient confidence (i.e., faith) to do a particular act without self-judgment, even if that act is actually not a sin. To him it would be sin … His conscience lacked the confidence (faith) to do those things without self-condemnation.1
This definition is excellent, as is the remaining discussion, which is based on it. They go on to describe weakness and strength as a spectrum2 extending from permissive (strong) to strict (weak). This is the pattern for the rest of the book, where “weakness” is treated as strictness, not theological immaturity.
The goal of this book is “to put conscience back on your daily radar, to show from Scripture what God intended and did not intend [the] conscience to do, and to explain how your conscience works, how to care for it, and how not to damage it.”1
As their titles suggest, the first two chapters deal with defining the conscience. Chapter 1 defines the conscience as “your consciousness of what you believe is right and wrong.” Chapter 2 examines how the New Testament writers taught about conscience and develops a biblical understanding of the conscience from these data. Included in this is a definition of the “weak conscience”: an “uninformed moral consciousness.”2 As we’ll see later, this is the first of two definitions given in this book, and this presents a dilemma.
Chapter 3 answers, “What Should You Do When Your Conscience Condemns You?” The answer is the gospel, for nothing but the grace of God in the atoning work of Jesus can free us from guilt. This applies to the lost man approaching the cross with his guilt and the long-time believer who must again and again return to God in confession and seek forgiveness. We must never allow our guilt to become a tool for the accuser to bring us to despair.