As Christians, we understand that the Bible is the guide we use to direct our lives. Even though we may not always want or are able to do what it says, we are usually able to use it as a way to judge if our actions are right or wrong.
Many times this is easy to figure out.
- Murder is wrong.
- Adultery is wrong.
- Lying and stealing are wrong.
- Loving others is right.
- Worshiping God is good, etc.
When giving reasons why someone "ought" to do or not do something, we can point to the Bible and say that it tells us in black and white what we should or should not be doing. Now, as I said, we may not agree or may not always do what it says but at least its instructions are, for the most part, clear.
Problems arise when the Bible requires us to use judgment or discretion in order to get our answers.
1. Judgment – This is when we make a decision based on the general principles found in the Bible because there are no specific instructions to guide us.
Birth Control. There are no specific instructions about birth control in the Bible. Each couple has to base its decision on broad principles such as not harming an existing life (Exodus 20:13); maintaining the health of the mother (Luke 10:27); parents seeking the wisdom to know if they are capable of raising an additional child (Proverbs 2:6), etc. Broad principles that help us make a judgment call.
2. Discretion – This is where we make a decision based not only on broad principles found in the Bible (because there are no specifics), but we also factor in the effect that our decision will have on other people, especially Christians.
The decisions based on discretion are usually the most difficult to make because they are different for each person, and require a great amount of self-sacrifice. They usually involve things that are not in themselves bad but may be interpreted as being evil, perhaps unchristian or unorthodox by others. The dilemma is usually expressed in this manner, "Why should I deny myself such and such just because it might offend someone else?"
Paul received this kind of question from the Corinthian church and in his reply tells them how to deal with issues that require the use of discretion.
In first century Greece there were many pagan temples devoted to various gods, and each had its own ceremonies, including animal sacrifices. Unlike the Jewish sacrificial system where the animal was destroyed and its remains were eaten by the priest and the ones offering the sacrifice; the meat used in pagan rituals was often sold to public markets after the ritual was complete. Eating the sacrificed animal by the worshipper and priests was not required as it was in Jewish worship.
The problem, then, was that there were some Christians who were buying meat at the markets where some of the animals had originally been used in pagan sacrifice. Certain Christians disapproved of this and were offended because they felt that their Christian brethren were, in some indirect way, involving themselves in pagan sacrifice. Their argument went something like this:
- If you buy this kind of meat, you are supporting and participating in the pagan sacrificial system.
Today the same argument is made using different elements:
- Some Christians won't shop at certain stores because the company pays benefits to partners of gay employees. They feel to shop there is to support gay rights.
In teaching them, Paul deals with two issues.
1. The Specific Issue: Is eating this meat a sin?
This was the debate that the brethren were having in Corinth. Concerning this question of sin Paul says three things.
- Only those who practice idolatry are guilty of idolatry. Christians recognize only God and His Son, Jesus Christ. For Christians, idols are nothing more than wood and stone, and meat used in whatever way is only meat for a Christian. Christians eat with the understanding that all food comes from God regardless of what men may do or think about it in between time.
- Not everyone is used to this idea, especially Greek Christians who have been raised to see idolatry and its practices as an important part of life. For a former idolater, meat sacrificed to an idol has been tainted, and his conscience cannot help but see it as an offense against the true God. Of course, one problem here could have been the different backgrounds between Jews and Greeks who were in the same congregation.
- Paul repeats a principle that Jesus taught (Mark 7:19). He says that food does not have the power to make you pleasing or not pleasing to God. God doesn't love vegetarians more than meat eaters. The Pharisees taught that if a Gentile touched certain foods that a Jew later purchased and ate, the Jew would become impure and need to purify himself before going to worship. Jesus taught that food by itself did not have the ability to purify or make you impure.
Paul repeats this idea here, stating that you couldn't "catch" immorality or idolatry from food as one catches a disease. Food was neutral, meat was just meat. So in response to the specific issue of sinfulness Paul says that:
- The sin belongs to the idolaters and can't be transferred to the Christians through the meat.
- Idolaters sin because they serve idols. Christians are righteous because they serve Christ, regardless of what they eat.
Now Paul moves from the specific issue to a broad principle, which is contributing to the problem.
2. The Broad Principle: What to do when something isn't a sin but your conscience feels like it is?
Sometimes we feel guilty and rightly so because according to the Bible we are doing something that we should not or we have neglected to do that we should. Sometimes, however, we feel guilty even though the Bible doesn't condemn our actions, only our conscience does.
This was the problem here; Paul has told them that there is no sin in eating this meat, but there are still some with guilty consciences. Again, his teaching is spread out through the chapter. He gives them three things to ponder:
1. Love is higher than knowledge
8:1-3 – Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies. If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him.
He has given them knowledge about the legality of what they are doing; technically they are not wrong if they eat. But the guiding principle for our knowledge, he says, is love; and God knows the ones who love Him because it is evident in their actions. Those who love God use love in their application of knowledge. That we have knowledge is not what pleases God, it is how we use knowledge (in love) that pleases God.
2. License to love
Vs. 9-12 – But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol's temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.
You have knowledge and this knowledge has given you liberty (freedom in this case to eat) but be careful that you don't use your freedom selfishly.
God gives us liberty, freedom, license, but our license is not to indulge ourselves; our license is to be used for loving others.
In this instance, Paul describes a hypothetical situation: What if you use this freedom to indulge in this food, and a brother with a weak conscience copies your action (if he can, I can) but in doing so realizes that his conscience will not permit it and he feels guilty anyways? Paul doesn't say it, but the danger is that he may fall away or continue to do a lawful thing, but because he has a guilty conscience, for him a lawful thing becomes a sin.
In addition to this, Paul says that when they disregard the weak condition of this brother's situation and provide him with an excuse to violate his own conscience and thus sin, they are also guilty of sin!
Those who love God are free to live in Christ as they choose, but this freedom doesn't allow them to be free from the responsibility of caring for other people and their souls.
3. How far do we go?
Vs. 13 – Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.
The fear here is that people will take advantage if we give up what we are allowed to do every time someone objects under the heading of being "offended." In other words: what good is freedom if we are prisoners of other peoples' weaknesses? In Romans 14:3-4 Paul gives further instructions to help avoid this kind of situation:
The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
- Romans 14:3-4
Basically he is speaking to both groups. Those who are strong (exercising their Christian liberty in good conscience and doing things that are not wrong) shouldn't be impatient, unloving or unkind to those who are weak in conscience and are not able to permit themselves the same things. There is to be no name-calling or accusations of legalism, narrow-mindedness, immaturity, etc. And those who he refers to as the "weak" should not act like judges over the actions of other Christians, especially when their criticism cannot be soundly supported by God's word.
Many times, it's not a question of truly being offended or stumbling. Paul says that to make someone stumble or to offend them means to influence them to do something that their own conscience will not permit.
Sometimes the "strong" use Christian freedom as an excuse to act or indulge in worldly activity (like gambling) or vices (smoking) without feeling guilty; and many times the "weak" say they are offended when in reality they are simply uncomfortable or jealous because someone is doing something they will not permit themselves to do. They then twist the scriptures or use the idea of church "tradition" as a means to deny others their rightful freedom in Christ.
When we criticize another for their actions and claim that we've been offended it better be because:
- A true sin according to the Bible has been committed.
- We have been provoked to violate our own conscience by the influence of another's actions.
If not, then we're merely judging our brothers and sisters according to our own standards, not God's standards. Both the weak and strong should leave the judging to God because it is God who will save both the strong and the weak according to His grace – not according to one's relative strength or weakness.
In the end, we have to go as far as we need to in order to guarantee that our actions do not contribute to the destruction of another's soul. That may not always be fair, but it will always be right. And in the end we want to do what is right, not just what is permitted or what is fair.
Not everything in Christianity is black or white. Sometimes we have to make decisions using:
- Judgment – assessing what we know about the word and making the best decision we can, given the circumstances.
- Discretion – not only using what we know about the Bible but also measuring the impact of our decision on the faith of someone else.
Paul teaches that we must not only consider what is lawful in order to please God, we must decide what is loving as well.
When God chose to save us He didn't do it based on:
- Law – According to law we should have been condemned and left to suffer in hell.
- Fairness – It wasn't fair that Jesus who did no sin, who always obeyed, should suffer our punishment for sin.
He based His decision on love, what was necessary in order to guarantee the salvation of our souls. That is the basis upon which our decisions should be made.
We need to ask God to forgive us and help us to mature spiritually if:
- We've violated our own conscience.
- We've encouraged, by our actions, someone else to violate theirs.
- We've accused others of sin for actions that are not really sin but just things that we don't like.
- We've been impatient with brethren who don't enjoy the same level of freedom in Christ that we do.