Responsible Freedom

This morning we continue our study of I Corinthians and move to chapter 8 of Paul’s letter.  In this chapter Paul answers another question from the Corinthians.  The question appears to be whether or not it was OK to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols.  Let’s admit from the outset that this is not a burning issue in our lives today.  However, I believe that if we will take the time to understand the situation in Corinth, and Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians, we will learn principles that will help us in a wide variety of situations in our Christian walk.

In the church in Corinth most of the people had come out of a pagan background. Corinth was a city that had many different places where you could worship various idols.  Sacrifices were made to many these so-called gods. When that sacrifice was an animal, some of the meat would be burned up, some given to the one bringing the offering, and another part was given to the priest.

Since the priests had much more meat than they could eat, this meat that had been sacrificed and “deemed clean” was sold on the market.  Now for the Christian, they had wanted to know:

  • Can we attend non-religious festivals where this meat may be served?  (Think about going to a fund-raising dinner at a Mormon Church)
  • Is it OK to eat such meat if it served to us by a non-believing neighbor
  • Can we buy this meat (which was often at a lower price) in the market?

It appears the people of the church disagreed on the answers to these questions.  What is instructive to us is how Paul addressed the debate.


Notice that Paul states the question in verse 1 but doesn’t actually address it until verse 4.  Why?  I believe Paul knew that he had to address something before he could even hope to answer the question.  In almost every debate the various sides feel they have knowledge that the other side does not.  They know something that if the other side would just understand it would prove that they are obviously right.

People who have just taken a class; read a book; or most compelling of all, have had an experience with a subject, are especially difficult to deal with; If someone has just read a book on politics they are much more aggressive in their opinions.  If a person has had a class in economics, they think they understand the problems of our economy.  If they have just seen a TV special on some issue they feel like they have all the facts.  These people have enough knowledge not only to be dangerous, but also obnoxious.

The same is true in churches.  Pastors come out of a Seminary and sometime believe they have all the answers.  Other people will tell you that they have studied an issue (even if they have simply read one book or heard one message) and therefore know what is right.  Still others will tell you that they have seen something with their own eyes and consider their experience to be the “trump card” in the debate.

Please understand that knowledge is important.  The Bible tells us to “study to show ourselves approved”.  The Bible tells us to be discerning and the only way to do that is to have truth as a reference point.  The problem is that a little bit of knowledge can (and often does) inflate us.  It makes us feel superior and tends to make us close-minded.

Paul knew that the first step toward approaching any controversial issue is humility. Paul said, “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.” [v. 2] The New Living Translation captures the idea with a little more force, “Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much.”  It is generally true that the more condescending a person is, the less understanding they actually have.  To state it positively, the more a person matures in their faith and understanding, the more humble they become because they realize how much they still have to learn. This is especially true in the things of God.  God is so much bigger than our minds will ever grasp.  To think that we have it all figured out is simply arrogance masquerading as faith.


Once we have adopted an attitude of openness we need to examine the facts.  Paul points to three facts that relate to the issue of meat sacrificed to idols.

An Idol is nothing.  In verse 4 Paul says “an idol is nothing”.  It is just a piece of wood, metal or stone.  Great claims are made on its behalf but it is an inanimate object. If you travel to a temple to a foreign God you will see people putting food and other items before their god.  That idol will never eat that food!

There is Only One God. Second Paul states the reason that we know that an idol is nothing: there is only one God.  There are not numerous gods competing with each other over various territorial rights.  There is only one God and He is over all.

Time and again throughout the Old Testament God defeated the so-called gods of the other nations.  In 1 Kings 18 there was the contest between Elijah and the 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah.  All day long these prophets cried out to their gods asking them to consume the sacrifice that was placed on the altar.  Nothing happened.  Elijah covered his sacrifice with lots of water until it was soaked.  He called on the Lord and the sacrifice lit up like putting a match to gasoline.  The Lord proved He alone is God.

Paul wants the church to know that meat that has been sacrificed to idols is really meat that has been sacrificed to nothing!  Consequently, there is no Biblical reason not to eat that meat if it is good meat at a great price.  The meat can’t be defiled because there was nothing to defile it! 

However, there is one more fact to keep in mind: Not everyone sees it this way.  Paul writes in verse 7

But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.

There were some people who came out of pagan backgrounds and were raised to believe that these pagan offerings were genuine.  Even though these people were now followers of Christ, when they see meat that was sacrificed to idols it is a reminder (and perhaps even an invitation) to their former life.  To them, to eat such meat is a compromise with paganism.  They see it as a participation in the sacrifice itself. This third fact is what makes the issue a difficult one. 

Let me pause and apply this to some of the difficult issues of today.

  • Drinking is not forbidden in the Bible; drunkenness is. But for some people, one drink leads to many drinks, to violence, or to inappropriate or destructive behavior.
  • Card playing is just a game for most, but for some people it is a slippery slope into a life of gambling
  • Dancing is just exercise to many; not much different than going for a walk.  For others, it is something that provokes lust and inappropriate contact with someone.
  • Certain kinds of music are just different sounds combined to make a melody which is used to express a thought, idea or feeling.  We may find some of the sounds more pleasant than others but that is personal taste. However, for some people, certain kinds of music may transport them back to a life that led them away from God and created great heartache.  To these people certain kinds of music cause them to stumble.
  • Using media in worship to most is simply a communication tool for conveying the truth; it is neither good nor bad. For others media in worship is seen as a compromise with worldliness; it doesn’t enhance worship, it actually hinders it.

These are difficult issues and only a small list of some of the issues that serve as today’s counterpart to the debate about meat sacrificed to idols.


So, given these facts, how should we live our lives?  What is our responsibility in these difficult areas?  There are three guidelines we can draw from the text for any area where we experience disagreement.

First: We Must Always Obey Scripture.  I believe this is a given in the text.  Paul has been uncompromising in many issues already in the letter to the Corinthians.  The only time these principles apply is when the Bible either does not speak to an issue directly or if the Bible is unclear on an issue. If the Bible gives us clear guidelines, we are to do what the Bible tells us.  

Second: listen to your conscience.  The second thing Paul tells us is that when the Scriptures are unclear, we should follow our conscience.

Paul does not tell those who had a problem with eating meat to start eating meat.  That would have led these people to do something they believed was wrong. No matter what someone else says or does, we should not violate our conscience. The conscience is a tool of the Holy Spirit to alert us to things that are dangerous for us.  We need to do what we have become convinced is right to do.  Everyone has different vulnerabilities . . . different things that can lead us into trouble.

Let me give you some examples.  A person may be allergic to peanuts or shellfish.  For this person no matter how great a particular recipe seems to be, they need to stay away from it.  Our conscience alerts us to things that are dangerous for us.  So if you believe any consumption of alcohol is wrong, then you shouldn’t.  If you are uncomfortable sitting down to play cards, don’t do it! If you feel like you should dress a certain way for worship, do so.  If you believe you shouldn’t watch certain movies, stay away from them.

In the book of James we are told that the one who knows what is right to do but doesn’t do it . . . to him it is sin.  (James 4;17)  We need to be alert to the inner voice of God’s Spirit and submit to it.

Third: we should be considerate of the conscience of others.  This is the most difficult part of Paul’s instruction.  Paul says that whenever we are faced with an issue in which one person feels free to do something and the other does not, the person who has freedom should be willing to restrain that freedom for the sake of their brother or sister.  Our job is not to “fix” our brother or sister (which is what we tend to try to do).  Our job is to show consideration for them.

This is a principle that goes counter to the world in which we live.  Everywhere around us we see an attitude that says: if that person is uncomfortable with my actions – that’s tough!  Our creed is simple: I will do whatever it is that I want to do.  Heaven help the person who tries to stand in my way. Even as believers there is often an attitude that says, “I don’t see anything in the Bible that tells me I can’t do this.  So too bad for you!

Paul tells us that we should show consideration to others.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.

Freedom is to be tempered with love.  Our desire should be to do nothing (even if it isn’t anything wrong) that will hurt another person spiritually.  We should care enough about each other to be willing to restrict our freedoms if that is what it takes to protect those who are weaker in the faith or are vulnerable in some area

Soldiers voluntarily agree to become a part of the service of the country.  They agree to limit their freedom and submit to the direction of a commanding officer because the freedom of our country (or other countries) is greater than any one individual’s freedom.  In the same way, sometimes we are called to surrender our freedom temporarily in order to advance the Kingdom and to protect the young believers.

If you know someone has a problem with alcohol, then don’t offer that person a drink and don’t drink when you are with them.  You are to care enough about the person to restrict your own freedom out of love.

If you know someone has a problem with gambling, don’t invite them to eat at the casino!  Don’t suggest you take a vacation to a condo in Las  Vegas.

I hope you see the principle and can apply it in situations in your life.  Though we have been given a new freedom in Christ, we must never use that freedom in a way that offends or hinders another believer.

However, let me caution you! There are some who will use this principle to manipulate others. These people are not young or weak Christians, they just want to control others.  They insist that you live life according to their rules and their consciences.  They have no intention of letting you live by your convictions . . . unless you agree with them!  We should not give up our freedom in Christ to pander to these people.  Paul refused to give in to the some of the religious leaders of his day.  He stood against their push to be enslaved by rules and regulations.  However, when in doubt, we are to be willing to sacrifice for our brother or sister.


When we are faced with an area of disagreement there are some questions we need to ask,

1.  What does the Bible say?  Is there clear teaching on this issue? Are there Biblical principles that can be applied?  If so, we should follow God’s Word.

2.  Why do I feel the way I do?  What are the reasons for my convictions on this issue?  Are these personal reasons or Biblical reasons?

3.  Why does the other person feel the way they do?  Have I taken the time to understand my brother or sister in Christ?

4.  Will my behavior hurt someone else?  Could my example lead someone else to compromise their faith? Is there something I can do differently that would show consideration for another? 

Paul challenges us to think differently.  We live in a world that emphasizes “winning”. Winning is defined as getting your way.  God calls us to seek understanding rather than dominance.  God wants us to understand that winning or success is not about how many people you “climb over” or beat to the finish line.  It is defined instead by how many people you bring with you to the winners circle.  Life is not an individual event, it is meant to be a group event.

Look around you.  We are living in an increasingly abrasive world.  It seems to me that one of the best things we can do to impact our world for Christ is to begin to show consideration and respect to the people around us.  I encourage you to work hard at seeing beyond yourself in the everyday practices of life.

  • Consider the others around you when talking on your cell phone
  • Consider how your failure to clean up after yourself impacts the others who have to live with, walk around, or clean up your mess.
  • Consider the person who is coming in the door after you and hold the door for them.
  • Consider others when you are thinking about taking up two parking spaces
  • Consider others when you are thinking about leaving just enough on the roll, plate or in the bottle, so that you won’t have to clean it, replace it or throw it away.
  • Consider the others in line in the check out lane when we are having an extended conversation with the checker.
  • Consider those who will have to “pick up the slack” when you fail to do what you promised to do.
  • Be considerate of what others might have to say in a conversation. Let them have a chance to talk.
  • Consider how your “hard time” or sense of humor will make the person who is the focus of the comment feel.

I realize these all seem like petty things.  However, these things become significant when we see that they are helping us to develop the attitude and mindset that God wants us to have. You see, if we can learn to be considerate in the little things, it will be easier to be considerate in bigger things.  If we will practice this kind of practical love when it comes to the everyday happenings of life, it will be easier to show love when a person’s spiritual growth is on the line.

You will most likely never have to worry about meat that was sacrificed to an idol.  However there will be similar issues related to our own culture. Paul’s counsel to the Church in Corinth won’t solve every one of these issues but his words, if taken to heart, will get us moving in the right direction.

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