Liberty in Love: The True Mark of Christian Maturity
Text: 1 Cor. 8:1-13
Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him…
This morning we are returning to our study of 1 Corinthians. We have been working through this book section by section, but we took a break for the Easter season. Now it’s time to get back to it. So far, the book has been concerned with divisions in the church, divisions coming from pride and theological abilities, as well as divisions coming from sin and even gross sin, including sexual immorality.
We are now turning to a new section, and it’s still about divisions, but now the divisions are coming from a misunderstanding of Christian liberty. Some Christians in Corinth believe that because they are free in Christ, they have the right and privilege to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols. Since the idol is nothing, and idea that Paul seems to agree with, then what’s the big deal? And since Paul has, in many other places, warned against food laws and people judging others based upon food, these “mature” Christians are saying that they can eat whatever they want without caring about the scruples of others.
This is a passage that talks about principles of Christian liberty, the weaker brother, and the danger of being a stumbling block. Paul does not agree with the conclusion of these supposed-mature Christians. Yes, the idol is nothing, and yes the food is nothing in itself, but that doesn’t mean that you should eat the food sacrificed to idols This section of 1 Corinthians is going to continue all the way to chapter 10, and as we work through this section we will see a connected argument. It’s all about Christian liberty.
So, today we will look at Christian liberty. What is it, and how should you use it?
Fist, we should say that Christian liberty is a very good thing. It’s something that the New Testament tells us is a great blessing and something that comes from Jesus. Because Jesus was crucified us, He took the handwriting that was against us and put it away. He liberated us the requirements of the torah, and so now no one can judge us. This same idea comes up in different ways in Romans and Galatians. And it also shows up in Colossians 2:16: Because of the work of Christ on the Cross, he says, “let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths.”
Christian freedom then is the freedom from a specific set of “do this” and “don’t do that,” and it’s a freedom from the rule of others. God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He wants us to do what is right freely, because we want to. But Christian liberty is easily misunderstood and abused. This is especially true in a country like ours which makes liberty the top value. Our country claims to value liberty so much that one of Supreme Court Justices can say that “liberty the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life…” I’ve quoted that before, and you might remember that it’s from a decision protecting abortion rights. Freedom for our Supreme Court is now the right to define or undefined personal existence. What we will hear this morning is the liberty must be used very carefully. It must always be used in love.
Liberty is abused whenever someone believes that simply because they can do something that they should, no matter what effect that might have on others.
The Corinthians are pushing the envelope. I think this is the key to the whole book, by the way. The reason that they can behave in such incredible ways, that they can sin in ways that Paul says “not even the Gentiles” do, is not because they are still uncivilized but because they are trying to prove a point. They think that their Christian liberty allows them to behave in such ways, and they even think that their behaving in such ways is a demonstration of their freedom in Christ. So they insist upon doing it as a way to show their standing in Christ. It seems like they were purposely seeking out controversial activities in order to prove that they were free to do them.
Here in chapter 8, the controversial issue is the eating of food that has been sacrificed to idols. The Corinthians who think that they are mature and “super spiritual” believe that there is nothing to be alarmed about at all. They are not only eating food that they bought in the marketplace. That issue will come up in chapter 10. No, they are even entering into the idol’s temple and eating the food in the context of a pagan religious assembly. We see this in vs. 10. “For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple…” This is pretty bold. Can you imagine going in to a temple of Zeus, Apollo, or Athena, and then sitting down and eating the food from the altar? It would give people the impression that you were worshipping that god.
Paul is worried that the weaker brothers will see them doing this, imitate them, and thus be destroyed. Paul says that if you are behaving in this way, then your knowledge has puffed you up (vs. 1) and made you proud. You actually “know nothing” (vs. 2). It is a sin against Christ (vs. 12).
The true doctrine of Christian liberty knows that we are not free to do whatever we want, but instead, we are free to love God and to seek the good of our neighbors voluntarily. It’s free because it does not have to come with a specific list of how to do this, and we do not have someone to whom we must always report. But it’s not a permission slip to do whatever we want, regardless of the results. Christian liberty is for a purpose. It is for loving and edifying others. If you are not doing this, then you should evaluate your freedom to see what you are actually doing.
Do Not Be A Stumbling Block
This is what brings up the concept of the “stumbling block.” Paul says, “beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak” (vs. 9). The weaker brother is also going to appear in Romans 14, so this is something that’s on Paul’s mind that he applies to other churches as well. We don’t want to be a stumbling block to the weaker brother.
However, just as liberty is misunderstood, so is the notion of the stumbling block.
Growing up this was usually applied to one issue, the drinking of alcohol. Some Christians believe that the Bible actually does forbid the drinking of all alcoholic beverages. That’s a pretty hard case to make, though, especially since Jesus turned water into wine and Psalm 104:14-15 says, “God causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the service of man, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine that makes glad the heart of man.”
But even if the Bible doesn’t forbid alcohol, and in fact seems to promote it, so long as it is used in moderation, still, isn’t their a danger for its affects on the weaker brother? Won’t you cause him to stumble? This was usually how the argument is made.
The problem is that this was usually framed in terms of “offending” others. People will see you drinking, and they think that you shouldn’t be, and so they will be offended. You will bring a bad name upon yourself and your church. But that’s not what Paul is talking about here.
There’s a big danger with using the “weaker brother” and the “stumbling block” in this way. Paul is not simply telling us to work hard to not offend others. He is not saying that if someone thinks that something is a sin, then you should just follow their lead and not do it. Paul isn’t saying that we just need to keep the rules of whomever we are around. If he were saying that, then he would actually be giving us a sort of legalism all over again. It’s just that the “weaker brother” would get to be the legalist, judging everyone else and forcing them to comply with their expectations. And in many cases, the folks who are doing the judging do not think of themselves as weak at all. Instead they think of themselves as the ones who really know best, the ones who have to enforce the rules. To tell folks to try extra hard not to do anything offend these sorts of people only encourages them to continue behaving in this way. That is not what Paul is talking about in this chapter, and it is not what edification is all about.
The “stumbling” that Paul is worried about is an action that may indeed be permissible but which might also carry with it the danger of leading your brother into sin, specifically idolatry. This isn’t simply a danger that they might think you are a sinning. The danger is that they might be encouraged to join in an activity that they think is sin, or an activity that is actually spiritually dangers to them, and that they might then fall back into a sort of idolatry with which they are still struggling. This is what Paul actually says about it:
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? (1 Cor. 8:9-11)
Do you see what’s going on there? The Christian eating the idol-food is actually doing it in the idol’s temple, and the weaker brother is then “emboldened” and perishes. This gets a little complicated, and Paul will say more about it in chapters 9 and 10, but the point is that the weaker brother is not eating the idol-food based on the knowledge that “an idol is nothing” and that the food is just food. He’s eating it while still believing in the idol, at least partly, and his eating in this way is a sort of participation in the idol worship.
Go back to verses 4-8 to put this together:
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 we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.
Paul is saying that the food, considered simply as food, is neither here nor there. You could eat it if it were only about the food. And he explains his more at the end of chapter 10. You can eat the food if no one is bringing up its connection to the idol. But you cannot eat the food if it has a known association with idolatry. This is not because the eating of the food will automatically make you an idolater but rather because it will send the message that idolatry is not a danger to be avoided, not something with which Christians should be overly concerned.
Prioritize Love Over Rights and Privileges
So really, Paul’s point here is that liberty has to be put to the service of the bigger picture. Sure, you could eat the food. But you could also not eat the food. You are free to do either. The real question is why you want to eat the food. As he says over in Romans:
It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak. Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin. (Rom. 14:21-23)
Do you have faith? Have it yourself before God. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that everyone else can do it, and that means that you should or shouldn’t do it based upon how it will affect them. And again, this doesn’t mean how it might offend them, but rather how it might encourage them to do the same sort of thing and thus fall into sin. Freedom means that you are free to do something, but it also means that you are free to not do something. The way that you decide which way to go is by asking how it will affect those people around you.
So, let’s apply this again to alcohol, since I brought that up earlier. I don’t think that Christians need to avoid alcohol simply because other Christians think that it is a sin to drink alcohol. In fact, that might be all the more reason to insist upon your freedom to drink it. They are placing a false legalistic burden on you, and it has nothing to do necessarily with their own temptations and weaknesses. However, there are occasions where you should be willing to give up your right to drink alcohol. If you are with someone who has been enslaved to alcohol or who believes that they will be sinning by drinking alcohol but is also so susceptible to group pressure that they will drink anyway, then you are in a true “weaker brother” situation. If you action would cause them to imitate you, and if that would compromise their conscience, then you shouldn’t do it. If they can’t do what you are doing without sinning, then you shouldn’t do it around them.
This applies to a lot of other things than alcohol. If they can’t do it, then you shouldn’t do it. A lot of Christian liberty issues shows up in television and movies. I have had to learn humility in this area. I like to watch “smart,” “hip,” “cool,” and “culturally-important” television, and a lot of that stuff really is on the boundary line of acceptability. The mature Christian response is not, “Of course I can watch that! You’re being silly.” No, the mature Christian response is more like, “Maybe I could, but I don’t have to, and I’m aware of the danger that it poses to others.”
A good rule is to always try to defer to others. When I doubt, give in. Let the weaker brother have the right of way. “In lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” (Phil. 2:3). But won’t that cheat you? How is that fair? Well, that’s the whole point of Christian liberty. You are free. You are free from the burden of demanding your rights.
So, don’t use your freedom in such a way to lead others into sin. This means that your brothers and sisters in the faith are your business, at least within reason. Their weaknesses are your weaknesses, and you have to learn to identify yourself along with them. Freedom in Christ means that you’ll be ok if you don’t get to do everything you want to do. Freedom in Christ means that you’ll be ok if you have to wait for your brothers to “catch up.” Freedom in Christ means that you can sacrifice things that you would otherwise have a right to do in order to bless the other believers around you and help them mature in the faith.
Now how is this fair? Doesn’t this simply ask the older and more mature Christians to “put up” with being cheated out of their full range of freedoms? That would be a worldly perspective. This message does call on the mature to sacrifice on behalf of others, but this doesn’t mean that they are being cheated out of anything. For what do you have that you did not receive? Everything we have, including our Christian maturity itself is a gift of God. It’s grace.
And we know the price of those gifts. In order to bless us, God has to first forgive us of our sins. He had to make atonement for us, and the only “source” He could “take from” was Himself. Our salvation and our blessing came at God’s expense. He was willing to sacrifice because He loved us, and that is why we can sacrifice for others. Christian freedom is all about loving one another freely and without command. We do not lay claim to all of our rights and hold tight to them over and against the needs of others. On the contrary, following after Christ means precisely voluntarily giving up what would otherwise be ours in order to save others. We do this because of the gospel, that we might win the more to Jesus Christ.
Let us pray.