A Stumbling Block

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This morning we're picking up again Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians where we left off last summer. And that means we've come to chapter 8. Do please have that open in front of you.

Imagine these different scenarios. You are a believer. You know that means, as Paul says at the start of 1 Corinthians, you are 'called to be holy'.

You're invited to a party by a friend who isn't a Christian. You are aware that at this party it's highly likely that some people will get drunk and drugs will be in circulation. Do you accept the invitation?

A film has been recommended to you as thought provoking and worthwhile, but its values are profoundly hostile to the Christian faith, there's frequent blaspheming in the dialogue, and immorality is portrayed in a positive light. Do you see it? Do you take other Christian friends along with you?

You don't know what to do about these things so you seek advice from two people in your home group. One says 'No, no, no – don't touch those things with a barge pole or you'll be spiritually contaminated. They are incompatible with holy living.' The other says 'Of course you can say yes to these things. You mustn't sin yourself, but these things cannot touch your relationship with Christ. The world has no hold over us any more. We have to be out there mixing with the non-Christian world. Don't worry about it.'

You realise that you have to come to your own conclusions. How do you do that?

You go to the butcher's stall on the market to get a joint for Sunday lunch. You know full well that most of the meat on the marble slab in front of you has come to the butcher from one of any number of local temples. Each temple is dedicated to one of a bewildering range of pagan gods and goddesses. When sacrifices are made, the surplus meat is sold off through the markets.

You know this because for one thing its common knowledge, and for another thing it's not long ago that you were a devotee of one these gods yourself. But now you're one of a small band of Christians in this teeming great city in the 1st Century AD. Is it OK for you to buy and eat this meat?

What is more, an invitation is put through your letter box asking you to join some friends for a meal which happens to be at one of the nearby temples. In the absence of Pizza Express, it is at these places that people often hold their parties. Do you accept the invitation?

You know this is an issue that's causing a lot of aggravation in the church. One group in the church says it's fine. Meat is meat. God made it all. Pagan gods don't exist. No problem. Another group in the church says if you eat it you'll be compromising with paganism and defiling your soul. Your mother-in-law's coming for Sunday lunch. What are you going to do?

Just hold on to that thought for a moment.

We're looking at 1 Corinthians. But why did Paul write this letter? He's worried that the church in Corinth is in danger of going off the rails. This is a divided, immature, worldly, arrogant and compromising church. Paul wants to do all he can to make sure that the gospel alone sets their agenda. So Paul tackles a range of thorny issues, and in chapter 8 it's the question of the joint of meat for Sunday lunch (or whenever). So it begins (v 1):

Now about food sacrificed to idols…

To buy or not to buy, that is the question. But if that was the only question here, we may as well skip this chapter because it's not an issue that we face any longer in this part of the world. Not directly. In fact, though, as those scenarios we were thinking about indicate, we face similar problems again and again in our Christian lives as we seek to live faithfully in a world that has radically different values from those of the gospel.

And what makes this chapter useful to us is that Paul doesn't simply give a yes/no answer to the immediate question. As he so often does when he's dealing with a very practical issue, he digs beneath the surface. He works out what are the implications of the gospel for the question. And he digs up principles for dealing with this kind of controversy in the church that we need to apply.

So, as you'll see from the outline at the back of the service sheet, my three points from this chapter are these. First, knowledge without love is dangerous. Secondly, know the truth that sets you free. And thirdly, use your freedom to build others up.


Paul, then, begins (v 1): 'Now about food sacrificed to idols:' and then immediately like a submarine he dives beneath the surface. His concern is not just for the rights and wrongs of the question, but for the way they're handling it in the church. He wants them to take a close look at their attitudes. So he goes on:

We know that we all possess knowledge. [He may be quoting something they say there.] Knowledge puffs up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.

There are two kinds of people here with two kinds of knowledge. On the one hand there is knowledge without love. And on the other hand there is knowledge with love.

Both kinds of knowledge are knowledge about theology and ethics. That is to say, he's talking about knowledge of God and the world, right and wrong.

The love that he talks about is not just a bolt-on to knowledge. It's not just that everybody knows the same things, but some have love and others don't. Whether love is present changes the quality of our knowledge and it changes the conclusions we come to about what is the right and wrong way to behave.

Knowledge without love, he says, puffs up. It makes people arrogant. In other words there is a kind of loveless theological and ethical expertise that serves simply to inflate the ego of the one who has it. The person who has this kind of knowledge is not concerned for other people, nor in the end for God. He's interested in himself. He wants those who disagree with him to realise that they are small, insignificant and wrong, and that he is important and right.

Such a person 'thinks he knows something', says Paul. And the truth is that his views on a particular point may indeed be right in some respects. But taken in the round, his knowledge is deeply flawed and dangerously misleading. He 'does not yet know as he ought to know'.

In particular, he does not yet know God. Not really. Not personally. He may know some true things about God, although his arrogance will result in his theology being distorted. At best, he will overemphasise some true things or not balance them properly against other true things. At worst, he will be peddling lies in the name of truth. There is a world of difference between knowing about God (or claiming to), and having a living personal relationship with God through faith in Christ.

Knowledge that grows out of a real living knowledge of God is knowledge with love. And 'love builds up' says Paul. In other words love puts the interests of others before its own, and puts its knowledge at the service of others. Love does not use its knowledge for self-glorification.

And this kind of Godly knowledge is not in the end just the result of reading impressively thick books or thinking deep thoughts – for all that thinking and studying are very important. It is knowledge that is revealed to us by God. Godly knowledge comes from God. We do not master it. It is God's gift to the undeserving. So it is not so much a matter of knowing about God. It is more about being known by God. Verse 3:

'The man who loves God is known by God.'

God loves us. As a result we love God. And then we love other people. And we put the knowledge we've been given at their service. That's how it should be.

I remember hearing a high-powered discussion about the rights and wrongs of some scientific hypothesis. One of the panel members was a Marxist. He caused consternation and almost brought the discussion to a grinding halt because he kept asking 'Who's paying for the research? Who benefits from this theory being regarded as right? Whose interest is being served here?' he irritated the chairman no end. But it was revealing when the vested interests were exposed.

Paul is doing something similar here. It's as if he's saying, 'Why do you want to know about food sacrificed to idols? Is it so that you will be vindicated and those who disagree with you will be humiliated? Or is your concern for the well-being of the Body of Christ? Is it love that motivates you?' When we want to know the rights and wrongs of a particular disputable issue, we need to ask ourselves the same kinds of questions. Do we really want the truth? Is it love that's driving us? Or is it self-interest? Because if it is, we're not likely to get the right answer. That's the first thing. Knowledge without love is dangerous.


Now that Paul has got that clear, he moves on to set out the theology that is the foundation on which our decision on how to act will be built. Verse 4:

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many 'gods' and many 'lords'), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

Here then, are two world views: the pagan world view and the gospel world view. And the truth is. There is one God. People worship all kinds of things and name all kinds of so-called gods, but that is disastrous idolatry. There is one God, and he created everything. We live for his glory. Jesus Christ is one with the Father. He is Lord. Everything was made through him. He alone is the one who gives us life. He alone is the source of our earthly life now and all that sustains it, not least the food we eat. And he alone is the giver of eternal life to those who put their trust in him. The pagan world-view is plain wrong. It is a lie that has deceived even those who peddle it. The truth is to be found in the Gospel.

What does that mean for eating idol-sacrificed meat? It means that at one level what we eat is irrelevant. Verse 8:

But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

That is the freedom we enjoy in Christ. But that is not the last word. So


Paul speaks of two kinds of knowledge (with and without love); two world views (paganism and Christianity); and then lastly that leads him in to speak of two kinds of freedom – freedom without love and freedom with love.

Yes, he says, you have freedom in Christ. And when it comes to the food issue it is true that our relationship with God does not depend on food one way or another. What you eat is not the point. But does that mean that you can happily ignore what other believers think? No, no, no.

Once more, as with knowledge, it is love that is the key. You see, the freedom that we have as believers can be exercised in two very different ways that can lead us to dramatically different conclusions about how to behave. Freedom exercised without love can damage and even destroy the faith of other believers. Freedom used with love strengthens the faith of your brothers and sisters. Verse 9:

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling-block to the weak.

Let me explain what Paul means by 'the weak', or those with a 'weak conscience'. Some believers don't understand the freedom that they have in Christ. And here, of course, the example is the freedom we have regarding the food we eat. That's what Paul has described in verse 7, where he says:

But not everyone knows this. [That is, the gospel and its implications for idolatry.] 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.

What Paul means by a weak conscience is not an insensitive conscience then – far from it. It's a conscience that is uneducated about the full implications of the gospel.

Paul goes on (verse 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? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.

Do you see the process that Paul is describing here?

This weak brother thinks it's wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols. You go ahead and eat it. The weak brother sees and, despite having a bad conscience about it, he is swayed into following you and he eats.

That is a sin. If you think it's wrong to do something, then if you go ahead and do it that's sinful because you are deliberately choosing to do something you believe to be contrary to God's will. So it's not what you do that's necessarily wrong in this case, it's the nature of the choice you make that's wrong.

So your exercise of freedom has caused a brother or sister to sin. In the worst case, one sin might lead to another and before you know it he's gone off the spiritual rails. His faith could be destroyed for the sake of your enjoyment of your freedom.

Does that matter much? It could not matter more. Christ died for him. To damage his faith is a sin. So your so-called exercise of freedom is itself a sin – not only against your brother or sister, but against Christ himself. In theory you're right, then, but in practice your wrong.

So what is Paul's conclusion? Verse 13:

Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.

True freedom in this case would be to put your weak brother or sister higher in your priorities than your stomach. If there is a danger of damage to another's faith, then true freedom is to forego the meat, or the meal out at the temple, so that your brother or sister does not fall into sin. True freedom puts others at the top of the priority list. True freedom is loving.

The other night there was an interesting documentary about the two antarctic explorers of the beginning of the twentieth century – Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton. They were both desperate to be the first to reach the South Pole. To simplify two complex characters, the conclusion that was drawn about them was this.

In the end, Shackleton's primary concern was the safety of his men. As a result, he turned back just 80 miles from the Pole. He and his men lived. But Shackleton never reached the Pole. He loved his men more than he loved glory.

Scott's ultimate concern, on the other hand, was to get to the Pole first. As a result, his expedition didn't stop before he got there. And he and his men died on the return leg. He loved glory more than he loved his men. Ironically, of course, Amundsen beat him to it.

So what do we learn from this chapter? There are two kinds of knowledge (with and without love) and knowledge without love is dangerous. There are essentially two world views (the gospel and idolatry) and we need to know the truth that sets us free. There are two kinds of freedom (used with love or without love) and we must use our freedom to build others up.

Imagine these scenarios.

You're offered a good, well paid, job with a firm. The main aim of this company is to make as much money as possible on the assumption that that's the only thing that really matters in life. Do you take the job? There's a particular style of music that in the minds of some is bound up with an evil lifestyle. Should the church use such music?

There's a very useful piece of computer software on the market. It's just what you need. You find out that the profits from it go to support a non-Christian sect. Do you buy it?

If a course of action is contrary to God's Word, then it's wrong - full stop. If it compromises the gospel then its wrong - and that's that. The loving course of action is always obedience to God.

Some things, though, may not be wrong in themselves, but doing them would be wrong if the faith of others would be damaged. For those disputable matters the key to decision making is to decide with love – love for God and love for others. Set aside your own interests. Ask what course of action is to the glory of God. What will build up the church? Put others first.

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