Studies in I Corinthians
Lesson 21: Operating in the Gray Areas
I Corinthians 8:1-13
As we come to this chapter we are in that section of the book where Paul is answering a list of questions sent to him from the church in first century Corinth. And this is important to us because, even though the specific situations that we face may not be the same, Paul’s answers establish principles by which we can operate even today. For example, the specific problem presented in this chapter is the problem of whether or not to eat meat that had been offered to idols as a sacrifice. In that society there were many idols and idol worshippers. The routine practice for the worshippers was to go into an idol temple and place plates of fine cuts of meat before their idol as a sacrifice. Obviously the idols couldn’t eat it, so after the worshippers had left, the priests, clever fellows that they were, would remove the meat and take it down the street to the meat market where it would be bought and sold at cut-rate prices. Now as often happens, this led to a real disagreement among Christians as to whether or not they should eat that meat. To some Christians who had been involved in the worship of idols it was a painful reminder of the sins that were often a part of the rituals and practices of their past and they felt that they should not eat such meat at all. Other, more mature Christians saw nothing wrong with it. And it became a major issue in the church. So they included it in their list of questions to Paul.
His answer establishes some principles by which we can make decisions about the “doubtful” issues of the Christian life, even after all these years. And eating meat that had been offered to idols offered a perfect example. Of course we don’t have to deal with the issue of meat, but what about such matters as dancing and social drinking of alcohol? Paul answers the question about these kinds of things in the matter “priorities.” So the first aspect of priorities that we see in this chapter is the principle of priorities in doctrine in verses 1 through 3, When all is said and done, knowledge of the Word of God is one of the most important aspects of the Christian life. But evidently the Corinthians had the same problem that many Christians today have. They thought that knowledge was the most important thing in the Christian life. So verse 1 deals with the existence of knowledge.
Now concerning things offered to idols: we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.
The first thing pointed out in this verse is that all the believers at Corinth had some knowledge about this situation. But, notice carefully: knowledge alone is wasted! Look carefully again at the phrase “knowledge puffs up, (gives an inflated idea of one’s importance) So what part does love play? The last phrase of the verse tells us: “. . . . but love edifies.” The important thing is not how much knowledge you have, but what that knowledge motivates you to do. And the right use of knowledge causes us to reach out in a loving way to those around us.
Then verse 2 tells us the extent of knowledge .
And if anyone thinks he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know.
No believer knows all there is to know (especially if he thinks he does) The more we know the more we realize we don’t know. And then verse 3 tells us what the real essence of knowledge is.
And if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him.
The real test of knowledge is the love that it produces. The person who truly loves God does so because he possesses knowledge of God. This is stated in different ways in several other places.
For example, I Timothy1:5: Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith.
I Corinthians 13:13 – And now abide faith, hope and love, these three, but the greatest of these is love.
Galatians 5:22 – But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.
John 13:35 – By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
In each of these contexts, “love” is in the sense of “action” as defined in I John 4:10 – “God loved us and sent His son . . .”
Now the bottom line of all of this is this: The basic principle that determines Christian activities is not what the believer knows, but the amount of love for God and God’s children produced by that knowledge. And all of this reasoning sets the stage for Paul’s teaching – keep it on the back burner, because we’ll come back to it.
We are dealing with priorities here. The first priority in the study of scripture is the action or love that it produces. But verses 4 through 8 indicate that there was a problem of priorities in Corinth.
First we have some very basic information about the doctrine of idols in verses 4 through 6. The basic statement of the doctrine is in verse 4.
Therefore, concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and there is no other God but one.
Then, verses 5 and 6 give an elaboration on that statement.
For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many lords) (6) 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 we live.
There are many human authorities and the term “lord” can legitimately be used for them, but ultimately, all authority is from God – and there is only one God. Now although we do have this information about idols, verses 7 and 8 tell us that there is a lot of ignorance of the doctrine of idols. The basic statement about the doctrine of idols is in verse 8.
But food does not commend us to God. For neither if we eat it are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.
How could anything be more clear? There is no harm in eating meat offered to idols! However, verse 7a brings up a problem: there are some people who are ignorant of the doctrine of idols.
“However, there is not in everyone that knowledge. . .” And then the explanation of the statement is in verse 7b:
“. . . . .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.”
For some people to eat meat offered to idols brought back all of the memories of idolatry. And it would have been easy for those who had not been involved in idolatry to just say, “well, they shouldn’t let bother them.” – and they shouldn’t! But there is something else involved here: notice the little phrase “and their conscience being weak is defiled. . . . .”. Here is a little sideline insight into the sinfulness of sin: very often, to continue in a sin over a period of time ingrains a weakness that may last a lifetime (alcoholism, for example) Or at the very least creates problems for a new believer as he adjusts to the new standards and values of the Christian life.
Now because of that weak conscience, this believer may set much tighter restrictions on himself (and therefore on others) than more mature Christians do. So what are we to do in a case like that? – the next verses answer.
The implications of the doctrine of idols is in verse 9:
But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak.
Verse 8 tells us clearly that those who have the knowledge of idols are the stronger Christians. But verse 9 establishes that the strong have a responsibility to the weak. Romans 14:23 says that for anyone to violate his conscience is sin. (even a weak Christian.)
Is a neutral thing, such as meat, which has no effect on our relationship (verse 8) wprth causing brother to sin? So what is the responsibility to of the strong believer to the weak believer? Denounce them for their stupidity? Demand their own rights to eat meat? The answer is in the next point.
Verses 10 through 13 discuss the placement of priorities for fellowship. Here we come back to the things we discussed at the beginning of this study – which may have seemed irrelevant at the time.) And do you remember that basic “priority of doctrine” was? The guide to Christian reactions in fellowship with other believers is love, not knowledge. Specifically, although a mature believer may realize that there is nothing wrong with eating meat that has been offered to idols, his actions are not to be guided by that knowledge, but by love for the weaker brother – look at verse 10:
For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in the idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols?
You see, to insist on your liberties as a believer could cause a weaker brother to abuse his liberties. And the stronger (more knowledgeable) believer who misleads a weaker believer is guilty of sin, according to verse 12
But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ (!)
Incidentally, this is a reminder of the unity of the body – to sin against a believer is to sin against Christ.
In closing, we need to remember that this chapter applies only to “neutral” things. The scripture is very specific in prohibiting some things. But there are other things equally sincere Christians differ about. But in those “gray areas” there are several things to be considered: First, the emphasis should be on the love that Christians ought to have for one another – and that is very rare in our society of “rights.” Second, this practice applies to specific cases, not generalities or religious bigots. For example, you don’t need to refuse to play tennis on Sunday just because a weak Christian might pass by. But if you know that a new Christian has asked someone about whether playing tennis on Sunday is a sin, or some other specific problem that someone has, you should go to any lengths to keep from hurting him. Look at verse 13:
Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat again, lest I make my brother stumble. This doesn’t need to be a permanent abstention – just until the weaker brother grows enough to not be bothered. The basic, underlying principle behind this whole chapter is summarized in the last line of verse 11
And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?
If all of this seems too harsh and demanding, ask yourself the question, where would be if Christ had demanded His rights?
The purpose of these studies is to draw you closer to Jesus Christ. If you do not know him, it is my prayer that they will help you understand that Romans 3:23 says that you, like all of us, have sinned and come short of the glory of God. And Romans 6:23 says that the result of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ. And Acts 16:32 says “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. If I can be of help to you in understanding any of this information I can be reached at