“…their conscience being weak…”
Paul now wishes to address yet another problem – that of eating meat previously offered to idols. Or, rather, the reactions of those who observed others eating the meat. His answer is useful in many ways and across several areas of concern.
Even Christians are not immune to judging wrongly, sometimes for what appear to be the right reasons. If anything, Christians can cover up their sometimes bitter and spiteful attitudes with a superficial ‘love’. They couch their responses in cleverly constructed language designed to cut to the bone without appearing to be nasty! Why? Because they know that Christians ought to act in love toward each other. Instead, they pretend to have a love for the brethren as they go in for the death-blow! It is so common as to be very sad.
I have come across many vicious people in our churches (are they Christians to begin with?). Their whole demeanour is one of eagle-eyed watching of everyone else, waiting for what seems to be a mistake or sin. Then, after carefully choosing which expert sharp word they want to aim at their victim, they approach with a smile and the immortal words “I don’t wish to raise this matter, but I do so in love…”
Then, in they go with a quick thrust to the heart and they have done their evil job. All in the name of ‘love’. And, of course, in the name of God, whose guardian angels they are, sent by Him (or so they like us to believe) to execute (literally) those who dare do things they would not themselves do, of course! But, it would all be in vain if they did not have a ready audience, who will let them get away with it. They go back to their cronies and expose their victim to further ridicule and scorn, and boast of how they had ‘rebuked’ them soundly. These are ‘God’s executioners’, who live off the misery of others, pretending to do the will of God.
Throughout the churches there are busy-bodies whose delight is to trip up unwary Christians they think have somehow offended God, when, all along it is they who feel offended for reasons not linked with scriptural truths! They set up their own rules of conduct and belief and if anyone dares not to obey those self-appointed values, they jump in feet first as God’s executioners, lusting to deliver the first major body-blow to the victim. I again ask – are these truly Christians, whose love for the brethren was legendary in the days of Paul? Maybe not. If all a ‘Christian’ can do is watch for others to fail and then cause them untold harm, we may rightly be cautious over their claims to be saved by God’s grace, or to be acting out of ‘love’.
In my ministry I sometimes have to rebuke publicly. This is only after others have tried to repair damage and the offending one has refused to repent and alter what have been publicly-known sins of a serious nature. Even then, I have no malice toward the brother or sister who offends, only a desire for two things – to express God’s judgment upon them and to urge them to repent.
Paul’s desire is firstly toward God, so he must judge and rebuke. Secondly, his desire is toward the Christian who has sinned and must repent. Thirdly, his desire is to see the sinner turn back to God, thereby returning to the fold of Jesus Christ and His many blessings. At no time does Paul ever rebuke for his own reasons, or viciously. None of us should rebuke from personal anger, because each of us is capable of the very worst sins imaginable (and unimaginable), if God is not with us.
In this text, however, none of this really applies, because the perceived sin is not sin at all. Paul rejects the claim that it is sin, but he proceeds to point out that some Christians are weak in their knowledge and understanding, so we should not offend them if there is really no need to. In matters of faith and doctrine, of course, we cannot waiver. But in matters that are not touched by scripture, we choose to act in a particular way so as not to offend someone with a weaker faith.
A Christian might ask “Why should my life be dictated to by a Christian who does not know enough, and who has no charge to lay against me?” Because God says so, through Paul’s words in this epistle! It does not mean we must capitulate every time a brother or sister in Christ thinks we have done wrong. It just means we must be careful of our actions and words if a less experienced Christian is around, if we know they might raise their eyebrows and feel betrayed by a Christian they think is mature.
It would be absurd to say we must always adjust our living to suit those who are younger or less mature in the faith, but Paul is referring to isolated incidents which, though not sin, might cause another to suffer a sudden lack of faith as a result of the incidents. In other words, just be careful. In reality, it means explaining our actions to less mature Christians, so that they can learn and understand.
But, if they cannot understand, it is far better to not do this or that until they reach a level equal to your own. In this way you will help the immature Christian by not placing unnecessary obstacles in his way. The things considered by immature Christians to be ‘obstacles’ can range from silly or plainly ridiculous to issues simply not thought through properly. Whatever the cause, there is no point in offending them if we can just alter what we do for a while. This should be an act of love for the brethren, not a tired act of privation that we resent.
“Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.
And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.
But if any man love God, the same is known of him.”
Paul’s attention is given to ‘things offered unto idols’ in this section of his letter. It seems someone in the fellowship was eating meats previously sacrificed and offered to idols. Others in the fellowship were deeply offended by this (though they all needed to repent of many sins themselves, as this letter suggests) and demanded to know how to deal with the matter. I think that perhaps Paul’s reply came as a surprise!
The word used is eidolothuton. It means the flesh left over from heathen sacrifices. It was either eaten at heathen feasts directly after it had been offered to idols, or the less well-off owner of the sacrifice later sold it in the open markets to try and recoup his outlay. We should be able to see from this that there can be two distinct scenarios – either the believer attended the feast and partook of the sacrifice and offering, or he bought the meat later and ate it without reference to the sacrifice or to the idol it had been originally bought for. Paul’s answer takes both possible scenarios into account, perhaps because the enquirer did not make the position plain.
He begins by defining something – the attitude of those who brought the charges. He said that we ‘all have knowledge’. That is, we all have our own share of intelligence and a fairly comprehensive knowledge (gnosis) of Christian matters. And some have a very detailed and deep knowledge, together with moral wisdom. This knowledge prompted the enquirer to contact Paul and ask him about the eating of meat that had been sacrificed to idols. He said that such knowledge is fine, so long as it is properly balanced by love for the brethren…”knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.” That is, knowledge can cause its owner to become proud and arrogant, very aware of his extra learning.
He does not mean that all knowledge ‘puffeth up’. Such would be nonsense, because without knowledge none of us could live, let alone operate as believers. Scripture is itself knowledge, information that is necessary for our minds and hearts. Paul is merely saying that the man who uses his knowledge against another as a weapon, or to prove his own superiority, is arrogant.
Our knowledge must be used wisely and properly, as an aid to understanding, not as a blunt instrument to batter others with! But, ‘charity’ says Paul, ‘edifieth’. Charity, agape, is that brotherly love or affection we should all have for each other, with all our various faults. It should show as a concern for each other’s well-being. It emanates as good-will toward each other, and is behind the ‘love feasts’ of the New Testament. From agapao, it further means to welcome and entertain the brethren, thus elevating the effective and necessary Christian gift of hosting.
It is this gift of love, agape, that ‘edifieth’, oikodomeo, builds up, restores, repairs, establishes and promotes true Christian growth in all aspects… wisdom, virtue, love, grace, holiness, and so on. This is a careful and deliberate action, as the root word, oikodome, indicates: to build, or the building itself. A building that is not carefully constructed will fall down. So it is with Christian character and system of beliefs.
Most Christians do not build their lives carefully so that each part is fitted together properly. Rather, they pick up bits and pieces of information from a wide variety of sources and simply tack it all together, whether or not they ‘fit’. Their lives become incoherent packages of superficial knowledge that have no obvious affinity with each other. Very often, this is based on the bad teaching of pastors and teachers who have never been called by God; and most are of this kind.
Paul is saying it is far better to show a loving concern and to offer careful teaching than to expect a mature and deep knowledge from immature Believers, and to ‘punish’ them for not having the knowledge that we have.
Anecdotally, it is part of my everyday job to teach student nurses and to link it with their university courses. I do not do this with arrogance, but show them by example what I mean. And I make time to teach them. This is done sensitively, bit by bit, so that each one is nurtured and made willing to learn even more. With each new piece of knowledge and well-completed task, they become more confident, and this enables them to go onward in trust, knowing that they can come to me with anything, and not feel foolish by asking questions. How different from the hospitals, they say, where no-one bothers with them and cannot be bothered to teach or allow practice!
Are we careful to teach immature Christians, so that they build up in confidence? Do we make time for them and show patience as they try to steer their way past traditions and false teaching? We should remember that to build up properly takes time and the will of the Father, through the actions of the Holy Spirit in the heart and mind. The sincere immature Christian will need to learn, ‘precept upon precept’… it does not come all at once and each new piece of information must be fitted together logically, with full reference to doctrine.
Inevitably, immature Christians will falter at times. This is not our opportunity to then batter them or to show our own perceived superiority. No, we must be patient and remember that we ourselves take a long time to take things in. I am not talking about knowledge alone, but about the process of inwardly digesting that knowledge and applying it to our own hearts, so that it becomes a very part of our everyday thinking. Knowledge that is not ingested in this way is useless, because it cannot be applied to life and beliefs. We cannot ‘love a person to knowledge’, but we can show love and patience and a desire to want their well-being and spiritual growth. If we do not show this, we will be acting unwisely and will turn them away from a thirst for truth.
Paul also reminds his readers that any knowledge they might have is not their own, but is given to them by God. His knowledge is given, ‘as he ought to know’. That is, the knowledge every Christian accrues is given by measure, by God Himself. To realize this is true wisdom. How many people do you know who, because they have superior intelligence, believe that their scriptural knowledge is superior? How many of them automatically wish to teach, but without wisdom? And how many Christians automatically defer to them because of their intelligence, and not a good spirit?
Intelligence does not necessarily give a person the right to teach. Nor does it mean he is better spiritually. Nor does it mean his knowledge is greater than that of a lowlier person. Nor does it mean he has been called by God to his task. This kind of man might have the same knowledge as that of a lowlier person, but if it is the product of self-learning alone, it is not of much use. Some of intelligence read for the sake of it, just to build up facts. But, the lowlier person might have to struggle night and day to gather the same knowledge, and it is given to him to learn it slowly, to mull it over and apply it to his heart. The knowledge of the former is by reading alone, but the knowledge of the latter is given by God for a purpose.
Which knowledge is best? And which is of greater use and value? It is the latter. To give an extreme example, the lowliest garbage collector may be called by God to pastor and teach others, whilst the highly intelligent professor, who has gained a huge store of knowledge by reading, may not be called at all to pastor and teach. He might think much of himself and his knowledge, but, Paul says, “if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing” (underlined by myself) except what God has given him anyway. God gave him an academic ability, but this does not mean he has been given the gift of teaching.
No man can boast of his achievements or his intelligence, because each man’s intelligence is fixed by God’s grace. How can a man boast of something he has not controlled or brought about himself. Superior academic accrual is the result of using a God-given talent or ability; such cannot be worked for or gained by toil alone! Without the original God-given ability no man can attain to academic heights. So, Paul says, if a Christian thinks he is superior, let him think again! If anything, such a man ought to be humble, that God has favoured him with such an ability, and this ought to give him a suitable attitude toward less enabled people, for he knows that whilst he has a superior intellect, others may have the calling of God.
The man who loves God – agapao – will be most pleased with his lot, for God has chosen it for him, with his best interests at heart. God knows him and so will have intimate friendship with him, leading to a true path in life and conduct that is becoming to a Christian who obeys. Such a man accepts his place in life and his gifts, and God loves him as a favoured creature, one who is saved.
“As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one.
For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,).
But to us (there is but) one God, the Father, of whom (are) all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom(are) all things, and we by him.”
After reminding the Corinthians of these salient facts, Paul then goes on to answer the questions put to him about eating meat that was offered to idols. Paul uses very clear logic. He says that an idol is false and has no power. Therefore, “it is nothing in the world”. By comparison, God is true, and there is only one God. An idol cannot have power or do anything, but God can, because He is real and true.
The ‘eating’, brosis, can mean simply the act of eating, or it can refer to corrosion, or to spiritual food that nourishes us. In this case the word is used to speak of the simple act of eating, with no added significance. The ‘offering’ means to take part in the sacrifice as an adherent of the idol, or ‘image of an heathen god’, or a ‘false god’. Such only has an image or external appearance, eidos, but no substance. In other words, it is not real and so has no power at all.
That is why Paul says an idol is ‘nothing in the world’. It has no meaning or significance in the cosmos, in what God has formed and created, because it is only invented in the minds of men and Satan. There is only one true God, though there are many so-called ‘gods’ (verse 5).
To us, Christians, there is only one God, the Father Who created everything, and only one Jesus Christ the Lord, by Whom all things exist and continue to exist, and through Whom we are saved. (This is why we should not show respect for other religions, whether Islam, Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, or Buddhism, etc. They are all false religions with false gods, or a ‘god’; they think is also our God. It does not matter, for they are all false, to be rejected. To show respect for false gods and religions is to oppose the true God).
“Howbeit (there is) not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat (it) as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.
But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.”
Though each Christian has knowledge given by God, not every Christian has the same knowledge, or the same depth of knowledge. We might know what Paul has just said, but not all understand it. Thus, they may do things that we would not. They are unaware (suneido) that it is wrong, so they do it in ignorance. They have no ‘conscience’ (suneidesis) of it, or, they have no consciousness of it, so cannot recognize either good or evil concerning it.
This ignorance can, then, lead some to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols during a heathen act of worship, unaware it is wrong. In the churches today there is an amazing range of things that new Christians do not know is wrong. It is up to mature Christians to gently explain to them, so that their hearts and minds are continually ‘updated’ with true information.
They are unaware because their “conscience being weak is defiled (polluted)”. Yes, by taking part in the ceremony they are sinful. Ignorance does not make a person less culpable, but it does leave room for mercy and restraint in discipline. Only if the new Christian continues in his error should we proceed to apply discipline.
Then Paul gets to the real crux of the matter: whether or not meat itself can defile us. No, he says, meat does not make us acceptable to God. We are neither better if we eat meat, nor are we made worse. So, eating the meat is nothing in itself. Meat does not commend, paristemi… bring us into fellowship with God, nor does it prevent us from meeting with God. Meat is, then, neutral.
We are talking about immature Christians who ignorantly eat meat at a heathen festival, not about those who continue to do so even after careful explanation. If we project that principle into our present day, we can think of Christians who deliberately continue meeting with charismatics or ecumenists (who advocate meeting with those of false religions on an equal basis), even after they have been made aware of the reasons why they should remain apart. They are then openly defying the Lord God and should be disciplined, or shunned, as the case requires.
The meat eaten by Christians is not a deciding factor. It does not make them better or worse than any other Christian. The same goes for many other things in life. At the time this is being written, it is so-called ‘Christmas time’. As Christians we should not look at this season as holy or of God, but we do have the freedom to look upon the period as just a time of rest and enjoyment. If we take part in the Romanist way, as a Catholic festival, then we are culpable. If we enjoy the time for its own sake, without any reference to, or acknowledgement of, the Catholic source of the period, we are not accountable and do not sin.
To my mind this can also apply to other aspects of this time, such as decorated trees, hanging decorations, and so on. If they are enjoyed simply as adornments, but not as adjuncts of Romanist or pagan belief, then there can be no judgment, for there is no acceptance of such beliefs or practices. Just as meat is neutral, so these external things have no power.
Each must act according to his or her own conscience for, as Paul says, the matters in themselves are neutral. What makes them sinful is our acceptance of any pagan beliefs they may be linked with. If we use them without reference to such paganism, then there can be no reproach, unless, as Paul says, this makes problems for new Christians.
“But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to them that are weak.
For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols;
And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?”
We have freedom in Christ. This means that our consciences are clear and we do not sin unless we take part in paganism itself. Even so, we should beware (blepo, take heed), that our actions, though without sin, should act like a stumblingblock to immature (astheneo) Christians. Weak Christians are defined as sickly, or impotent, or feeble. They have no spiritual strength and are infirm.
What this tells us is that Paul is not talking about ordinarily immature Christians who have yet a lot to learn, but about Christians who, for a variety of reasons, are feeble in their faith. This might even be due to their own sin, not just ignorance. Whatever the cause, they are feeble and sickly in their faith and we must not make their frailty worse by doing things they might think is wrong, or which may indeed be wrong.
Do not think that we must accommodate every feeble Christian in everything they wrongly think! Paul is saying that if something is particularly causing such Christians to think we are sinning, or if we really are sinning, then we must stop what we are doing until and if they learn better (we must stop sinning anyway). These incidents are bound to be very few in number and frequency, otherwise we would not be able to function in our spiritual lives for fear of always offending another Christian!
Even so, we must always be aware that some might take us the wrong way, for we must never be a stumblingblock, proskomma, something that causes someone else to sin. Please note, it refers to something that causes others to sin. In this particular instance, it means that if a person causes a weak Christian to attend a pagan festival and to eat meat offered to idols in his presence, by himself eating meat once offered to an idol bought at a market, then he must no longer buy similar meat again, until the weak Christian’s knowledge has been expanded.
Hopefully, you should note that this does not apply to just offending another Christian. Some will always be offended by what we do or say, because we do not do what they do or say! This, however, is not what Paul is here talking about and it is worth re-reading the above descriptions and exegesis again, to get it right.
Paul is being very specific about the ‘offence’; he says if a mature Christian sees us doing what is dubious or wrong, then what if a weak Christian sees us – surely he will think our actions are acceptable to God, and might copy them? Paul is, then, building up his argument. He is really talking about mature Christians doing wrong and thereby causing others to copy and fall. Again, I point to the way modern Christians join with charismatics and ecumenists. If we show lack of discernment and join with them, others whose faith is already weak, will do the same, thinking it is alright with God. That is why I have always warned Christians never to attend a charismatic meeting for any reason – it sends out the wrong message and could cause you to stumble yourself, as well as mislead weaker Christians.
Though you might not be affected by doing what others will copy and do sinfully, it will cause the sickly Christian to fall, possibly in a big way. You might not like what you see in that sickly fellow Christian; you might mutter at his failures; you might even think his sin is too great for forgiveness… but, he is still saved by grace, a child of God, equal to you in the matter of salvation and heaven (verse 11). You must help him toward a greater faith and expression of holiness in his life, not hinder him. Christ died for him as well as for you!
“But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.
Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.”
Paul puts it in a very firm way: by causing others to sin you commit sin yourself. This is because you ‘wound their weak conscience’. And cause them to ‘perish’. In this context ‘perish’ means to be ruined; it does not mean they will be unsaved.
To ‘wound’, tupto, their ‘weak conscience’, means to strike it hard with a fist, to hit them as an act of punishment, to make a person feel wounded without just cause. When we do that, we sin against Christ. How can we define all this? We can say that some Christians are spiritually sick. They sin and seem to be ‘in the doldrums’, unable to get back out from the pit they are sliding into. They continue to sin, yet continually – but maybe not always – try to give up their sin, repenting, but falling backward again.
This kind of Christian is not the same as those spoken of in earlier texts by Paul, who were either unsaved and sinning continually and therefore bound for hell, or saved and continually sinning, who must be cast out from fellowship, though they will still enter heaven. In this case, we see Christians who fail miserably at times, yet whose conscience troubles them enough for them to return to God time and again.
More stable Christians might retort that this is not good enough and that we ‘should’ punish such weak Christians. But, we are taught that we should forgive time and again, just as God does! We cannot alter the terms of reference given by God. We are to help weak Christians as often as is necessary, and must not sin ourselves allowing them to repeat what we do. If we do not, we will ‘smite’ them, wounding their souls, and we personally sin against Christ.
Because of all this, says Paul, if my innocent eating of meat offered to idols causes a weaker brother to sin, then I would prefer to be a vegetarian until I die. Do we have this kind of regard for our weaker brethren? Sadly, most of us would have to answer, ‘No’, as we continue to judge others wrongly and cause them to sin.
This text is usually misinterpreted, so it would be useful to re-read it and this article. Most of us, I think, need to consider its wider ramifications and applications in our lives.
© December 2002 (Revised September 2016)