7But 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. 8But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
9Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For 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? 11So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, 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.
“Who do you play for?” This was the frequent question for his players from 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks. As depicted in the movie Miracle, Brooks would ask his players this question and then, after they responded by telling him what college team they played for, he would order them to run some more grueling drills. This continued for weeks until one night after a game, Brooks was asking the question over and over of different players and then running his team for hours. Just when they appeared to be at their breaking point, he asked the question one more time. This time one of the players responded that he played for the United States of America. Brooks quickly said “that will be all gentlemen,” and walked away. He had wanted them to realize who they really played for and they had finally gotten the point.
This is the same sort of thing that Paul wants the Corinthians to see. They were under the mistaken impression that they were individual followers of Christ being powered along by knowledge and freedom. He wanted them to realize that they had died to their individual lives. They were now part of the Body of Christ. They had, at baptism, entered into the life of Christ and had, as Paul will state flat out in chapter 12, become the Messiah. Community life as the Messiah should be powered by love not self-seeking knowledge. Paul wants them to understand that they are Christ, the Messiah, and they need to start living and thinking that way rather than as individuals who have little to no responsibility to one another.
One aspect of this mindset that Paul is currently addressing is that some believed that they could eat meat wherever they wanted even if had been sacrificed to idols. They felt this way because they believed that they had gone deeper in their knowledge and now realized that pagan idols were nothing and had no power over those in Christ. Paul’s response is that “not everyone knows this.” For many, the power of the idols and the connection between the pagan gods and the meat was too strong. Their consciences were being violated by the suggestion of some that they should eat this meat. This may sound a bit silly to us but imagine a contemporary situation in which a group of mature Christians invited a young Christian, who had struggled with porn addiction, to go to the beach with them. The older Christians might feel that sexual temptation had no power over them, that they had moved past that and so they had every right to enjoy a day at the beach. For the younger Christian, though, this would be too much and could violate his conscience and lead him into sin. If he went, it would not only be a sin for him, it might lead him down the road of falling away. Even the knowledge that others were engaging in this sort of behavior might make him struggles beyond what he had the capability to understand.
Paul realizes that the conscience is a tricky and personal thing that takes a long time to re-educate. The task of the Christian is to train their conscience to think Christianly, but they cannot and should not violate that conscience where it is at. This is a journey, though, and that is why one Christian cannot force the convictions of their conscience on another. The overriding principle for them should be love. Simply put, love trumps knowledge or supposed freedom. Since there was no advantage to eating meat (v. 8) then love must take precedence in this situation For Paul, the problem was with those violating the consciences of the weaker members (note that the terms ‘weaker’ and ‘stronger’ here are likely words supplied by the Corinthians that Paul is using somewhat bitingly), which is demonstrated by the fact that although he points to the fact that those claiming knowledge are right in a sense, he addresses them and never addresses those whose consciences are sincerely pricked by the association with pagan gods. Paul will balance things in chapter 10 as he says that the strong should not hurt the weak but neither should the weak be quick to accuse the strong of sin. The weak should work to allow others freedom of conscience and demonstrate love just as much as the strong, but since it is more difficult for them, Paul primarily addresses those claiming to be strong.
Thus, Paul gives a fairly stern warning in verse 9, telling the Corinthians that they should never let their freedom cause others to stumble. Paul will again come back to this and explain it more fully in chapter 10, saying that the guideline to any perceived freedom is that it should be beneficial, it should build others up, and it should glorify God.
If Christians give no thought to their convictions and actions, even if they are seemingly correct, then others who do not understand their convictions may misunderstand and be led astray. They must be aware of this. Yet Paul is not encouraging hypocrisy or legalism, he wants them to realize that they live the life of Christ, which is a community, not their own lives. They must put the good of the Messiah (the body) before their own individual good or rights. When care is not taken and love is not shown, the knowledge that is so valued by the Corinthians as a Christian virtue actually destroys others. When they sin against others, Paul warns them, they sin against Christ. Again, what he means by that is that the community of Christ is synonymous with the Messiah because all believers gave up their own lives and entered into His.
It is interesting and should not escape our notice that, for Paul, the problem in scenarios like this is not so much what a person does but the heart and motivation behind doing it. If someone genuinely has moved past believing that there is a problem with eat meat sacrificed to idols then it is not a sin for them. If someone genuinely does have a problem with it, then it is not a sin to refrain from eating. The sin comes in if someone eats this type of meat with no regard for the consciences of their brothers and sisters around them. The real problem with that comes in if someone who thinks eating the meat is a sin sees another Christian eating and has their resistance to temptation lowered and decides to go ahead and eat despite what their conscience tells them. In this situation, they have sinned because they went against what their conscience was telling them. They engaged in behavior that they believed was a sin and so they sinned. The action itself was not the sin, it was the violation of their sincere beliefs. What we, in the twenty-first century must do, is determine how these principles apply to our own culture and our own situations that we will face.
Paul makes it clear that because they have the freedom of Christ they should never be a slave to anything, including their rights. If Paul’s freedom to eat sacrificed meat causes a sincere Christian to struggle then he says he will never eat meat again. This is the standard of love to which he is calling the Corinthian church as well as us today.
How have you done in this area? Are you thoughtful of the needs and feelings of others or have you been more concerned with your own rights and freedoms? Many, for instance, will use their freedom to miss church events without giving thought to the effect it may have on others in the body. Paul would say that this is stressing freedom over love. Is this an area in which you need to make some changes?