v.1 Remember, the phrase “Now about…” indicates that Paul is taking up another matter raised in the Corinthians’ letter to him. We saw the same phrase at 7:1. We’ll see it again. The section of the letter begun in this way at 8:1 continues to 11:1 with some digressions along the way.
v.4 The problem concerns meals eaten, probably usually at temples – temples were the fancier restaurants of the ancient world. Several of the temples excavated at Corinth have been found to have dining rooms where feasts were held to celebrate birthdays and the like. Almost certainly these meals were thought to be necessary by some of the upwardly mobile in the church as a means of networking, cultivating business contacts, and the like. It is very likely that more of those Christians who participated in these temple meals were the wealthier members of the church. The fact that the poor people in the Roman world couldn’t afford to eat much meat and didn’t, couldn’t afford such feasts and would not be invited to them, sharpened their resentment of those Christians who did attend and eat in the temples and deepened the sense of division between themselves and their well-to-do brethren. In 10:14-23 Paul will forbid a Christian’s participation in these pagan meals at temples where the food has been sacrificed to idols. He will say later that there is nothing wrong with eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols in a meal taken at home. Some, if not most of the meat offered for sale in the market would have been a temple sacrifice of some kind or another.
Now, Paul admits that idols are nothing; but, as he is going to assert in chapter 10, that does not mean that demonic powers are not behind pagan idolatry and using it to enslave human beings. [Witherington, 197-198]
v.7 A “weak” conscience means the exact opposite of what it means today. A person with a weak conscience had more moral scruples, not less; more than he should have. When a Christian is encouraged to do something – like eat meat sacrificed to idols at a party held in a temple – that he feels is wrong, his conscience is wounded and his moral sensitivity weakened.
v.9 The “stumbling block” is what causes someone to sin, to fall into moral error. A man’s conscience is breached, he gets used to doing what he felt was wrong, and now he is wide open to temptations of every kind.
Those of us who have been Christians for any length of time should have no trouble imagining what was happening in the Corinthian church. There were folk who were claiming rights based on the deeper understanding of spiritual things that they had. They had gnosis, which was probably an “in” word among these Corinthian Christians. And they were disinclined to put up with the scruples of those who didn’t appreciate their freedom in Christ to do certain things.
And, as is so often the case, other motivations were subtly mixed in beneath the surface. It was probably thought important by these nouveau riche Corinthian Christians to attend those banquets in the temple. Their clients or possible business partners were inviting them. They couldn’t afford to refuse. What is more, an invitation to many of these banquets may well have been something of a status symbol. So they resented even more the Christians in the church who were complaining about their participation.
And they were increasingly exasperated that they couldn’t make these simple-minded believers understand. Food is not an issue for a Christian. Eating meat doesn’t make you any more or less a follower of Christ. Idols are not real things, after all, and we Christians shouldn’t behave as if we believe they were! Others, however, couldn’t get past the associations that the temple inevitably had in their minds.
And, so, a situation was created that we know all too well from our own experience. The tension in the congregation hung like a thick blanket over the services of the church, bitter speech went on behind one another’s back, a party spirit formed, and so on. We think, in our own time, of issues like drinking wine or smoking that have so disturbed the peace of the church and the consciences of Christians, but we also have very similar problems over gnosis or higher knowledge. I know of some of our own churches that have been divided over a seminar that was taught in many congregations, purporting to discover the secret power of the Christian life in a certain doctrine or way of thinking about salvation, the result of which was that those who embraced the teaching came to feel that they had received a special illumination that others had not. They even came to use a special vocabulary, as apparently they had also in Corinth.
Alas, it was demonstrated in Corinth and has been many times since that Christian people can be mean, bitter, and unloving toward one another. And often this selfish disregard for others and their opinions stems from our sense that we know more than they do. And so, what is to be the purest brotherhood in the world, the Christian church, ends up a society of squabblers who are looking daggers at one another across the sanctuary. I am reminded of the French revolution, with all of its bloodshed and horrible violence, all in the name of brotherhood. Metternich, the Austrian diplomat, said afterwards: “Having seen what was done in the name of brotherhood, if I had a brother, I should call him cousin.” And so it can sometimes seem in the church of Jesus Christ, God forgive us.
Well Paul will have none of that. Knowledge is not the issue, he says, but love. You are so proud of your knowledge, but instead of building up your brother with your knowledge, you are tearing him down. Your knowledge has led to elitism, not brotherhood; to pride, not the humble, self-sacrificial service of your brothers that Christ exemplified and taught you. So, before Paul even takes up the ethical issues raised by this division in the church, he wants to get something clear: and that is that love builds up. Christians know that they are to love their brethren for Jesus said we must and he said it repeatedly and emphatically and even said that we are to love our brethren as he loved us.
But, says Paul, you cannot claim to be loving your brother if you are tearing him down, if you are weakening his resolve to live a godly life. No true knowledge would ever lead a Christian to make choices that are to the real detriment of his or her fellow Christians. The fact that the supposed gnosis or knowledge of some of these Corinthian believers was leading them to do that was the proof that they knew a lot less than they thought they did.
So, says Paul, the failure in Corinth was not a theological failure. It was not a failure properly to resolve and settle the ethical question of eating meat offered to idols at banquets held in the temple or in meals taken at home. Paul does not begin with that. In this chapter 8 he makes no effort whatsoever to change the minds of those who are thinking incorrectly about the ethics of eating with unbelievers in unbelieving settings. Paul begins at another place.
He is as much as saying this. “Look, this problem you are having about eating meat offered to idols and eating in temples – don’t fool yourselves brothers – that is not your real problem. If this disagreement were to disappear, another would rise to take its place. If it weren’t meals taken in temples it would be something else. For your problem is not first some particular theological or ethical disagreement, you problem is a severe and inexcusable lack of love and consideration for one another. The dispute you are having about who is free to do what is just a mask behind which you hide proud and selfish spirits. What you need, what the church needs, is less gnosis and more love.”
And what is that love? And how would it act when believers do not see eye to eye?
- Well, first, love would understand and it would sympathize.
It is an interesting and important fact that Paul actually agrees in some substantial measure with the bad guys in the Corinthian church. He admits that, as to some of the important principles involved, the proud and haughty were right and the tender in conscience were wrong. It was not wrong for a Christian to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Later, in chapter 10, he will say that it is entirely acceptable to have a meal at home and eat such meat, even to eat it with others. An idol is nothing. It is nothing but the pathetic creation of the unbelieving imagination – a god the unbeliever creates in his or her mind because he will not submit to the one living and true God and because she wants a god more like herself and cut down to size – a god she can control! It isn’t as if when meat is sacrificed to idols, there actually is some god receiving the sacrifice. What is more, meat is only food for the body and, as Jesus said, it is not what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out. It is by faith in the heart not by taking meat into the stomach that one draws near to God. Food, in and of itself, will neither bring you closer to God nor drive you further from him.
But, says Paul, everyone in the church is not yet fully aware of these things. That’s understandable, of course. These are new believers, still steeped in the culture of idolatry out of which they were drawn to Christ. These people find it very difficult to count an idol as nothing, having worshipped idols themselves all their lives. They find it difficult to count these pagan rituals as nothing, remembering as they do how powerfully they were swept up into them in the days of their unbelief. They find it understandably difficult to count the whole question as insignificant when, no doubt, they had many friends and perhaps loved ones also who were still utterly in the grip of this idolatry.
We might think today of a person whose family life was destroyed by an alcoholic father finding that fellow Christians drink wine and beer or a person who vowed never to have anything to do with divorce after seeing her parents divorce, learning that the church permits divorces, sometimes even encourages them. Surely, you can understand, says Paul, how difficult it will be for someone who has just stepped out of that world, just been liberated from its bondage, to do what seems to him or her to be going back into the world and participating in it!
The Lord Jesus sympathizes with your weaknesses; with your incredible slowness at getting things right; with your spiritual stupidity that requires him to teach you the same lesson over and over again; with your dullness of heart. Can’t you now have a similar sympathy with those who are slow to understand their new situation? That is Paul’s argument.
We may be spared today the vexing questions of eating in temples and consuming meat that has been offered to idols – though there are some very similar questions to be faced, I think. For example, one of the problems with those elaborate parties at the temple was that the entertainment was often risqué, especially after the drinking had started. But there is a great deal of risqué entertainment in our culture, it is added to many things that might otherwise be unobjectionable, and the extent to which Christians should participate in such things remains a vexing question. You cannot go to a professional football or basketball event nowadays, or even the Barnum and Bailey circus, without having to put up with the flaunting of sexually attractive women. But, if our problems are different than they were in Corinth in Paul’s day, there is surely no end of opportunity for us to be understanding of and sympathetic toward the situation of other Christians.
You know, if you are honest with yourself, how easily you become puffed up by what you imagine to be your knowledge and experience; how constantly you find yourselves thinking yourself superior to others, how irritated you become when they do not take your view of things. It is an amazement to me how, after all the Lord has borne with me, I can be so unwilling to bear anything in others. Though my own life is riddled with massive faults, I can still have such a keen eye for what I take to be the faults of others and regard them as so significant.
Next time you feel this spirit of superiority and pride rising in you toward someone else, ask yourself: what is the reason for it and can that reason possibly stand up to the obligations of Christian love and brotherhood.
Put yourself in their place, as Christ put himself in yours, Paul says, and ask yourself: how does love and goodwill understand their thinking, their opinions, their situation?
- In the second place, love would not only understand, it would take an interest.
That is a much different thing, a higher thing, than mere understanding of and appreciating the situation of fellow Christians. Love seeks to make their welfare your interest. Notice Paul’s emphasis in vv. 11-13. These brethren were doing harm to one another rather than good. They were tempting their weaker brethren to do what they still felt was sinful and, in that, were easing them into the habit of doing what they knew or felt to be wrong – a habit no Christian should ever form or help another to form. What is it, after all, that a Christian wants. What is it that you want? I hope it is a sanctified heart and a sanctified life. “Blessed are those,” Jesus said, “who hunger and thirst after righteousness.”
Well, if so, what an unhappy and what an evil thing for followers of Jesus Christ to contribute to, to encourage other believers’ sinning. How can we do that and still maintain that we wish for nothing so much as to be rid of our own sin?
How your brother and sister is growing in grace and the knowledge of Christ, how he is overcoming his temptations and fighting his good fight of faith ought to be a matter of the deepest interest to you. That was the Corinthians’ failure: to care for one another at the point of greatest concern – their walk with God, the purity and obedience of their lives.
That is what Christ is concerned about in you and in them. And so, when you show unconcern for your brother’s or sister’s holiness of life, you sin against Christ himself. That is the blunt language that Paul uses in v. 12. When you act against the best interests of your fellow Christian’s faith and life, you are undermining Christ’s own interest in their lives. You cannot love Christ if you despise – either by indifference to or active subversion of their growth in grace – those whom he loves. We recognize this immediately in other relationships. No husband who loves his wife will despise his in-laws, however difficult it may be for him to appreciate them. He loves his wife and so, for her sake, he must love and will love those she loves. Well, so with Christ and those he loves and those for whom he laid down his life.
That carries more weight with us doesn’t it. It is one thing to fail to love a brother or sister in Christ. It is another to be told that in that failure, we have failed to love our Savior as well. We didn’t intend that! The Corinthians didn’t imagine that they were doing that!
- But, then, there is a third thing. Not only does love understand and sympathize; not only does it take an immediate interest in the welfare of the brethren; it also makes sacrifices on behalf of that welfare.
It is not enough, says Paul, to understand why your brethren may think and behave as they do, in ways different than your own and according to principles you do not share; it is not even enough to take a spiritual interest in their lives and their godliness. Love, Christian love, requires that you take whatever steps, difficult as they may be and often will be, whatever steps are required to help them on to God.
And, so, Paul says in v. 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.” What is that but a small, but pure imitation of that love for us that sent Jesus Christ into the world and to the cross. Love is measured in the Bible, as it is measured in life, by the price that is paid by the lover. Our love for one another is measured in that same way. It is measured, is authenticated, is proved by what we are willing to sacrifice on its behalf. And we ought, for that reason, to stop pretending that we are loving others when we are doing nothing that costs us anything.
I love meat! I have trouble controlling my intake of meat even for my own health’s sake; I’ve never been partial to vegetables; and here is Paul telling me that he would become a vegetarian if it meant a brother would grow up in grace and in the knowledge of Christ. I have to search my heart and you must search yours. This is a passage of Scripture that is intended by the Holy Spirit to make us think long and hard about our lives. To examine ourselves. To hold up our thoughts, words, and deeds to the light of the truth. Must we not admit that we tend to offer hospitality to those we enjoy most being with. Is it not the case that the most needy among us are sometimes the least attended to because we think that they have less to give us and will be less a pleasure for us. Take your church Directory, as if it were a Bible, and meditate upon it. Ask yourself if your attitudes and actions in, among, and for this congregation, this church family, constitute such a love, such a self-sacrificing interest as Paul exemplifies in his thrilling promise in v. 13.
There is something, always something heroic in a true Christian life. There ought to be something heroic in yours and mine. The character of sacrifice ought to be writ large over your days and nights and mine as well. People ought to be forced from time to time to wonder why we do what we do, why we make the choices we make. We live in a different way; we treat others differently. And, they ought finally be driven to conclude that the love of Christ constrains us. These people treat other people so generously and are so willing to make sacrifices for them because they are animated and controlled by a great love. They believe that they have been loved greatly and so they love in return.
Do you know any French? Let me give you a phrase to remember for the rest of your life. Just three words: Brevêt de Potence. After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the Protestants in France suffered terrible persecution. It is why so many came to the new world, to the lasting diminishment of France. During those terrible years a young man named Antoine Court organized a clandestine synod consisting of seven ministers and two elders, the first of the famous “Synods of the Desert.” All those men would eventually pay with their lives for their loyalty to Jesus Christ. But before their deaths they established a seminary in Lausanne, Switzerland for the training of pastors for the French church. Year after year young men would graduate from that seminary, sneak back into France to minister the gospel to their persecuted churches and, personally, to face an almost certain death. With wry humor, their seminary diploma came to be know as the Brevêt de Potence, a certificate for the gallows. One after another took that certificate and went to the gallows for the love of Christ and his people.
Now, Paul is asking you: do you have such a certificate in your hands? Are you clutching a Brevêt de Potence in your hands? You are not likely to pay such an extreme price as those gallant Frenchmen, but we are all to pay a price. Love will require it of us all. Oh for the heroism, the sacrifice of Christian love in this place. Christian men and women giving up all manner of things for the sake of their brothers and sisters.
Look up to Jesus Christ on his throne. Look back to the cross and forward to heaven. Then look around at one another. And – then – listen with all your heart as your Lord and Savior tells you once more, “As I have loved you, so love one another.” And, then, don’t rest until you know, in your own case, in these days, what it will mean for you to love your brethren so as to build them up and in what form you should say what Paul said, “if what I eat causes my brother to sin, I will never eat meat again.”