Called to Help the Weak
1 Corinthians 8:1–13
1 Corinthians 8:1–13
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Restate the reasons that Paul gives for eating or not eating meat sacrificed to idols.
2. Propose one modern parallel to the first-century issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols.
3. State how he or she has made a sacrifice of personal liberties for the sake of another, or state an area in which he or she will do so in the immediate future.
How to Say It
Monday, July 3—Called to Life and Light (John 1:1–5)
Tuesday, July 4—Do Not Tempt Others (Mark 9:42–48)
Wednesday, July 5—Love Your Neighbor As Yourself (Mark 12:28–34)
Thursday, July 6—Do Not Make Another Stumble (Romans 14:13–19)
Friday, July 7—We Have One God, One Lord (1 Corinthians 8:1–6)
Saturday, July 8—Do Not Create a Stumbling Block (1 Corinthians 8:7–13)
Sunday, July 9—Do All to God’s Glory (1 Corinthians 10:23–11:1)
Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
—1 Corinthians 8:8, 9
Why Teach This Lesson?
“The church must hold firm on traditional moral values.” “Legalism restricts the growth of the church.” Extremes of these two statements are found in some churches. Controversies still abound over the permissibility of alcohol, tobacco, dancing, gambling, or watching movies—not to mention body piercing! Some demand the church teach clearly what is right and wrong in these areas. Others desire more leeway, citing the value of freedom in Christ. This is most difficult when considering practices unknown in the ancient world and therefore not specifically addressed in the Bible.
The Corinthian church also suffered from the tension between legalism and liberty. Their question of eating meat that had been sacrificed at a pagan temple is unlikely to be a raging issue in your church. But the principles Paul uses to guide his instructions are still valid. The bottom line is that we are not free to make choices that might hurt another person’s faith. This lesson lays out foundational principles that will guide our decisions in this regard.
A. To Eat or Not to Eat?
Not long ago I was talking to a friend in my office, and we decided to go out for lunch together. On the way to the restaurant, he told me about a movie he had seen recently. While I did not say anything to him, I was somewhat surprised by his taste in films and by the frankness of his discussion. I had not seen the movie he mentioned. But I knew from the advertisements and his description that it included scenes that I would consider sexually inappropriate.
As he spoke, I reflected on my own standards for evaluating such issues. I avoid movies with explicit sex scenes but have no difficulty watching films with graphic violence or profanity, because such things do not tempt me. I also generally do not see R-rated films in movie theaters but occasionally watch them on video or cable television at home.
As I thought about my own inconsistencies and my friend’s taste in movies, we arrived at the restaurant. I was in the mood for Chinese food, but he hesitated. He explained that he had been involved deeply in Eastern religions before accepting Christ. The owner of this restaurant displayed statues of Asian gods in the front of the store. He even set out fruits as symbolic offerings to these deities for luck. My friend wondered if I would mind eating somewhere else. He suggested a place where he knew they had specials on draft beer at lunch.
Moral issues relating to drinking in moderation, smoking, dancing, movies, television programs, and styles of clothing are especially difficult simply because there is no precise, clear biblical teaching about the right thing to do in these specific areas. Each individual must therefore make a personal choice as to whether or not he or she may participate. A major “gray area” in Paul’s time was eating food that had been sacrificed to idols.
B. Lesson Background
As in Judaism, animal sacrifices were a key feature of most pagan religions in the ancient world. Worshipers typically would bring goats, bulls, doves, or other animals to the pagan priest. These animals would be killed and offered to the deity to appease his anger or in thanksgiving for some blessing.
In most cases, however, only a portion of the
animal actually was burned on the altar. For example, the Law of Moses
prescribed that priests could keep the hides from burnt offerings and a portion
of the ground meal from grain offerings (Leviticus 7:7–10). The pagan religions
had similar stipulations that allowed their “priests” to eat or sell the
leftover meat. In large cities such as
This created an awkward situation for some newer
Christians. Those who had come out of Judaism may view such meat as unholy
because of its association with pagan religions; for those Christians who once
had been pagans themselves, the food may bring back memories of the old way of
life. On the other hand older, more mature Christians who were no longer
committed to the Jewish kosher laws or who had not been involved in paganism
for many years may have no scruples at all about eating this meat. In fact they
might even bring a plate of such meat straight from the butcher shop at the
At least some of the Corinthians apparently were
uncertain of how to handle this issue. Perhaps they were aware of the letter of
I. Problem: Wrong Emphasis (1 Corinthians 8:1-3)
A. Love vs. Arrogance (v. 1)
1. Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
Paul begins by establishing some common ground: we know that we all possess knowledge. Who could disagree with that? Part of this knowledge for believers is that there is only one God; thus idols are nothing (more on this below).
The real issue is in the attitude that Christians adopt toward one another. Some could justify their decision to eat food sacrificed to idols through elaborate theological arguments. “Being right” can thus become more important than being sensitive to another person’s conscience. Knowledge, Paul says, tends to breed arrogance unless it is checked by a genuine love that seeks to build up and edify others.
B. Knowledge vs. Ignorance (v. 2)
2. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.
Obviously, Paul is not indifferent to sound doctrine. He does not mean that what one believes or thinks is of no importance. The issue here is not the content of someone’s knowledge (“what they know”). Rather, the issue is what Christians do with that knowledge.
Some may use their intellect to justify personal actions or to disregard others. A person who travels this path may indeed know a great deal of abstract theology while not understanding a basic teaching of the Christian faith: the need to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39; 1 Corinthians 10:24). Truly wise people exercise humility, aware of all the things that they don’t understand (compare Galatians 6:3).
C. Love and Knowledge of God (v. 3)
3. But the man who loves God is known by God.
We rightly emphasize knowing Bible facts, but knowing those facts should lead to a greater goal: to love God with every fiber of our being (Matthew 22:37). This is a proper response to God, who knows us and recognizes as his children (compare Galatians 4:7, 9). To love God is the most important commandment; the second most important commandment is love of neighbor (Matthew 22:38, 39). If the “knowledge” that the Corinthians have is not leading them in this path, then they need a change in course!
II. Groundwork: True God (1 Corinthians 8:4-6)
A. Many “Gods” and “Lords” (vv. 4, 5)
4, 5. 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”),
With the problem of “knowledge
over love” clearly identified, Paul proceeds to lay a groundwork for a
solution. He noted in verse 1 that there are certain things about which “we all
have knowledge.” One of those things is that idols do indeed exist as
physical objects. Every house and street in
Yet all worship of these amounts to nothing because these “gods” do not, in fact, have any existence beyond their representations in wood, stone, etc. (compare Isaiah 44:6–20). The basic fact that there is no God but one should be the starting point for any discussion about idolatry. Paul’s acknowledgment reflects the truth of Deuteronomy 4:35, 39; 6:4.
B. One God and Lord (v. 6)
6.… 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.
The one God truth of verse 4 now receives fuller expression. The verse before us is based on the formula, “one/all, we/him.” While people may make many idols, in truth there is only one God; he is the creator of all things in the universe. While people may serve many false deities, there is only one Lord, the Christ who sustains all things in the universe. Because this is the case, we know that we exist and receive salvation only in him and by him.
While verses 4–6 expose the lie of idolatry, they also underline the very point under debate in the Corinthian church. Some believers, whom we can call Group #1, can appeal to such knowledge to argue that there can’t be any harm in eating food from the altar of idols since pagan gods don’t exist in the first place. But others, whom we can call Group #2, can point to Deuteronomy 4:35, 39; 6:4 to argue that any participation in or financial support of paganism (through food that is bought with money) represents support of idolatry. Therefore it should be avoided at all costs. This group may consist of the Corinthian Jews who became Christians (Acts 18:4, 8). Our next verse may reveal a third group.
Visual for Lesson 6.
This image is a starting point for the question, “How can freedom get us into spiritual trouble?”
III. Solution: Tempered Freedom (1 Corinthians 8:7-13)
A. Weakness of Conscience (v. 7)
7. But 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.
We sketched two groups at
Some students think, however, that Paul is still speaking about Group #2. Under this theory this group remains very conscious of the fact that this food was once the property of an idol, despite their understanding of Deuteronomy 4:35, 39; 6:4. Their knowledge of the truth of those verses has not yet penetrated into their conscience. For some reason they still feel bad about eating this food, even though they know that other gods don’t really exist. If this theory is true, it means that their conscience is weak in the sense that their feelings of right and wrong have not yet come fully into line with their knowledge of God’s truth. Thus they feel guilty even about something that they are free to do.
Whichever group Paul is thinking about, we must remember that our conscience does not carry an authority comparable to God’s Word. Nevertheless, it is definitely not a good idea to get into the habit of doing things that we feel are wrong, even if we cannot explain logically what is wrong with them (see Romans 14:23). When a person feels bad about something that is not specifically forbidden in the Bible, his or her conscience is defiled in some way (Romans 14:14).
B. Matters of Opinion (v. 8)
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.
Paul places the question of eating food sacrificed to idols in the category of “matters of opinion.” What we eat or don’t eat doesn’t inherently affect our relationship to God. Jesus said that nothing that goes into our mouths can make us unclean, because purity is a matter of the heart (Mark 7:17–23).
Theoretically, then, the food makes no difference in and of itself. Some would see this as parallel to modern concerns about moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages, clothing styles, body piercing, etc. But it is important to stress both sides of Paul’s argument: such activities don’t necessarily hurt our faith, but they don’t necessarily help it either. We therefore decide whether or not to participate on the basis of other factors. Those other factors include the long-term effects on us or other people.
C. Exercise of Conscience (vv. 9-11)
9. Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
This verse is a major thesis statement in this letter. Because eating food that has been offered to idols is not specifically sinful, Christians have freedom to decide whether they will eat it or not. We do not, however, have freedom to do things that may cause other people to go off track in their faith. If eating food cannot make my faith stronger (v. 8) but may make someone else’s faith weaker, then it’s best to choose not to do it.
The opening words be careful show us the consideration that a mature Christian should show in this regard. Our carefulness does not mean, however, that we are enslaved to another person’s sensitivities. Later Paul will note that his own freedom should not be subject to the judgment of another person’s conscience (1 Corinthians 10:29, 30).
This would be especially true of matters of conscience that have no real biblical basis. At some point the weaker brother or sister must simply grow up in the faith, bringing his or her conscience into line with the facts of Christian freedom. In fact the veteran Christian’s example may save the rookie believer from legalism. The mature believer is not obligated to live by another person’s sensitivities and may do as he or she pleases as long as personal actions do not harm another (see also Romans 14:13, 15, 21; Galatians 5:13).
Freedom Isn’t Free
Those of us who grew up in Western democracies undoubtedly remember singing all those patriotic songs from childhood. Those songs often echoed a common theme: the value and cost of freedom. We know that free nations do not achieve their freedom easily. Wars were fought. Our spiritual, eternal freedom also came at a high cost: the death of the Son of God.
Most everyone also knows that the existence of democratic liberties does not mean we have absolute freedom to do just anything we wish. How many children cannot wait until that eighteenth birthday, graduation, or departure for college as they ponder the freedom they think they will have! Eventually, that young adult realizes that this freedom has continuing price tags attached. One of those tags is lawful behavior.
Spiritual liberty also has continuing price tags, as 1 Corinthians 8:9 demonstrates. Also vital is Galatians 5:13: “You … were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” Considering the price that Christ paid, is what he asks really so burdensome?
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?
Paul touches on the responsibility that the more mature believers have for setting a good example. While each person is responsible for his or her own actions, the newer Christian may not be in a position to make the best decision or to understand the implications of the decision.
Eating in an idol’s temple probably refers to a banquet at a pagan shrine. This is a typical practice of the time, similar to an American business meeting at a local civic club. The mature Christian may freely accept an invitation to such a feast and may even see it as an occasion to evangelize. But the potential gain of such a choice is offset by a greater loss if it leads a weaker, less astute person to conclude that the other Christian is endorsing idolatry.
11. So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.
Paul returns to the theme introduced at the beginning. The mature Christian knows that idols represent fictitious gods. But can that Christian really say that he or she understands what is most important when doing something that does not show love for a weak brother? If Christ was willing to die for this person’s salvation, is it too much of a sacrifice for you to choose not to eat a piece of meat to help that same person’s faith?
D. Restriction of Freedom (vv. 12, 13)
12. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.
This statement is the flip side of Matthew 25:40. There Jesus says that anything we do “for one of the least” of his followers is done for him. In a similar way, anything we do that hurts one of the brothers having a weak conscience is a sin against Christ. This error shows that we have violated Jesus’ new commandment: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). When spiritual pride clouds our thinking about what is ultimately right and wrong, then we prove that we “[do] not yet know as [we] ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:2, above).
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.
Paul’s conclusion is clear, both here and in Romans 14:21: If it’s a matter of choice, choose to do what will help the other person. This may mean that I will abstain from eating meat or watching certain movies for as long as necessary. But isn’t that a small price to pay to honor Christ?
Offended, Uncomfortable, or … ?
I do not care for tattoos. Yet my two adult daughters each have one. My son-in-law has more than one. Does that offend me? No. Do I have a weak conscience in this area that makes tattoos a stumbling block to me? No. They do not even make me as uncomfortable as they used to. A flower painted on a foot, a dolphin painted on the back, or a cross painted on the leg do not violate Leviticus 19:28. Those tattoos do nothing to undermine my faith in Christ or my love for my family members who choose to have them.
But you may be different. You may find tattoos, certain kinds of music, etc., to be offensive when I do not. But let’s keep our terminology straight: what is “offensive” is not necessarily a “stumbling block” that is traced to a weak conscience. And your discomfort may be the price you pay when someone else is being ministered to by music you don’t like.
There are doctrinal lines that should never be crossed. Then there are issues of preference that may be crossed freely as long as they don’t lead to sin. It is important to learn the difference. As we do, we also remember to practice the grace of humility and kindness. The gospel will move forward in unexpected ways when we do.
—A. E. A.
In applying this passage to our lives, it is important to stress the type of situation that Paul has in mind. He is not thinking of differences of opinion over comparatively minor issues between two mature Christians. Paul’s extreme statement “if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again” in verse 13 pertains to situations where a person’s conscience is jeopardized by our actions, leading him or her to question personal faith and possibly abandon it in confusion.
Every person is responsible for his or her own actions before God, and we are responsible only to God, not to the consciences of other people. At the same time, however, we must remember that love for others and considering the results of our behavior are our responsibilities (compare Luke 17:1). The key issue is not whether we are “right” in questions of Christian liberty; the key issue, rather, is the attitude we exhibit toward others who do not share our views.
Underwood, J., Nickelson, R. L., & Underwood, J. 2005. New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2005-2006 . Standard Publishing: Cincinnati