I Corinthians 8:1-13
“For Conscience’ Sake”
February 1, 2009 - Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Our pastor stopped the worship service and called the deacons forward. On a Sunday when I was in high school, the five men gathered around a simple little world missions display on our Communion table. At the center of it was a world globe. After several minutes of whispered talk and heads bowed in prayer, one of them picked up the globe, held it at arms length, and carried it gingerly down the aisle, out of the sanctuary.
As I learned later, that globe had signs of the zodiac printed around its base. Our pastor and deacons feared we had unwittingly brought a vehicle for the occult presence of demons right into our Sunday morning worship.
Since then, I’ve often chuckled at that memory. I’ve learned a lot. I don’t find any suggestion in Scripture that demons can attack us through such signs. I also know that the prophet Daniel studied astrology in Babylon and that the magi who came to worship baby Jesus were astrologers. And as Michael Ward taught us at our Narnia conference in November, I know that for hundreds of years many Christians believed, along with everyone else, that the planets and stars influenced the course of their lives.
So now I know all sorts of facts and theology which make it easy to laugh at those poor silly men in my tiny home church. Most of them had little beyond a high school education, and I’ve learned so much more. But, you know, I still get uncomfortable when someone asks me what my “sign” is. I always skip hurriedly over the horoscopes in the paper. I know it’s all bunk, that it can’t hurt me as a Christian, but somehow it still gives me the willies.
The Corinthians knew a lot too. They were proud of their knowledge. As Paul begins to address their question about food sacrificed to idols in verse 1, we hear him remarking on how much they think they know. As in our text from chapter 6 two weeks ago, he quotes their own slogan, “We all have knowledge.”
In other words, the Corinthians had written Paul an almost rhetorical question. They already thought they knew the answer. They were sophisticated Christians, full of knowledge about what is real in the spiritual world and what’s not. You can hear their point of view in verse 4. Idols are nothing. There’s only one God. So no worries. Offering meat to the idol of a Greek god won’t taint it or affect it any way. Those gods are nothing. We know that, and in that knowledge we can eat whatever we like, wherever it came from. They clearly expected Paul to confirm their point of view, to tell them to go on freely eating food that had been offered to idols.
Yet as I’ve had to painfully keep learning throughout my life, Christian life and growth is not just about knowing a lot. Paul’s answer to the Corinthian’s claim to know is the end of verse 1, “knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” As Paul goes on to show them and us, good Christian behavior is not just about what I know to be right, it’s about what shows love to others.
In Corinth, the pagan temples, especially the temple of Aphrodite, were social gathering places. Much of the best meat and other food was first offered to a god, then offered to the public. There were temple “restaurants” serving such food. People gathered there like they do in restaurants today, to celebrate special occasions with family and friends. And as we find in chapter 10, some idol meat was simply sold in the public market.
Corinthians who converted to Christianity would have been used to dining in those temple restaurants and buying that idol meat all the time. What they hoped Paul would confirm is that it was perfectly O.K. for them to keep on eating where and what they liked. And as Christians they had good theological knowledge about why it was O.K. Idols are nothing. Those gods don’t exist. They can’t possibly affect our food one way or another. We can eat idol food with a clean conscience.
In verses 5 and 6, Paul did agree with all they thought they knew. Yes, he says there are so-called gods, but we know there’s only one real God. Yes, there are even many “lords,” both supposed gods and men like Caesar who like to be called “lord.” But we have only one God, the Father who created all things, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom it was all created and through whom we all live. So, yes, he says to the Corinthians, what you think you know is absolutely true, and don’t ever forget it! But knowing it is not enough, because, as he says in verse 7, not everyone knows it, not even every Christian.
Paul is concerned that while good knowledge of Christian truth may allow you to do an act like eating idol food with a perfectly clear conscience, it’s not ultimately your own conscience that matters so much. What matters is the affect of your action on the hearts and minds and spiritual lives of your sisters and brothers in Christ.
So in verses 7 and 10, Paul asks the Corinthians to consider what it might mean for a less knowledgeable Christian, someone new to the faith, to see them eating in an idol’s temple. If someone has just left the old gods behind, and has been used to thinking of them as real and powerful, won’t your eating their food suggest those old beliefs still have some truth in them? Might those new and weak Christians not eat idol food themselves, but do it believing that a so-called god still has some power over them? In other words, says Paul in verse 11, might it not happen that your “weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge”? Your expression of a confident, free, knowledgeable faith could actually ruin the faith of someone else.
It’s dicey to try and find too many parallels between our current situation in the Church and the problem of idol food in Corinth. It’s especially important to see that not all cases of differing standards for Christian conduct are cases where someone is strong and someone is weak. This text is not about every situation where one Christian’s conduct offends another. It’s only about those times when a new or weak Christian might suffer damage to his or her faith.
This text does not give legalists an excuse to blackmail the rest of this with their lists of dos and don’ts. If a long-time, deeply committed Christian feels strongly that card-playing is somehow wrong for Christians, that’s just fine. But he must not claim to be a weaker brother and expect everyone else to quit their weekly pinochle games for his sake. No, he may be the one who needs to grow up and discover that Christian freedom is larger than he imagines.
On the other hand, there do seem to be times when we might act in perfectly good Christian conscience, yet do damage to someone else. Your freedom in the use of alcohol might be a serious spiritual threat to your sister in Christ who is an alcoholic. Your viewing of a R-rated movie might cause your brother who struggles with pornography to imagine his habit is acceptable to God. Your innocent participation in a yoga class might lead your new Christian friend to suppose that Christian faith can travel down a false spiritual path.
So knowing clearly for yourself what is right or wrong is only half the story. What we still need to know is something that keeps changing. How will what I do affect those around me? If we imagine that just knowing the rules is enough, we have a long way to go. As Paul says in verse 2, “Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.” Real knowledge begins when we start discovering what we do not know, especially about other people and our affect on them.
As I’ve said, this kind of learning and knowing has been long and hard for me. I think I’m saying something perfectly innocent and funny, but it hurts someone. I think I’m just doing what’s within my rights, but someone else is led astray. Paul says in verse 9, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”
As we come to Holy Communion today, this text reminds us that at this Table we are in communion not just with God, but with each other. For my life in Christ to be as it should be, it’s not enough just to know that I am right with the Lord. As Jesus Himself taught, I’m not really right with God until I’m seeking to be right with those around me.
Many years ago, not too long after phone service was de-regulated, we had trouble with our phone line. Lots of static and trouble hearing the person on the other end. When the service man came, he pinpointed the trouble at our second phone. My mother had given us a free phone she got when she opened a bank account. But it was cheaply made, and had a short inside it.
That cheap phone worked fine by itself. It would ring. You could use it to dial out. In all respects it operated perfectly…except for its effect on the rest of the system. It weakened the signal and caused static. There seemed to be nothing wrong with it, until you tried to use another phone connected to the same line.
You and I are connected to each other in Jesus Christ. That’s what Communion means. It may seem that you know the Jesus story. He died for your sins and rose again to raise you up. Yet you only really know His story when you learn how live it in company with others who know and love that story with you. That’s why verse 11 warns against doing what harms a sister or brother “for whom Christ died.” That’s why verse 12 says that, even if your conscience is clear, if you wound the conscience of a weak believer, “you sin against Christ.” And it’s why Paul goes to the ultimate extreme and says in verse 13, “if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again.”
All I know for sure about all this today is that I don’t really know it very well. I know I’m not very good at all in taking account of what my sisters and brothers in Christ need in order to grow and flourish. I’m not as far along as Paul, ready to drop all my rights and freedoms for your sake. I know I must still be doing things which tear some of you down. Whenever that happens, I ask your forgiveness.
My hope is that we can all come this morning admitting a mutual lack of knowledge. Not lacking knowledge of the Bible, of the faith, even of Christ, but humbly admitting that we do not know fully how to love each other, how to build each other up in Him. That we don’t even know each other well enough, don’t know each other’s consciences and hearts completely enough to always know when we’ve hurt each other. May God forgive that lack of knowledge and draw us together in a deeper knowing.
So let us admit how much we do not know. As we do there’s a great reassurance for us in verse 3. “Whoever loves God is known by God.” As important and wonderful as it is to know God, what really matters, if we love Him, is that God knows us. You and I will always be poor and weak and ignorant as we stand before our glorious King. There will forever be so much we do not know. But the joy in which we live together is that, as weak and foolish as we are, He cares enough to know us, to know you and me with a knowledge that is deep and tender and everlasting. Come today to His Table to meet and to be known by your Lord.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj