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1 Corinthians 8-10 - Christian Freedom and Conscience

1 Corinthians 8-10: Christians Living in a Corinthian World


Today there are many experts telling us that we should reduce our meat consumption: for health reasons that we’re consuming too much cheap fatty meat; for ethical reasons due to the mass farming practices that may hurt the well-being of animals; for environmental reasons due to cattle’s CO2 and methane emissions which causes greater environmental damage than our cars!  The Christians meeting in the Church of Corinth 1950 years ago also were having to reassess their meat consumption – but for very different reasons.

Think back to the last time you walked down the meat aisle in your local supermarket.  As you walked past all the different sized packets of chicken, beef, lamb, and pork – I suspect the question didn’t enter your mind: I wonder if any of these have been dedicated to the worship of other gods?  And yet that was the spiritual issue that was causing division and confusion for the Corinthians.

There were many pagan temples in Corinth.  What would happen is that an worshipper of a particular deity, would bring their sacrifice to the temple to offer to the gods.  1/3 of the meat of the sacrifice would be burnt on the altar, 1/3 kept by the priests, and the remaining 1/3 would be eaten in the temple courts (the ancient equivalent of our restaurants) or sold in the local marketplace next-door to the temple (the ancient equivalent of our supermarkets).  This posed a big question for the Christians: could they go out to enjoy a meal on the town in the pagan temple courts?  Could they stay in to enjoy a meal in their homes with meat bought in the temple marketplace?  Was this wrong? 

Please when you read these chapters, don’t focus on the immediate issue of meat, and miss the bigger issue of Christians in their Culture.  What the Corinthians were really wrestling with is: How do we live as Christians in pagan Corinth, but not be ensnared by the sin of Corinth? Meat was just one of the presenting issues.

While much has changed between 1st century Corinth and 21st century Scotland, Christians are still often faced with the question: How do we live in the world, but not be of the world?

Some Christians try to ESCAPE culture and AVOID its contamination at all costs.

Other Christians have tried to be RELEVANT to culture and FIT IN to connect with people.  However, there are far too many sad stories of those who have fallen away from Christ and fallen in love with the world by being unwise in this way.

These three chapters of 1 Corinthians want to help us navigate these hazardous waters, where even Christians don’t see eye-to-eye on what they are free to do.

There will be many times before you decide what you do…places you go…things you wear…what you watch and listen to and read… that we will need to use this diagnostic tool that Paul gives the Corinthians:

(1) How will this affect other Christians? (ch.8)

(2) How will this affect non-Christians? (ch.9)

(3) How will this affect my spiritual health? (ch.10)

 (1) How will this affect other Christians? (ch.8)

There are two groups within the church debating whether Christians can eat food offered to idols.  The first group can be called the Stronger Brothers – Paul says they have the correct “knowledge” (v.1) or theology.  The Stronger Brothers know that idols are lifeless and meaningless things (v.4), so the meat offered to them is not affected.  Using this knowledge the Stronger Brothers insist that Christians are FREE to go out to eat in the pagan temples and buy the meat in the markets.

Now Paul agrees with the Stronger brothers theologically.  Paul says: “Food will not commend us to God.  We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” – what food you eat makes no difference to your relationship with God just as what colour of socks you’re wearing today doesn’t affect it.  Nonetheless, Paul criticises them.  They are only thinking about themselves and THEIR freedom, rather than being concerned about the effects of their actions on the second group v.9 “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak”.  They are behaving arrogantly and not lovingly…

The second group Paul calls the Weaker Brothers, those who used to be involved in idol worship and are still think that what they eat matters to God (v.7).  Paul is concerned that these younger Christians will be led back into sin.  In their conscience they think eating in the pagan temples is wrong, but if they see the mature Christians doing it and promoting it then they may be tempted to do what they think is wrong (v.10) – that draws them into sin!  Paul warns against “their conscience being defiled” (v.7) or “this weak person is destroyed” (v.11).  The Stronger must take care not to cause the Weak to “stumble”.  Rather than use their freedom to eat this meat, Paul tells the strong to give up their rights to love their weaker brothers: “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (v.13).

So a big question you must ask when you’re making decisions is: how will this affect my Christian brothers and sisters?  What kind of example am I setting for them?  Might this be encouraging a younger, more immature, more vulnerable Christian to expose themselves to some fire that will end up burning them?

Our decisions affect other Christians: so we must not be selfish in how we use our freedom in Christ.  Our brothers and sisters are those that Jesus has died for (v.11) and if we cause them to stumble then we “sin against Christ” (v.12).Paul challenges us to not just think about ourselves but others!

(2) How will this affect non-Christians? (ch.9)

Paul then uses himself as an example of someone who everyday chooses not to selfishly use his freedom in Christ to please himself, rather in love and care for reaching non-Christians he restrains his freedom.

In v.1-11 Paul points out that he is an apostle.  The other apostles plant churches and receive financial support from those churches – they get paid.  However, Paul does not ask the churches he has planted for money, instead he works for a living to support himself (v.6).  He points out he has the right for payment using natural examples of soldiers being paid, of farmers benefitting from their crops (v.7), and even pointing out that God has given the right to animals to eat as they work in the fields (v.9).  Even Jesus commanded: “those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (v.14).

Paul then explains his reasons for not using his rights: “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (v.12).  Paul wants to “present the gospel free of charge” (v.18).  The people of Corinth were used to wisdom teachers passing through regularly giving lectures and charging lots of money, then they would disappear off to make money somewhere else.  Paul does not want to be thought of in that way.  He doesn’t want to be seen as someone just out to make money out of people.  Rather he wants people to know that there is something different about his gospel message about Jesus.  He doesn’t want to put any obstacles in the way of people hearing the gospel and responding to Jesus!  So he has a job to support himself rather than be seen in the eyes of the non-Christians to be living off the Christians.

Paul goes even further than that in his concern for non-Christians.  He will go to any cost, any personal inconvenience and struggle in order to be more effective in reaching non-Christians with the gospel.  He says: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.  To the JEWS I became as a Jew, in order to WIN Jews.  To those under the LAW, I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might WIN those under the law.  To those OUTSIDE the law I became as one outside the law… that I might WIN those outside the law.  To the WEAK I became weak, that I might WIN the weak.  I have become ALL THINGS to ALL PEOPLE, that by ALL MEANS I might SAVE SOME.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with others in its blessings” (v.19-23).  He lives for others to benefit from the gospel, not living for himself.

To Paul the gospel is far more important than any of his rights.  He will adapt his lifestyle in order to remove barriers to people hearing the gospel as it is more important than anything.  One writer has said “Paul was a chameleon for Christ.  He would never compromise on issues of morality or truth…but if there were any cultural factors that got in the way, he was determined to be the one to adapt, rather than expecting non-Christians to do so” (Vaughan Roberts).  He won’t do anything that has a negative effect on Christians or non-Christians!  The question for us is do we live that way?

What kind of witness or testimony to Christ do our lives give to non-Christians?  When people look at our lives, do they see us living differently, or do they see us living like everyone else?  Do our lives deny or discredit the gospel?

This is the second question we must ask ourselves when making decisions. 


(3) How will this affect my spiritual health? (ch.10)

The last question to ask challenges the arrogance and naivety of the Corinthian Christians when it comes to the dangers of sin.  The Christians think that now they’re saved they are no longer in danger to the sins done in the pagan temples.  Some may even think that they are beyond any judgement or discipline from God.  Paul warns that this overlooks lessons from the history of God’s people about the danger of falling back into sin and incurring God’s judgement in this life.

The pagan temples were places where sexual immorality was a part of worship.  God’s people have made the mistake of getting involved in such worship back in the OT.  Paul reminds the Corinthians that Israel had a similar experience to the Christians.  Israel was rescued by God (v.1), Israel were baptised when God brought them through the Red Sea (v.2), Israel ate communion when God gave them bread and water to drink in the Wilderness (v.3-4).  In a sense they are just like the Christian church, however, that did not spare them from God’s discipline when they fell back into sin: “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased for they were overthrown in the wilderness.  Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did...We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and 23000 fell in a single day.  We must not put Christ to the test as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents” (v.5-9a).

He reminds them of all of this to warn them to learn from the past.  God’s people who have taken the dangers of the world too lightly in the past have fallen into sin and destruction.  We must beware the same doesn’t happen to us as we seek to engage and live in the world.  The greatest danger comes to the Stronger Brothers – those who think it’s ok to eat at the temples: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall…” (v.12).  They get too close, they don’t take enough care, they under-estimate the seductive nature of sin.  Sin is deceptive…the first person blinded and deceived by your sin is YOU!  Thus Paul tells them all to “flee from idolatry” (v.14) – because to share in the worship of demons by eating and drinking at pagan temples is incompatible with being a Christian worshipping Christ at the Lord’s Table (v.20-21).  Take very seriously the dangers of the world to your spiritual health and flee from those things that could be your destruction.  Paul finishes by quoting the words of the Corinthian Stronger Brothers, but correcting them:  They say: “ALL THINGS ARE LAWFUL”.  Paul agrees…but then adds “BUT NOT ALL THINGS ARE HELPFUL”…He repeats: “BUT NOT ALL THINGS BUILD UP” (are good for your spiritual health) (v.23).

While we might not see the harm in watching certain kinds of tv programmes or films – we have to ask whether it is actually causing us more harm than good.  It’s said that by the time a child reaches the age of 18 they’ve watched 200000 acts of violence and 16000 murders.  Does this mean we become desensitised to evil, and no longer are outraged at what God hates?  Maybe we don’t think there’s any harm in listening to certain songs, but sometimes the tunes and words get stuck in our heads and begin to influence us more than we think.  There’s an old song that says “be careful little eye what you see…be careful little ears what you hear…be careful little feet where you go…be careful little hands what you do”.  A modern Christian group of songwriters have updated these words in their song: “It’s a slow fade, when you give yourself away, it’s a slow fade, when black and white turn into grey – people never crumble in a day”.  We need to be careful, because we are like sponges – we absorb things easily from our surroundings – both bad and good!

So we must not be naïve; we need to take seriously the negative influence of our ungodly culture on our spiritual health.


Paul finishes telling us what should be our overriding objective as Christians in our culture: “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God” (v.31). 

We cannot escape the world, but God wants us to shine in the midst of the darkness and show others His truth, beauty, goodness and purity.

I hope and pray that will God use these chapters to help you live in a Corinthian-world as Christian-witnesses.

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