The relation of lore to knowledge with respect to the question of eating idol offerings.
Lest this liberty of yours become a stumbling block; rather, this power or right of yours. To lead any one to do that which he thinks to be wrong is to place a stone of stumbling in his way, even if we do not think the act to be wrong. For we make men worse if by our example we teach them to act in contradiction of their conscience. "Let your motto be forbearance, not privilege, and your watchword charity, not knowledge. Never flaunt your knowledge, seldom use your privilege" (Evans).
Aspects of responsibility.
"As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols," etc. This paragraph suggests three general remarks.
I. THAT THE MORAL OBLIGATIONS OF ALL MEN ARE DETERMINED BY THEIR RELATION TO THE ONE GOD AND HIS SON . "As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one." There are many objects in the world that men call gods, and treat as gods, but they are really nothing, their existence imposes on them no moral obligation. There is One, however, and only One, from your relation to whom there grows up all moral obligations. "One God." Monotheism is demon strated by all nature, by all consciences, as well as by the Bible.
1. He is a Father. "The Father, of whom," etc. The Creator of the universe, but the Father of spirits; spirits are his offspring.
2. He is the Source of all things. "Of whom are all things." The mighty universe and all it contains are but streams from him, the Fountain of life.
3. He is our End. "We in him," or "unto him," more properly. The supreme End of our existence and Object of our love. In connection with him there is another, "one Lord Jesus Christ." This one Lord Jesus Christ was not only his creative Agent, "by whom are all things," but his redemptive Agent, the Mediator between God and men. And we by him," or "through him." As Christians, we are what we are through him. Now, the will of this one God, as coming through Christ to us, we are morally bound to fulfil. An obligation this which not only can never be abrogated, but never modified by any circumstances, age, or revolution.
II. THAT WHAT MIGHT BE WRONG FOR ONE MAN TO DO MIGHT NOT BE SO FOR ANOTHER . The apostle teaches that those in the Corinthian Church who had reached the conviction that an idol was nothing in the world, and that consequently there was no harm to them personally in eating of the sacrifices that were offered to idols, would commit no wrong in doing so. The meat itself had not been corrupted because it had been offered to idols, it was as good as any other meat, and as their consciences were not against it there would be no wrong in them participating in it as food. On the other hand, those who had a superstitious idea that they ought not to touch the meat they saw the priests feeding upon in heathen temples, would commit wrong in using it as food. "Meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse." The right or the wrong depended on each man's conscience. That which is against a man's conscience may not be against the eternal law of right, but is against his own sense of right, and therefore should be avoided; and that which is in accord with a man's conscience, though it may not be in accord with the principles of absolute rectitude, would not be wrong to him. Though sincerity is not a virtue, it is always relatively binding; insincerity is always an absolute sin. Thus what is relatively wrong to one man is not so to another. Here is the principle, "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin." "To him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin." Therefore, "let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind."
III. THAT TO OFFEND THE CONSCIENCE OF A GOOD MAN , HOWEVER WEAK , IS A WRONG IN ALL . "Take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to them that are weak." Respect for the weak consciences of good men:
1. May require self denial on our part. A truly enlightened and healthy minded Christian may feel at perfect liberty to do that from which a weak minded disciple would recoil with horror. The apostle, for example, might have felt at perfect liberty to sit down in heathen temples, and feast on meat that had been offered to idols, for his great soul had risen up out of the letter and form of religion, concerning meats, and drinks, and ceremonies, and statutory laws, and exulted in that "liberty wherewith Christ makes his people free." Therefore any restriction in such matters would involve more or less self denial, and this Paul willingly accepted, rather than "offend" a "weak brother." On this principle it becomes all to act. Men who have reached the higher stages of Christly life may feel at liberty to do many things; but if they are surrounded by good people whose consciences are in the strongest antagonism to all such things, it is their duty to deny themselves of such liberty.
2. Is urged on the strongest considerations.
(a) It may "become a stumbling block to them that are weak." This means, I presume, an occasion of sin. Their faith may be shaken, and they may become apostates; and, more,
(b) they may be "emboldened," encouraged to do the wrong. Without your moral strength, imitation of you will be pernicious.
(c) It may ruin them. "And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?" Christ died for all, tasted death for every man; yet his death, it seems, does not necessarily ensure the salvation of any. What a solemn thought, that the conduct even of an advanced Christian may lead to the spiritual ruin of others!
3. Is exemplified in the sublime resolve of the apostle. "If meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend." Here is benevolent expediency, the strongest ground on which the temperance reformation can be wisely and effectively advocated. In this sublime utterance you have the self sacrificing and magnanimous spirit of the gospel. Give up all rather than ruin souls. Such an utterance as this is characteristic of Paul. "But I could wish that I myself were accursed for my brethren's sake, my kinsmen according to the flesh."
CONCLUSION . Where, in the state or in the Church, can you find a man who approaches in spirit the sublime philanthropy of Paul? In the state we have men who call themselves reformers, who grow eloquent in proclaiming the rights of man and the glories of liberty; but can you find either in their speeches or deeds the matchless spirit of philanthropy, beaming and booming in these words of the apostle?—"Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth." Are not our reformers, alas! more or less traders and hirelings? Where even in our Churches do we find preachers aglow with this unconquerable love for man? And yet this is Christianity, this is what the world wants, what it must have ere it can be morally redeemed. "There never did," says Sir Walter Scott., "and never will, exist anything permanently noble and excellent in a character which was a stranger to the exercise of resolute self denial. Teach self denial, and make its practice pleasurable, and you create for the world a destiny more sublime than ever issued from the brain of the wildest dreamer."
Strength and weakness; knowledge and love.
The discussions contained in this chapter relate to "things offered unto idols." Bear in mind that idolatry was not then simply a religious system, but a system immensely extended and covering a corresponding surface of political, social, and business interests. At all points it touched individuals and families, and was connected with feasts, entertainments, and etiquette. "Most public entertainments and many private meals were more or less remotely the accompaniments of sacrifice" (Stanley). How far might knowledge assert itself and put on independency? What was the true use of expediency? And what the offices of conscience? And to what extent must the strong be tender and considerate towards the weak? Two parties existed on this subject in Corinth: the one that rested on Christian liberty, and, believing that "an idol is nothing in the world," demonstrated its adhesion to this belief by buying and eating meats sacrificed to idols, and even went to the excess of attending the feasts "in the idol's temple;" the other party looked upon such conduct with abhorrence. If, now, Christianity had been a mere scheme of human thought, an elaborate philosophy, a poetic inspiration, it is obvious that no such earnest dispute could have arisen. If, again, St. Paul had contemplated the subject on the ground only of abstract and theoretical principles, following out the logic that "an idol is nothing," and claiming the full freedom guaranteed by the assumption, a very different chapter from this would have been written. But see how he approaches the matter. His first step is to check the liberalists, and he does it efficaciously, for he convicts them of pride and recklessness on the side of intellect. Intellect he does not condemn, but its wrong use. His condemnation is founded on the fact that the intellect arrogantly claims to be the mind, to be the equivalent of the man himself, and, consequently, shuts off the recognition of anything except knowledge. St. Paul's position at the outset is, "Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth." It is vigorously stated and is accompanied by evident impulse. The "knowledge" referred to is knowledge isolated from its rightful and essential associations, the knowledge of a truth, and yet without its checks and balances—an engine lacking safety valve and governor. No matter how valuable the knowledge may be in itself; call it insight, call it what you please; if it abuse itself in its use, it loses its worth. Selfishness vitiates its excellence, and makes it doubly harmful, pernicious to the possessor, and obstructive of benefit to him on whom it acts objectively. Men are prone to exaggerate knowledge as knowledge. They say, "Knowledge is power." So it is, but whether the power be for good or evil depends on the man behind the knowledge. Think of the intimate connection between the intellect and the body, and how much more it is affected thereby than other portions of the mind; think how tangled it often is in the nerves, and imprisoned in the cells of the brain,—and can you wonder at the distrust that wise men have of its functions, unless controlled, and that sternly, by principle and sentiment? What subtle poisons creep into the blood and thence into thought! A slight imprudence in eating, a bad dream last night, a household worry or a business vexation, disturbed breathing or accelerated heart action, and the intellect is warped and enfeebled. Do what we may to curtail the evils, infirmities cling to all its activities. Yet much may be done, and it is done in no other way than that suggested by the apostle. "Charity [love] edifieth [buildeth up]." By this he means that the heart must he under the influence of grace, and thus inspire the intellect so that it may be delivered from its selfishness and especially its self conceit. And so fully has Christianity indoctrinated all our best thinkers with this idea, that they have come to believe that wisdom is the conjoint product of right thought and true feeling. "If any man love God, the same is known of him," and the knowledge here predicated of God has a reflex agency on the man's knowledge. Instead of being "puffed up," instead of an inmoderate and unjustifiable use of his Christian freedom, instead of a vaunting display of his superiority to prejudice and ignorance, he is regardful of the scruples of others, and, while aware of the difference between them and himself, turns the difference to the account of humility and forbearance. The idol is nothing, hut its nothingness is no reason for insensibility to the claims of weak brethren on his manly sympathies. For the great doctrine of "one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him," is so profoundly realized, that human brotherhood is its complement in his character and conduct. "One Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him," the Mediator of the natural universe, in whose sovereignty all laws and institutions and objects have their reason and end; the Mediator of the Spiritual universe, who has consummated the manifestation of humanity in the person and work of the Holy Ghost;—this Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ of God and Lord over all, has so embodied the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of humanity in his own incarnation and office, that henceforth the grandeur of the one is the strength and joy and glory of the other. St. Paul loses no opportunity to enforce this supreme truth. Does he argue in behalf of Christian liberty? Here is his basis. Does he plead for expediency? Here is his warrant. Does he harmonize them as coexisting and cooperating sentiments? They are mutually supporting because their possessor has the knowledge which comes from God in Christ. From this sublime height he is never long absent. Thitherward is he always tending, nor will he decide any question, whatever its bearings, with a judgment detached from the great truth Christ taught: "I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one." All, however, have not this knowledge. The insight of some is partial and confused, "whose Christian faith is not yet so emancipated from the religious convictions of their old heathen state, and who are still in the bonds of their former conscience, moulded by heathen ideas" (Dr. Kling). Having this "conscience of the idol," looking upon the idol as a reality, and forbidden by his conscience to eat the flesh offered to an idol, the "weak brother" is offended. The meat itself is a matter of indifference, nor are you the "better" or the "worse" for the mere act of eating. A grave question, however, lies at the back of the action. It concerns "this liberty of yours," and the spirit actuating your mind in doing this thing. "Take heed;" this liberty may degenerate into a haughty self valuation, may become a "stumbling block," and may induce the "weak brother" to imitate your example, and thus sacrifice his conscience under your influence. Though the conscience be weak, it is conscience; it is his; its authority over him is sacred; obey it he must. Worse than all, your conduct, taking effect upon him, may imperil the salvation of a man, "for whom Christ died." Enlighten his conscience all you can; hell) to make it truthful as well as sincere; hut, meantime, " take heed" lest sympathy and conventionality embolden him to err. "Weak" now, you will only weaken him the mere if your liberty mislead him. The only element in him out of which strength can grow is the conscience. Use your freedom so as to liberate, not to enslave, this highest authority in our nature. Use your knowledge to illuminate, not to darken, this divinest of all the organs personal to the soul, through which truth reaches the man. Use your Church relation to build up and not pull down your brother, that you may be a coworker with God and with his conscience in making him a "temple of the Holy Ghost." Then comes the utterance of great heartedness—the declaration that he will eat no such meat forever if it make his brother to offend. This was no sudden effervescence of sentimentality. It was genuine sentiment. It was organic to the man's nature. Impulse was strong because conscience was stronger. The current of feeling was no cataract leaping from a rocky bed into rocky depths, and dashing itself into foam, but a mighty river that could not become too full for its banks.—L.
No doubt Paul was regarded as the great champion of liberty. The apostles at Jerusalem were more under the influence of the old Judaism; Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, gained a larger spirit of tolerance through his association with men of various races and habits. The Spirit of God set him free from restraints by which many good men were fettered. To him the party of knowledge, of emancipation, of liberalism, would naturally look for countenance and encouragement, when scruples about trifling matters of outward observance perplexed the conscience and threatened to divide the Church. And, so far as his views of religion were concerned, Paul was with this party; yet, as this passage reminds us, in his view, religion had one side turned towards God, and another side turned towards men, and he would not have this second side overlooked.
I. THE INDIFFERENCE , AS A MATTER OF PRINCIPLE , OF OUTWARD OBSERVANCES .
1. The general doctrine. It is not what we eat or abstain from eating that God regards, that God will judge us by. The reasons for this doctrine are obvious.
2. The special application of the doctrine. The query propounded by the Corinthians is fairly answered. It is as though Paul had said, "So far as God is concerned it makes no difference at all whether you belong to the scrupulous party, and refrain from eating meat which may possibly have been offered in idol sacrifice and worship, or to the liberal party, and, despising such distinctions, eat whatever is purchased in the market or placed upon the table. These habits of yours cannot make you either better or worse, cannot commend you to God or involve you in his displeasure; he looks at something very different from such things." So with parallel cases; matters may have importance as regards the Church, as regards human society, which are utterly unimportant as regards our relation to God.
II. THE DANGER OF CARRYING CHRISTIAN LIBERTY SO FAR AS TO INJURE OUR FELLOW MEN . A Christian in these early days might be himself quite superior to the small scruples by which his neighbours were influenced. But, at the same time, he might be justly called upon to consider his weak brethren, and not to put an occasion of offence in the path of any. The best things may be abused, and it is often so with liberty. Paul cared not a whit for idol feasts and sacrifices, and, had he considered only himself, he would have eaten meat that had been presented in an idol temple; but he cared for his brethren, and he cared for them all the more if their knowledge was slight, their faith feeble, their apprehensions of spiritual realities obscure. He would not break the bruised reed; he would rather abstain than injure a brother's conscience. It was a grand view of Christian duty this which Paul took; a noble resolution this which Paul formed. A lesson to the whole Church of God in all the various phases of experience and trial through which it is called to pass. Let Christians think first, indeed, of their own position in the sight of the heart searching God. But let them not omit to think of their relation to their brethren in Christ, and let them so act that none may be troubled in conscience or caused to fall by reason of any want of consideration and sympathy, by reason of any disposition to push liberty to too great an extreme. God is our Lord; yet his people, however feeble, are our brethren. Their interests are dear to our hearts, and our intercourse with them is to be guided not only by wisdom but by charity.—T.
The two guides—knowledge and love.
I. THEY ARE BOTH EXCELLENT . This requires no proof. The apostle who sat at the feet of Gamaliel, would have been the last to speak slightingly of real knowledge. We are made capable of an ever increasing knowledge. How much knowledge has been the means of accomplishing in this world I Ignorance is but a "fool's paradise;" "Knowledge is power." And how excellent is love. How dull and sad this world would be without it! How much more prolific in crime and evil even than it now is! One's only regret about love is that there is so little of it. It is the world's great want. Herein heaven and earth contrast, seeing that there is much love there and little here. The triumphs of knowledge are great, but greater are the victories of love.
II. THEY ARE COMPLEMENTARY . One is not without the other.
1. Knowledge without love leads to
Knowledge is not enough for a people. We may have abundance of knowledge, and yet be very unwise, very injurious, and very unlovable.
2. Love without knowledge leads to moral catastrophe. It is impossible to predict what conduct may result from mere affection. Knowledge is necessary to determine within what limits we may rightly act. Knowledge can decide for us what is "lawful." Love determines what, within the circle of the lawful, we should choose. Knowledge and love united lead to that more perfect, that penetrating, that true practical knowledge, the opposite of which Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 8:2 . True love controlling sound knowledge leads to a deeper insight— in other words, to a truer knowledge. For example, a man may know God as God; may have some conception of the Divine attributes, etc. But when he loves God his knowledge makes incalculable strides; he now knows God so much more fully and truly that his former knowledge hi little better really, and no better practically, than crass ignorance. Knowledge "puffeth up;" by itself it is sometimes worse than ignorance. Love, not acting without knowledge, but on the lines of knowledge, "buildeth up."
III. A SPECIAL CASE IN ILLUSTRATION . The Corinthians had written to the apostle respecting their liberty to eat meats which had been offered to idols. The portion of victims not consumed upon the idol altars belonged partly to the priests and partly to the offerers. Much of this meat found its way to the public markets, or was consumed in private houses, at social gatherings, or at feasts in the temples. Christians would be often tempted to partake of these idol meats.
1. The apostle shows that knowledge alone would be a very unsafe guide in such a matter. An enlightened mind would perceive that meats were in themselves the same, whether offered or not offered to idols; and knowing also that "meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse;" would consider the matter as purely indifferent, and to be determined solely by inclination. But here mere knowledge would lead to error. Love, which concerns itself about others, steps in and says, "Take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to them that are weak." All do not realize the nothingness of the idol, or the fact that idol meats are unchanged by idol contact. Their immature and weak condition leads them to conclude that the idol is something, and to them the eating of idol meats is an act which identifies them with idol worship. Thus the partaking by the more enlightened may prove both a scandal and a temptation to the unenlightened. Knowledge says, "Do all that you have a right to do;" Love says, "Consider others, especially the weak." Knowledge alone leads to contempt of the weak and ignorant, and to indifference as to how they are affected: but Love champions the cause of those who specially need consideration and help. Knowledge does not take into account the weak brother, but Love yearns over his welfare, and forgets not that Christ died for him. Love kindled at the cross flames forth in Christ like self sacrifice. Love, directing its glance around, sees that the highest interests of those for whom Christ died may be imperilled if the claims of liberty be too rigidly enforced; and so she leads men to the choice of that "better part," self sacrifice for the welfare of others. This is the "shining way" once trodden by the feet of the Son of God. This is the path of the truest knowledge; for here we learn not only what we may do, but what in the highest sense we ought to do.
2. The apostle has here no occasion to show that love without knowledge would prove a faulty guide. But it evidently might. Love might lead the weak and ignorant to eat the idol meats, so as to please those more enlightened, and so as not to be a check upon their desires. We need, for safe guidance, the twin guides, knowledge and love.—H.
On the eating of sacrifices offered to idols: liberty and expediency.
Another of those questions which troubled the Christian community at Corinth comes up here for consideration. To understand the difficulties connected with it we must bear in mind that the religious worship of the pagans entered largely into their social life. The victims offered in sacrifice to the gods were not entirely consumed on the altar. A portion went to the priests, and the remainder was either given to the poor or sent to the public market. Thus not only the feasts in the temples, but also private meals, were brought into close connection with idolatrous worship; and the Christians could never be sure that the meat they purchased had not formed part of a sacrifice. It is easy to see how this interweaving of religious with social life would occasion complications and perplexities as to practical duty. To the Jewish converts the eating of things sacrificed to idols would be an abomination. Among the Gentile converts two classes may be discerned.
1. There were those who had been completely emancipated from their old ideas regarding the heathen divinities. To their view these divinities were mere creatures of the imagination, having no real existence; and accordingly they felt themselves quite free to partake of the sacrificial flesh when set before them.
2. There were those who could not get rid of the idea that an idol was a reality, and that consequently everything connected with the system they had abandoned was polluted. Thus the question became an important one, and the decision of it had an interest, not only for the Church at Corinth, but also for other Churches where the same difficulties had arisen (comp. Romans 14:1-23 ). But it may be asked—Had this matter not been already settled by the council at Jerusalem ( Acts 15:1-41 .)? The apostle himself was present on that occasion, and we naturally ask why he does not simply refer to the Jerusalem decree, instead of proceeding to give a judgment of his own in some respects opposed to it. The answer is to be found in a right view of the grounds on which that decree proceeded, which were grounds of expediency. The Gentile converts were enjoined to abstain from things sacrificed to idols, out of regard to the feelings of the Jewish converts among whom they were located. But this reason did not hold good in a Gentile community like Corinth; and consequently the whole subject had to be considered on its merits and in view of the altered circumstances. The question in itself is no longer a living question for the Church, but there emerge in connection with it great abiding principles which never lose their value.
I. KNOWLEDGE AND LOVE . The apostle prefaces his treatment of the question "concerning things sacrificed to idols," by a statement regarding the relative value of knowledge and love.
1. Knowledge by itself puffeth up. Knowledge without love inflates the mind with conceit. Take the knowledge of God. You may read what is written on the pages of nature and of Holy Scripture, so as to know a good deal about him; but if there be no outgoing of heart towards him, you do not really know him. What you have learned of God will lead to a false exaltation, inasmuch as you rest in it as sufficient instead of advancing to a personal acquaintance with him. Or take the case in hand. The knowledge of the nullity of idols led many of the Corinthians to think themselves superior to their brethren, who could not shake themselves clear of the notion that an idol had a real existence. They were filled with conceit, which, being untempered by love to others, led them to please only themselves.
2. Love leads to true knowledge and true edification. The way to knowledge is through love. This is true of the knowledge of God. "If any man loveth God, the same is known of him" ( 1 Corinthians 8:3 ). "Every one that loveth is begotten of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love" ( 1 John 4:7 , 1 John 4:8 ). Love gives itself away to the object beloved, opens out the nature to receive impressions, and puts all it has at the service of the loved one. Love to God brings us near to him, and gives us experience of his gracious dealing, while he in turn opens himself to us. It is only where mutual love exists that there is a mutual revelation of heart to heart; and this holds good, with necessary limitations, of our relation to God. We know him only in proportion as we love him, and even his knowledge of us turns upon love. "The Lord knoweth them that are his" ( 2 Timothy 2:19 ), in a way that be knows no others. Our knowledge of God is more correctly his knowledge of us; for all we can know of him here is but the alphabet of that more perfect knowledge which comes with perfect love. Now, the knowledge that comes through love is not an empty thing, puffing up the soul as a bubble, but a solid thing, imparting strength and stability. It builds up the spiritual temple within with the stones of truth. The lesson is—You can know God only by loving him, and the measure of your love will be the measure of your knowledge.
3. Conceit of one's knowledge is a sure evidence of ignorance. The man who is proud of what he knows has no adequate view of the greatness of the object. The more we really know the more humble do we become. This is true of secular knowledge, but especially of Divine knowledge. The glimpses we get of God lay us in the dust. He who is puffed up because he has gathered a few pebbles on the shore has never looked out on the great ocean of truth.
II. THE LIBERTY THAT COMES THROUGH KNOWLEDGE . ( 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 .) Returning now to the question in hand, the apostle shows how the faith of the enlightened Christian suggests a ready answer.
1. The idols which the heathen, worship are mere nonentities. Their so called gods, with which they have filled the heaven and the earth, have no real existence. There is no Jupiter, no Mars, no Venus. They are simply creatures of the imagination, having nothing corresponding to them in the universe. This view of the pagan divinities finds frequent expression in the prophets, who ridicule them as mere vanities (comp. Isaiah 44:9 ; Jeremiah 10:3 ; Psalms 115:4 ). How melancholy a picture does this present of the condition of those who know not the true God! Men must worship, and so strong is this impulse that they first create the objects of worship and then bow down before them. It is the blind groping of the human mind after the Most High—a creature, with dreamy recollections of a lost glory, stretching out suppliant hands towards a silent heaven.
2. There is but one living and true God. This is the Christian's simple creed.
3. From this the inference is plain that eating or not eating of things offered to idols is a matter of indifference. If an idol has no real existence, it cannot defile that which is presented to the image in the temple. The flesh which formed part of a sacrifice is neither better nor worse on this account, and may be used without scruple. Thus the enlightened Christian is freed from the entanglement of such petty questions, which belong to the bondage of legalism rather than the liberty that is in Christ. How important is a full acquaintance with Divine truth! How good it is to be free from prejudice, and to receive the whole truth as to our standing in Jesus Christ! But such knowledge is dangerous if it stands alone.
III. LIMITATIONS TO LIBERTY ARISING FROM CHRISTIAN LOVE . ( 1 Corinthians 8:7-13 .) An enlightened view of the nature of heathen divinities delivers the Christian from questions as to the lawfulness of eating what had first done duty as a sacrifice; but all Christians are not thus enlightened. There were at Corinth believers, converts from heathenism, who could not get rid of the idea that the idols they had formerly worshipped had a real existence, and who consequently regarded the flesh used in sacrifice as polluted. A due regard to the case of these weaker brethren will modify the use of their Christian liberty by the stronger.
1. Consider their case. Their conscience was weak, inasmuch as it could net rise to the conviction that an idol is nothing, and was therefore troubled with scruples as to the lawfulness of partaking of a thing sacrificed to an idol. Hence such persons could not eat without defiling their conscience, i.e. without the feeling that they had done wrong. This carries with it principles that have an important bearing upon Christian ethics. It is wrong for a man to do what his conscience tells him is wrong, or what it does not clearly approve. The thing in itself may be good, but if you are in doubt about it you are thereby debarred from doing it. The dictates of conscience are always imperative, but with this there goes the duty of seeing that conscience is instructed. Comp. Romans 14:23 , where Paul is treating of the same subject: " He that doubteth is condemned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith; and whatsoever is not of faith is sin." Apply this to some forms of amusement, doubtful practices in trade, extravagant living, etc. It is not enough to plead the example of others, if you are in doubt regarding their rightness. "Let each man be fully assured in his own mind." Do not disregard the faithful voice within your bosom, even when it speaks in whispers.
2. The eating of such things has no religious significance. Neither the use nor the abstinence from use commends us to God or affects our standing before him. To abstain from eating for the sake of weak brethren is not to surrender any spiritual benefit. It is a matter of indifference. "The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking" ( Romans 14:17 ). Observe the class of matters to which alone the apostle's reasoning is meant to apply. They must be such as involve no religious principle—cases where accommodation to the weakness of others does not imply the sacrifice of truth or duty. In such cases we are free to consider the condition of our brethren, and to regulate our conduct by a regard to them.
3. The strong must not use their liberty so as to put a stumbling block in the path of the weak. If a weak brother, who had doubts about the eating of sacrificial flesh, should by the example of another be emboldened to eat also, in that case he would sin and his conscience be defiled. The more enlightened Christian would thus be the occasion of stumbling to his brother, bringing him into danger of perishing altogether, and would thereby sin against Christ who died for him. Rather than do anything that might lead to this result, the apostle declares, "If meat maketh my brother to stumble," etc. This is the principle of Christian expediency, of which Paul is the great exponent, and which enters so largely into the believer's practical life. It has its root in love, which leads us to "bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ" ( Galatians 6:2 ). It is an outcome of that spirit of self denial which dwelt in him. "Now we that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each one of us please his neighbour for that which, is good, unto edifying. For Christ also pleased not himself" ( Romans 15:1-3 ). In applying this principle, note:
Our dealings with weak brethren.
Our liberty may become a stumbling block to others, and against this we must be constantly on our guard. There will always be around us some "weak brethren."
1. They may be intellectually weak, really unable to grasp more than the simplicities of the truth, and readily thinking that what they can neither understand nor appreciate must be error. There is also such a thing as mental bias, which prevents men from appreciating or receiving more than some particular side of truth. And this mental bias is often the affliction of men who are otherwise intelligent; and it becomes the occasion of much religious bigotry.
2. They may be weak in conscience. Instead of firmly attesting what is right and what is wrong, their conscience may only present scruples and questions and doubts. It is the same thing to say that they have little power of decision; and feel restless and uncertain, and weakly full of fears, when a decision is made.
3. They may be weak through the relics of old habits. A man cannot immediately separate himself from all his surroundings; and it was very difficult for Gentile Christians to shake off their heathen notions. Missionaries now, in heathen lands, are gravely perplexed by the lingering sentiments and habits of their converts. And in Corinth many could not get out of the idea that meat offered to an idol must be defiled and unfit for their eating Christians. So it may be shown that there are "weak brethren" with us still; some who are offended with higher truths, which they are intellectually unable to reach; others who have scruples about what is permissible to Christians in social life, and yet others who fix narrow limits to the observance of the sabbath, and other details of Christian conduct. Now, St. Paul lays down some of the principles on which we should deal with these "weak brethren."
I. THE PRINCIPLE OF FIRMNESS . More especially if our brother's weakness in any way imperils the truth. Concessions to our weaker brethren may go to the fullest length so long as they concern only our personal relations with them. But we may concede nothing if our brother's weakness puts in peril vital truth. Then we must be firm and stand our ground, and claim our full liberty to receive whatever truth God may be pleased to give us. And it is even found, in practical life, that our brother's weakness in matters of detail is best met by a firm and intelligent resistance. We need to be especially careful that our dealings with our brethren shall in no way foster and encourage their weakness. Modes of keeping sabbath, or relations of Christians to public amusements, will furnish necessary illustrations.
II. THE PRINCIPLE OF HELPFULNESS ; wherever we stand in such relations to the "weak brethren" as may give us a power of influence upon them. If we condescend to them, it can only be that we may lift them out of their weakness into strength. Such helpful influence we may exert
(1) by direct teachings;
III. THE PRINCIPLE OF SELF SACRIFICING CHARITY . Actually depriving ourselves of pleasures, and what we think to be both permissible and good things, in order that we may be no hindrance or injury to others. Illustrate in the case with which St. Paul is dealing here; and show how many good Christians nowadays abstain from such things as balls and theatres because they are anxious not to set a stumbling block in the way of others. Our practical difficulties in life apply to things indifferent; and in such matters it is proper that we should regulate our conduct by the effects which it may have on others. The true Christian spirit would lead us to say, "Rather let me suffer by abstaining from what I should enjoy, and could do without any personal injury, than let my brother suffer, either by the judgment which he would form of my doings, or by his imitating my example to his own serious hurt."—R.T.