Freedom Is a Double-Edged Sword

1 Corinthians 8:9

 

Theoretical knowledge and heart knowledge of any subject are often very different and nowhere is this more evident than in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthian church.  In fact, the wide gulf between head knowledge and heart knowledge is also very evident in the Christian church today as well.  Examining a small passage from First Corinthians will allow one to see how Paul’s understanding and practical application of the gospel message in his time is still relevant in our time.

Paul wrote this first letter to the Corinthian church in response to a letter he had received from the church.  In his letter, he addressed several concerns.  Chapter eight opens with a discussion over whether it is acceptable to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols.  It is important to understand why this was such a pressing concern for the Christians in Corinth.  Practically speaking, if Paul declared that it was unlawful under any circumstance to eat idol-offerings, the newly-converted Gentiles would be bound by the Levitical laws almost as surely as the Jews.  While the Jewish people were used to these restrictions, even to the point of having their own butcher who understood the rules and ceremonies, the Gentiles had always bought meat in the markets.[1]   However, this meat was often the leftovers from animal sacrifices in the many temples throughout the city dedicated to various idols.  One could never be sure if any meat bought at the market was untainted in this way.  Furthermore, asserting that meat first offered to idols was off-limits created other social and economic barriers.  Christians would no longer be able to partake in the public feasts, which for the poorer Christians was often their only opportunity to eat meat at all.  Additionally, this limitation would prevent one from eating with Gentile neighbors or relatives who were not yet converts. Consequently, this was a highly-charged issue that needed to be handled both properly and delicately.

In answering this concern, Paul first points out that there is a difference between knowledge and love.  He goes on to proclaim that of course they all know there is only one true God and that idols have no real existence.  Nevertheless, he then makes a distinction between the knowledge of a ‘weak’ Christian and that of a ‘strong’ Christian.  What does Paul mean by this distinction between weak and strong believers?  Again, it is important to understand to whom Paul was writing.  Many in the Corinthian church were new converts, not from Judaism, but from paganism.[2]  The weak, Paul contends, are those new in the faith who have not yet completely thrown off the shackles of their former lifestyle.  They do not have the depth of knowledge and understanding of God’s ultimate power and authority that more mature believers (the strong) take for granted.  Equally important is idea that the weak also included the socially powerless, the poorer believers, for whom meat was a luxury.  For them, meat was associated with idolatry partly because the only meat they could eat came from the pagan festivals where it was free.[3]  All of this would cause their moral conscience to be affected, resulting in feelings of shame and guilt.  In their minds and hearts, they would sincerely believe they had engaged in idol-worship.[4]

This contrasted with the freedom those who were strong in their faith felt they had because they fully understood that certain foods in themselves were not sinful.   Paul is quick to note that while this is true, there is more to the concept of freedom than they seem to understand.  While Christ died to set us free from sin, abolishing the law and the legalistic rules that were so important to the Pharisees in the process, He also said, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).  A yoke represents restraint and a certain lack of freedom.  While Paul states that he has the freedom to do anything, he also emphasizes a strict life of a disciple (1 Corinthians 9:19-27).  In Galatians Paul writes, “For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love.  For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:13-14).  Christian freedom then is tied to Christian responsibility.  We must be aware of how our actions affect others.  Not every action is wrong, but not every action is in the best interest of ourselves or others.  Christian freedom then is not a freedom to sin but rather a freedom to serve others in love, putting their needs above our own desires and freedom.[5]

Paul clearly makes this distinction between our rights and our obligations to others when admonishing his readers not to cause another to stumble.  Simply put, anyone or anything that causes another to sin or weakens their faith is a stumbling block.  It matters not if the action in and of itself is sinful.  Paul takes this a step further, cautioning his readers that abusing their Christian freedom may not just cause another to stumble, it could lead them down a path that endangers their soul.  Our brothers and sisters in Christ should be just as precious to us as they are to Him.  If He was willing to die for them, shouldn’t we be willing to deny our rights for their sakes?  It is for this very reason that Paul tells us that “if what I eat causes another believer to sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live” (1 Cor 8:13a) and “I don’t just do what is best for me; I do what is best for others so that many may be saved” (1 Cor 10:33b).  Furthermore, we must remember that what we do to others, we do to Christ Himself (Matthew 25:40).   Exercising our freedom, and in the process hurting another believer, might not only destroy that believer but ourselves as well for how can we call ourselves Christians if we knowingly hurt another?

As we can see our freedom in Christ is a double-edged sword.  It can be both beneficial and harmful depending on how and when that freedom is exercised.  As discussed above, the believers in Corinth whom Paul referred to as strong undoubtedly understood that the idols they once worshipped were impotent creations.  Accordingly, they had no reservations over eating any meat that might have been sacrificed to such idols.  Their mature faith in Christ enabled them to feel this freedom and Paul obviously counted himself among them in that regard.  However, exercising this freedom in front of newer converts, those who were not as spiritually mature, could easily influence them, causing them to act against their own moral conscience.  This could lead to guilt, shame, and even back-sliding into old habits.   For any unfaithfulness, however small, begins to separate the believer from Christ.[6]

How does this message to the church in Corinth apply to Christians today?  Paul responded to this moral dilemma out of Christian love, more concerned with forming the heart and conscience of his readers then giving them a strict law to follow.  He tells them in 1 Corinthians 10:15 that he is speaking to sensible people whom he believes can judge what he is saying for themselves.  He wants them to be able to reason out this dilemma and future concerns on their own with the heart and mind of Christ.[7]  Even today, the church is made up of individuals at all levels of maturity.  Stronger, more mature Christians must respond to those younger in the faith in a Christlike manner, with love and concern.  It is the responsibility of the more mature Christians to edify and nurture those younger in the faith, showing the same grace and patience along the way that Jesus did as He allowed Peter’s faith to develop over time.  There are many issues that may divide believers today but we should not allow those disagreements to cause division in our churches or cause other Christians to stumble.  The goal is not for all Christians to think alike or avoid all disagreements.  Rather the goal should be love and unity that supersedes our differences, glorying God in all our actions and interactions.

 


[1] Spence-Jones, H. D. M., Joseph S. Exell, and Edward Mark Deems. The Pulpit Commentary. Vol. XIX. Mclean, VA: MacDonald, 263.

[2] Godet, Frédéric Louis. Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1957, 421.

[3] Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014, 477.

[4] Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henrys Commentary. Vol. VI. Old Tappan, NJ: F.H. Revell, 546.

[5] Life Application Study Bible New Living Translation. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2007, 1944.

[6] Godet, 426.

[7] Ibid, 404.

Bibliography

Godet, Frédéric Louis. Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1957.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henrys Commentary. Vol. VI. Old Tappan, NJ: F.H. Revell.

Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Life Application Study Bible New Living Translation. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2007.

Spence-Jones, H. D. M., Joseph S. Exell, and Edward Mark Deems. The Pulpit Commentary. Vol. XIX. Mclean, VA: MacDonald.

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