“Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.
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”), 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.
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. But 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. 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? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 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.”
(1 Corinthians 8:1–13 NIV)
Imagine that I was going to offer $10,000 to three people. The first person had to bite their own left ear lobe. The second had draw me a square circle. The third had to levitate for sixty seconds. Those would be some significant stumbling blocks to them achieving the goal of the money that I was offering. The same is true when it comes to the Christian faith. This can take two forms: those coming to faith in Jesus for the first time and those who want to continue in the faith throughout their lives. There are certain things that can cause some people to stumble. Some of those things are beyond our control. There is not much that we can do when sickness or disaster or violence causes someone to stumble. We can respond in compassion, but we cannot prevent these things from happening. However, if we talk to people who have stumbled, we might find a number of people who could identify the church as providing the block over which they stumbled. This has been a danger from the beginning of the church. Let us look from Paul’s helpful teaching at how we can remove these dangerous blocks.
Blocks in Corinth
If we were to take some time to look at some potential stumbling blocks, we would be able to come up with a quick list. We might think of hypocrisy, cliques, gossip, intolerance and so on. The one thing that would not likely make the list was the one major stumbling block at Corinth: knowledge. How could knowledge be a stumbling block? We present information about the Bible each week at church so that you will gain knowledge. We send young people to school to gain knowledge. We read books and newspapers to gain knowledge. How could knowledge possibly be dangerous? How could knowledge become a stumbling block? You have to understand where the Corinthians were coming from. Corinth was very much a pagan city filled with idol worship. Even the meat in the market was dedicated to idols. There were community banquets where the Corinthians would gather to eat and drink to the honour of the gods. It was in this context that the church in Corinth began. People discovered that there was only one God and that God had brought about salvation through Jesus Christ. We should not underestimate the culture shock conversion to Christ would be for the Corinthians. Today, many people who come to faith have to get up a bit earlier on Sundays. Back then, it was an entire new way to do life. It was not a secular culture that could be filled with Christ, it was a religious culture that needed to be replaced with Christ. One of the things that needed to take place was a radical break with idolatry. This required much commitment and courage. In the midst of this, a group of Corinthian Christians had a bit of a revelation. The real situation was not that there was one good God, the God of the Bible, and then a bunch of bad gods, such as from the Greek and Roman religions. The truth was that there was absolutely only one God. When someone bowed to an idol, they were bowing to a piece of wood or stone not to an actual god. This also meant that they could rethink participation in the pagan festivals. Whereas once they avoided these places like the plague, now they were not looking so bad. They could eat the meet dedicated to the idols, they could lift their cup in honour to the gods and it did not matter because those gods did not exist. There were others in the church who could not believe that these Christians would dare participate in pagan ceremonies. It is at this point that Paul weighs in. Paul tells the group that gained the knowledge of the one God that technically they are correct. There is only one God and these false do not exist. Meat that is dedicated to idols is still only meat. This means that technically there is nothing wrong with these Christians going to these pagan banquets. But whenever we start speaking of ‘technically’, we should start to get cautious. Paul challenges these Christians to look at things from a different perspective. Instead of focusing on the absolute limit of what you are allowed to do, consider the effects on others. There were Christians in the Corinthian church who were really stumbling over this. They were trying to make the needed break with idolatry, and here were other Christians eating and drinking to the gods. Who knows where this could lead? Paul suggests that when it come down to knowledge and love, love always trumps knowledge. The number one goal for all Christians was to encourage each other in the faith and if something was causing a problem, it had to go, no matter how much it was technically correct.
What does this look like today? We do not often eat meat dedicated to idols, so our context is going to look different. One of the first comparisons that people make is that of drinking alcohol. The Bible does not ban all consumption of alcohol, although it clearly condemns drunkenness. This means that technically it is acceptable to drink alcohol in moderation. But what does that look like when we are with people who are struggling with alcoholism, or with young people trying to make right choices or with people who have experienced families ripped apart by alcoholism? Do we say to these people that we have the Bible knowledge that says that it is acceptable, or do we try and prevent this knowledge from becoming a stumbling block. Paul is asking us to always put the needs of others first. I remember once sharing some information about differences between Bible translations. I was doing it, to be honest, to show off my knowledge. Unfortunately, I was showing off to a new Christian, and this became a stumbling block to his faith. Here is the problem. The Bible teaches that we are saved by grace and not by works. So that gives the Christian a tremendous amount of freedom. But at the same time, that freedom is meant to be given shape by love. I am not saying that we should live a life where every decision is based on pleasing others. First of all, it is impossible, secondly it will destroy you. But we can live a life that is guided by love. Words have to be said. We can say things that are petty, critical, slanderous or obscene. But we can also chose to say things that are encouraging, kind, helpful or wise. We have to do things. We can try and test the limits of Christian freedom, doing the absolute most that God will let us get away with. Or we can choose to do things that will build others up in the faith, that will attract seekers and will deepen the Christian walk of others. The choice is ours.
The goal of life should be to find peace with God through faith in Christ. Unfortunately, there are going to be things that get in the ways of people’s faith. May we not be one of them. Jesus had some strong things to say about this. “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!” (Matthew 18:7 NIV) The Corinthians felt completely justified because they were acting out of knowledge and yet they were creating huge stumbling blocks to the faith of others. What are we doing? There are people in our community who need to meet Jesus for the first time. There are people in our congregation that need to go deeper in their faith. Are our words and actions putting up stumbling blocks or are we tearing them down?