Twelfth in a series
1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall. (1 Corinthians 8:13)

Back in 1986, Dr. Howard Hendricks of the Dallas Theological Seminary addressed the Congress on Biblical Exposition held at the Anaheim Convention Center. There were over 3,000 of us preachers and teachers from all over the United States learning to more effectively teach and preach the Bible. Hendricks entertained us with the description of one part of his theological training, which had been quite irrelevant to the world in which we now live. He described a number of weeks in which his professor concentrated in an academic way on this whole theme of meat offered to idols.

He concluded that he graduated from seminary a complete expert on this theme, prepared to preach on it week upon week to the point that any congregation he served could end up knowing much more than it wanted to know and needed to know about this theme, “Meat Offered To Idols,” so irrelevant to today.

There are some themes mentioned in the Bible that are culturally conditioned by the biblical times to the point that they have little relevance to where we live in these first decades of the twenty-first century. I doubt that you have spent much time in the last few weeks wrestling with whether or not you should eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols.

So, why don’t we just skip over this 1 Corinthians 8 and move on to something more relevant?

Wait! Although the specific topic appears to be lacking in relevancy, it is of utmost significance for you and me. Let’s take a moment to discuss what culture-bound problem was facing the believers at Corinth and then look beyond that specific time-conditioned matter to its contemporary relevance.

The Corinthians lived in a culture dominated by the worship of pagan gods. For many, every meal was dedicated to the household gods by laying some portion of it on the family altar. On the occasion of a birthday, marriage, a safe return from sea or any circumstance that seemed to call for celebration, it was customary to sacrifice in some public temple. After the legs of the sacrificed animal and its entrails had been burnt on the altar, the remaining meat was put to one or more purposes.

One, on some special occasions, the meat was given back to the family that made the sacrifice, and they took the meat and had a party celebrating the event. Sometimes, that gathering of family and friends took place at the temple or in a nearby grove. Or sometimes, they took the meat home and served it there.

Two, sometimes the meat was kept by the temple, which actually ran a restaurant. It was one of the best places in town to eat. If you wanted a good meal, you would go to the temple restaurant and order as you and I would order in a restaurant today. Being there at the temple did not necessarily imply that you were a follower of the pagan gods. It could mean that you simply wanted a good meal with some high-quality meat, like a great night out at the Five Crowns or the Ritz.

Three, not only did the temple run a pretty good restaurant, it also had a meat market attached to it. It was one of the best places in town to buy quality cuts. The big question became whether or not a Christian should go and buy meat at the temple, meat that had been offered to idols.

Four, a Christian in Corinth might be invited to have dinner at the home of one of his friends and, when the meat course was served, there was the question of where the host and hostess purchased the meat. Had they raised it themselves? Had they gone to the country to purchase it or to a butcher who was one of the few not connected with the temple? Or had they purchased meat offered to idols? If so, the pressing issue for some tender conscience believers was, should a Christian check to find out? Was it a sin to eat meat that had been offered to idols?

The answer is quite clear to the apostle Paul. Meat is not a problem to him. In fact, he makes a strong point that an idol has no real existence. There is only one God; although in 1 Corinthians 10:20, he notes that there is a demonic dimension attached to idolatry. The fact is that there is only ” . . . one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6).

He writes to those who have this superior spiritual knowledge, who are aware of impotence of pagan religion, affirming them in the fact that it really doesn’t make any difference whether or not you eat meat offered to idols if your true trust is in Jesus Christ. It’s not a matter on which the Christian faith stands or falls.

However, he is quick to point out that all Christians do not possess this knowledge. Some who had once been heavily involved in idol worship associate the eating of meat offered to idols as a reentry into their old paganism. He writes in 1 Corinthians 8:7-13:

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

You see, Paul moves past the neutrality of the act itself, an act that is not wrong in and of itself, to the potential negative impact that a spiritually neutral act might have upon a brother or sister who is weaker in the faith.

So, we come to the theme of this morning , “Why Even Talk about Food Offered to Idols?”

I doubt if you’ll ever confront this specific problem. I never have. But wait. You and I, in principle, confront it every day. Paul is talking to those of us who are able to see spiritual truth and reality with mature Christian knowledge.

He is warning us not to be individualistic in the way in which we hold our superior knowledge. Instead, we are to be sensitive to our fellow believers in Jesus Christ, who may not yet have come to the insight that is ours. We dare not flaunt our knowledge. We are privileged to live our life of freedom in Christ in a way that is sensitive to those around us.

Even as some of the believers in Corinth ate meat on the basis of their superior knowledge that the idols had no gods behind them, even so you and I may involve ourselves in practices that are neutral – those gray areas that are neither right nor wrong. At the same time, you and I are called to be sensitive to the impact that our actions may have on others who, for whatever reasons, have not come to our same understanding of Christian liberty or the freedom that is ours in Jesus Christ.

Far from being irrelevant for us today, this 1 Corinthians 8 is loaded with practical spiritual truth. Let’s look at three of these truths.

First: Knowledge, as good as it is, can puff us up.

Paul puts it in these terms, “Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).

Have you ever run into a person who has a lot of knowledge in a particular area and carries it in a conceited way with his or her nose up in the air?

I run into these persons frequently, and at times I am one of them myself. Knowledge in itself is pure, for true knowledge comes from God. At the same time, knowledge can be one of the best coverups for personal insecurity. I can use my new-found, superior knowledge to lord it over other people in a self-centered, conceited way.

I’ve been around intellectual circles most of my life. I have noted some very bright persons who love to put people down. They study vocabulary words, not so much for the precision that comes from having exactly the right word at the right time, but to impress a less knowledgeable person with their erudition. A bright person can be intimidating. An insecure bright person can annihilate others who have lesser knowledge.

We associate the “sophomoric attitude” with a person who is engaged in the higher learning process. This person knows a lot more than he or she did when entering the university a year or two before. What that person doesn’t know is how to use that knowledge in a kind, sensitive and understanding way.

Also, knowledge can introduce us to truths that can be misapplied and injurious to us and others.

I observed this happening while I was at Princeton Theological Seminary. After completing the first year of grammatical study of the Greek language, I took a required course in Greek exegesis, studying the book of Galatians. Galatians, as we saw when we worked our way through it, is the “Magna Carta” of Christian freedom. In it, Paul encourages believers to be set free from Jewish legalism. When one discovers that our salvation is truly by grace, not through works, and that there is no condemnation in Jesus Christ to those who believe, one can go from the immaturity of works righteousness to a legalistic nature at the other extreme. The theological word for it is “antinomianism,” in which one takes Christian liberty to an extreme. It just so happens that, as the professor assigned the passages that each student was to translate and on which we were to write our semester papers, I was assigned Galatians 5:13-15. It reads:

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

I will forever be grateful to the Lord for that assignment given to me 43 years ago. It was then, and remains to this day, a stabilizing influence, alerting me to my Christian responsibility. Yes, I am called to freedom. The knowledge of who Jesus is and what He has done for me liberates me from religion motivated by fear. However, the fact that I am free in Jesus Christ has with it some responsibility. I am not to take this knowledge and rip off God, others and myself. I am to realize that my knowledge is incomplete, that I see through a glass darkly and that others who have not yet come to have as much knowledge can be wounded by my misuse of the freedom that is mine in Jesus Christ.

Knowledge is a scary business. It can evidence itself in elitism. It can function at cross-purposes with love. I can be so puffed up by how much I know and how good I am and how much freedom is mine that I look down upon that more immature Christian, seeing myself as superior. That’s the stuff of church splits. That’s the cause of animosities that divide Christian fellowships. Warring factions can pride themselves in their superior knowledge, each having a truth that they hold dear – a precious truth, one with which they strut pompously, putting down others who have not yet discovered that truth or who are concentrating on other truths.

Let me confess to you a fear that I have had going back to my first years as your pastor. I have observed other churches in which I have been a member or have pastored that were made up of “more knowledgeable” Christians than the church I inherited when I came to St. Andrew’s. But to be honest with you, some of them were not nearly as “loving” followers of Jesus as I’ve discovered here. My biggest fear is that, in the process of our endeavor to become more knowledgeable, building ourselves up in the doctrinal teachings of the faith, we might succumb to that “spiritual elitism” that strangles love. My prayer is that when God takes me from St. Andrew’s, my successor will inherit a church of men and women who are growing in their knowledge of the things of God in a way that makes them even more humble and more loving. What a tragedy it would be to create an environment where the more learning about the Lord we have, the less loving we are.

Second: Love builds up.

Paul writes, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).

Is there any one statement made that captured with such precise definition how people will identify you and me as followers?

I’ve given this considerable thought.

Will they know that we are Christians because of how good we are in Bible study?

Will they know that we are Christians because we do a lot of praying?

Will they know that we are Christians because we give a lot of money to local and world missions and to the building program?

Will they know that we are Christians because we are so faithful in attending church?

Will they know that we are Christians because we have such energetic programs, such qualified officers and such a wonderful church staff?

As I’ve searched the Scriptures, I simply have not found these to be the criteria that Jesus set for people knowing that we are His disciples. He affirms all of these. Every one of them is important.

But Jesus states a characteristic that makes us recognizable as His disciples in a quite different way. You know what I’m getting at, don’t you? What should be the distinguishing mark of a follower of Jesus?

Jesus puts it in these terms. He said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love!

Love is actually more powerful than intellect. Think back over your life. How many arguments have you won that you actually lost in the process of winning? You know what I mean. You won at the point of logic. Your argumentation was overwhelming. You lost because the other person was unwilling to be annihilated by your intellect. The victory doesn’t always go to the person who has the best logic or the winning argument.

How many times I’ve had to humble myself, return to the scene of the disaster and, even in tears, express my sorrow for the logical bludgeoning that I had given and ask forgiveness for my attitude, without disavowing the truth that I had articulated. I still don’t have it quite together the way I should. I have more to learn about declaring my love both in words and in actions, while not compromising the very important essentials of biblical faith and action. This is an increasing challenge in the “postmodern” age in which we’re living. We walk a fine line, do we not, between being loving in a way that is compromising of the essence of our faith and holding to the truth once delivered to the saints in a way that is brittle and harsh. Love is so powerful, because it builds up. The more seriously we take our faith, the more important it is to stop and see whether or not we are holding to it and furthering the causes in which we believe in a way that is loving.

I’ve tried to be especially sensitive to this as I have prepared my messages throughout this series. I know that we are working through some heavy, demanding truths. I know that it would have been much easier to have not done this expositional series. I could have just preached topically through 1 Corinthians 1, picking my favorite passages, especially those that would not collide with the lifestyles of some people who claim to be Christians but reject certain biblical teachings as out of date and out of style. I have done my best to apply these tough teachings to myself, as well as you.

I know that, on one Sunday in particular when we talked so bluntly about sexual immorality, it would make some squirm, feel guilty and perhaps alienate them from our own church. So I prayed that the Holy Spirit would enable the truth of God’s Word to be articulated without equivocation but undergirded by the spirit of love and compassion that would make it very clear that St. Andrew’s is not a church just for people who have it all together but actually is a hospital for sinners, myself included.

How grateful I’ve been to receive the response from some who have been struggling with their sexual lifestyles and have told me, “Thank you for not ducking the tough issues; I needed to hear that message.”

One of the toughest areas of all these days is the whole matter of gay and lesbian orientation as well as lifestyles. I remember on one occasion when I dealt with a particularly tough passage of Scripture, I was concerned that it would hurt persons struggling themselves with these issues or who had family members struggling with them. I prayed that what I would say would come across with the combination of truth undergirded by love.

Two days later, as I was walking from our Tuesday calendar staff meeting up to my office, I saw a handsome young gay man I had been counseling coming across the plaza. He asked if he could speak to me for a moment. His eyes watered as he said, “I’ve just received bad word. I have AIDS. They give me twelve to eighteen months at the very most to live. But I want to thank you for what you said last Sunday. I know that my lifestyle has been wrong. More than that, you and St. Andrew’s have offered me the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, His forgiveness, a loving and caring community. I’m prepared to talk with anyone you’d like me to talk to, both mourning about what happens when you don’t take God’s Word seriously and also what it is to know God’s forgiveness and provision.”

We embraced as I told him, “You’re my brother. I love you. I’ll walk through this with you!”

And we did minister to him, and we walked through his odyssey all the way through to his death. And I was privileged to preside at his memorial service.

About the same time, sitting in the sanctuary was a young unmarried woman coming into her fourth month of pregnancy. She was determined to have the baby. But she was not prepared to marry the father. She heard the truths of God’s Word, which could have pushed her away from this church, which she could have perceived as made up of a pastor, staff and congregation of people who were “holier than thou.” But something had come across – God’s grace and love. Instead of being pushed away, she asked if she could join the church. My answer, an emphatic “yes.” She wondered if the baby could be baptized. My answer, an emphatic “yes.” Certainly she could join the church. Certainly the baby could be baptized. That’s what we’re all about here at St. Andrew’s. That’s why we say that we are “sinners anonymous” and not so anonymous to admit our need of God’s love, grace, forgiveness and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit who live one day at a time. There is no such thing as an “unforgivable sinner.” There is no such thing as an “illegitimate baby.” We are here to embrace each other in our fallen humanity, allowing the arms of Jesus Christ to wrap themselves around all of us, whatever our struggles are, realizing that the only unforgivable sin is our refusal to accept His love and be transformed by His power.

This week, we had the memorial service for our dear Charlotte Anderson, who for so many years struggled with her alcoholism while, at the same time, singing in the choir and active in the life of St. Andrew’s. In 1996, she entered a twelve-step program, and we all rallied around her, encouraging her in her sobriety. But then came the moment of truth. Linda Bertone, our office manager, told me that she was going to hire Charlotte to work in the front office and wanted my approval. I stopped short in my tracks. It’s one thing to love a person through that struggle; it’s another to expose the church to potential erratic behavior, embarrassment and the potential of having to release a member for poor performance. But I, against my better judgement, agreed, and it’s been one of the best personnel decisions I’ve ever made. Charlotte has been a hard worker and has modeled for all of us, her colleagues on the staff, what it is to live one day at a time, empowered by one’s “higher power,” whose name is Jesus Christ. And now for the last three and a half years as she’s battled cancer, she has brought an added inspiration to all of us as to how to face death with courage and faith. I was with her a week ago yesterday afternoon and prayed a prayer of committal. She died a week ago this morning. And her memorial service was one of the most bonding times of our staff, choir, others of our St. Andrew’s family, additional personal family and also friends, including a substantial contingent of her fellow “friends of Bill W.”

My prayer is that in the months ahead, even as we at St. Andrew’s wrestle with major issues in our denomination, doctrine and lifestyle, we may become increasingly known as a safe place, confess our sins and find Christ’s healing. Instead of being known just for what we are against, we must be known for what we are for, embracing those in our number and in the larger community around us who struggle with the controversial sins of our day, seeing them as no less or better than the rest of us who have our sins that are just as serious in God’s eyes but not quite as visible.

Third: The conscience of one’s self and another must be taken seriously.

What is safe for one person may be quite unsafe for another. Paul writes, “But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall” (1 Corinthians 8:12-13).

I’ve been astounded at my own tendency to belittle people who have not come to that full liberation in Jesus Christ that I perceive myself to have. And I have been so hurt by people who perceive themselves to be superior to me and the freedom they have discovered in Christ that they perceive to be superior to mine.

What I’m talking about are those “gray areas.”

There are those activities and actions that are always right. Biblical Christians agree that it is always right to tell the truth, to worship God, to care for others, to love your neighbor, to study the Scriptures, to pray, and the list goes on. We also agree that there are some things that are never right. We should never take that which belongs to another, lie, murder, commit adultery or destroy the reputation of another.

But we all know that there are many matters on which there is no clear biblical statement. Social drinking, the use of birth control, service in the military and political party membership are only a few of the issues on which well-meaning Christians can carry out extensive debate. Often these gray areas are more reflective of cultural mores than biblical truth.

I remember the first time I visited the deep south and stayed in the home of a Christian family. It was much more liberal than I was in the area of entertainment and social drinking, and yet they shocked the daylights out of me because they did not believe in “mixed bathing” where men and women used the same beach or swimming pool. Their cultural mores and mine were so different. Yet we all love Jesus.

What is safe for one person may be quite unsafe for another. Someone has said, “God has His own stairway into a person’s heart – so does Satan.” You and I can be stumbling blocks to each other.

No one has the right to indulge in a pleasure or demand a liberty that may be the ruination of someone else. No one has the right to belittle the conscience of a fellow Christian, even if you and I are convinced that that person’s conscience is too sensitive or too over-developed.

This point was driven home to me as a youngster, when a tough, hardened, old Nova Scotian in our community came to faith in Jesus Christ through my father’s ministry. He was dramatically converted. His life was changed by the power of Jesus Christ. I remember on one occasion he told me that, because Jesus had come into his life, he would never again play the game Checkers. Imagine my shock. It was one of our family’s favorite games. My father and I would have what we would call our national championship, world championship and all-universe championship Checkers games. What in the world did Checkers have to do with coming to faith in Jesus Christ?

Old Mr. Dawe explained to me, in the kindest of terms, that, back before he came to faith in Jesus Christ, he used to gamble at Checkers. He gambled with amounts of money so large it jeopardized the welfare of his family. Checkers to him was a game that represented some of the worst of that which the Lord had forgiven and from which he had been saved. I learned from him never to minimize that which is a conscience issue to another, no matter how trivial it might appear to me.

On a much deeper level, I am also trying to learn that I need to increasingly sensitize myself that I not be a stumbling block to someone else. If something that might be innocent for me could be hurtful to another, I’m going to do my best to be sensitive and not push another in that direction.

The last couple of months, several people have come to me concerned that St. Andrew’s is a “red state” church. They want to be certain there’s a place for them here, and they happen to be Democrats when the majority of our people seem to be Republicans. Let me say once and for all, the Jesus Christ we serve is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. I believe He would affirm both the high personal moral agenda of one party as well as the high social agenda of the other and repudiate selfishness, political pettiness and the partisan rancor of both. Ours is a God who transcends culture and desires to transform culture. St. Andrew’s dare never wear a politically partisan label. It must be a safe place for all people who put their trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation and are dedicated to implementing God’s agenda of personal salvation, righteousness, justice and mercy.

We dare not be a stumbling block to others.

Back in my seminary days, the fellows used to love to go out and have pizza and drink beer. One of our classmates was from India. He was an evangelist whom God had used in very special ways. He had come to the attention of the then-Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, and they had given him a scholarship to come to Princeton Theological Seminary to be better equipped to go back and serve the church in India.

I remember those evenings, as we ate pizza together, when some of the guys would encourage George to see how much beer he could drink, because he became so funny and so much the life of the party when he got high. To the best of my knowledge, none of those classmates to this day have a drinking problem. Most are serving the Lord in ministries that are blessed by Him. That was not the odyssey of George. Instead of being deepened in his theological knowledge and better equipped to serve his people, we caused our weaker brother to stumble. The last I had heard, he hadn’t returned to India. He was a skid-row indigent, panhandling on the streets of one of our American major cities, trying to get just enough money for the next drink. Whenever I read this passage of Scripture, I would think of George and how it might have been different if we seminarians had been more sensitive to our weaker brother.

Well, last May, I went back to Princeton for my fortieth anniversary. Much to my amazement, George was there. A couple of my classmates had tracked him down and stayed in contact with him and, in years later, had helped George recover and even are now helping him do ministry projects in India.

I have no right to put down the sensitive conscience of another. And I have no right to model for or demand the liberty or encourage another in that which might be his or her ruination.

I don’t know quite how to put it all together. There are some with such sensitive consciences that they would keep me from doing anything. How do I find the proper balance? I urge you to think and pray with me about these questions.

When you ask, why take the time to talk about meat offered to idols, I say I’m taking the time to talk about you and me and our weaker brothers and sisters. God has entrusted us with the responsibility to live in Christian freedom with a concern and a sensitivity for others that respects their conscience, our conscience and what ultimately is the common good!


John A. Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.

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