1 Corinthians 8:1-7 (NRSV) – “Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him. Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords — yet for us there is 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. 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.“
In the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul addressed the problem of conflict and arrogance within the Corinthian church. Apparently, one of the disputes involved whether it is wrong to eat food sacrificed to idols.
Paul’s teaching is that an idol does not change anything about the food. Thus, eating the food is not inherently idolatrous. But not everybody sees it this way. For some, it just feels idolatrous, regardless of what even Paul might say. Paul’s concern is that these people might see another believer eating sacrificed food, and consequently decide that it must not be a big deal, and then eat the food anyway despite personally deeming it idolatrous. But at this point, a believer’s conscience has been “defiled,” as Paul writes, because even though he or she has not come under real idolatry through the food, a door has been opened in one’s mind where real influence of idolatry could come in from another source.
“‘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.'” (1 Cor. 8:8-13).
This passage raises the question of, to what extent are we required to tiptoe around other believers to avoid offending their convictions? It is important to remember that Paul spent the first four chapters of this epistle depicting the issue of conflict within the Corinthian church. The Corinthians were rather sectarian in nature, seeking to align themselves with certain preachers, and Paul was concerned about arrogance among believers. This concern is reiterated at the opening of the present chapter when Paul states that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
With this nature of the community, there is an understandable concern is that if a particular believer was eating in a pagan temple, others who feel they are on the same side as that believer would join in regardless of what their consciences thought. Paul was also concerned that those choosing to eat sacrificed food may do so arrogantly to show off their faith that idols don’t do anything.
So how do I think all of this applies today? Controversies among Christians go far beyond idols, and probably far beyond even the spectrum of issues discussed in the Corinthian church. Obviously, we cannot limit our public lives to avoid offending every believer. But if you are a member of a church, consider the other members of the church. If the church makes a big deal over a certain activity, even if you yourself do not consider it to be immoral based on Scripture, I would say that perhaps, to avoid sending the wrong signals to other members, consider abstaining from the activity in settings where other members of the church might see you. Or if the activity is really important to you, perhaps you could consider finding a church where it is culturally acceptable. I am not saying that this is something you must do; just consider it.
Before closing this post, I want to discuss the issue of conscience a bit more. I do not believe that the writing about conscience in this chapter should make you fearful of your conscience, worried that if your conscience bothers you, then you are condemned until you do something to try to satisfy it. This fear can send you down an endless path of works or abstinences chasing an evasive sense of peace.
This point of these Scriptures is for believers to respect their conscience as a guiding force in life. Any power that we have to follow our conscience ultimately comes from God. If you are not able to make yourself follow all of your conscience’s demands, or resist everything that your conscience is questioning, leave the issue with God to work out in you according to His timing and methodology via the Holy Spirit. But this is all between you and Him, so the point here is to not engage in an activity just because another believer thinks it is okay.