Saints Conduct in a Pagan World

Throughout the Roman world, idol temples were a major feature of the landscape. The Greeks had developed a complex panoply of gods and goddesses which the Romans renamed, and so pervasive was Greek mythology that it has carried down into the education of today. Luke in the book of Acts gives us a picture of the pervasiveness of Greek idolatry as he describes the apostle Paul’s entrance into Athens: "Now while Paul was in Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols" (Acts 18:1). The Christians who lived in Greece were thus confronted on a daily basis with decisions as to how they were to handle situations involving idols, and what to do with leftover meat from the idol sacrifices sold the next day on the meat market. The apostle, as he continues to answer questions sent to him from the congregation at Corinth, tackles these issues.

One of the apostle Paul’s major underlying themes throughout this epistle to the Corinthian brethren is love. The saint is to love God, to love the lost, to love the brethren, and to love himself. If he really loves God, he is conscious of his own eternity and the eternity of others. If he really conscious of the eternity of others, he is going to consider carefully how to conduct himself in a pagan world so that he would not cause his weaker brother to stumble, nor will he compromise his position on idol worship for the sake of the lost. In wisdom, humility, and love, he will do and say the right thing at the right time, that the testimony of Jesus Christ might go forward!

For Us There Is One God

People’s perception of reality depends initially upon their culture. A child, for example, who grows up in a home where there is a lot of screaming and yelling going on thinks that is normal. It is not until they have a little larger perspective when they get older that they begin to see that screaming and yelling is not necessarily the way it has to be. Similarly, if children grow up in a culture — Hinduism would be one of these — where idol worship is a way of life, they think that is normal. But as they get older, if they will be curious and begin to examine the foundations of belief systems, they can see that such idol worship is not the way it is to be. Not many will follow this path to find true understanding, but truth-seekers all over the world will! These truth-seekers will become Christians.

"However," notes the apostle, "not all men have this knowledge" (I Corinthians 8:7). Ancient or modern, man is trapped in the confusion of his culture and idolatry. Whether it is a belief in the system of Hinduism, or a belief in the system of Islam, or a belief in the system of evolution and humanism, mankind tends to adopt these tenets without thinking them through. But the gospel of Jesus Christ, preached like a stabbing searchlight into the darkness of these satanic systems, has the power to rescue and transform the one who formerly worshiped at these altars of misunderstanding. In humility and gratitude, the new creation in Christ walks through the world of confusion, and in love and truth reaches out to find other truth-seekers in the rubble of idolatry and confusion.

Managing Our Liberty

The Christian truly is free! He is free from confusion and darkness; he is free from idolatry and philosophy; he is free from sin and the pressure to conform to this world. He is free, free, free! But most of mankind’s thought processes are in slavery to the prince of darkness. Hence they pay attention to their superstitions, listen to their priests and shamans, and follow the directives of the diviners. God, in going over the Law the second time through Moses, warned the children of Israel not to participate in the pagan practices and beliefs of the Canaanites. "For those nations," He says of the seven that Israel was to overpower, "which you shall dispossess, listen to those who practice witchcraft and to diviners, but as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do so" (Deuteronomy 18:14). God is prosecuting His long war against idolatry and the attendant practices of darkness. Initially He established Israel as the beginning point of the base of operations, and was able to extend the reach of His influence through the gospel and the formation of congregations of Christ. Thus people were turning from idols to Christ and being educated in the ways of the Lord and light.

The arrogant Christian in Corinth would go into the meat market and buy whatever meat he wanted just because he could; he would not take into consideration the other brethren who might be nearby or affected negatively by his choice. But the faithful follower of Christ would be aware of the nature of God’s warfare against paganism, conscious of the time and effort necessary for the newer brothers to reprogram their minds, and would make his choices based on their impact on the brethren. "Knowledge makes arrogant," says Paul, "but love edifies.

No Cause for Stumbling

"Love does no wrong to a neighbor," stated Paul. "Love is therefore the fulfillment of the Law" (Romans 13:10). "Walk in love," states the apostle in another place, "just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us" (Ephesians 5:2). Thus when the apostle introduces the topic of handling meats offered to idols and then sold in the market place, he stresses the importance of love as the foundation for conduct. The brother who has "knowledge" is aware that idols are nothing, and meat offered to an idol is still just meat. "But," says Paul, "take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak" (I Corinthians 8:9). If a brother who has "got it" in reference to knowledge of idolatry and sacrifices to said idols decides to "flaunt it," he is likely to cause a weaker brother to stumble, and the resulting collateral damage could be massive.

"All things are lawful," the apostle is going to state a little later in this epistle, "but not all things edify" (I Corinthians 10:23). It is one thing for a Christian to be in a local tavern for a Bible study with a prospective Christian because that is the only or best place to study; it is another thing for a Christian to be in a local tavern "just because he can." Paul is going to limit his personal liberty willingly because of the value of the souls that would be impacted by arrogance on his part. "Therefore," he says, "if food [offered to idols] causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat [offered to idols] again that I might not cause my brother to stumble" (I Corinthians 8:13). Not a problem!