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.
- Handling knowledge - Christians, by definition, are not idol worshipers. In the process of becoming a disciple of Christ, the individual must make a public confession that he believes that Jesus is Lord prior to his immersion in Jesus’ name. That confession will not allow a belief that Zeus is a god, or that Caesar is a god; to make any admission that either of these two, for example, is a god is to deny the Lordship of Jesus. Hence those of Gentile background, as well as those of Jewish heritage, would clearly understand that idols were figments of men’s imaginations stirred up by demonic forces. "Now concerning things sacrificed to idols," thus asseverated the apostle Paul, "we know that we all have knowledge" (I Corinthians 8:1). The specific "knowledge" to which he refers is the knowledge that idols are not real. Because people were continually being converted out of idol worship to believe in the only and true God through Jesus Christ, there were varying degrees of understanding and conviction concerning idols. The saint who regarded himself as more mature is therefore cautioned by the apostle. "Knowledge makes arrogant," he warns, "but love edifies." In other words, the brother who focused on his "knowledge" of the paucity of idols and the fullness of Christ was pointed in the wrong direction; the one who loved would be thinking in terms of the lost and his weaker brethren.
- Proper perspective - The proverb rooted in English culture is: "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." The thrust of that general observation is that those who have learned new truths often parade their new-found knowledge in the face of their more ignorant associates; they are arrogant show-offs, and often later find out that they opened their mouths way too soon! "If anyone supposes that he knows anything," is the apostle Paul’s comment on this point, "he has not yet known as he ought to know; but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him" (I Corinthians 8:2,3). The proper perspective is grateful humility in knowing that God has opened up the door for the saint’s salvation, and loving God because He first loved each of the brethren. What a tremendous blessing it is to apprehend that the great God who more than fills the universe knows and acknowledges each Christian!
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.
- Meat sacrificed to idols - Satan has always tried to counterfeit what God does. From the time of Cain and Abel onward, God required sacrifice from man in order to bring about consciousness of sins and the need of an offering to pay the price. Hence the prince of darkness instituted sacrifices to idols as a counterfeit, throwing confusion into the understanding of the plan of God. As the apostle Paul would later note in this epistle to the Corinthians: Is a "thing sacrificed to idols anything, or [is] an idol is anything? No, but I say that they the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God" (I Corinthians 10:19,20). To these truth-seekers in Corinth, the apostle then writes, "Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one" (I Corinthians 8:4). These brethren had the knowledge that idols were nonsense, and that meat offered as a sacrifice to these idols was nonsense.
- One God - Through the preaching and teaching of the gospel, an individual can come to understand that the Bible is the word of God, and that through Jesus Christ is the revelation of the one true God. These brethren in Corinth had gone through that process, and believed the testimony that the apostle Paul had borne concerning the invisible, immortal, and glorious God. "For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth," he then writes, "as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him" (I Corinthians 8:5,6). How awesome it is to know that the Creator God is clearly revealed and identified through an understanding of who Jesus is! How awesome it is actually to know that we exist for Him, that we have a clearly identified purpose for being, and that we can know where we will spend eternity!
"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.
- Watching out for the weak - Through the gospel, brethren in Christ come to understand that idols are figments of men’s imaginations, collective ideas implanted and spread by Satan and his demons. "Yet for us," says Paul, "there is but one God." Having proved that Jesus is resurrected from the dead and therefore Lord of all, any idol’s pretense to power and existence is destroyed. "However," the apostle continues in his instruction, "not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled" (I Corinthians 8:7). It takes awhile for the education connected with discipleship in Christ really to soak into the skull of new brethren. Hence some them still viewed the meat offered to idols and sold in the marketplace as having some power and significance. So if they, as new Christians, bought and ate that meat, their conscience would "be defiled" because in their mind they would still be participating in the sacrifice to that idol. The more mature brother, then, was carefully to consider the thought processes of the weaker brother, and govern himself accordingly.
- Limiting liberty - The mature brother or sister in Christ knows that idols are nothing, and the meat offered to those idols has zero significance. But the saint is not to be arrogant about his knowledge; instead of thinking of himself and maximizing what he can get away with, he has to think of his weaker brother. Paul argues, for the benefit of the stronger brother, "But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor better if we do eat" (I Corinthians 8:8). The thrust of the passage is that it is not a huge issue for the Christian if for some reason he does not get to eat his meat because of other people around; the eating of food when considered simply by itself does not impact the inner man and does not commend or condemn the individual in the sight of God. "Take care," exhorts the apostle, "lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak" (I Corinthians 8:9).
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.
- Conscience issue - The pull of pagan idols is powerful. It should not be so, yet it is. Perhaps it is not so much the idol itself, but that the worship of those idols permits the fleshly side of man to do whatever it wishes is where the appeal is. For those, then, who have grown up in a system where, for example, spells can be cast by the shaman and voodoo hexes can be placed upon people by the demon priestess who lives in the swamp, it is not necessarily easy to convince their minds that those things are not true. Therefore those in Christ who are not affected by these pagan superstitions must be careful how they conduct themselves in the presence of newer brethren who still are. "For if someone sees you, who have knowledge," posits Paul, "dining in an idol temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols?" (I Corinthians 8:10). The conscience is somewhat programmable; the brother in Christ who was in the process of moving out of idol worship now has his conscience deprogrammed ("strengthened" is the way the apostle put it) so that it does not bother him to go back and participate in the rituals and sacrifices of paganism.
- Ruination of a brother - The saint with the correct "knowledge" about idols arrogantly went down to the pagan temple and sat through the proceedings, eating what was offered as a sacrifice, heedless of the impact that would have on a weaker disciple. "For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined," adverts the apostle, "the brother for whose sake Christ died" (I Corinthians 8:11). The struggle inside the mind is so intense that Christians need to be conscious of their positive or negative impact on a brother or sister who is looking up to them. "And thus," adds the apostle, "by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ" (I Corinthians 8:12). The saint who chooses to be arrogant, and in his "knowledge" plays around the edges of idol temples, is guilty of sinning against the brethren and sinning against Christ. Strong words …
"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!