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“Don't Give Place to the Idol”

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Bob DeGray
June 11, 2006

Key Sentence

Don’t let anything you do encourage someone to worship the idol.


I. Knowledge puffs up; love builds up (1 Cor 8:1-3)
II. There is one God to worship (1 Cor 8:4-6)
III. Don’t influence anyone to worship the idol (1 Cor 8:7-13)


       Some years ago, when Bethany and Abbie were small, there was a controversy over the apparent evil of Cabbage Patch dolls. It started with Bill Gothard, who does have some helpful teaching, and his Institute in Basic Life Principles, which does have some positive impact. But Gothard is often guilty of applying Scriptural principles to specific situations and then teaching that these applications have the authority of Scripture. Several allegations were made about Cabbage Patch dolls. Gothard said that because the dolls came with adoption papers, making children ‘parents’, they distracted children from honoring their own mothers and fathers. Second, Gothard claimed the middle names of the dolls were Hindu words with idolatrous meanings and disastrous spiritual effects on children. But all the doll names I saw online were Western. Finally, the Medical Teaching Institute, part of Gothard’s organization, claimed that the presence of these dolls in a home could negatively affect home births, that there was demonic power associated with the dolls. And many people took those allegations seriously and got rid of the dolls. Others didn’t have the budget to buy Cabbage Patch dolls, but would have avoided them for the sake of others. A third group claimed that such things were mere superstition, that believers didn’t need to fear any rumored influence from the dolls.

        This is a classic example of what has always gone on in the church: some people feel comfortable with a particular behavior; others feel it’s sinful or dangerous. The result is conflict, with one group being accused of promoting sin while charges of legalism fly the other direction. Here in 1st Cor. 8 Paul is addressing the issue of food offered to idols and he won’t be completely done with this subject until chapter 10. But in this discussion Paul refuses to fall into either trap, legalism or license. Instead he shows that either extreme leads to giving the idol too much credit. So he teaches them not to do anything that would encourage someone to worship the idol.

I. Knowledge puffs up; love builds up (1 Cor 8:1-3)

        Before he gets to that teaching he quickly establishes two principles on which to base his conclusion. The first is the primacy of love among believers. 1 Cor. 8:1-13 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. 3But the man who loves God is known by God.

        ‘Now about’ probably introduces another of the topics brought up in the Corinthians letter to Paul. ‘What about food sacrificed to idols?’ This doesn’t immediately strike us as a relevant topic in 21st century America, but the principles are very relevant. And the subject was extremely important back then because in that culture, pervaded as it was by worship of the Greek and Roman gods, much of the meat you were offered would have had some connection to idol worship.

        It was accepted practice to have meals in a temple. Even in a person’s home they would likely throw the party after they’d made a sacrifice. And in the market the meat you bought might well have been the priest’s portion of a sacrifice, re-sold for profit. In fact, for a poor person, it might well be that the only meat they ever got was meat associated with a sacrifice. They asked Paul: it is okay to eat this stuff?

        Some of them had already concluded that it was. Paul seems to quote them when he says ‘we all know that we all possess knowledge.’ Unfortunately in debates like this both sides always claim to possess knowledge, to have the right answer. To give another contemporary example, take the issue of rock music or contemporary Christian music. Some would say it’s sinful to listen to, that the musical content has evil effects even if the text is biblical. Others would say musical style is morally neutral and that you can’t condemn music based on it’s style. And so a conflict ensues in which both sides claim knowledge. Paul knows this is typical. He says ‘knowledge puffs up’ - knowledge leads to pride. And the Corinthians struggled with it. 1 Cor. 4:18 Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. 1 Cor. 5:2 And you are proud! Shouldn't you rather have been filled with grief?” So the central principle in dealing with debatable issues is not knowledge; both sides will claim knowledge and become prideful, and neither side will budge.

        But love, Paul says, builds up; love edifies. Like a craftsman building a building, love builds believers and binds them together. Paul says to the Thessalonians “encourage one another and build each other up.” That’s his goal for all the churches, not to cut down by conflict, but build up by love; this is the overriding principle in dealing with debatable issues. What will show love? Encouragement? Bearing with one another? Forgiving? What will build people up instead of weakening them? For sure it’s not our knowledge. Paul says “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.” Mere knowledge brings pride; true wisdom brings humility and the fear of the Lord. In debatable matters the conviction that my understanding is the only true understanding is plain wrong; my certainty of my position is really a lack of understanding. On the other hand, Paul says, ‘if one loves God, one is known by him.’ It’s a surprise ending: love is supreme not because it gives us more wisdom or insight; rather love directed at God indicates that he knows us. Paul says to the Galatians: “But now that you know God--or rather are known by God--how is it that you’re turning back?” God knows us.

        So Paul wants us to keep in mind in any debatable issue or matter of conscience the principle that love builds up, and to consider the impact on my fellow believer of what I say or do in this situation. My knowledge of theological niceties or even Christian fundamentals will achieve nothing in itself. But if I listen and care for others, and strive to make both my words and my actions constructive, I will build up. I’ll ask myself: what does love look like in this situation? Does this strengthen someone’s faith? Am I acting with the heart and compassion of Jesus?

II. There is one God to worship (1 Cor 8:4-6)

        Love builds up. But that doesn’t make truth unimportant. The second principle Paul wants us to have in mind in these matters of conscience is the principle of God’s sovereignty. Verse 4 to 6: 4So 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. 5For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords"), 6yet 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.

        Returning to the subject at hand, Paul does a little theological thinking about ‘food sacrificed to idols’. Possibly echoing the Corinthians again, he says ‘we know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one.’ One of the first things a Jewish boy would have been taught is the Shema, Deut. 6:4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” God is not one among many, nor is he opposed by someone equal and opposite; he is the only God worthy of the name. So worship of idols and mythological gods, even if, as Paul will assert in chapter 10, motivated by Satan and his demons, is not really worship at all; meat offered to idols is really meat offered to nothing.

        In verse 5, Paul allows that there are ‘so-called’ gods, some of whom are said to inhabit the heavens, like Mercury, Venus and Zeus, and some of whom are said to be on earth, like Athena, Hermes and Gaia. But ‘so-called’ betrays the unreality - they are in fact myth. And yet they were worshiped and temples built to them and sacrifices made to them; they were called ‘god’ and ‘lord’. In Old Testament times it took well over a thousand years for God, by blessing and cursing, to convince his people that all the God of the nations were idols. The prophets repeat over and over that the idols of wood and stone are worthless and the so-called deities they represent are powerless. Isaiah mocks those who take half a piece of wood and labor over it to make a god who will not totter, and with the other half they cook dinner. Elijah on Mount Carmel mocks the so-called god Baal “Shout louder! Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling.”

        All these new believers from Corinth and Ephesus and Philippi would have to learn anew that same truth, the truth Paul gives clearly and beautifully in verse 6. “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.” There is one God and his characteristic title is ‘the Father’, which points partly to his relationship to the Son and also points to his tender care for his people. Pagans divided up heaven and earth among their gods and goddesses, but the One God, says Paul, is responsible for all things. We came from him we live for him; the is our origin and our goal. Paul thinks also of the Son, the one Lord, Jesus Christ: the One God is also the One Lord. Paul affirms the deity of Christ by the fact that he is mentioned in this way, in the same breath as the Father.

        He doesn’t fully examine the relationship between the Father and the Son, but clearly he’s saying that there is one God, and just as clearly he is including the Lord Jesus within that one Godhead. ‘Through whom all things came’ points to Christ as the Agent in creation; the Father created through the Son. ‘Through whom we live’ means Christians have their being only through him. The Father redeemed through the Son. These are the fundamental truths from which Paul will not be shifted, and which were radically opposed to idolatry.

        So here are the two principles: on the one hand in matters of conscience love seeks to edify and build up believers; knowledge leads to pride which simply tries to defeat them. But love is not contentless - Paul will tell the Corinthians later to speak the truth in love. The truth is that idols are nothing, and that God, acting through Jesus Chirst, is the only true God and sovereign of creation and redemption. So when somebody says ‘an idol is nothing’, they are speaking the truth.

III. Don’t influence anyone to worship the idol (1 Cor 8:7-13)

        But what does this mean in terms of dealing with matters of conscience, like eating meat offered to idols or owning Cabbage Patch dolls or listening to rock music. Paul gives his preliminary conclusions here. He’ll have additional thoughts in chapter 10. 1 Cor 8:7-13 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. 8But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. 9Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For 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? 11So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, 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.

        Paul has been speaking of knowledge that enables a believer to see an idol as ‘nothing at all’. Now he makes the point that such knowledge is not universal among Christians. Some, from the habit of their pre-Christian days, are so accustomed to thinking of the idols as real that they can not completely shake the notion. The same thing happens today on some mission fields where converts find it very hard to rid themselves of things like witchcraft and spirit worship. So in Corinth; when some people eat meat that has come from an idol temple thier long-standing attitude toward idols leads them to think that they are in some way participating in idolatry - and for some there would have been a real temptation to cover their bases by continuing to worship the idols. Some of you may remember a video from the Morrow family in Zambia which showed exactly that happening in one of the tribes, even though the tribal chief and many of his people had earlier been converted.

        So Paul points out that those who advocate eating food from the temples aren’t contending for some great principle: food doesn’t bring us near to God; we are no worse if we don’t eat, and no better if we do. Some in Corinth may have held that because of this the person who was troubled by eating should grow up and see that it’s ok. But Paul turns the issue on those with freedom: they need to see that they’re no better than their brothers because they eat. In fact, verse 9 “Be careful that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” The person who insists on doing everything allowable has not learned to love; he is not caring about the consciences of his brothers and sisters. Paul reminds the ‘strong’ that no Christian is free to assert his rights if it means harming others. And for some the insistence on this freedom would be a stumbling block, a stone in the path. In disputable matters no one, strong or weak, should try to impose their point of view.

        In verse 10 Paul points out what can happen “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?” The man who understands the unreality of idols is seen partaking in a temple meal. As one papyrus says “Chaeremon invites you to dine at the table of the lord Serapis in the temple of Serapis.” The Corinthian temple of Asclepion has been extensively studied, and it contains a number of dining rooms where temple offering feasts were served. So the person who considers idols nothing goes in and eats; the person for whom idols are a temptation says ‘I can handle that.’ Verse 11: “So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.” You’ve led him into destructive temptation by your freedom. ‘Destroyed’ is present tense: we’re not talking about his eternal life, but his present Christian walk being harmed. If Christ so loved this brother he was willing to die to give him eternal life, aren’t you willing to restrict your freedom for the sake of his present life?

        Verse 12: “When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.” The harm done to the weak is bad enough, but this sin is also a sin against Christ himself. Paul knew this from his experience on the Damascus road where Jesus said “why are you persecuting me.” Jesus had taught that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” It’s easy to forget how much value Jesus has placed on the life of every believer - for each he chose voluntarily to die, each is a new creation in him. So even if a fellow believer is weak, easily tempted, fails to take responsibility, or acts like an irritant, our job is not to cut them down but to build them up. Remember the first principle: love builds up. Verse 13: “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.” Paul himself will do his utmost to see that he does not hinder the weak. What’s important is not his own rights or comforts, but the well-being of the brotherhood. He doesn’t want to be the stumbling block over which these brothers fall. In love, he wants to work and live for the well being of others.

        So what have we seen? On the one hand, Paul says we should not flaunt our freedom. What is freedom for you might be temptation for another and cause them to fall into sin. We don’t want those who are tempted to worship the idol to have reason to do so. Paul says in Romans that “the man who has doubts is judged if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; everything that does not come from faith is sin.” This is true of all matters of conscience. So real freedom is not just the freedom to do something: it’s also the freedom to refrain from doing it for the sake of others.

        On the other side, there is also a warning for those who have a high level of concern about certain behaviors or influences. Remembering the principle of God’s sovereignty, you need to be careful not to give too much authority or influence to worldly things. In doing so you give the idol more importance than it has, which is a back handed way of acknowledging or worshiping it. You also risk legalism, setting up artificial standards of behavior that go beyond what God’s word demands, and which quickly grow to be, if not requirements, at least the test of salvation. ‘Nobody who’s really saved would do that.’ You’re making this behavior an idol because in your mind it has the power of salvation, which belongs only to a sovereign God.

        So in this case, Paul carefully avoided both legalism and licence. He avoided legalism by affirming that there is only one true God and because idols are powerless in God’s eyes, we are no worse if we eat the food offered to them and no better if we do. We don’t want to exalt the power of the idol; we want to exalt the power of God. But he also avoided license: if your freedom is a stumbling block to your brother, you must curb your freedom. By the way, I think the test should be if someone is really tempted. If we curb our freedom not because someone is tempted but because they’re irritated, we’ve abused this principle - so have they. The idea is to cause no harm to a brother, not to submit to every whim of behavior they’d like to impose.

        So how do we apply this in contemporary situations? Let me close with a few examples. We’ve already talked a bit about rock music: it’s clearly a gray area in terms of Biblical command. But some people are sensitive to certain kinds of music. The example I use is a particular tune and rhythm pattern that used to be called a bump and grind, associated with strip-tease. You can change the words to a Presbyterian hymn, as was done in the musical Godspell, and it still sounds like a striptease to me. Now I can accept that as irony, as in Godspell, but not as devotional music. The style may be morally neutral, but there is some music my upbringing refuses to associate with godliness, and I don’t want my Christian music to sound that way.

        And the same thing can happen to people in the area of movies, or TV or the internet. Some here might have more freedom than I do in any of these areas, some might have less. Some will say that being aware of what’s presented in movies and TV makes us better witnesses to the culture; that there are real bridges to the Gospel consciously or unconsciously built into those things.

        But other people are more prone to temptation in these areas, and need the freedom to avoid them. This calls for responsible behavior on both sides. If I’m weak in some area, I need to have standards and accountability in place, and I need to be able to graciously bow out of situations that make me uncomfortable without condemning those who are freer. When I’m the one who sees the value in some of these movies or shows or the better uses of the internet, I need to avoid imposing my freedom on others. We don’t all have to agree on these matters, we do need to be responsible and gracious, not tempting others by our license or binding others by our legalism.

        Other areas: dress. Here we need to be very careful not to use our freedom in a way that will tempt others. Girls and ladies especially must know that inappropriate attire can be a significant temptation issue to many of thee men and boys they interact with. But does this mean we all have to adopt some uniform style of modest dress, like the Islamic chador or burqa? No, I don’t think so. Instead, this is an opportunity to speak the truth in love. If someone’s immodesty is an actual distraction to you personally, it’s probably very reasonable to have even a neutral third party pass that on. But only you or that neutral third party are in a position to say anything. You can’t let it be gossip. Furthermore, it’s never appropriate to accuse or mock somebody for too much modesty, and yet that happens, especially among the youth.

        We could discuss other examples. Schooling choices are just that: choices, matters of conscience and personal decision, and we can’t try to impose our convictions on others. Remember, love builds up, and if someone has made a choice in this area different than yours, they ought to be able to count you as one of their strongest supporters, not see you as a reproach. Use of money is also a matter of conscience: it’s okay for people to have different priorities for the money the Lord has given them to steward. We can’t let use of money become something we reproach people for or something that tempts us to bad stewardship. If we accept the truth that money itself can become an idol, then out of love for our brothers we don’t want to do anything that focuses on the idol rather than the sovereign God.

        This isn’t the only important truth about matters of conscience; Paul will return to this in chapter 10 and will discourse on it at length in Romans 14 and 15. It’s worth your further study. But I think the principles we’ve seen here will serve us well: that we need to focus on building our brothers up in love. That we need to keep in mind God’s sovereignty. So we don’t want to do anything, either in freedom or in legalism, that shifts attention from God to things that cannot compare to God.