1 Corinthians 8 –Abuse of conscience

Reading: 1 Corinthians 8

I knew this passage well growing up. Many of my Christian influences were part of the Holiness movement, and several of them professed to be entirely sanctified; they could tell me how many years they lived without sin. One thing that struck me about those who were entirely sanctified is that they were deeply convicted of sin — but, having none in their own lives they felt conviction of other people’s sinfulness.

Of course, it was pretty hard to understand where the sin list came from; but basically, one must avoid movies, 20th century music, popular culture in general. Men needed to have their hair cut short, and women needed to wear skirts. If anybody questioned whether or not these behaviors were sinful, this passage stood out; if my behavior offends the conscience of somebody, I should respect that person’s conscience.

At first this makes sense. Maybe, I realize that there is nothing wrong with wearing my hair past my collar; maybe I realize that there has been quite a bit of good music made recently, and that most of it is inoffensive. Perhaps I recognize that a woman wearing woman’s pants is no more wearing men’s clothing than a man wearing a kilt is wearing woman’s clothing; yet somebody of weaker faith who does not know these things might be offended and find this to be a stumbling block.

The problem was, that all these people of weaker faith who were offended seemed to be those who claimed their faith was the strongest. Those who claimed to be without sin were the only ones offended. This passage does not seem to be about not offending the church leaders; it seems to be about harming the faith of those who are superstitious and new in their faith. Somehow, I doubt that I need to worry about offending the conscience of the people who claim to be mature.

Having had some time to think beyond the wisdom of a teenager who is convinced that he knows better than his elders, I did start to recognize what is going on here. First of all, there was a business meeting about this at Jerusalem. The decision was that Christians should not eat meat that was sacrificed to idols. It is unlikely that Paul is standing against the wider community, it is more likely that he is quoting the letter he got from Corinth.

Paul reads that Idols are nothing, because there is only one God. So far, this is good. Then he likely reads the conclusion that if Idols are nothing, then a sacrifice to nothing is no sacrifice at all, therefore go ahead and eat. There is a good and solid logic to this, but there is also a scandal to this. I’ve read that archaeologists have recovered invitations to a dinner in Corinth; and the dinner was at the temple. “There is only one God, idols are nothing, the Greek gods are nothing — therefore, it is nothing if I go to the temple of Apollo for my friend’s birthday party.” This is not a matter of failing to ask about the meat (Paul suggested… don’t ask), but instead this is very public to the point of appearing to be polytheistic. This is the type of wisdom that makes people ask themselves why they can’t be Christian and pagan — as wise, good respectable Christians seem to have no trouble; and it also manages to hide the person’s connection with Christianity.
If I were to look at current Christianity; I notice that one difference from my childhood and where I am now is that in my childhood drinking was forbidden for both adults and children. As I grew up, people observed that scripture does not condemn drinking — drunkenness, yes, but drinking, in moderation, no. I now have many Christian friends, even from backgrounds that opposed alcohol who drink and enjoy talking about wines or craft beers.

While I can find little justification on an outright ban — it would be unwise for somebody to express such freedom to somebody who is in recovery from addiction. The nature of the disease is that the person is unable to act in moderation — for the addict, there is no freedom, only the disease. If a Christian community has a connection with people in AA, the likely should not serve alcohol.

In my years of reflecting on this passage, three things have come to the surface: First, those who claim to be mature cannot also claim that a less mature Christian is a stumbling block to them; their faith should be mature and strong enough to survive Second, we should not use our freedom as a tool to rationalize behavior that harms the community and 3rd there are those who truly are weaker in some areas, and we should not put obstacles in front of them, but instead should support them as best we can. We might have freedom, but sometimes it is better to live according to love than to make a law… even if the law is one that enumerates freedoms.


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