1 Corinthians 8:1-3 “Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him.”
Knowledge isn’t necessarily a good thing in itself. Some scholars will tell you that simple geometry demonstrates that as you double the radius of your knowledge the perimeter of what is unknown to you also doubles. The old adage ‘the more I know the more I don’t know’ rings true if you’re not focused on yourself.
Matthew Henry point out that nothing makes little knowledge useless more than a big ego; “There is no proof of ignorance more common than conceit of knowledge. Much may be known, when nothing is known to good purpose. And those who think they know any thing, and grow vain thereon, are the least likely to make good use of their knowledge.”
The early church at Corinth was dealing with the question if it was OK to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Barnes’ Notes sums up the issue; “Some Christians would hold that there could be no harm in partaking of this meat any more than any other meat, since an idol was nothing; and others would have many scruples in regard to it, since it would seem to countenance idol worship. The request made of Paul was, that he should settle some “general principle” which they might all safely follow.”
Paul tells us that in Christ Jesus we have liberty and warns; “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Corinthians 8:9) When knowledge is used to justify actions that have little or no regard for others, it is of no value. Worse than that it ‘puffs up’ those that stand on it and trips up many who struggle with it.
The general principle Paul expresses is this; “For through your knowledge he who has a weakness becomes ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it has weakness, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.” (1 Corinthians 8:11-13)
There’s nothing selfish about this general principle and that’s why I have trouble with it. If some of my ‘weaker brothers’ could trip up because of my actions then all my hard earned ‘knowledge’ doesn’t allow me to do as I please even when I know that it’s OK! Why should I care! Am I my brother’s keeper? Paul’s general principle runs contrary to the spirit of Cain which beset not only the early church in Corinth but also besets our churches today.
We don’t have to worry about meat sacrificed to idols. As yet this practice hasn’t been ‘re-discovered’ by our society. That being said, we have plenty of idols and we do enjoy the proceeds of their worship. Drinking, gambling and hedonistic excess are all idols for western societies. Having a glass of wine with dinner, buying a lottery ticket or spending hundreds of dollars on a prom dress aren’t sinful – are they? Yet the hype and cultural expectations we have built around these things and others like them provide us with much indulgence while others stumble over them.
The freedom we have in Christ comes with a responsibility to ourselves and our brothers. The extent to which we hang on to our ‘rights’ to indulge in those things that we have liberty in is the extent to which we are in their grasp; “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” (1 Corinthians 6:12) We have a responsibility to our brothers to not behave in ways that will make them stumble; “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.…” (1 Corinthians 10:23,24)
The expression of Paul’s general principle of not doing anything that would cause your weaker brother to stumble is an act of love. Love trumps knowledge. Love is the foundation of all truly worthwhile knowledge. Love is putting away the childish things of self-indulgence and growing up. A telling mark of ‘edification’ is maturity. Love matures our faith and conforms us to Jesus Christ; “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face.” (1 Corinthians 13:11,12)
Jesus tells us; “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:3)