There are things in life which we must do and things we may do. And sometimes those things we may do, or believe we have a right to, need to be sacrificed for the sake of the well-being of others, for the sake of the kingdom of God.
That’s something Paul shows in 1 Corinthians 8. Evidently the loving unity in the church at Corinth was threatened by the issue of whether you could eat meat offered to idols. In Paul’s days, idol worship was so much a part of life in Corinth, a thriving metropolis that mixed business with Greek religious practices, that business deals and social life took place at the temples like we might gather at a restaurant for dinner. And if you ordered a meal, it was probable that the meat had first been offered to an idol. Even the butcher’s meat was likely to have come from the temple because the priests sold excess meat to the meat markets.
Hence Christians who’d just been converted from heathen idolatry asked themselves whether it was right to eat meat that had first been offered to idols. Some concluded that it was dead wrong; after all, it had been offered to idols and we should have nothing to do with idolatry. Others said, meat is just meat and idols are just dead images so it’s silly not to eat it.
Now Paul says to the latter group: you’re right, meat is just meat and idols are no gods because there’s only one God. So technically you’re right: you may eat it. But there’s something else to consider and it’s this: the knowledge that meat is really just meat should not lead us to be puffed up and to look down on our fellow believers whose consciences are bothered by the fact that the food is linked to idol worship. Perhaps some of these believers had been so used to idolatrous practices before they were converted that the danger was very real that, by eating food that had been offered to idols, they could be lured back into heathen practices again.
Paul says therefore that the stronger ones, the ones with a sober knowledge that food in itself is just food, should not look down on those that aren’t that far yet. The strong have to take care that their superior knowledge, whereby they can take the liberty to eat such food, should not become a stumbling block for the weak and lead the weak into sin. Thereby the strong would be unintentionally sinning against Christ by leading the weaker brother to fall. After all, the salvation of the weaker brother is far more important than eating. So, whilst legally the strong have the ‘right’ to eat food offered to idols, they should, if necessary, give up that right for the sake of a weaker brother. Their superior knowledge needs to be rooted in love for the other.
Of course, the question of eating meat offered to idols is not an issue for us today. But the principle remains. There are those who think they are strong enough in the faith not to be influenced by the world in things they buy or watch or do which others consider dangerous. There are places which ‘the strong’ believe they can go to which others consider spiritually unsafe. Even if ‘the strong’ are right (and too often that is, at best, debatable), this in itself does not justify their behaviour. There is the crucial matter of the spiritual well-being and salvation of their brothers and sisters in the church. And then there are also the words of Paul: let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.