Take Care with Liberty (1 Corinthians 8-10)

[Note: Before you read this post, we recommend you study the passage for yourself using this worksheet.]

A quick overview:
  • Big Idea: Mature Christians should be willing to give up their freedoms in order to edify brothers and sisters with weaker consciences.
  • 1 Corinthians 8: This chapter contains an important principle: “Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies”. Paul was not anti-knowledge or pro-ignorance — he highlighted the importance of knowledge throughout 1 Corinthians. He was saying that knowledge alone about Christian liberty — apart from love — makes a person arrogant.
  • 1 Corinthians 9: Paul illustrated from his own life how he followed the principle he taught in chapter 8. He knew this teaching was difficult, and he wanted his readers to know that he himself had practiced what he preached.
  • 1 Corinthians 10: Paul knew that Christian liberty came with both responsibility and temptation. In chapter 10, he warned the Corinthian Christians against pride which could lead to disqualification. Instead, they should seek “the glory of God,” the profit of believers and the salvation of unbelievers.

Love Trumps Liberty

How do you know if someone is a Christian? His cross t-shirt? The fish on the bumper of her car? Of course, only God can see into the heart and soul of a person and say for sure, but one of the truest marks of a Christian is love. But that raises another question: What is love? How do you know if love is genuine? We all agree that words alone mean little. Love will result in action and genuine love can be demonstrated in many ways. Jesus was the greatest example of love and the Apostle John tells us that He demonstrated His love through sacrifice (1 John 4:7-11).

In 1 Corinthians 8-10, we learn that in the Corinthian church, there was a secondary issue causing a lot of trouble: Meat sacrificed to idols. Not a big issue in our time, but it provided the Apostle Paul with an opportunity to teach a timeless principle of maturity for Christians: Love trumps liberty.

“Love Edifies” (1 Corinthians 8)

(8:1-13) Paul began this three-chapter issue with a thorny issue and an overriding principle:

Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies.” (1 Corinthians 8:1, NASB95)  

Eating meat sacrificed to idols may not be a problem for us, but in that culture idolatry was both grotesque and rampant. The possibility of eating meat sacrificed to idols was constant. This issue serves as the basis for the discussion throughout chapters 8-10. He seems to depart from it in chapter 9, but as we’ll see, that isn’t the case. The “knowledge” here probably refers to the knowledge that “there is no such thing as an idol” (v.4). And yes, we have liberty to eat whatever is put in front of us (v.8). But, the overriding principle is not knowledge, but love! When in doubt, love! Love “edifies” (lit., build or repair; cf., Romans 14:19). Paul was not promoting ignorance — “love” over “knowledge”. He highlights the importance of knowledge throughout the chapter. The idea is that knowledge alone — apart from love makes a person arrogant and this is destructive.

Paul did not teach that it was a sin to each meat sacrificed to idols, but because it was an issue in Corinth, it was a good opportunity to address matters of conscience — secondary issues and how to handle them. Paul wrote that there are no other gods, but many people think differently. Idols are everywhere, but they are nothing. They have no power. They do not cling to meat or alcohol or rock music CDs or any other things. Notice that Paul delivered “knowledge” — a right understanding of “so-called gods” in vs. 6-8. This is a good thing — knowledge is good. It is good to know that “there is but one God”. But, some people don’t understand this. Paul described them as “weak” (v.7,9). They see themselves as “sacrificing” or honoring an idol and their conscience is defiled (they think it is sinful).

But Paul is not addressing them. He wrote to those who had the knowledge that meat is meat and it doesn’t matter whether it was sacrificed to idols. He wrote to the ones who knew they had “liberty” to eat. And this brings us back to the overriding principle: Love. The solution to this impasse between the weak and the free is love — sacrificing liberty for the sake of others.

But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Corinthians 8:9, NASB95)  

The principle is simple: Love trumps liberty! “Take care” how you use your liberty around someone who is “weak” — someone who believes it is a sin to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Misusing liberty can “ruin” a brother in Christ (v.11). This probably refers to the fact that the conscience of a weak believer could be seared (cf. 1 Tim. 4:2), and his capacity to distinguish right from wrong would be lost (cf. Titus 1:15; 1 Cor. 10:9–10; Rom. 14:15). It is never good to encourage a person to go against his conscience. The point is that sometimes those with the “knowledge” that we have great liberty in Christ, should sacrifice that liberty for the good of others. Love trumps liberty.

Don’t misunderstand: We should teach “weak” brothers the truth about secondary issues like this. Paul did so indirectly throughout chapters 8-10. But, we should give them time — let the Holy Spirit use the word of God to grow them to maturity.

“All things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9)

(9:1-18) “Am I not free?” Paul didn’t change the subject here. His subject is liberty and how to use it wisely. The provocative list of questions with which he began this chapter continues the conversation of liberty. Choosing to limit your own liberty for a “weak brother” is difficult. But, he reminded his readers that he practiced what he preached. His decision to remain single was not some priestly law — he chose not to take a wife, even though some of the other apostles had done so, in order to serve the Lord with “undistracted devotion” (7:35).

Paul must have been criticized for asking the Corinthians to support his ministry (there’s nothing new under the sun), because many of the questions in the first half of chapter 9 relate to that subject. He asked whether he had a right to be financially supported by those who had benefited from his ministry:

Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock? I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” (1 Corinthians 9:7–11, NASB95)  

The expected answers are: Of course! Of course a soldier should not have to serve at his own expense. Of course a planter should eat the fruit of the vineyard. Of course a shepherd should drink the milk of the flock he tends. Of course an ox should be able to eat the grain he is threshing. If all this is not enough, the final question states his point clearly: “If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” It just makes sense for you and me to financially support those who invest their lives in ministering to us.

But, this is not a fund-raising letter. The real point — linking this list of questions about Paul to the larger discussion about liberty — is found in v.12: “…Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ”. He had not demanded this right so that he might win the Corinthians to Christ and not hinder the things God was doing in their lives. Once again, Paul used himself as an illustration of what he was teaching. “He who is spiritual” (2:15) will follow the principle taught in chapter 8: Love trumps liberty.

(9:19-23) Paul’s words here are among the most beautiful and challenging words ever written regarding Christian liberty:

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.” (1 Corinthians 9:19–23, NASB95)  

He did not violate the moral will of God (Scripture) by becoming “all things to all men”. He did not become a thief to win thieves or an adulterer to win adulterers. He was willing to change or compromise or sacrifice or endure whatever was necessary in order to reach people with the gospel. But remember to read this in the context of the discussion about liberty. Not only does “love” trump liberty, but the gospel trumps liberty. Paul had chosen to sacrifice his liberty for the sake of “all men” — including the Corinthians. They should be willing to do the same for others.

(9:24-27) Then, he used the original sports metaphors to strengthen his point:

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24–27, NASB95)  

How does this talk of racing and boxing help Paul to make his point? Think of how difficult it is to “become all things to all people”. Befriending people who are very different than you are or those you don’t even like to be around — loving the unlovable, giving up your own freedom and restricting yourself so as not to needlessly offend. This is difficult — it requires great discipline. You have to have an eternal perspective in the midst of the moment. You have to have faith that when you run across that finish line, it will all have been worth it.

Also, this willingness to “become all things to all men” in order to win them to Christ requires potentially putting yourself into a situation where you’ll face temptation. To “become all things to all men” in a sinful way or just decide it’s too hard to serve God and quit “the race,” can cause a person to be “disqualified”. What does it mean to be disqualified? There is a difference of opinion here, but probably Paul meant it broadly. Remember, it’s a sports metaphor, so don’t over-read here. But, there are many ways we can be disqualified. Sometimes, God takes people out of the “race”. The Apostle John tells us there is a “sin that leads to death” (1 John 5:16). Since that’s true, it’s not hard to imagine that God has other ways of removing the disqualified from the race. We can also remove ourselves from the race of “winning” people to Christ. Perhaps we lose their trust or scare them off somehow — perhaps from misusing our liberty. The way to avoid disqualification is to “discipline” our bodies against whatever temptations we may face.

Do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10)

(10:1-13) Notice that Paul is still talking about “eating” and “drinking” and “idolatry” in this chapter. This is the same discussion he started in chapter 8. Here, Paul uses Old Testament Israel as an illustration of “disqualification” (9:27). The Old Testament “fathers” gave into temptation (e.g., idolatry, immorality and grumbling). David Lowery helps us understand the connection:

“So that the Corinthians might not think God’s discipline would be an unlikely eventuality for a people so blessed as they (1:5), Paul cited the illustration of another group of people who were greatly blessed by God but yet experienced His severe discipline. Israel of old was reckless and unrestrained after her physical and spiritual freedom from tyranny in Egypt. As a result God meted out severe discipline by cutting short the lives of many Israelites. They were all in the “race” (9:24), but almost all were disqualified (9:27) in spite of their advantages. (Lowery, D. K. (1985). 1 Corinthians. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 525). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.)

Paul was warning his readers against pride — thinking they would never be “overtaken” by the same kinds of temptations related to liberty:

Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall. No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:11–13, NASB95)  

(10:14-22) Paul knew that idolatry was and is a real temptation. It takes many forms. He knew that it was necessary to use our liberty to “become all things to all men” for the sake of the gospel, but he also knew that this freedom could lead to temptation to return to old ways — old idols. So, he passionately commanded these “beloved” brothers to “flee idolatry”. Paul did not want the Corinthians to get the wrong idea. Eating meat sacrificed to idols is no big deal, but idolatry itself is sin. We have no freedom here! Learn from the example of the Israelites — don’t get in bed with idols, “flee” from them! He uses the Lord’s Supper (vs. 16-17) and Israel’s temple worship (v.18) to illustrate that there are spiritual realities behind religious rituals. The spiritual reality behind pagan worship and idolatry is “demons” (v.20-21; cf., 1 Timothy 4:1ff) and Paul did not want them to “become sharers in demons”. How could that happen? By taking his instructions about meat and expanding that to participation in the rituals of sacrifice themselves.

(10:23-33) The rest of this chapter is very practical. Paul gave some general principles for making decisions about how to use freedom: “…Not all things are profitable” or “edify” and we should seek what is best for our neighbor over our own good (23-24). He gave some practical guidelines as well in vs. 25-30. The final three verses provide a nice summary of the entire discussion. Our ultimate motivation should be “the glory of God,” the profit of believers and the salvation of unbelievers:

Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved.” (1 Corinthians 10:31–33, NASB95)  

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