Weak Consciences and Christian Liberty

Paul is writing to exhort the church at Corinth toward unity. According to Paul, unity comes through maturity. Paul has provided the basis for his next exhortation, knowledge makes arrogant but love edifies. Paul now answers a question that was likely asked of him in a previous letter from Corinth: Is it a sin to eat meat sacrificed to idols? In this section of Scripture, we see the basic truth about Christian liberty and living with those who have weak consciences—those who are immature in the faith.

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1 Corinthians 8:4-13

4 Περὶ τῆς βρώσεως οὖν τῶν εἰδωλοθύτων οἴδαμεν ὅτι οὐδὲν εἴδωλον ἐν κόσμῳ, καὶ ὅτι οὐδεὶς θεὸς εἰ μὴ εἷς.  5 καὶ γὰρ εἴπερ εἰσὶν λεγόμενοι θεοὶ εἴτε ἐν οὐρανῷ εἴτε ἐπὶ γῆς, ὥσπερ εἰσὶν θεοὶ πολλοὶ καὶ κύριοι πολλοί,  6 ἀλλʼ ἡμῖν εἷς θεὸς ὁ πατήρ, ἐξ οὗ τὰ πάντα καὶ ἡμεῖς εἰς αὐτόν, καὶ εἷς κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, διʼ οὗ τὰ πάντα καὶ ἡμεῖς διʼ αὐτοῦ.  

7 Ἀλλʼ οὐκ ἐν πᾶσιν ἡ γνῶσις· τινὲς δὲ τῇ συνηθείᾳ ἕως ἄρτι τοῦ εἰδώλου ὡς εἰδωλόθυτον ἐσθίουσιν, καὶ ἡ συνείδησις αὐτῶν ἀσθενὴς οὖσα μολύνεται.  8 βρῶμα δὲ ἡμᾶς οὐ παραστήσει τῷ θεῷ· οὔτε γὰρ ἐὰν φάγωμεν, περισσεύομεν, οὔτε ἐὰν μὴ φάγωμεν, ὑστερούμεθα.  9 βλέπετε δὲ μή πως ἡ ἐξουσία ὑμῶν αὕτη πρόσκομμα γένηται τοῖς ἀσθενέσιν.  10 ἐὰν γάρ τις ἴδῃ σὲ τὸν ἔχοντα γνῶσιν ἐν εἰδωλείῳ κατακείμενον, οὐχὶ ἡ συνείδησις αὐτοῦ ἀσθενοῦς ὄντος οἰκοδομηθήσεται εἰς τὸ τὰ εἰδωλόθυτα ἐσθίειν;  11 ἀπόλλυται γὰρ ὁ ἀσθενῶν ἐν τῇ σῇ γνώσει, ὁ ἀδελφὸς διʼ ὃν Χριστὸς ἀπέθανεν.  12 οὕτως δὲ ἁμαρτάνοντες εἰς τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς καὶ τύπτοντες αὐτῶν τὴν συνείδησιν ἀσθενοῦσαν εἰς Χριστὸν ἁμαρτάνετε.  13 διόπερ εἰ βρῶμα σκανδαλίζει τὸν ἀδελφόν μου, οὐ μὴ φάγω κρέα εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα, ἵνα μὴ τὸν ἀδελφόν μου σκανδαλίσω.  

Piety culture (v. 4-8)

Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one.

Paul appeals first to knowledge, which makes arrogant. We know  that there is only one God and that so-called idols don’t really exist. Such knowledge is good. Idolatry is not possible outwardly because there are no other gods in heaven or on earth. Such a sin can only be committed in one’s heart if he or she directs worship toward a non-existent god in heaven or on the earth. Those who have greater knowledge in the faith, then, tend to take more liberties as they live. In this case, they eat the meat because they know that meat is meat and is the same no matter where they purchase it. 

For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him. 

Paul entertains a hypothetical. Even if there were so-called gods whether in heaven or on the earth as, indeed, there are many gods and lords. Paul did not qualify or clarify his statement, but he most likely means that there are many gods and lords in the minds of people rather than reality, there is only one God and Lord in the Christian’s mind. Paul is still appealing to knowledge, here—the doctrinal claims of the Christian worldview. 

According to Paul, the one God is the Father. All things are from the Father, and we exist for the Father. The Christian’s Lord is Jesus Christ. All things exist by Him, and we exist through Him. This statement is an interesting one in Paul’s letters because Paul distinguishes between the Father and Jesus Christ, calling the Father “God” and Christ “Lord,” as if the two are separate. Paul’s trinitarian theology shines through—we exist from the Father through Christ, necessitating the oneness of the Father and Christ. They are different persons but one essence. Different aspects of their creating and sustaining work execute on one person or the other, but they are both entirely involved in the work together as one essence—one God. All things are from the Father by Christ—which necessitates co-eternality and co-equality between the two persons. It has been this way from the beginning (cf. Genesis 1:1; John 1:1-3; everything was from God by His Word, and His Word became flesh to dwell among men).

However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.

Weakness is not the goal, but it is a reality. There are weak people in the world. There are weak Christians in the local church. Not all people understand that there are not really idols which can be worshipped. Instead, they are accustomed to the idol—having been convinced that they ought to make every striving against what does not actually exist. Weakness, in this sense, deals with the conscience. In its initial state, the conscience of a person is weak and untrained for true righteousness. The state of our consciences from birth, being untrained by knowledge and understanding, is legalistic. We feel some things are wrong or right that are not necessarily so. Having weak consciences causes us to develop legalistic religion, condemn others for stuff we don’t like, develop a paradoxical set of moral standards, wage fantastical wars with our mouths and fists, and place religious burdens on others that do not need to be placed.

The person with a weak conscience has a conscience that is easily defiled by all sorts of things. Weak consciences can be offended by any number of things that do not actually offend God—such as eating meat sacrificed to so called idols for this group of Corinthians, use of electricity for the Amish, the wearing of modern clothes for the Mennonite, the use of alcohol for the Baptist, dancing for the reserved, certain types of music or television, the use of certain words, the reading of certain types of books, the listening to of certain sermons or podcasts, not doing what is expected by some, etc… Weak consciences are given to piety and purity culture even though God desires we be about glorifying Him rather than ourselves. Such immaturity, the weakness of conscience, leads to division in the church and world because people are offended by all kinds of things that are not sin and have conditioned their consciences to require others to sin yet call it piety. Jesus summed up the tendency of those with weak consciences nicely:

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon!” The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds (Matthew 11:18-19).

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote:

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence (Colossians 2:20-23).

John the Baptizer took the Nazarite vow, abstaining from grapes and wine (cf. Numbers 6; the Nazarite vow). Jesus came drinking wine and eating grapes. Those with weak consciences always look down on others, whether someone comes eating and drinking or abstaining from wine and grapes. Piety and purity culture is the result of weak consciences, not mature Christianity. The result of mature Christian faith is liberty. People either have weak consciences because they are infants in Christ or not in Christ at all. We need to grow into spiritual adulthood, which requires growing in knowledge.

But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat.

Paul first admonishes the weak to grow in their knowledge, understanding, and maturity so that they are no longer burdened by the legalism of worldly religion. It is okay to be weak. It is not okay to stay weak. Grow in this knowledge. With knowledge comes liberty from sin in Christ. No, eating meat sacrificed to idols is not sin because idols don’t exist. You are free. You don’t have to asceticise yourself. You don’t have to live according to a worldly definition of piety by abstaining from certain things in order to try to please God. In Christ, we have liberty, and only those who have a conscience trained by Scripture understand this. There are real sins; I am not claiming otherwise. I am convinced that most of what overtly religious people judge others for is inconsequential in God’s sight. He weighs the heart, not our level of piousness. Simply juxtapose the lives of David and Saul. Saul tried to be as religious as possible, but his heart did not belong to God. David was not at all pious and openly sinned more often than Saul, yet God had his heart and caused the Holy Spirit to dwell with him. Following Christ is not about our piety or religiosity. In Christ, we are truly free from those worldly sorts of burdens. We don’t have to feel bad for accidentally seeing something we don’t think we should see, having a drink, having a bad day, saying a certain word that has been deemed bad by human society, eating certain things, being around certain people, or being in certain places. God is concerned about our hearts, not our outward piety.

Weak consciences (v. 9-13)

But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died.

After addressing those with weak consciences, admonishing them to seek greater knowledge, he now turns his attention toward those who have knowledge, or understanding. Those who have consciences strengthened by God’s word know they have great liberty in Christ, which can be offensive to those with weak consciences who are still ruled by piety and purity religious culture—in whom remain some degree of works-righteousness or legalism. If we ruin the weak according to their own consciences, we have caused our brothers or sisters to stumble in their own sight—which can hinder their walk with Christ. Do not misunderstand, they have stumbled over their own standards and not God’s. The weak begin to question their salvation and status before God because they don’t feel Christian enough. They believe they have rebelled against God and demean themselves. We have taken their attention off Christ by knowing drawing them to do what they believe to be wrong, even if it isn’t. This is where knowledge, an understanding of Christian liberty, puffs up. Those who enjoy their liberty in Christ can cause the immature to sin. In doing so, those with knowledge sin against God. Why? In their knowledge, they did not love. Love edifies, it builds up. Consider Christ, who, in the incarnation, condescended and submitted Himself to Jewish Law even though He was truly free from and sovereign over all Law. He condescended to His people in order to edify His people.

If we love our brothers and sisters, we consider their maturity in the faith. We raise them up so that they no longer have weak consciences. Then, we can glorify God in our liberty together without causing anyone to fall. The goal is never to leave anyone in weakness, but through discipleship, bring all to a knowledge of Christ’s person and work—which liberates. Wisdom, then, is knowledge in love. When we love, we seek to edify others. If we only know, we will edify only ourselves. Christ is interested in edifying His whole church. That’s edifying, not puffing up. This is why we gather to sit at Christ’s feet and learn from His word. We desire to be edified—to be strong, not weak.

And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, 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.

Paul claims it a sin against Christ to wound a brother’s or sister’s conscience when it is weak. How can they become strong if we only ever exploit their weaknesses? How can anyone be trained well to do anything if they are not taught and edified? Edification is more than mere encouragement. If all we do is encourage, we leave our brothers and sisters in their weak state. We admonish, teach, encourage, correct, and rebuke with sound teaching so that the saints will become strong. It is a sin to wound our Christian family members when their consciences are weak. It is also a sin to leave them weak. In every arena of life, we train others to make them strong.

Yet, Paul writes that if food causes his brother to stumble, he will never eat meat again so that he will not cause his brother to stumble. “If” is the operative word, “if” a brother remains weak… If we love that brother, we will build him up so that he is not weak and we can experience liberation from sin and worldly religiosity together.

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