The Limit Of Liberty Is Love—1 Corinthians 8:1-13


Levi Durfey




The great fundamentalist preacher Harry Ironside went on a picnic with a number of Christians, and there was a Muslim convert to Christ among them. The only sandwiches they had at the picnic were ham sandwiches. 


This young man graciously refused the ham sandwich. Dr. Ironside said to him, “You’re a follower of Christ now; don’t you realize that the food restrictions have been taken away? You really are free to eat a ham sandwich.”


The young man said, “Yes, I know that. I know I’m free to eat ham, but I’m also free not to eat ham.” Then he said, “I am the only Christian in my family, and so far I’ve had the freedom to go home and share my new life in Christ with my mom and dad. Every time I go to the front door, my dad says, ‘Have those infidels taught you to eat that filthy pig meat yet?’ I’m able to look my dad in the eye and say, ’No dad, I don’t eat pork,’ which gives me an opportunity.” 


He was able to forgo his freedom for the sake of the eternal destiny of his family. This young convert knew he didn’t have to have to exert his freedom. By not exercising it, he left the way open for his family to embrace Jesus Christ. (edited, from a sermon by Gary Regazzoli).


This young man limited his freedom for the sake of being a witness to his family. The discussion in 1 Corinthians 8 has to do with certain Christians limiting their freedom for the sake of other Christians, but the overarching principle is the same: the limit of liberty is love.


In 1 Corinthians 8, the issue that was causing conflict between church members wasn’t ham sandwiches, but it did have to do with food…


1 Corinthians 8:1a Now as touching things offered unto idols…


When Paul says, “things offered unto idols,” he is talking about the pagan sacrifices that were commonly made in the Roman Empire. These weren’t the Jewish sacrifices that we know about in the Old Testament. These were sacrifices made to the Greek and Roman gods, like Apollo or Aphrodite. 


When a sacrifice was made, say a sheep or a goat, it was divided into three pieces. The first piece was burned as a sacrifice. The second was given to the priests for payment. 


What happened to the third piece, however, depended on who was making the sacrifice. If it was a public sacrifice the leftovers from the third piece was sold to shops and markets for resale.


But if a family had come to a temple to make a private sacrifice they were given the third piece to have a banquet at the temple. 


Imagine for a moment that you are the only Christian spouse or child in an otherwise pagan marriage and family. You would be expected to participate in the sacrifice and eat at the banquet with the rest of the family.


What would you do? Would you participate with your family? Would you buy meat that had been sacrificed to idols from a shop in the marketplace?


As you can imagine, Christians back then had great disagreements over this issue. Paul divides the two groups of Christians into categories of strong and weak. The strong Christian thought nothing was wrong with eating the meat sacrificed to idols. The weak Christian, however, believed that there was a problem with it.


Frankly, I don’t think I could participate with the family at a banquet at the temple, but I might be okay buying meat that had sold to the marketplace. I guess that makes me a stronger weak Christian or a weaker strong Christian!


How do you address the issue? Many Christians would say tell the weak Christians to shape up or ship out. At the very least, spend time trying to convince the weaker Christian to change their mind.


But when you look at chapter 8 here, most of what Paul says in this chapter is addressed to the strong Christian. The responsibility was laid first on him. How was he or she supposed to relate to the weak Christian? First, Paul says…




1 Corinthians 8:1b …we know [(οἴδαμεν, VRAI1P, οἶδα) root is used three times verses 1-4] that we all have knowledge [(γνῶσιν, NASF, γνῶσις) root is used five times verses 1-3]. Knowledge puffeth up [(φυσιοῖ, VPAI3S, φυσιόω)], but charity [(ἀγάπη, NNSF, ἀγάπη), love] edifieth. 

1 Corinthians 8:2 And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know. 

1 Corinthians 8:3 But if any man love God, the same is known of him.


It wasn’t just the weak Christian who was having trouble. The strong Christian had become puffed up with pride over his knowledge.


Paul is saying here that knowledge of God must be kept in balance with a love for others and a love for God. Paul understood this first-hand. He had been a Pharisee and prided himself on his knowledge of religious matters. He knew God’s law, but he did not know and love God. 


I should caution that the opposite is also true, and is very common today. People claim a love of God, but have little knowledge of who he is. 


Therefore, they go off into all kinds of sins and claim that love is what is most important. Their mantra is forget theology, just love Jesus. Well, you can’t love someone you don’t know. And you can’t know Jesus unless you know him as he is revealed in the Bible.


In the situation at Corinth, there were these strong Christians who realized that they were free to eat meat that had been used in the pagan temple sacrifices. Paul was saying to them, “Be careful with your knowledge and how you flaunt it with your Christian brothers and sisters. Keep your knowledge and love in balance.”


Notice that Paul didn’t disagree with what the strong Christians knew:


1 Corinthians 8:4 As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one. 

1 Corinthians 8:5 For though there be [if there were] that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) 

1 Corinthians 8:6 But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.


There are no other gods. There is only one God and one Lord who has made everyone and everything. So to eat meat that has been used in a pagan temple ceremony is no big deal because “an idol is nothing in the world.” 


That’s not to say that idolatry is no big deal, but idolatry happens in a person’s heart. If a Christian walked up to a store to buy some cheap meat that came from the temple, and his heart said, “This is just meat—meat that’s been provided by the one true God for me to enjoy,” then that’s not idolatry.


This is what the strong Christians understood. The strong Christian could eat this meat and glorify God for it. They knew that. 


But their knowledge made them prideful, so prideful that they tried to force their knowledge on weak Christians who felt that eating meat used in a pagan temple sacrifice was the same as participating in that pagan worship.


So Paul says to them, “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity [love] edifieth [builds up].” You aren’t going to build your brother or sister’s faith by forcing them to believe what you know. Knowledge has to be kept in balance with love. 


It’s love that will build up, although it may take time. A person’s conscience cannot change overnight. In verse 13, Paul suggests that it could take until the end of the world, “I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.”


But what does this mean for the strong Christian’s liberty? Paul says…




1 Corinthians 8:7 Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. 


The strong Christian was able to look an idol and say, “It’s just wood and stone…no big deal.” But the weak Christian could not do that. What was different? 


Presumably, they all were involved in the idol worship before becoming Christians, so what made some of them more susceptible to stumbling over eating meat that had been used in idol worship?


Paul says that “there is not in every man that knowledge” of how there is only one God and that idols are nothing. I don’t think he means that they hadn’t heard that taught, after all, he was teaching it right then. 


I think he means that they couldn’t accept it because of their conscience. The association of the meat with idol worship was so strong in their minds that they just couldn’t shake it.


In a similar way, it’s like an ex-drinker or ex-drug user not being able to be around the environments that they used to be in or even smelling the smell of alcohol. 


Let’s stop here a moment and nail down who the weak Christian is: The weak Christian is someone whose conscience has not matured to the point that they can accept knowledge of a certain liberty. 


Not every Christian who complains about another Christian’s liberty is a weak Christian.  Some are just plain ol’ Pharisees trying to have their way. In the New Testament, we find that Paul confronts those kinds of Christians. 


One example is when Peter, after learning that it was right to eat all kinds of foods, and to eat with Gentiles, refused to eat with Gentiles out of fear of offending other Jews. He drew Barnabas into the whole issue as well. 


Paul says, in Galatians 2:11, “I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.” (cf. 1 Timothy 5:11-13; Galatians 2:11-14). 


Not every upset Christian is one that you have to tip-toe around, especially if that person distracts you from truly serving Christ. Paul said, “For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).


In this passage, these are genuine weak Christians whose consciences are truly defiled and it’s possible that they could stumble in their faith. Sometimes it will be difficult to know where to draw the line, and in that case, we probably ought to err on the side of love.


Once again, Paul affirms to the strong Christians that he agrees with them:


1 Corinthians 8:8 But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. 


But, he says…


1 Corinthians 8:9 But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. 


In what way would the weak Christian stumble? Paul continues…


1 Corinthians 8:10 For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; 

1 Corinthians 8:11 And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? 


The weaker brother might see the stronger eating this idol meat, and, instead of taking it to be for what it was to the stronger brother—just some good meat—the weaker brother understands it to be that the stronger Christian is participating in idol worship. 


The weaker Christian then thinks, “Oh, this must be the thing to do.” But instead of it being just good meat to them, they actually worship the idol.


That’s the basic gist of it, the actual stumbling will be different for different people and different situations. However it works out, the stumbling isn’t just the weak being angry at the strong for doing something they believe is wrong, it’s actually damaging to their faith.


The stronger Christian has the responsibility to a weaker Christian to not cause them to stumble. Essentially, Paul says to the stronger Christians, “Be the example that they can look up to. Christ died for this person, shouldn’t you be able to give up a little meat that’s been used in a pagan sacrifice? “


In fact, it would good for us to remember in all our Christian relationships that our brothers and sisters are people for “for who Christ died.” That might go a long way toward ending gossiping and complaining about the little things others do that you don’t like.


Paul goes further and says that it’s more than just being considerate to a brother or sister in Christ. When you cause someone to falter in their faith, it’s a sin:


1 Corinthians 8:12 But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. 


Why is it a sin? Because you are violating the commandment to love your neighbor and to love one another as Christians (cf. Matthew 22:39; John 15:9-13). 


So for the sake of loving your neighbor and your brother, limit your liberty:


1 Corinthians 8:13 Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.


We’ve learned that when relating to a weaker Christian, we are to keep our knowledge and love in balance and we are to limit our liberty with love. There is one more lesson I want to draw out for us today.




The basic message of this passage is that we need to think of the other guy more. This week, a psychology professor’s extra-credit test question went viral on the Internet. Here’s the question (How would you answer it?):


Here you have the opportunity to earn some extra credit on your final paper grade. Select whether you want 2 points or 6 points added onto your final paper grade. But there’s a small catch: if more than 10% of the class selects 6 points, then no one gets any points. (


That’s it. Select two or six points. But if too many people select the six points, no one gets any points. So the way to win is to think of the whole group and select two points, instead of thinking of yourself and selecting six points. 


The person who reported the story on Fox News concluded by saying, “We wish we were surprised that most are too tempted by the selfish six points to do what’s good for the group. But people have been doing this kind of thing since the dawn of time. Well, some people.”


They almost got it right. The Bible says that all people have been sinful and selfish since the dawn of time. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). 


The only way to get rid of the sin and selfishness in your heart is to come to Christ Jesus. He has paid the penalty for your sin by dying on the cross for you. 


But he also promises to help you overcome sin in your life by giving you the Holy Spirit when you trust in him. The Holy Spirit, when you rely on him, will help you not to sin. Then, one day, when you die (or are raptured), you’ll be given a new body, a resurrection body, that will be perfect and sinless.


However, we must admit, trusting in Christ is only the start. Selfishness is a problem among Christians. James was grieved over conflicts among Christians in the church when he wrote:


1 From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? 2 Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. 3 Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. (James 4:1–3)


The core of conflict between the stronger and weaker Christian is also the core of any conflict between Christians—it’s plain ol’ selfishness. 


The funny thing about saying that is this: which one is being selfish? 


Tom and Sam are having an issue. Tom prays about it and finally comes to the conclusion: Sam is being selfish. Well, isn’t Tom being selfish in saying that Sam is selfish?


Here’s what I do and what I suggest—or at least one thing you can do. Ask yourself, which one of you has the pattern of conflict? What do others say? Are you known as Selfish Sam? Thoughtless Tom?


What do you need to do? You need to heed the call to Jesus same as the unbeliever does. Sure, the unbeliever needs saved in the first place. But the Christian needs to come back to the Savior who died for them and for their fellow Christian.


Remember, that, by nature, you are selfish. Your old nature, that is. But in Christ, you are a new creature—you have a new nature—one that can make a loving choice, not a selfish choice.

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