Expositor's Bible Commentary
Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.
LIBERTY AND LOVE
THE next question which had been put to Paul by the Corinthian Church, and to which he now replies, is "touching things offered unto idols," whether a Christian had liberty to eat such things or not. This question necessarily arose in a society partly heathen and partly Christian. Every meal was in a manner dedicated to the household gods by laying some portion of it on the family altar. Where one member of a heathen family had become a Christian, he would at once be confronted with the question, rising in his own conscience, whether by partaking of such food he might not be countenancing idolatry. On the occasion of a birthday, or a marriage, or a safe return from sea, or any circumstance that seemed to call for celebration, it was customary to sacrifice in some public temple. And after the legs of the victim, enclosed in fat, and the entrails had been burnt on the altar, the worshipper received the remainder, and invited his friends and guests to partake of it either in the temple itself, or in the surrounding grove, or at his own home. Here again a young convert might very naturally ask himself whether he was justified in attending such a feast and actually sitting down to meat in the idol’s presence. Nor was it only personal friendships and the harmony of family life that were threatened; but on public occasions and national celebrations the Christian was in a strait betwixt two; fearful, on the one band, of branding himself as no good citizen by abstaining from participation in the feast, fearful, on the other hand, lest by compliance he should be found unfaithful to his new religion. And even though his own family was entirely Christian, the difficulty was not removed, for much of the meat offered in worship found its way into the. common market, so that at every meal the Christian ran the risk of eating things sacrificed to idols.
Among the Jews it had always been considered pollution to eat such food. Instances are on record of men dying cheerfully rather than suffer such contamination. Few Jewish Christians could rise to the height of our Lord’s maxim, "Not that which goeth into a man defileth him." The Gentile converts also felt the difficulty of at once throwing off all the old associations. When they entered the temple where but a few months ago they had worshipped, the atmosphere of the place intoxicated them; and the long-accustomed sights quickened their pulse and exposed them to serious temptation. Others, less sensitive, could use the temple as they would an ordinary eating house, without the slightest stirring of idolatrous feeling. Some went to the houses of heathen friends as often as they were invited, and partook of what was set before them, making no minute inquiries as to how the meat had been provided, asking no questions for conscience’ sake, but believing that the earth and its fulness were the Lord’s, and that what they ate they received from God, and not from an idol. Others, again, could not shake off the feeling that they were countenancing idolatry when they partook of such feasts. Thus there arose a diversity of judgment and a variance in practice which must have given rise to much annoyance, and which did not appear to be approaching any nearer to a final and satisfactory settlement.
In answer to the appeal made to him on this subject, it might seem that Paul had nothing to do but quote the deliverance of the Council of Jerusalem, which determined that Gentile converts should be commanded to abstain from meats offered to idols. Paul himself had obtained that deliverance, and was satisfied with it; but now he makes no reference to it, and treats the question afresh. In the epistles of the Lord to the Churches, embodied in the Book of Revelation, the eating of things sacrificed to idols is spoken of in strongly, condemnatory language; and in one of the very earliest non-canonical documents of the primitive Church we find the precept, "Abstain carefully from things offered to idols, for that is worship of dead gods." Paul’s disregard of the decision of the Council is probably due to his belief that that decision was merely provisional and temporary. He had founded Churches which could scarcely be expected to go past himself for guidance; and as the situation in the Corinthian Church was different from what it had been in Antioch, he felt justified in treating the matter afresh. And while in the early Church the partaking of sacrificial food which Paul allowed was sometimes vehemently condemned, this was due to the circumstance that it was sometimes used as a test of a man’s abandonment of idolatry. Of course where this was the case no Christian could possibly be in doubt regarding the proper course to follow. What a man may freely do in ordinary circumstances, he may not do if he is warned that certain inferences will be drawn from his action.
The case laid before Paul, then, belongs to the class known as matters morally indifferent. These are matters upon which conscience does not uniformly give the same verdict even among persons brought up under the same moral law. On mingling with society, everyone finds that there are many points of conduct regarding which there is not an unanimous consent of judgment among the most delicately conscientious people, and upon which it is difficult to decide even when we are anxious to do right. Such points are the lawfulness of attending certain places of public amusement, the propriety of allowing oneself to be implicated in certain kinds of private amusements or entertainments, the way of spending Sunday, and the amount of pleasure, refinement, and luxury one may admit into his life.
The state of feeling produced in Corinth by the discussion of such topics is apparent from Paul’s mode of treating the question put to him. His answer is addressed to the party who claimed superior knowledge, who wished to be known as the party which stood for liberty of conscience, and probably for the Pauline axiom, "All things are lawful for me." Paul does not directly address those who had scruples about eating, but those who had none. He does not speak to, hut only of the "weak" brethren who had still conscience of the idol. And apparently a good deal of ill-feeling had been engendered in the Corinthian Church by the different views taken. This is always the trouble in connection with morally indifferent matters. They do little harm if each holds his own opinion, genially and endeavours to influence others by a friendly statement of his own practice and the grounds of it. But in most instances it happens as in Corinth: those who saw that they could eat without contamination scorned those who had scruples; while, on their side, the scrupulous judged the eaters to be worldly timeservers, in a perilous state, less godly and consistent than themselves.
As a first step towards the settlement of this matter, Paul makes the largest concession to the party of liberty. Their clear perception that an idol was nothing in the world, a mere bit of timber, and of no more significance to a Christian than a pillar or a doorpost-this knowledge is sound and commendable. At the same time, they need not make quite so much of it as they were doing. In their letter of inquiry they must have emphasised the fact that they were the party of enlightenment, who saw things as they really were, and had freed themselves from fantastic superstitions and antiquated ideas. Quite true, says Paul, "we all have knowledge"; but you need not remind me at every turn of your superior discernment of the Christian’s true position nor of your wonderfully sagacious discovery that an idol is nothing in the world. Any Jewish schoolboy could have told you this. I know that you understand the principles which should regulate your intercourse with the heathen much better than the scrupulous do, and that your views of liberty are my own. Let us then hear no more of this. Do not always be returning upon this, as if this settled the whole matter. You are in the right so far as regards knowledge, and your brethren are weak; let that be conceded: but do not suppose you settle the question or impress me more strongly with the righteousness of your conduct by reiterating that you, whom your brethren call lax and misguided, are better instructed in the principle of Christian conduct than they. Once for all, I know this.
Does this, then, not settle the question? If-the party of liberty might say-if we are right, if the idol is nothing, and an idol’s temple no more than an ordinary dining room, does this not settle the whole matter? By no means, says Paul. "Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth." You have as yet grasped only one end, and that the weaker end, of the Christian rule. You must add love, consideration of your neighbour, to your knowledge. Without this, knowledge is unwholesome and as likely to do harm as to do good. In very similar terms the founder of the Positive philosophy speaks of the evil results of loveless knowledge. "I am free to confess," he says, "that hitherto the Positive spirit has been tainted with the two moral evils which peculiarly wait on knowledge. It puffs up, and it dries the heart, by giving free scope to pride and by turning it from love." It is indeed matter of everyday observation that men of ready insight into moral and spiritual truth are prone to despise the less enlightened spirits that stumble among the scruples which, like the bats of the moral twilight, fly in their faces. The knowledge which is not tempered by humility and love does harm both to its possessor and to other Christians; it puffs up its possessor with scorn, and it alienates and embitters the less enlightened. Knowledge without love, knowledge which does not take into consideration the difficulties and scruples of brethren, cannot be admired or commended, for though in itself a good thing and capable of being used for the advancement of the Church, knowledge dissociated from charity can do good neither to him who possesses it nor to the Christian community. However the possessors of such knowledge vaunt themselves as the men of progress and the hope of the Church, it is not by knowledge alone the Church can ever solidly grow. Knowledge does produce an appearance of growth, a puffing up, an unhealthy, morbid growth, a mushroom, fungous growth; but that which builds up the Church stone by stone, a strong, enduring edifice, is love. It is a good thing to have clear views of Christian liberty, to have definite, firmly held ideas of Christian conduct, to discard fretting scruples and idle superstitions; add love to this knowledge, exercise it in a tender, patient, self-denying, considerate, loving way, and you edify both yourself and the Church: but exercise it without love, and you become a poor inflated creature, puffed up with a noxious gas destructive of all higher life in yourself and in others.
Paul’s law, then, is that liberty must be tempered by love; that the individual must consider the society of which he forms a part; and that, after his own conscience is satisfied regarding the legitimacy of certain actions, he must further consider how the conscience of his neighbour will be affected if he uses his liberty and does these actions. He must endeavour to keep step with the Christian community of which he forms a part, and must beware of giving offence to less enlightened persons by his freer conduct. He must consider not only whether he himself can do this or that with a good conscience, but also how the conscience of those who know what he does will be affected by it.
Applying this law to the matter in hand, Paul declares that, for his own part, he has no scruples at all about meat. "Meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse." If therefore I had to consult only my own conscience, the matter would admit of prompt and easy solution. I would as soon eat in an idol’s temple as anywhere else. But all have not the conviction we have that an idol is nothing in the world. Some are unable to rid themselves of the feeling that in eating sacrificial meat they are paying an act of homage to the idol. "Some with conscience of the idol," with the feeling that the idol is present and accepting the worship, "eat the sacrificial meat as a thing offered unto an idol, and their conscience being weak is defiled." Their conscience is weak, not fully enlightened, not purged of old superstition; but their conscience is their conscience: and if they feel they are doing a wrong thing and yet do it, they do a wrong thing, and defile their conscience. Therefore we must consider them as well as ourselves, for as often as we use our liberty and eat sacrificial meat we tempt them to do the same, and so to defile their conscience. They know that you are men of sound and clear spiritual discernment; they look up to you as guides: and if they see you who have knowledge sitting at meat in the idol’s temple, must not they be emboldened to do the same, and so to stain and harden their own conscience?
It is easy to imagine how this would be exemplified at a Corinthian table. Three Christians are invited, with other guests, to a party in the house of a heathen friend. One of these invited Christians is weakly scrupulous, unable to disentangle himself from the old idolatrous associations connected with sacrificial meat. The other two Christians are men of ampler view and more enlightened conscience, and have the deepest conviction that scruples about eating at a heathen table are baseless. All three recline at the table; but, as the meal goes on, the anxious, scrutinising eye of the weak brother discerns some mark which identifies the meat as sacrificial, or, fearing it may be so, he inquires of the servant, and finds it has been offered in the temple: and at once he draws the attention of his Christian friends to this, saying, "This has been offered in sacrifice to idols." One of his friends, knowing that heathen eyes are watching, and wishing to show how superior to all such scruples the enlightened Christian is and how genial and free a religion is the religion of Christ, smiles at his friend’s scruples, and accepts the meat. The other, quite as clear sighted and free from superstition, but more generous and more truly courageous, accommodates himself to the scruple of the weak brother, and declines the dish, lest, by eating and leaving the scrupulous man without support, he should tempt him to follow their example, contrary to his own conviction, and so lead him into sin. It need not be said which of these men acts the friendly part and comes nearest to the Christian principle of Paul.
In our own society similar cases necessarily arise. I, as a Christian man, and knowing that the earth and its fulness are the Lord’s, may feel at perfect liberty to drink wine. Had I only myself to consider, and knowing that my temptation does not lie that way, I might use wine regularly or as often as I felt disposed to enjoy a needed stimulant. I may feel quite convinced in my own mind that morally I am not one whit the worse of doing so. But I cannot determine whether I am to indulge myself or not without considering the effect my conduct will have on others. There may be among my friends some who know that their temptation does lie that way, and whose conscience bids them altogether refrain. If by my example such persons are encouraged to silence the voice of their own conscience, then I incur the incalculable guilt of helping to destroy a brother for whom Christ died.
Or again, a lad has had the great good fortune to be brought up in a Puritanic household, and has imbibed stringent moral principles, with perhaps somewhat narrow ideas. He has been taught, together with much else of the same character, that the influence of the theatre is in our country demoralising, that one day in the week is little enough to give to the claims of spiritual education, and so forth. But on entering the life of a great city he is soon brought in contact with men whose uprightness, and sagacity, and Christian spirit he cannot but respect, but who yet read their weekly paper, or any book they are interested in, as freely on Sunday as on Saturday, and who visit the theatre without the slightest twinge of conscience. Now either of two things will probably happen in such a case. The young man’s ideas of Christian liberty may become clearer. He may attain the standpoint of Paul, and may see that fellowship with Christ can be maintained in conditions of life he once absolutely condemned. Or the young man may not grow in Christian perception, but being daunted by overpowering example, and chafing under the raillery of his companions, may do as others do, though still uneasy in his own conscience.
What is to be observed about this process, which is ceaselessly going, on in society, is that the emboldening of conscience is one thing, its enlightenment quite another. And were it possible to get statistics of the proportion of cases in which the one process goes on without the other, these statistics might be salutary. But we need no statistics to assure us that Christian people by selfishly using their own liberty do continually lead less enlightened persons to trample on their scruples and disregard their own conscience. Constantly it happens in every department of human life that men who once shrank from certain practices as wrong now freely engage in them, although they are not in their own mind any more clearly convinced of their legitimacy than they were before, but are merely emboldened by the example of others. Such persons, if possessed of any self-observation and candour, will tell you that at first they felt as if they were stealing the indulgence or the gain the practice brings, and that they had to drown the voice of conscience by the louder voice of example.
The results of this are disastrous. Conscience is dethroned. The ship no longer obeys her helm, and lies in the trough of the sea swept by every wave and driven by every wind. It may indeed be said, What harm can come of persons less enlightened being emboldened to do as we do if what we do is right? Is not that, most strictly speaking, edification? It is not as if we emboldened anyone to transgress the moral law; we are merely bringing our weak brother’s conduct up to the level of our own. Do we not act wisely and well in so doing? Again it must be answered, No, because, while yielding themselves to the influence of your example, these persons abandon the guidance of their own conscience, which may be a less enlightened, but is certainly a more authoritative, guide than you. If the weak brother does a right thing while his conscience tells him it is a wrong thing, to him it is a wrong thing. "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin"; that is to say, whatsoever is not dictated by a thorough conviction that it is right is sin. It is sin which in some respects is more dangerous than a sin of passion or impulse. By a sin of passion the conscience is not directly injured, and may remain comparatively tender and healthy; but when you refuse to acknowledge conscience as your guide and accept some other person’s conduct as that which may dictate to you what you may or may not do, you dethrone conscience, and sap your moral nature. You shut your own eyes, and prefer to be led by the hand of another person, which may indeed serve you on this occasion; but the end will be a dog and a string.
Two permanent lessons are preserved in this exposition which Paul gives of the matter laid before him. The first is the sacredness or supremacy of conscience. "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind"; that is the one legitimate source of conduct. A man may possibly do a wrong thing when he obeys conscience; he is certainly wrong when he acts contrary to conscience. He may be helped to a decision by the advice of others, but it is his own decision by which he must abide. He must act, not on the conviction of others, but on his own. It is what he himself sees that must guide him. He is bound to use every means to enlighten his conscience and to learn with accuracy what is right and allowable, but he is also bound always to act upon his own present perception of what is right. His conscience may not be as enlightened as it ought to be. Still his duty is to enlighten, not to violate it. It is the guide God has given us, and we must not choose another.
The second lesson is that we must ever use our Christian liberty with Christian consideration of others. Love must mingle with all we do. There are many things which are lawful for a Christian, but which are not compulsory or obligatory, and which he may refrain from doing on cause shown. Duties he must of course discharge, regardless of the effect his conduct may have on others. He may be quite sure he will be misunderstood; he may be sure evil motives will be imputed to him; he may be sure disastrous consequences will be the first result of his action; but if conscience says this or that must be done, then all thought of consequences must be thrown to the winds, But where conscience says, not "You must," but only "You may," then we must consider the effect our using our liberty will have on others. We lie as Christians under an obligation to consider others, to lay aside all pride of advanced ideas, and this not merely that we may submit ourselves to those who know better than we, but that we may not offend those who are bound by prejudices of which we are rid. We must limit our liberty by the scrupulosity of prejudiced, narrow-minded, weak people. We must forego our liberty to do this or that if by doing it we should shock or disturb a weak brother or encourage him to overstep his conscience. As the Arctic voyager who has been frozen up all winter does not seize the first opportunity to escape, but waits till his weaker companions gain strength enough to accompany him, so must the Christian accommodate himself to the weaknesses of others, lest by using his liberty he should injure him for whom Christ died. Never was there a man who more fully understood the freedom of the Christian position than Paul; no man was ever more entirely lifted out of the mist of superstition and formalism into the clear light of free, eternal life: but with this freedom he carried a sympathy with weak and entangled beginners which prompted him to exclaim, "If meat make any brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend."
Our conduct must be limited and to a certain extent regulated by the narrow mindedness, the scruples, the prejudices, the Weakness in short, of others. We cannot say, I see my way to do so-and-so, let my friend think what he pleases; I am not to be trammelled by his superstition or ignorance; let my conduct have what effect it will on him; I am not responsible for that; if he does not see it to be right, I do, and I will act accordingly. We cannot speak thus if the matter be indifferent; if it be a matter we can lawfully abstain from, then abstain we must if we would follow the Apostle who followed Christ. This is the practical law which stands in the forefront of Christ’s teaching and was sealed by every day of His life. It is enounced not only by St. Paul: "Destroy not him with thy meat for whom Christ died"; "Through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died," but also in our Lord’s still more emphatic words, "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in Me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea." Paul could not look on his weak brethren as narrow-minded bigots, could not call them hard names and ride rough shod over their scruples; and to this delicate consideration he was aided by the remembrance that these were the persons for whom Christ died. For them Christ sacrificed, not merely a little feeling or a little of His own way, but His own will and self entirely, And the spirit of Christ is still manifested in all in whom He dwells, specially in humility and yieldingness of disposition which is not led by self-interest or self-complacency, but seeks the weal of other men. Nothing shows us more distinctly the thorough manner in which St. Paul partook of the spirit of Christ than his ability to say, "I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ."