Idolatry and Conscience

by Rick Shrader

“In this connection it is not claimed that an unsaved person must come to know every phase of truth about the atonement of Christ before he is divinely prepared for salvation; but it is claimed that the Spirit proposes to make the meaning of the cross sufficiently clear to that person as to enable him to abandon all hope of self-works, and to turn to the finished work of Christ alone in intelligent, saving faith.”

L. S. Chafer1


Whereas in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul deals with how weaker and stronger brothers should guard against offense, in chapter 10 the Apostle has a different picture in mind.  What does the Christian do with his liberty when a lost person’s soul is hanging in the balance?  Whose conscience is more important and for what reason?  Aren’t the stakes quite a bit higher?

In a day when the average citizen cares little for manners and deportment and is concerned above all else with protecting his own space, it is easy for God’s people to also be more concerned with their personal rights than with the effectiveness of the gospel.  But Paul writes, “Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other” (vs 29).  He then ends the chapter by writing, “not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved” (vs 33).  The salvation of the lost person depends much on how the believer allows the conscience of the unbeliever to be affected by his words and actions (see 2 Cor 4:2).

Before Paul gets to his story of the believer having dinner with an unbeliever, he places it in the context of idolatry.  We are to flee idolatry because we have the sad examples of the Israelites’ repeated failures (vss 1-10).  We should not think that we are so enlightened that we could not fall into this insidious sin (vss 11-14).  In the next few verses Paul makes an interesting point that I think could be stated like this:

Our indulgent action around other people’s actions attaches us to the beliefs of that group. This is an integral part of idolatry and why otherwise innocent action like eating, bowing, clapping, etc, becomes part and parcel to the sin.  Three obvious examples are given.  The first is the observance of the Lord’s Supper (vss 16-17).  Believers show their unity of belief and their communion with their God through this common action of eating and drinking.  The second is the sacrificial system of Israel (vs 18).  The entire nation was, in reality, “partakers of the altar” because they all participated to some small degree, although the priest was the primary participant.  The third example is the pagan idolatry often seen in Corinth itself (vss 19-21).  Participation in the sacrifice to sticks and stones was in reality to “have fellowship with devils.”  Strong warning is given to any who would attempt to participate in the Lord’s Table as well as the tables of demons.

After Paul answers the questions of selfish believers (“aren’t all things lawful unto me?”) he advances to the hypothetical story and makes, I think, this point:

The actions and beliefs of a pagan group make otherwise innocent action pagan to them. Here is a believer who is invited to dinner by an unbeliever.  They go to a “feast” where there is a real mixed multitude of people as well as appetites.  The believer knows that some of the meat being sold and eaten was sacrificial meat, but his conscience is clear and no connection is held in his own mind.  He is right, if that were the end of it.  But out of the blue his host says, “This is offered in sacrifice to idols.”

Note:  I must inform you that many commentators take both of these men to be believers but I do not.  I agree with G.C. Morgan and also F.W. Grosheide who says, “A pagan might say this to a Christian to warn him . . . he might also do it to embarrass the Christian and to see what he would do.”2

Immediately the believer is to stop eating.  The unbeliever has now attached his belief system to the meat.  “This is pretty good stuff, huh?  It was sacrificed to my god today.”  It would be easy at this point to go on without saying anything, as when a Christian laughs at someone’s ugly joke.  But that would bother the believer’s conscience, though it would not affect the unbeliever’s.  Instead, the believer is to purposely awake the unbeliever’s conscience and make him think about what he is doing.  He does this by abstaining, and by doing so, refuses to participate in his idolatry with him.

In Paul’s concluding remarks, I think he reinforces this principle:

A believer places himself in jeopardy willingly for the spiritual profit of an unbeliever.  The jeopardy in which Paul has placed himself is potential ridicule.  He asks, “For if I by grace be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks?” (vs 30).  Why indeed!  His own answer is for the sake of the unbeliever, “that he might be saved” (vs 33).  Calvin wrote, “What is opposed to their salvation ought not to be conceded to them.”3 They will thank us for eternity.

We often quote vs 31, “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”  Perhaps by “eat” and “drink” Paul had in mind the Lord’s Table as opposed to the demon’s table.  If we do eat of the Lord’s Table, we can only bring glory to Him by not eating of the demon’s table.

J. G. Machen once wrote,  “The worst sin today is to say that you agree with the Christian faith and believe in the Bible but then make common cause with those who deny the basic facts of Christianity.”4 One of Spurgeon’s famous sayings was,  “Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin.”5 The issue revolves around idolatry and conscience.  Are we going to participate in idolatry and suffer from our own conscience?  Or are we willing to abstain and receive the abuse from the unbeliever’s pierced conscience? Is this not what Paul meant when he admonished, “commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.  But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost” (2 Cor 4:2-3)?

May God give us the grace to submit ourselves to the scrutiny of the lost, “that they may be saved.”

1. L.S. Chafer, True Evangelism (Chicago:  Bible Institute of Colportage Ass’n, 1929) 68.
2. F.W. Grosheide, The New International Commentary (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1979) 242.
3. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary, Vol XX (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981) 348.
4. Quoted by Eanest Pickering, The Tragedy of Compromise (Greenville: BJU Press, 1994) 26.