If a person is offended by God’s Word, that is his problem. If he is offended by biblical doctrine, standards, or church discipline, that is his problem. That person is offended by God. But if he is offended by our unnecessary behavior or practices—no matter how good and acceptable those may be in themselves—his problem becomes our problem. It is not a problem of law but a problem of love, and love always demands more than the law.
In a chapter typically forgotten amidst other important subjects, the Apostle Paul writes, “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth” (1 Cor 8:1). I like the simple and correct way the NIV puts it, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” One creates a false illusion, the other exudes with strength. We might pay lip-service to this truth but I doubt if we often heed its warning.
Our information age loves to turn trivial facts into knowledge. Alvin Toffler has said, “We are interrelating data in more ways, giving them context and thus forming them into information; and we are assembling chunks of information into larger and larger models and architectures of knowledge.”2 We have now done what George Orwell described some time ago, “sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of the intelligent man.”3 But knowledge is power and left to itself is myopic: it blinds as it grows. It is a strangling weed that needs a persistent gardener that desires proper growth.
The gardener is agape love. Not because it makes things easier, but because it is willing to do the difficult. Bonhoeffer wrote, “And who needs our love more than those who are consumed with hatred and are utterly devoid of love? Who in other words deserves our love more than our enemy?”4 If that is true with our enemy, is it not true with our brother? But Paul, in 1 Corinthians 8, is telling us that it is easier to be puffed up in our own knowledge about the situation than it is to build up our brother through self-sacrifice. Denying our own selfish wishes (which are always for personal comfort, not sacrifice) is the most difficult thing in the world to do. It is what kept us from repenting of our sins sooner than we did and it is what often justifies (“puffs up”) our personal comfort and keeps us from the cost of building up a brother.
You may remember the story of this chapter. It is a scene that probably happened often in Corinth. A believer of some years, maybe a converted Jew who has never placed stock in stone idols and sacrificial meat, sits in a convenient market to eat a high protein, low carb lunch (“meat”). All the hub-bub of Corinthian idolatry doesn’t distract him in the least. He bows his head and gives thanks to God for being a Creator who grows things that have to die so we can eat them and live. He is truly thankful for all things.
Earlier, a new Christian had come in to eat, perhaps a converted Gentile, a former idolator, one “with conscience of the idol” (vs 7). His lack of knowledge about these things, being a new Christian, keeps him from ordering a piece of meat which he knows was sacrificed yesterday to a local idol. His former friends believe (as he used to) that the meat contains demons that otherwise would have inhabited the worshiper. Unlike his Jewish brother, he cannot take it or leave it. The memory of his old life, as well as the lack of doctrinal understanding, awakes a conscience that ought to remain asleep.
Now Paul presents two endings to our story. In one scenario, the Jewish believer who is stronger in knowledge, becomes puffed up with pride because of the liberty he feels and which his Gentile brother does not. “He needs to watch me eat and learn that those stupid idols of his past mean nothing!” The weak brother does indeed watch him eat. He becomes “emboldened” (vs 10), through the example of this older Christian, to order the meat and eat it. He is started on a new path of freedom, so he believes, for Paul simply says this process destroys him (vs 11). Why? Because he quickly regresses back to the idol worship itself, attaching again a religious significance to the whole process (see chapter 10:20).
There is a second scenario which ought to have occurred and would have if our Jewish brother had added to his faith, knowledge and to his knowledge, love. He would have eaten “no flesh” (vs 13) in front of a brother he knew was unlearned and immature. After all, what is meat to him? He should have been able to take it or leave and had he left it, his brother would not be destroyed.
Who is it that wanted to eat the meat most? It was not the weak brother, for he would have shunned it if his older and wiser brother had. It was the brother with knowledge that wanted to eat the meat so much that he could not be denied. And, after all, he could prove that his actions were right. In either case selfishness took over, a selfishness of which agape love knows nothing. “Dwelling too much upon self produces in weak minds useless scruples and superstition, and in stronger minds a presumptuous wisdom. Both are contrary to true simplicity.”5
Haven’t we all made the case for liberty or permission in some area by saying, “If I go there or partake of that, this person will be more comfortable around me. Then I can reach out to him.” But the fact of the matter is that I am allowing myself to do what I have wanted to do all along. I have not changed because such change attracts the weak brother, I have changed because I am the one who likes it. And as an added bonus I can prove by my knowledge that what I am doing is permissible to do!
Lenski writes, “It is rather usual when Christians are released from the fetters of legalism by throwing open to them the beautiful gates of Christian liberty, that they tend to turn this liberty into license.”6 Knowledge has a way of helping us do this. Facts and figures give us power, especially when the other person lacks access to them. But knowledge needs to be tempered by love. Love builds up the other person by doing the hard work of self-denial. George Macdonald said, “Never soul was set free, without being made to feel its slavery.”7 Ah, there is the liberty that a believer seeks but which knowledge alone cannot give! It is a freeing liberty that denies the flesh the personal desires and in so doing grants the soul release from the law.
This is a nearly impossible virtue to preach in a selfish age. We want what we want and we know how to get it, or at least supply the data necessary to prove it. “But speaking the truth in love, [we] may grow up into him in all things.” Truth needs to be tempered by love.
Notes: 1. John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984) 213. 2. Alvin and Heidi Toffler, Creating a New Civilization (Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1995) 36. 3. George Orwell quoted by Douglas Groothuis, Christianity That Counts (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994) 118. 4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995) 148. 5. Francois Fenelon, “Simplicity and Greatness” Orations From Homer To Mckinley (New York: Collier, 1902) 1639. 6. R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of First Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961) 254. 7. Quoted by Os Guinness, Dining With The Devil (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993) 66.