Christian Liberty

I Corinthians 8:1-13; 10:14-33

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
December 2010

This evening, we come to chapter eight of our study of the Book of I Corinthians. I Corinthians 8 deals with the topic of Christian liberty. It is a very important topic in Scripture. II Corinthians 3:17 says, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”

Galatians 5:1 says, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.” Galatians 5:13 says, “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty.” Jesus said in John 8:32, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

This is a very important topic. Martin Luther wrote a whole book on the subject. John Calvin devoted a whole chapter of his Institutes of the Christian Religion to this topic and yet it is very rarely preached over the pulpit. When was the last time you heard a sermon about Christian liberty? It is not that frequent a topic but Paul deals with this topic in I Corinthians 8 & in Romans 14.

Since it is not talked about that much in the pulpit, this material may be brand new to some of you. Tonight, we will be answering several questions. What exactly is Christian liberty? What are some misconceptions about Christian liberty? How has it been abused? Is Christian liberty absolute? Are there some restrictions that the Bible places on Christian liberty? If so, what are they?

Two Extremes

When it comes to Christian liberty, there are two extremes. Both extremes are completely unbiblical. On the one end of the spectrum are those people who do not believe in Christian liberty. They are known as legalists. Legalists put a whole bunch of rules on Christians that are not optional.

Many of their rules are not in Scripture. They are man-made rules, just like the Pharisees did. They also imposed all kinds of rules on people, rules not based on Scripture but human tradition (cf. Matthew 23:1-4).

Many fundamentalist churches are guilty of this. I am not knocking all fundamentalist churches. I grew up in one but one of the weaknesses of fundamentalist churches is that they tend to be legalistic. Everyone has to think exactly alike on everything. There is no room for diversity of thought, even on minor doctrines (the non-essentials of the faith).

There is nothing wrong with having a personal conviction about something and even sharing what you believe with others. The problem comes when people try to impose their own convictions on everyone else. Let me give you two examples. The first example is in the area of alcohol. In some Baptist circles, all drinking is considered a sin. Is this view biblical?

Now if a person voluntarily chooses not to drink, that is perfectly fine. There are many good reasons for doing that. Excessive drinking causes all kinds of problems and can even be fatal. The problem comes when you try to impose that standard of total abstinence from alcohol on everyone, because the Bible NOWHERE teaches that all drinking is wrong.

Instead, it teaches that all drunkenness is sin. It does teach that in SOME situations drinking is wrong (and we will see what some of those situations are) but it nowhere teaches that ALL drinking is sinful. You have to twist all kinds of passages to come up with that view and some people do that. You can use the Bible to prove anything when you misinterpret it.

To condemn all drinking would be to condemn Jesus, because Jesus drank. If all drinking is sinful, then Jesus would be a sinner, because he drank. I am not encouraging people to drink but on the other hand, the Bible does not forbid all drinking.

Another example is in the area of movies, entertainment. I have heard some Christians say, “If you love Jesus, you will never watch a rated R movie. Christians should only go to G rated movies.”

For some Christians, to be a follower of Jesus means to watch no rated R movies. Is there any verse in the Bible which says this? No. Once again, there is nothing wrong with having a personal conviction like that for yourself.

Many R rated movies are bad and would not be worth seeing but this also throws the baby out with the bathwater. Some rated R movies may be worth seeing (e.g., The Passion of the Christ), which is why other Christians do not bind themselves with a rule like this which is not in the Bible. Some G rated movies are terrible.

On the other end of the spectrum are the people who believe that Christians are able to do anything they want. We are FREE. We have been CALLED to freedom. This group of people also existed in the first century and is called antinomians. They would say, “If we are called to be free, we have the freedom to see prostitutes or watch X rated movies.”

The Corinthians apparently bought this logic and made it a slogan. They went around saying, “All things are lawful.” Paul quotes their phrase twice (6:12; 10:23) but has to qualify it. This is an abuse of Christian liberty. Christian liberty is not a freedom to sin.

Definition of Christian Liberty

Let’s start with a definition. What exactly is Christian liberty? Christian liberty is the freedom from God to do whatever you want to do in any matter that the Bible does not address, either directly or indirectly. It is the freedom to make decisions in your own personal life about things NOT revealed anywhere in Scripture without fear of sinning against God.

Every area of the Christian life is governed by one of three categories. Everything falls into one of these three categories and the three categories of biblical ethics are biblical law, biblical principle and biblical freedom.

Biblical Law

Biblical law deals with behaviors that the Bible addresses directly. The Bible directly forbids things like stealing, lying, disrespect to parents and murdering people. These are all examples of biblical law.

They are moral absolutes. When Paul says, “flee from sexual immorality” (6:18). That is an example of biblical law. When he says “flee from idolatry” (10:14), Paul gives another example of biblical law.

Biblical Principle

There are other things that the Bible does not forbid directly but does forbids indirectly. These behaviors are governed, not by biblical law but by biblical principle. There is no verse in the Bible that tells us not to drive 150 miles on a street in downtown Burlington.

There is no verse of Scripture that tells us not to smoke crack cocaine or watch obscene movies but there are biblical principles in each case which rule out. Is it a sin for Christians to smoke cigarettes? There I no verse in the Bible. No passage in the Bible says, “Do not look at porn.”

Biblical Liberty

The third category is biblical liberty. Biblical liberty deals with things that the Bible is completely silent on. Scripture does not forbid these things, directly or indirectly (music, education, politics). Christians have liberty in those areas.

In the areas that the Bible does not specifically address, Paul says that people should make up their own minds on what they think is the right thing to do (Romans 14:5). In fact, Paul says that are freedom is not dependent on what other people think (I Corinthians 10:29).

Christians will come to different conclusions about some things. We will not all think alike and that is okay. Paul said that we should accept one another and not argue about it (Romans 14:1). He says that we should not look down on people who think differently than we do or judge or condemn them.

How many Christians do you know who are very critical of other Christians who do some things differently than they do, even though these things are not addressed in Scripture (Romans 14:3-4)? In I Corinthians 8, Paul gives us an example of Christian liberty. It is in the area of food offered to idols.

That should immediately raise a red flag or a question. Why is food offered to idols an area of biblical liberty? The Jerusalem counsel made a ruling on that in Acts 15. Shouldn’t this whole issue be a matter of biblical law? The Jerusalem Counsel prohibited Gentiles from eating food offered to idols (Acts 15:29).

This was done BEFORE I Corinthians was written. I Corinthians was written in 56 AD and deals primarily with Gentiles. The Jerusalem Counsel was around 48 or 49 AD and Paul was present at the counsel, so he was aware of the ruling.

So when the Corinthians had a question about food offered to idols why didn’t Paul just refer them back to the ruling of this church council six or seven years earlier? It was the first church council. Is this still binding? Yes.

Ethical Question in the First Century

It is still wrong to go into a pagan temple, make sacrifices to a pagan god and eat meat sacrificed to that god. That is idolatry. The Corinthians raised some specific questions that the Jerusalem council never addressed. What if you happened to buy meat from the market place that had been scarified to an idol? Was that a sin?

Furthermore, it was virtually impossible to go to the market and buy meat that had not been offered in sacrifice the day before. The meat usually tasted good because the pagans usually offered only the best animals in sacrifice. What if a neighbor invited you over for dinner and serves you meat that may have come from a pagan temple? Do you eat it? Paul answers that question in chapter 10.

What if a social gathering (like a banquet) was held in a pagan temple? Were the Corinthians allowed to go and eat anything? Many social events were held in pagan temples. Pagan temples often functioned as the social hall for the entire community.

Were the early Christians supposed to take a big stand against idolatry and be completely anti-social or were they allowed to go and interact with their community and be salt in this setting? That seems to be the context here (cf. 8:10).

This was a big ethical question for Christians in the first century and it had to do with food. It was a big moral dilemma for the Corinthians. It was a big problem, especially for Gentile Christians who bought their meat at the market. The Jews bought their meat from a Jewish butcher, so they never had to deal with this problem.

This was a question that we do not face today in America, although some Christians in other countries still face this. It was a very controversial issue at the time and there were big differences of opinion as to what to do. There were two views. Some said that it was okay to eat in a banquet held at a pagan temple, as long as it was not a religious function.

Paul called them the strong. Others thought that there was something wrong with doing this. Paul called them the weak. Something that would not bother most people bothered them. We tend to think of the strong as the group that was stricter and sterner and less willing to be flexible and the weak as the opposite.

According to Paul, the STRONG believer is much more lenient and flexible, less judgmental and critical on matters that the Bible does not specifically address.

The WEAK believer does not know as much as the strong believer and is more critical and judgmental. Which side did Paul agree with – the strong or the weak? Paul says both of them are wrong. Paul agrees with the strong on several points.

  • Idols do not exist (8:4-6). They are not real.
  • This is an area where there is Christian liberty. Paul says that in I Corinthians 8:9 (“your right”) but Paul also lays down some limitations on Christian liberty.
  • Eating is not a moral issue (8:8; Romans 14:14, 17, 20), unless you eat too much. Some Christians are vegetarian. They do not eat meat. Most Christians eat meat. The Bible says you can eat meat. The NT says that “all foods are clean.” Jesus ate meat. Either way, it is not a moral issue. Paul say eating or not eating  does not make you any more spiritual. Some people think they are more spiritual if they fast. Fasting is not wrong but is not a moral issue.

Limitations on Christian Liberty

There are times when it is wrong to do right. What are some restrictions on Christian liberty? Paul says that Christian liberty is limited by five things.

1) MOTIVE- Does this activity glorify God? (10:31)

2) USEFULNESS – Is it beneficial or useful? (6:12; 10:23)

There are many things that you have the right and are not morally wrong in themselves but are a big waste of time. You have the right to or spending twelve hours a day playing video games but that is not beneficial to you.

2) SELF CONTROL– Are you able to control it? (6:12)

This is another question that will help determine if something is right or wrong. Are you able to control it or does it control you. There are many things that are perfectly fine to do but once they start to control you or once you become addicted to them, they become wrong. Then it is not a question of liberty but of bondage. The addict is not free.

We talked about this when we were in chapter 6. We mentioned that people can be addicted to anything and Paul says “I will not be mastered by ANYTHING.” It is not wrong to enjoy things. The Bible says that God has given us all things richly to enjoy, so it is not wrong to enjoy things. It is wrong to be addicted to things. We talked about some of the signs of addiction as well.

3) CONSCIENCE – Does this activity bother your conscience? (Romans 14:23)

The next question to ask is, Does it bother your conscience? Your conscience is that voice inside you that tells you when you do something wrong.

Your conscience is not always right. Your conscience does not determine right from wrong. It varies from person to person. We may think some things are wrong that God never said are wrong but it is always wrong to sin against your conscience.

If you do something thinking that it is wrong, you have sinned. Paul said “whatever is not of faith is sin.” On the other hand, if there is no Bible verse against a practice and no biblical principle to apply and if it does not bother your conscience, it is not wrong for you to do.

4) TESTIMONY – Would this activity cause another Christian to sin? (8:9-13)

A fourth issue to consider is whether what you do will cause another person to sin. The issue here is not just offending someone but causing them to sin.

Christian liberty is abused when we use it as an excuse to sin or to cause someone else to sin. There are two important points here to note.  People can CAUSE other people to sin (Matthew 18:8; Romans 14:20-21; I Corinthians 8:9-13).

Not only are we not to sin, we are not to cause someone to sin.. It is bad enough if something CAUSES YOU to sin. It is worse when YOU CAUSE another person to sin or stumble.

Jesus said that things that are perfectly innocent and harmless (eye, hand, foot) that can cause some people to sin (Matthew 5:29-30). In the same way, there are some things that we do that may be perfectly harmless to us but may cause someone else to stumble.

What is safe for you may not be safe for someone else, as Barclay points out . Sometimes Christians can be a stumbling block to other Christians. In fact, Paul says that we can not only cause other Christians to sin, we can completely ruin other Christians spiritually by our actions (8:10-11).

It is like the person at the roller rink who falls down roller skating and ten people behind that person also fall down. What are some ways that we can cause someone else to sin?

In I Corinthians 8, some Christians were causing other Christians to commit idolatry.

  • King Jeroboam created two golden calves and created two idolatrous centers of worship for his citizens, one in Bethel and one in Dan (I Kings 12:28-29). Jeroboam led a nation to sin.
  • Some cause others to commit adultery by divorcing their spouse without biblical grounds and remarrying someone else (Matthew 5:32).
  • Parents can cause their kids to sin (Ephesians 6:4).
  • People who introduce kids to drugs and gangs cause them to sin.
  • Some Christian women cause men to sin by the way that they dress. Any man who lusts after women will answer to God but women will answer to God if they cause men to sin by deliberately dressing provocatively.
  • Pornography causes people to sin. It encourages lust.
  • Paul said that a husband or wife can cause a spouse to sin by not meeting the sexual needs of their spouse (I Corinthians 7:5). God takes this very seriously.
  • We can cause others to sin by a poor testimony (Romans 2:21-24; II Samuel 12:14). This is especially true of Christian leaders. When pastors and elders sin, that causes many others to sin (Hosea 4:6).

This is something that God takes very seriously. He takes it personally. When you sin against another brother or sister, you sin against Christ (8:12).

It is even worse when you cause a child to stumble, those who are weak and vulnerable. Jesus said that it is better to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea (Matthew 18:6) than to cause children to sin (e.g., sexual abuse).

Jesus said that having a hundred pound millstone around your neck and being flung into the sea would be a BETTER punishment than what you will get if you commit this crime. It is a serious warning to anyone who would hurt a child, especially a Christian child.

5) LOVE – Can I do this and still love God and others? (8:1-3)

How will what you do affect others? Christian liberty does not mean that you can do anything you want without regard for others. Love takes the needs of others into account. Love does not seek its own good but the good of others (8:1-3; 10:24). One of the characteristics of love is that it is not self-seeking or selfish (13:5).

This is acting the way Jesus would act (11:1). It is the way he did act (Philippians 2:3-5). The irony is that Jesus gave up his life and died for the weak brothers and some in the Corinthians church were not even willing to give up a piece of meat for them.

Is Knowledge Bad?

Jesus did not say, “They will know you are my disciples by how much you KNOW.” He said, “They will know you are my disciples by how much you LOVE.” The Apostle Paul says that knowledge PUFFS UP but love BUILDS UP (8:1).

That sounds like he believed that knowledge is bad and love is good.  Paul says that love is MORE IMPORTANT than knowledge. Love is superior to knowledge (cf. 13:2).  That is a clear biblical teaching but some have gone to the next step and taught that knowledge is bad

Many in and outside the church believe that knowledge is bad.  Thomas Huxley said, “The great end of life is not knowledge, but action.”  D. L. Moody once said, “The Bible was not given for our information but for our transformation.”  Translation: knowledge is BAD. Transformation is GOOD.

There is only one problem with this theory.  We need BOTH information and transformation. In fact, the way you get transformed is THROUGH Scripture. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). Truth sets people free.

Anti-intellectualism is very prevalent all throughout the Christian church. one of the most ignorant comments have been made in pulpits all across the country.  They are not limited to any particular denomination.

Many preachers believe that there is a dichotomy between the head and the heart. They teach that we need a big heart, not a big head. They teach that study, learning and knowledge are a big waste of time.  They teach that logic and reason are somehow bad.

I heard one preacher say that academic knowledge is useless. In fact, one even said that studying the Bible is useless. Some have even taught that change does not come from learning the Bible.  Anti-intellectualism in the church has a long tradition. There is only one problem with that theory.  It is patently FALSE.  It is completely unbiblical.

Jesus said, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17 NIV).  He also said, “You are already clean because of THE WORD I have spoken to you.” (John 15:3 NIV).  Paul speaks of the washing of the water BY THE WORD (Ephesians 5:26).

God’s Word sanctifies us. It cleanses us.  It washes us. Knowledge of God’s Word sets people free.  It sets people free from bondage.  It delivers them from slavery to sin. It also keeps us from sin in the first place.  Psalm 119:11 says, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (NIV).

The Bible is NOT against knowledge.  It is not against study if the Bible. In fact, Jesus rebuked people who were IGNORANT of the Scriptures and they were professing believers in some cases (Luke 24:25; Matthew 19:4; 9:13).

On the other hand, it is possible to know the Bible and not know God.  Some study the Bible for years and even go to seminary but do not know Jesus.  That was the Pharisees.  They were big on Bible study.  That does not mean that bible study is bad, just because they did it.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are big on evangelism. We should not stop witnessing just because of some cultists.   While Bible study is good, it is possible to study the Bible for the wrong reason.  Paul said that some people are “always learning but never coming to a knowledge of the truth” (II Timothy 3:7).

What are some wrong ways to study the Bible?  Some study the Bible to apply to others but not themselves.  Some read the Bible only to confirm what they already believe.  Some study the Bible only to learn but not to live.  They are hearers of the word but not doers of the word.

Some only study the Bible intellectually or academically but not spiritually and practically.  Some use their knowledge of the Bible to hurt people, not help people. Paul says, “We know that ‘We all possess knowledge.’ But knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (I Corinthians 8:1 NIV).  The Bible teaches several important things about knowledge.

1. Knowledge is good.

Knowledge is not a bad thing but a good thing.  We all need it.  Paul thanked God for the Corinthians knowledge (1:4-5). Knowledge comes from God.  Paul said this was a gift from God (12:7-8; Proverbs 2:6). He  also said that “in Christ are hidden the all treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3)

The Book of Proverbs says, “wise men STORE UP knowledge” (Proverbs 10:14).  It says that “the prudent are CROWNED with knowledge” (14:18). The Bible does NOT say that knowledge is bad and that ignorance is good. Proverbs says that FOOLS HATE KNOWLEDGE (1:22, 29).

God says that if you hate knowledge, you are a fool (even if you are a preacher).  God also says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).  Knowledge is actually COMMANDED. We are commanded to add to our faith “knowledge” (II Peter 1:5)

2. Knowledge and love are not mutually exculsive.

They are not dichotomies.  You can have both love and knowledge at the same time.  Love builds people up but knowledge can also build people up. We can and should have both. We need it. Paul is not condemning them for having knowledge but for NOT having love.

3. Knowledge alone is not enough.

It is not the only virtue in the Christian life.  The Christian life is more than knowledge. Peter says that we are to “ADD to our knowledge” (II Peter 1:5-6).  We are to add things like self-control, perseverance and godliness to it.  Paul says that knowledge without love only puffs up.

Later in this book, Paul makes the point that knowledge without love is completely worse less.  He says, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am NOTHING.” (I Corinthians 13:2 NIV)  Paul does not say that knowledge is unimportant but that love is MORE important.

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