When We Disagree About Matters of Belief and Behavior
A Study of 1 Corinthians 8 & Romans 14
Introduction: There are some doctrines in the Bible that are absolutely essential. One of those is the obviously the existence of God. Another is the person of Christ, and His death and resurrection. We call beliefs like these, “essential doctrines,” because they are essential for Christianity. Sometimes we call these beliefs the “fundamentals,” although any term related to fundamentalism now has become a poisonous reference in the media. Nevertheless, there are some doctrines that we cannot compromise about or we lose what it means to be a Christian.
And there are some behaviors that are absolutely right and wrong. Both the Old and New Testaments articulate these. For example, to use a horrendous example, rape is always wrong. Mass murder is always wrong. Genocide is always wrong. These things are wrong because the Bible says they are wrong. They violate the very character of the God who created us, and His character is the foundation of an absolute moral code of right and wrong.
Some beliefs and some behaviors are non-negotiable. If you want to be my brother in Christ and if you want to be a part of this church, you have to believe that Jesus Christ died for us and rose again, and you cannot engage in rape, mass murder, or genocide. These are self-evident. These are given. These are essential elements of our faith and doctrine and morality.
On the other hand, there are many theological issues and even some moral issues where Christians can have valid disagreements. For example, one of the men I most admire today is the writer and philosopher William Lane Craig. I read and listen to him every time I can, and I’ve learned so much from him. He’s a great apologist for the faith. I give away his books. I listen to his podcasts. But Dr. Craig came out the other day with a lecture refuting the pre-tribulation rapture of the church. Well, I earnestly believe the Bible teaches that church will be rapture prior to the Tribulation. He and I disagree about that. But I’m not in the least upset with Dr. Craig, because this is an area where Christians can disagree.
In the same way there are some areas of moral behavior where Christians can disagree. I have friends who never vacation at the beach because they think it’s immodest. I respect their viewpoint. And yet I love the beach and my happiest vacations as I was growing up as a child were our summertime trips to Myrtle Beach. So there are non-essential issues of both belief and behavior where Christians can disagree.
But how can we disagree on these non-essentials (the Bible calls them “disputable matters”) without it causing problems? How do we disagree agreeably? That’s the question Paul addresses in the Scriptures we’re coming to this evening. How do we maintain the balance between unity and diversity? It’s terribly important for a church or a denomination or Christian agency to get this right. The Bible deals with this subject in two different passages, and it gives us a wonderful basis for staying balanced in our reactions. Those two passages are in back-to-back books in the Bible:
- 1 Corinthians 8, 9, and 10
- Romans 14 and 15
I’ve felt for many years that if our denomination had really understood these two passages, it would have saved us years of division. The same could be said for many churches and friendships. Tonight I want to look at 1 Corinthians 8, and then we’ll glance at the cross-reference in Romans 14. I have a series of bullet points I want to give you. Let’s begin with 1 Corinthians 8
1. First Corinthians 8
Verse 1: Now about food sacrificed to idols…
There is the issue Paul is going to use as a laboratory for his discussion. This was his test cast. In the Romans passage, he’s going to use this issue, plus another. But here he limits his argument to this one issue, because it’s a great model to investigate. Here is what the issue was about.
In the ancient world, much of the meat that was available had been sacrificed to gods in the temple. This was true in Jerusalem and within Judaism. You would bring your livestock to Jerusalem and offer it as a sacrifice to the Lord. There it would be slaughtered and butchered. The priests would take a portion, but most of it would be returned to you. It’s very much like if you raised a cow or some other livestock, and when the time came you took it the butcher. They might keep a small portion as their fee, but most of the cow would go back home for you to keep in your freezer.
Well, as I understand it this was the standard practice all over the ancient world. I’ve been to the ruins of ancient Corinth and I’ve seen the remains of the temple of Apollo. People would raise their livestock, bring it to the temple, it would be offered there symbolically as a sacrifice to the god. There it would be slaughtered, butchered, and sold in the meat markets. Nearby restaurants would serve it to guests.
Now, that presented a problem to the new Corinthian Christians on several levels. Should they buy this meat? If they bought a steak, some of them felt they were supporting the financial system of this false religion. If they went to a restaurant near the temple, they felt they would be patronizing something they didn’t believe in. If they ate in someone’s home and meat was served, what would they do? For some of the Christians, it was no problem; but for others it bothered their conscience. Well, this tricky issue is the one Paul takes up in 1 Corinthians 8, and he does so not just to solve the problem of meat offered to idols, but to show us how to handle similar issues that become disagreements among Christians about non-essential matters of belief and behavior.
Here is his first bullet-point. The apostle says, in effect, as you form your opinion about this, make sure you don’t become too dogmatic. Don’t be intolerant. Don’t believe your opinion is the only valid opinion in the room. It’s important to have a loving attitude when you discuss things like this.
- Don’t Be Dogmatic About Disputable Things; Be Loving (Verses 1-3)
Verses 1-3: Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God. The Living Bible puts this very well: On this question (about eating food that has been sacrificed to idols) everyone feels that only his answer is the right one! But although being a ‘know-it-all’ makes us feel important, what is really needed to build the church is love. If anyone things he knows all the answers, he is just showing his ignorance. But the person who truly loves God is the one who is open to God’s knowledge. In other words, in non-essential beliefs and behaviors, being loving is more important than being dogmatic, inflexible, critical, and overbearing. In fact, the person who is the most loving is the one who is most open to really understanding the mind of God on this issue. So Paul begins with that preface, with that proposition. Don’t think that you alone have all the answers in disputable issues; but be loving as you discuss it. Then, in verses 4-6, he gives us another point.
- Enjoy Your Christian Liberty (Verses 4-6)
Verse 4: So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.”
Here, Paul is going to give his own opinion about this disputable issue. He says, “That false god, that idol—it’s nothing. It doesn’t even exist. There really are no false gods; they are fantasies. They are just figments of someone’s imagination. There is only one God and He is the one we serve.”
Verses 5-6: For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, though whom all things came and through whom we live.
It is so hard for me to read these verses without being drawn aside by the phraseology Paul uses. I want to detour here so badly. I’ve preached and taught about this many times. When the New Testament writers wanted to refer to Jesus as God, when they wanted to emphasize His divinity, they had a problem. They didn’t typically want to use the word Theos, which is the Greek word for God, because they was typically used to designate the First Person of the Trinity—God the Father. So they reached into the Old Testament and found another term that was used to designate God. The Greek form is Kurios, and it is translated into English as Lord. So that’s why we often read about God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. There is so much theology about the Trinity in verses 5 and 6 that I had to leave it untouched. But for the discussion of the chapter, Paul’s point is that only the true God—God the Father, Jesus Christ the Lord—are part of the True Godhead. All the idols of the Roman and Greek pantheons are fantasies, myths, unreal. That meat wasn’t really sacrificed to Apollo, for there is no Apollo. He doesn’t exist. You don’t need to worry about eating food sacrificed to idols, because they were sacrificed to the wind. There are no false gods; they don’t exist.
So, in essence, Paul is saying, “If I want a steak or a leg of lamb, it doesn’t bother me if someone offered it to Apollo for there’s really no such person as Apollo. He’s just an imaginary being that doesn’t exist in reality. So I feel I have perfect liberty to eat it. It’s not going to bother my conscience one bit.”
But now, Paul wants to add a caveat. He’s going to give us another point. Here is what he’s going to say. If I am with Christians who believe it’s wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols, and if my eating this meat will create some peer pressure that will cause one of them to violate his or her conscience, then I should abstain.
- Be Careful Not to Prompt Weaker Christians to Violate Their Conscience (Verses 7-13)
Verse 7: But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak it is defiled. In other words, some Christians—especially young Christians—have come out of this pagan environment and it still bothers them to think about eating meat sacrificed to idols. Now, Paul realizes their opinion is immature. He goes on to say:
Verse 8: But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
But nevertheless, they do not have a good conscience about eating that meat, and if I’m not carefully I’ll influence them to violate their own conscience. So he says:
Verse 9-10: Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, wont that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols?
Anytime we influence someone to violate their conscience, that’s destructive to them.
Verses 11-13: So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.
2. Romans 14
Now, in 1 Corinthians, chapters 9 and 10, Paul is going to explain how he tries to balance all this out in his role as an apostle. We’ll get into these verses next week; for in conclusion tonight I want to end by looking at the way Paul addressed this same issue in the cross-reference in Romans 14. I’m not going to read the entire chapter, but there are some more great bullet-points in Romans 14 and 15 that give us very practical rules. Look at Romans 14, beginning with verse 1: Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.
- When it comes to non-essential areas of belief and behavior, accept each other without quarreling over disputable matters.
Verse 2: One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables (because he can’t get meat without going to the pagan precincts). The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not just the one who does, for God has accepted them.
Now, in verse 5, Paul is going to bring in a second example over which Christians disagree—the Jewish holy days. Christians from a Jewish background still felt it was important to observe certain days and diets. Other Christians did not. This was the major area of conflict among members of the first-century church.
Verse 5: One person considers one day more sacred than aother; another considers every day alike.
And here we have a second great bullet point:
- Each on them should be fully convinced in their own mind.
In other words, study the Bible, think through these issues, and determine what is right for your and wrong for you. Seek God’s will regarding your behavior and parameters. And let each one be fully persuaded in his own mind. He goes on in the following verses to say we shouldn’t try to force our opinion on others, and we must be careful not to pressure or influence someone to violate their conscience. As we exercise our Christian liberty, we mustn’t lead others to do something they feel is wrong for them.
Verses 13-18: Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval. That leads us to the next bullet point – Verse 19:
- Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.
And the final bullet point is in verse 22:
- Whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.
Paul was not telling the Romans or the Corinthians not to exercise their Christian liberty. He was telling them to use wisdom and discretion; and he was telling them some things were personal and private and between themselves and God.
Conclusion: In popular Christian terminology we call this whole area of discussion one of Christian Liberty. As Christians, some of us feel liberty to do things that other Christians may disagree with. The Bible tells us to exercise our Christian liberty, for we have freedom in Christ. But we should exercise our Christian liberty with discretion and in a way that will not be destructive to the unity of the church or the conscience of other believers. And Paul gives us some bullet points about how to do this.
- Don’t be too dogmatic about disputable things; be loving
- Enjoy your Christian liberty
- Be careful not to prompt weaker Christians to violate their conscience
- Accept each other without quarreling over disputable matters
- Let everyone be fully persuaded in our own minds
- Make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification
- Whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God
In a church like this, or in a marriage, or in another other grouping of Christians, the danger of division and conflict is lessened and minimized if we just live by these seven guidelines about those areas in which we have the freedom to disagree.