APPARENTLY SOME CHRISTIANS in Corinth, secure in their knowledge that idols are nothing at all, and that all meat has been created by the one true God so that it is good to eat even if it had been offered to an idol, feel wonderful liberty to eat whatever they like. Others, converted perhaps from a life bound up with pagan superstition, detect the demonic in the idol, and think it unsafe to eat food that has been offered to them (1 Cor. 8). The thrust of Paul’s argument is plain enough. Those with a robust conscience on these matters should be willing to forgo their rights so that they do not damage other brothers and sisters in Christ.
It may nevertheless crystallize the application if we underline several elements:
(1) The issue concerns something that is not intrinsically wrong. One could not imagine the apostle suggesting that some Christians think adultery is all right, while others have qualms about it, and the former should perhaps forgo their freedom so as not to offend the latter. In such a case, there is never any excuse for the action; the action is prohibited. So Paul’s principles here apply only to actions that are in themselves morally indifferent.
(2) Paul assumes that it is wrong to go against conscience, for then conscience may be damaged (1 Cor. 8:12). A conscience hardened in one area, over an indifferent matter, may become hard in another area—something more crucial. Ideally, of course, the conscience should become more perfectly aligned with what God says in Scripture, so that in indifferent matters it would leave the individual free. Conscience may be instructed and shaped by truth. But until conscience has been reformed by Scripture, it is best not to contravene it.
(3) The “weak” brother in this chapter (1 Cor. 8:7–13) is one with a “weak” conscience; that is, one who thinks some action is wrong even though there is nothing intrinsically wrong in it. Thus the “weak” brother is more bound by rules than the “strong” brother. Both will adopt the rules that touch things truly wrong, while the weak brother adds rules for things that are not truly wrong but that are at that point wrong for him, since he thinks them wrong.
(4) Paul places primary onus of responsibility on the “strong” to restrict their own freedoms for the sake of others. In other words, it is never a sufficient question for the Christian to ask, “What am I allowed to do? What are my rights?” Christians serve a Lord who certainly did not stand on his rights when he went to the cross. Following the self-denial of Jesus, they will also ask, “What rights should I give up for the sake of others?”