Operating in the Gray Areas
Tim Temple


As we come to chapter 8 in I Corinthians, we find ourselves in the section which deals with specific problems at Corinth. Let me point out that the subject of the lordship of Christ in the local church is the subject of this first letter to the Corinthians which Paul wrote. It is not just for Corinth in the first century; it is for churches of all ages. Something else that we have tried to see as we have gone through this series of studies is that though it is about the lordship of Christ in the local church, the theme of this book is the lordship of Christ in our individual lives. Christ can only be Lord of our church if He is lord of our lives individually. Because of that, the book contains some very practical areas and deals with some very realistic issues in the Christian life. Today we come to another of those practical issues.

Example of Meat Offered to Idols

It is very important for us to have these things in the Scripture because even though the specific situations that we face may not be the same, Paul's answers establish principles by which we can operate even in our day, two thousand years later. For example, the specific problem presented in this chapter is the problem of whether or not to eat meat that had been offered to idols. Maybe never in your life have you faced the issue of whether or not to eat meat that has been offered to an idol, but in that society, people would put meat out in front of the idols that the various groups worshipped as an offering to the idol. Surprisingly enough, the idols didn't eat the meat; it just remained there. So the priests for those various idols, being no dummies, would take the meat after the offerer left, and they would go out the back door and around the corner to the meat market, and they would put it on sale in the meat market.

A real issue arose over that practice. As so often is the case, it led to a disagreement among Christians as to whether Christians should eat that meat which had been offered to idols. If you think about it, this was a real problem because people offering meat as an offering to their gods would certainly offer the choicest cuts of meat and the best kinds of meat. Certainly this was the desirable kind of meat to buy. But many Christians had been just recently saved out of those various kinds of idolatrous worship, and they would say, “Look, I used to offer this meat to the false gods. Now that I know the true God, how could I eat that kind of meat?” Others said, “Oh, there is nothing wrong with it; go ahead and eat it.” So there was a real controversy in the church at Corinth and all the known world at that time. It was a major issue in the church. So they wrote to Paul about this issue.

Decisions Based On Established Principles

This section of the letter is in answer to several of the questions that they had written to him. Various places he will say, “Now concerning such-and-such” or “concerning the things you wrote to me about.” So here is another of the things that they wrote to Paul and asked him about. His answer establishes some principles by which we can make some decisions about some gray areas which we face. There are various things in the Christian life that the Scripture does not specifically speak to. Let me establish as a foundational principle that there are things that the Scripture says for us as Christians not to do, not to participate in. There is no point of going into examples of that. Probably every one of you can think of some example of something the Bible says that “thou shalt not” do. There are other things that the Scripture tells us we should be careful to include in our lives; but there are many things that the Scripture does not touch on–things that are in the gray areas of life, things which God expects us to make decisions about for ourselves.

This chapter gives us the principles by which we operate in the gray areas. We don't face the issue of eating meat offered to idols, but what about such matters as dancing? That is a burning issue in some circles. In some circles it is a sin to dance, and a Christian should never be caught dead or alive at a dance. Other people say, “What is wrong with that? David danced in the Old Testament”, and all the rest of those kinds of arguments. So that is one of those gray areas.

The issue of social drinking is a very serious matter of disagreement among Christians. The Scripture very clearly says, “Do not get drunk.” It is a sin to get drunk. On the other hand, it says, “Take a little wine for your stomach's sake.” Though the Scripture does not specifically say in black and white, “Thou shalt not ever take a drink,” it does establish some principles that put drinking in that area in which Christians have to decide for themselves. There are many Scriptures which indicate that it is extremely unwise for a Christian to take a drink at all. On the other hand, there is no Scripture which says, “Do not take a drink.” So Christians have to decide about drinking, about dancing, and about many other things, some of which you may not even discover until they face you in the Christian life.

Priorities In Doctrine

The answers that Paul gives to the Corinthians about the issue of meat offered to idols give us principles for dealing with those kinds of questions. The answers to the gray areas of life are found in the matter of priorities. The concept of priorities is a part of each section of this chapter. It is extremely significant the way the chapter begins. The first aspect of priorities that we see in this chapter is the principle of priorities in doctrine, in verses 1-3. When it is all said and done, the knowledge of the Word of God is one of the most important aspects of the Christian life. That is why we devote our time in our services to the teaching of the Word of God. That is why we go to the trouble to have Sunday School classes and all of the other things that we do around here. Everything in our church is, at least theoretically and I hope realistically, tied to the teaching of the Word of God, a most important thing.

Evidently the Corinthians had the same problem that many Christians have, and it is a problem that is very easy to develop. They thought that knowledge was the most important thing in the Christian life. Perhaps that catches you a little off guard. What could be more important than the Word of God? Isn't that what was just said, that we have built our whole church around that? Well, this section deals with that. Verse 1 deals with the existence of knowledge. Please notice:

I Corinthians 8

1Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.

The first thing pointed out in this verse is that every believer has some degree of knowledge. Notice the phrase, “we all have knowledge”. But notice very carefully, “knowledge puffeth up”. The sense of that phrase is that knowledge alone is good for nothing except to gender pride about how much you know. Knowledge alone gives an inflated idea of one's own importance. So what part does knowledge play?

The last phrase of the verse tells us. “But charity [love] edifieth.” Knowledge alone simply inflates our ego, but love edifies. The important thing, you see, is not how much knowledge you have, but what that knowledge motivates you to do. The right use of knowledge causes us to reach out in a loving way to those around us. If all you have is knowledge and you are not doing anything with it, then you have missed the point of the study of the Word of God.

Verse 2 tells us the extent of knowledge:

I Corinthians 8

2And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.

You have met people, haven't you, who think they are pretty close to knowing it all? Look at what this verse says. The person who thinks that he has it made because he knows so much Bible doctrine is a person who is ignorant of a fundamental issue of the Christian life, and that is that he is lacking the thing that puts it all together. No believer knows all there is to know, especially if he thinks he does. In fact, you probably have realized by now that the more we learn as our circle increases, the perimeter of what we don't know also increases. The more we learn, the more we learn there is to learn. So the person who thinks he knows all there is to know is missing a very vital and important part of the Christian life.

Knowledge Produces Love of God

Verse 3 tells us what the essence of knowledge is:

I Corinthians 8

3But if any man love God, the same is known of him.

See, the real test of knowledge is the love that it produces. The person who truly loves God does so because he possesses knowledge of God. The ultimate purpose of the Word of God is to cause us to love God. That is the major reason, the primary reason, for studying the Word of God. We don't study the Word so we can be known as great Bible scholars, or at least we shouldn't study the Word of God for that purpose. Our motivation to study the Word of God is not so that we will be able to know more than everyone else. Our motivation for studying the Word of God is not even so we can be a great, effective teacher. All of those motives sound good, but the Scripture says the legitimate motive in studying the Word of God ought to be to increase our love for God and thereby, our love for others.

This is not the only place in the Bible that says this:

I Timothy 1

5Now the end of the commandment [the Word of God] is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned:

Why did God give His commandments? To produce love in our hearts for Him and for His commandments and His principles and for His people.

Notice I Corinthians, chapter 13, verse 13:

I Corinthians 13

13And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

Our tendency is to think that the greatest of these is knowledge, isn't it? The greatest of these is love. Paul doesn't neglect faith or hope; but faith and hope are worthless if they are not producing love in our hearts.

Love That Reaches Out to Others

Notice Galatians, chapter 5, verse 22:

Galatians 5

22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,

Look at John, chapter 13, verse 35:

John 13

35By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

In each of these contexts in these verses that I have just read, love is in the sense of action. What is love anyway? There are many definitions of love all the way from the sublime to the ridiculous. Let me tell you that it is not what Hollywood tells us it is or what Madison Avenue tells us it is. I John, chapter 4, verse 10, tells us what love is:

I John 4

10Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

The best example of a person loving God is not a good example of love because our love for God, as genuine and pure as it may be, is love of the lovely, love that comes out of a greatful heart. The real definition of love is that God loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Why is that a better example of love than our love for God? Because God's love for us is love of the unlovely. God's love of us is love of those who did not respond to His love, in fact, to those who rebel against Him, to those who disobey Him. That is what love is.

What these verses are telling us is that as we come to know God through the study of His Word, our love for God is going to increase, and God's kind of love is going to increase in us, flowing out to other people. “Love” is an active verb. The bottom line of all this is this: The basic principle that determines Christian activities is not what the believer knows, but the amount of love for God and for God's children that that knowledge produces. You see, knowledge is just a means to an end. The study of the Word of God is extremely important, but it is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end and that is, the proper response to God and to God's people. That is why it is important for us to know the Word of God.

All of this reasoning sets the stage for what Paul is going to say about operating in the gray areas. That may not make a lot of sense to you at the moment, but just keep it on the back burner because we will come back to it toward the end of our study. The basic purpose of whatever God enables us to know is to engender love in our hearts for God and for His people.

Understanding Idolatry

We are dealing with priorities. We have talked about the correct order of priorities in doctrine, but in verses 4-8, there was a problem with priorities in Corinth. Sometimes that same problem is in Abilene. First, we have some very basic information about the doctrine of idols in verse 6. The basic statement is in verse 4:

I Corinthians 8

4As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one.

We know that an idol is nothing–a piece of rock or a piece of wood or whatever it is made of. There is no other God but one. Then verses 5 and 6 elaborate on that statement:

I Corinthians 8

5For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,)
6But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.

Let's think about this. There are human authorities, and the term “lord” can be legitimately used for them, but ultimately all authority is from God, and there is only one God. There is nothing wrong with having authority; there is nothing wrong with the chain of command; there is nothing wrong with recognizing that some people have authority over us. The most important thing to realize is that God is over all.

Although we have this information about idols, verses 7 and 8 tell us that there is a lot of ignorance about the doctrine of idols. The basic statement of that ignorance is in verse 8:

I Corinthians 8

8But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.

How could anything be any clearer than that? There is no harm in eating meat that had been offered to idols. However, if you skip back up to the first part of verse 7, it brings up a problem. There are some people who are ignorant of the truth that meat offered to idols is not harmful. Notice:

I Corinthians 8

7Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.

You see, for some people to eat meat offered to idols brought back all the old memories of that old idolatry. As Christians now, having found the one God, to eat meat offered to idols opens up that whole area of memory for them again. It would be very easy for those of us who have not been involved in idolatry to say, “Well, it shouldn't bother them.” It shouldn't, but there is something else involved here. Notice the little phrase in the end of verse 7, “their conscience being weak is defiled”. Here is a little sideline insight into the sinfulness of sin. It is very important for us to remember this. Usually to continue in sin over a period of time ingrains a weakness that may last a lifetime or at least a long time even after a sin is forgiven, even after that person is delivered from that sin.

The Problem of a Weak Conscience

One of the secular organizations that has been helpful to alcoholics has been Alcoholics Anonymous. One of the many good things that they have accomplished has been to educate people that in general alcoholics are alcoholics even after they stop drinking. If you know someone who has been involved in that program or a similar one very often even after they have been sober for years, they will say, “My name is so-and-so, and I am an alcoholic,” because that sin of drunkenness creates a hold on them that is a live option for the rest of their lives. Experts tell us and statistics bear out that a person who has had an alcoholic problem usually will only take one or two drinks to get just as deeply involved in the problem as he had when he first came to grips with it. That is true of many other areas of sin, too. The conscience is defiled by sin, and the conscience becomes weak, and that sin pattern becomes ingrained, and even though God has forgiven and forgotten about that sin, we have to be very careful in the commission of that sin in the future because it creates a weakness. At the very least we can say that it creates problems for new believers after they adjust to the new standards and values of the Christian life.

We all probably know of someone who has been delivered from alcoholism or drugs or tobacco or various other things and never looked back on it. That certainly happens. But at the very least, a new believer can have problems because of this matter of a weak conscience and the time that it takes to get beyond those things that sin has ingrained in him. Paul says in verse 7 that because of that weak conscience, this believer may set much tighter restrictions on himself than someone who hasn't had that problem would do. The tendency of a believer who had been involved in idolatry would be to stay as far away from idolatry as he could, and that is fine. That is probably an extremely good practice, but what had happened at Corinth was what happens in Christian circles even today. That believer who set tight restrictions on himself and wanted to stay as far away from idolatry as he could had begun to insist that everyone else stay that far away from it too. That is where the problem comes.

Examples of Gray Areas

Let me give you an illustration that will clarify it in your minds. There are certain things that the Scripture says that we must not do. For example, the issue of drunkenness. Scripture clearly says “Do not get drunk.” Regardless of what you may think about drinking beyond that point, it cannot be argued that the Scripture says, “Do not get drunk.” There are some Christians who say, “All right, if this is the principle, then as long as I don't violate that principle, then it doesn't matter how close I come to it out here in the perimeter. I can take some drinks, but as long as I don't get drunk, that is all right.” They build their fence way out here and give themselves a lot of room to get in there close to the principle. Others say, “If the Bible says to not get drunk, then I am not going to take a drink at all,” and they build their fence very close. Someone else says, “Well, I guess I need to be careful not to get drunk, but on the other hand, I don't want to be a legalist,” and so he builds his fence somewhere out here in the middle.

Do you know what happens in Christian circles so often? We start debating, not about the principle of the Word of God, but about where to build the fences. We start condemning each other. We start condemning another Christian who builds his fence closer to the principle than we do. “I've got my fence out here in the middle, and therefore I am mad at the guy who has his fence farther out, and I am mad at the guy who has his closer in, too.” That is what Paul is saying here in chapter 8.

What are we to do in a case like that? What about a person who builds his fence a whole lot closer in principle than we might? How do we relate to a brother like that? The next verse answers that. The implications of the doctrine of idols is in verse 9:

I Corinthians 8

9But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.

Who is being addressed in verse 9? He speaks of those who are weak as being different from those who are spoken to. He is talking to the strong, isn't he? He is talking to the mature believer. The verse just before this said, “We know that meat offered to idols is nothing.” It is perfectly all right to eat meat offered to idols. But he says to the mature, “Be careful that this doesn't become a stumblingblock.”

Responsibility of the Mature Believer

Who has the responsibility in the gray areas? The strong believer. Our thinking is usually just backwards to that, isn't it? We think, “I know enough to know that it is all right for me to do that; and when he knows enough, it will be all right for him, too.” Romans, chapter 14, verse 23, says that for anyone to violate his conscience is a sin. If you violate your conscience, you may later discover that your conscience has been programmed with the wrong information and that thing that you thought was sin was really not sin, but as long as you think it is sin, until you learn that it is not, then if you violate your conscience, it is sin. That is really a whole different subject, but it is important to our discussion here. Is a neutral thing such as meat which has no effect on our relationship to God, according to verse 8, worth causing a brother to sin? You see, even if you know that meat offered to idols is all right, if you have a weaker brother, a less mature brother in Christ who still thinks that it is a sin, and you cause him to violate his conscience, then who does God hold responsible? He holds the stronger brother responsible.

What is our responsibility as the strong believer toward the weaker brother? The answer is in the third part of the chapter, verses 10-13, the placement of priorities for fellowship. Here we come back to the verses that I told you to put on the back burner in the beginning of our discussion. They may have seemed irrelevant to the subject at the time, but here we come back to them. Do you remember what the basic priority of doctrine was, the guide to Christian reactions in fellowship with other believers? It is not how much knowledge we have, but what? How much love that knowledge produces. That is how Paul started this whole chapter. Specifically now, having discussed the issue of priorities, although a mature believer may realize there is nothing wrong with eating meat offered to idols, his actions are not governed by his knowledge of that truth, but by love for the weaker brother. Notice verse 10:

I Corinthians 8

10For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol's temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols;

You see, to insist on your liberties as a believer could cause a weaker brother to abuse his liberties. This is talking about that weaker brother who has not yet learned that it is all right to eat meat offered to idols. For whatever reason, he doesn't have that knowledge yet. Verse 10 clearly says that if you do something that causes him to violate his conscience, then you have sinned, and you are responsible for having made him sin. Notice in verse 12:

I Corinthians 8

12But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.

You are in the wrong, as the more mature believer. Incidentally, verse 12 is a reminder of the unity of the Body of Christ. Notice that it says, “When you sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.” Remember when Paul was on the Damascus road? Christ appeared to him and stopped him there on the road and said, “Saul, why persecutest thou me?” Who was Saul persecuting? Remember, he was throwing Christians to the lions. He was killing Christians. Jesus asked, “Why do you persecute me?” You see, when we sin against another believer, we sin against Christ. What a wonderful thing it is to realize that that is how much the Lord Jesus Christ loves us. He sees us as part of Himself, so to sin against a fellow believer is to sin against Him.

Love and Understanding Among Believers

Let's try to wrap this all up. We need to remember that the principles of this chapter apply only to those neutral things. The Scripture is very specific about prohibiting some things for Christians. It is very specific about saying that there are things we should do. To fail to do the things that it enjoins on us is sin; to do the things that it prohibits is sin. But there are those gray areas, and equally sincere Christians may differ about those gray areas. In these gray areas, there are several things to be considered. First, the point of this whole message is on the care that Christians ought to have for each other. That is very rare in our “me” generation, in our society that is based on human rights. Certainly there are human rights that no government should try to usurp, but that insistence on our rights as human beings in a national entity, I think has led us even as Christians to often think that our rights are the primary thing in all areas of life. Listen, in spiritual matters, our rights are not the primary thing. While we believe that the government ought not to take our rights away for us, the Scripture also tells us just as legitimately that we must not demand our rights at the expense of other believers or at the expense of God's will. So the point in this whole chapter is that we are always to relate to other believers in love, in understanding, in giving them room, in forgiving.

There is something else we need to keep in mind as we put this all together, and that is that this practice applies to specific cases, not to generalities, not to religious bigots, someone who won't be convinced even when he sees the Scripture. For example, the Scripture in the Old Testament tells us to remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy, but there is nothing in the New Testament that tells us that about Sunday, one of the few Old Testament commandments that is not repeated in the New Testament. I personally believe that if it was important in the Old Testament for God's people to make the Sabbath a special day, then in principle the Lord's Day in the New Testament should be a special day. That is one of those gray areas. That is one of the things that every believer has to decide for himself.

Hold on to your seats because this is going to shock some of you possibly. There is nothing wrong with keeping your store open on Sunday as far as God is concerned. It is not a sin. It is not a sin to shop on Sunday. It is not a sin to do business on Sunday. On the other hand, if we realize that Sunday is the day that early believers set aside to worship God, and they did it with His sanction, then why should we use a day like that for secular things? Isn't it more in keeping with the Lord's Day to set that day aside in its entirety? That is something that you have to decide for yourself because God did not say, “Thou shalt not go to the mall on Sunday.” If you believe you can do anything you want to on Sunday, but you know a specific believer that is bothered by that, then in your relationships with him, it is better to forego the privilege of shopping on Sunday. Until that believer has an opportunity to learn more truth, to become more mature, then you ought to forego your rights to protect him while he comes to the level of maturity at which you are. The responsibility is always on the more mature believer.

Love Out of a Pure Heart

Look at verse 13 where Paul says, “Here is my personal practice.”

I Corinthians 8

13Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.

In the context of this chapter, Paul was speaking figuratively here. He is saying, “I am going to do whatever it takes to keep from offending my weaker brother, knowing that as he studies the Word of God, he is going to become more mature. But until he does, if it takes that, I won't eat any meat. In fact, if it took it, I would never eat meat again.” That is the attitude–whatever it takes to meet the need of a fellow believer. That is what God expects us to do.

How do you relate to fellow believers? What is your goal with all of that knowledge that God has given you? Is it just to look down on those who don't know as much as you do? The purpose of the commandment is love out of a pure heart. If you have any other production out of the knowledge that God has given you, then you are missing the point. If you are looking down on some believer who doesn't operate the same way you do, you are missing the point of all the opportunities that God has given you for the knowledge of His Word.

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