Let’s say that you have a friend named Bob. Bob is a great friend in every way. But, you have a really obnoxious habit and it drives Bob crazy. One day, Bob have enough of you and your antics, so he tells you, “I can’t hang out with you any more if you are going to continue doing that.”
How can you deal with this situation?
A. Stop doing the obnoxious thing and you can continue to be great friends.
B. Refuses to stop and you cease to be friends.
It is not inherently wrong that Bob is bothered by you—it may lack love, but we aren’t too concerned with Bob’s problem, so much as your own response. There is also not anything inherently wrong with either of your responses to Bob.
Let’s take a look at the text.
The Corinthians were dealing with this problem: Some of the members of the church would eat food that was sacrificed to idols and they would even do so in the temple as part of the ceremony to a false god. This bothered others who did not do it and this was causing distentions.
Paul tells them that everyone has knowledge. Those that eat in the temple know that it is OK. Those that refuse to eat in the temple know that it is not OK. But, neither opinion is right or wrong here. The problem is love. Knowledge causes arrogance against those who believe something different, but love builds up and therefore brings people together. Knowledge is nothing then, but love draws us closer to God through the building up of other believers (vv. 1-3).
Paul says that an idol is nothing because the god is not real. He says that there is only one God, God the Father and only one Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, to sacrifice to an idol is to sacrifice to nothing and so it is just meat. In practice, it is not sinful (vv. 4-6).
Paul then tells us that not everyone knows it’s OK. They are so trained that the idols are real gods that to them it seems that they are worshiping another god, when in fact they are not. This person is weak in this matter and their understanding is defiled (vv. 7-8).
It’s interesting here that Paul does not give us liberty to correct the weaker brother. We are in no position to correct them with our understanding—knowledge—but instead we should simply love them. He goes on to explain how to love them.
(NOTE: This applies to things which are not sinful. We should challenge a brother who is in sin.)
Now it is not sin to eat the meat or to not eat the meat. To eat is to exercise our freedom, and to not eat is to not exercise our freedom. If we are going to love the weaker brother, we must be sure that we don’t cause them to stumble. What does stumble mean? In this context, we are talking about causing the weaker brother, who believes that to eat the meat is to worship a false idol, to do what they believe to be sin. If they begin to eat the meat because the other brother eats the meat, then they will in heart be worshiping the false god, because they lack the true knowledge. To one it is just meat, but to the other to eat it is idolatry (v. 9-10).
Here is an analogy. Let’s say we have a friend who was addicted to pain killers and is now clean. If I hurt myself, it is not sin for me to take a Vicodin to ease the pain. But, if I am to take a Vicodin, ??? I must make sure that the practice does not cause my friend to stumble. This means that I should not take it in front of them. I certainly should not offer to share. It might be wise not to talk about it around them. It would be a good idea not to leave the bottle out when they are around…and so on and so forth.
Paul takes this to a greater extent. He says that to cause the brother to stumble is to sin against them and not only that, but to sin against Christ. Notice the last verse. Paul is so concerned about sinning against Christ that he would rather never eat any meat again, become a vegetarian, rather than cause one of his brothers to stumble. Notice that he doesn’t say he had to do that, simply that were it necessary, he would do it (vv. 11-13).
In the Vicodin example, we could say that in an extreme circumstance, it would just be better to suffer the pain than to cause your brother to stumble. Are we willing to suffer physical pain or discomfort for the benefit of our brothers in Christ?
This applies in so many other ways, though. Let’s go back to the Bob example. Bob is the weaker brother. Your obnoxious behavior is not sinful, but because of Bob’s weakness, he asks you to cease what you are doing. This passage is about the decision you should make, not Bob. If you refuse to stop the behavior, then you sin against Bob, because you did not express love towards him, but if you sacrifice of yourself and stop the behavior, then you expresses true love. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15.13).
The application, then, is that we should not be so concerned with changing others, but if we are truly to love our brothers in Christ, then we should be willing to change our lives, to lay down our lives, for their benefit; that they might be able to walk closer to Christ because of our sacrifice.