“But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
When it came to the issue of eating or not eating meat that had been offered as a sacrifice to an idol, Paul’s position was that because idols were nothing, eating the meat was not in any way morally problematic in and of itself. In other words, the act was not sinful.
But…for some folks in the church, the idea of eating such meat was really problematic for them and for their conscience. Some Gentile background folks who had grown up as pagans and who were really into idolatry before following Jesus could not eat the meat without being tempted back into their old life. Similarly, many of the Jewish background believers couldn’t eat it without feeling like they were sinning against God by participating even indirectly in an act of idolatry.
For these kinds of folks, their consciences were sufficiently afflicted by the issue that for them, eating the meat would have been sinful. You see, sometimes something is a sin because the physical act is morally impermissible. To commit that particular action is a violation of God’s expressed will. Sometimes, though, something is a sin not because the act itself is wrong, but because the attitude behind it is. If we sincerely believe something to be a violation of God’s holiness but then do it anyway, we are sinning. We are sinning because we have put our desire for this thing we are convinced we should not have above our commitment to the holiness of God. Anytime we do that we have entered into the realm of sin. This is the case whether or not the physical act is itself actually prohibited by God. Our belief may be false, but if we are convinced of its truthfulness in our hearts, we are sinning by going against our consciences.
Here’s where all this connects to what Paul is saying. In the church, we have people from all kinds of different backgrounds who have come together to worship the same Lord. These different backgrounds present a challenge in that some folks will be tempted by some things differently than others. We all have different things which serve as our primary temptation into sin.
Alcohol is a common point of departure today in the church. While the consumption of alcohol itself is nowhere prohibited in the Scriptures (and in some places is actually encouraged), for many people it is a gateway into all kinds of sinful behavior starting with drunkenness and spiraling downward from there. In other words, while we have the freedom in Christ to drink alcohol, for some folks, even seeing another believe drink gives them trouble.
Well, whether the issue is alcohol or anything else (in case of the Corinthian church it was idol meat), a big part of learning to do life together in the church is figuring out how to navigate all these different preferences and opinions and points of individual temptation in such a way that we are all simultaneously enjoying our freedom in Christ while not needlessly injuring the consciences of other believers who are weaker in their exercise of their faith on that particular issue than we are. We may have the right to do many different things, but when the exercise of our rights puts someone else’s relationship with Jesus in danger, we gain nothing for ourselves and hurt the church as a whole by insisting on our rights.
For Paul, then, the real issue here was not eating meat that had been sacrificed to an idol. The issue was whether we were going to put love for one another above and before enjoying the limits of our freedom in Christ together. The fact is: loving people is always more important than pursuing freedom. And while this can certainly be taken to unnecessary and even unhealthy extremes (our ultimate goal is not to coddle the weak, but to gently help them grow to be strong), temporarily limiting our freedom for the sake of someone else not being led astray in their own walk with Christ is always a good thing. The best thing in the church is not our comfort or our preferences being honored, it is loving others and seeing them grow more fully into who God designed them to be. We may have the right to many things, but the best thing is growing others in Christ whether or not that means being able to exercise our rights.