Posted On October 31, 2021

Christian Liberty and The Freedom Liberty of Conscience

by | Oct 31, 2021 | Christian Liberty, Featured

​What is Christian liberty? What does it mean to have liberty of conscience? How do we honor God in these particular areas? I find this topic to be one of the most undeveloped areas in the minds of Christians. It seems to be a constant flash point in many congregations and all throughout evangelicalism. Now, for a good exegesis on all the passages related to conscience, I commend Andy Naselli and J.D. Crowley’s book, Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ. But below you will find my short contribution to the subject and I pray that it is equipping to you. 

Paul says to the church of Corinth:

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1st Corinthians 10:23-11:1).

Now let me give the setting of what is going on here otherwise we may have a difficult time tracking with this passage and Paul’s instructions. The passage you just read is only a section out of a larger discussion on Christian liberty contained in chapters 8-11. And let me just give you an overview of chapters 8, 9, and the beginning of 10:

  • In 8:1 we see the issue: food offered to idols.
  • In 8:4-6 we see Paul state that idols (and by that he means pagan deities) do not really exist and that there is one God and one Lord, Jesus Christ.
  • In 8:7 we see him say that there are younger, weaker believers that defile their conscience by eating food that was offered to idols. They think that their eating of the food somehow endorses idolatry.
  • In 8:9 we see Paul charge the stronger more mature believers to not allow their liberty of eating food offered to idols to become a stumbling block to those weaker in the faith (and I will revisit this later).
  • In 8:12 we see Paul say that the stronger brother sins against the weaker brother if the stronger makes the weaker defile (key word) his conscience.
  • In 9:1-23 we see Paul state how he gives up his rights even as an Apostle to win people to Christ.
  • Lastly, the first part of chapter 10:1-22 is really a warning to flee idolatry. I think this eases the mind of the weaker believers to know that eating meat offered to idols is not idolatry (or an endorsement of it) and it serves as a warning to the stronger believers not to be led astray through one’s liberties into idolatry.

Now that we have a bit of the context, let me offer up a few points as it relates to the passage at hand.

Our Christian Liberty Should Build Up the Body of Christ

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor (1st Corinthians 10:23-24). Paul says something like this a few chapters earlier (6:12) when he writes: ““All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.” And in chapter 8:9, when he reminds us, “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”

Our Christian liberty can fall into idolatry when we are so committed to it that we devour other believers. Our liberties are not engaged with in a vacuum. In one sense, yes, we are individuals, but in a much truer and biblical sense, we are not individuals. We are a part of the body of Christ and to the unbelieving world we are ambassadors of Christ.

When Paul says that “all things are lawful, but not all things are helpful”, he is saying that just because we have the right before God to do something, doesn’t mean that we should do it, because it may not be beneficial or expedient as it relates to seeking the good of your neighbor. Seeking the good of one’s neighbor is connected to the phrase “build up” which means to edify—that is, to make one sturdy in Christ.

The question Christians are good at asking is, “Can I do_______?” The question we are bad at asking is, “Should I do ___________? Does it build up a brother or sister? Or does it cause them to sin?” Our liberty should build God’s church.

This World Belongs to Jesus—Enjoy Your Liberties in Light of That Fixed Reality

Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience” (1st Corinthians 10:25-27). In this passage Paul quotes from Psalm 24 when he says, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”. This means all things belong to God therefore what we have is given by Him alone. In fact, Paul says to young Timothy in 1st Timothy 4:4-5:

“For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”

What God has created is good and shouldn’t be called or treated as evil. Yet fallen men have made perversions of it by becoming slaves to it (which is what Paul is warning about in chapter 10) and then in an overreaction end up calling what is good, “evil”.

For example, using meat as a pagan sacrifice is a perversion of what God has created that should be received with thankfulness. Take for another example—wine in the Bible. Wine is commended in Scripture (Psalm 104; Ecclesiastes 9:7; John 2; 1st Timothy 5:27), yet men using it for wicked purposes and becoming enslaved to it (drunkenness, which clusters with the sin of self-pity and despair and slothfulness, etc.) is outright condemned (Proverbs 23; Ephesians 5:18; 1st Peter 4).

These are two biblical examples of how even Christian liberties can become idols that turn our devotion away from God, His glory, and His people. As a result, we end up shackled in sinful addiction. However, Paul’s point in verses 25-27 is that our consciences should not call evil that which God has called good. We often call evil that which God calls good because we are blame shifters. Instead of taking personal responsibility for our excess, we blame a gift from God and thus blame God.

It is as old as the garden: Adam says to God, “it was the woman you gave me” (Genesis 3:12). Now, that gets us into another aspect to this section in verse 27:

“If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.”

Here we see how someone with a perpetually weak conscience (which is one not being strengthened and informed by the Word) can put their undeveloped conscience (as it relates to the Word) before their role as being an ambassador of Christ by being unhospitable and uncomfortable to be around.

This is just as detrimental as the strong conscience believer turning what’s good into an idol or even forcing the weak conscience believer to defile their conscience. Think of the picture Paul is giving here. A Christian, who thinks eating meat that was previously offered as a sacrifice to a pagan god is a sin, goes over the house of an unbeliever. One of the primary purposes for accepting such an invitation should be to influence that person toward Christ Jesus. Instead, what happens is the Christian sits down at the table and looks at all the food the unbeliever prepared and says “no thank you.”

The rest of the night the non-Christians have to endure getting a lecture from an uninformed Christian about a matter of liberty. It is like being held hostage at your own dinner table. It is inhospitable, it makes people uncomfortable, and it is a calling of “unclean that which God calls clean”. And when you constantly elevate a biblically undeveloped conscience and treat it as ‘thus saith the Lord’ (i.e., on par with Scripture), you limit your ability to advance the gospel and you hinder your own ability to grow. Humility is crucial here.

So, here we find a commendation of the good God has created, the importance of enjoying those things in light of Christ’s Lordship (which means in moderation), and we see a potential pitfall for the weak believer.

Love Limits Liberty

But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience” (1st Corinthians 10:28). Now we see Paul turn to the stronger believer primarily. Paul is saying that the person informing the brother or sister who is eating meat that was offered to an idol is wrestling with that in their conscience.

Again, remember the setting. Christians have been invited over to a non-Christian’s home. Some of those Christians are perhaps recent converts and they converted out of paganism. They used to be the non-Christians that sacrificed meat to idols. The other Christians are more mature and they either do not have that as their testimonial background or they’ve strengthened their conscience over time. And Paul’s instructions are clear: if someone says, “this food has been offered to idols, don’t eat it for their sake.”

The person saying it is considered by Paul to be the weaker believer. He or she in this passage would violate their conscience to eat meat sacrificed to idols. It would feel like they were defiling themselves or denouncing God. It would seem as if they were going back to their former way of life. And for the stronger believer to turn and say “eat it” would be detrimental to the weaker brother’s faith. It would cause them to feel as if they’re sinning. It would be a form of inner torment and restlessness. It would cause them to wrestle with their assurance of faith. So, Paul says do not eat it for the sake of the weaker brother (the one who informed you) and for the sake of their conscience.

Restraint in this case is a very loving thing to do, and we can see how unloving it would be to cause a brother or sister in Christ to suffer by sinning against conscience. Now look with me for a moment at Romans 14:13-23, because there we see Paul writing about the same issues to another church, and it helps shed light on the instructions Paul is giving here to the church of Corinth that will ensure we are biblically balanced:

“Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:13-23).

What is at stake here is causing another brother to stumble. And by “stumble” it genuinely means causing another brother to either actually sin (you can see the risk of this in drinking alcohol with an alcoholic, for example) or believe he is actually sinning thereby violating his conscience.

So, this weaker brother in our passage would think that he is sinning against God to eat the meat. That is what makes it unloving for the stronger brother to persist in his liberty. Now this is a lot different than someone disagreeing with you about your Christian liberty no matter how vehemently they disagree with you. If the weaker brother said something along the lines of “I wouldn’t eat that if I were you—it was sacrificed to an idol” or “I cannot believe you would eat meat sacrificed to an idol, don’t you know the world is watching” or “Don’t you know that offends me? I am offended!” you are not bound to refrain from your liberty.

None of those sorts of rebuttals carry the weight of Scripture when it exhorts Christians to limit their liberty for the sake of another brother’s conscience. None of those are legitimate excuses for a stronger believer to suspend his liberty. Believers are not to be held hostage by people who are perpetually offended about things God says we have liberty with no matter how much they protest.

D.A. Carson says it this way:

“Incidentally, one should not confuse the logic of 1 Corinthians 8 [which is:  9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? (1 Cor 8:9-10)] with the stance that finds a strong legalist saying to a believer who thinks that eating meat offered to idols is acceptable, “You may think that such action is legitimate, but every time you do it you are offending me—and since you are not permitted to offend me, therefore you must not engage in that activity.” The person who utters words to that effect, however, is in no danger of being swayed by the actions of those who engage in the activity. They are using a manipulative argument to defend a misguided position in which they are convinced that the act of eating meat that has been offered to idols is invariably wrong. In other words, they operate out of the conviction that this activity lies in [an] indisputable column—and thus they find themselves at odds with Paul’s wisdom and insight.”[i]

So, we set aside our Christian liberty when we are dealing with a brother or sister who would stumble—who would join us in our liberty to the violation of their conscience or who has no self-control and would fall into gluttony or drunkenness. But we are not obligated at all to set aside our Christian liberty because it offends someone. The Scripture is clear: love limits liberty.

All Things Are for the Glory of God

I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1st Corinthians 10:29-31). The Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 1 says: “What is the chief end of man?” Answer: “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Paul, being clear about matters of conscience not being sin, charges believers to remember that all things are to be done to the glory of God. That is, in fact, what makes them fit. That is what makes them acceptable. That is what makes them acts of worship. It’s what makes your Sunday lunch or dinner fit—the fact that it is received with thanksgiving as a blessing from God.

Paul says in verse 30, “If I partake with thankfulness why am I denounced?” That word “denounced” means “spoken evil against”. We do not speak evil of those who honor the Lord in the way that they live. We don’t speak evil of those who partake in those things which God has called good when they do it with thankfulness to Him.

And just as the strong believer should not cause another believer to stumble by force feeding them against their conscience, so should the strong believer be settled in his mind on issues of liberty. Just because you limit your liberty in love does not mean that you begin to call what your limiting sinful. That is legalism. The binding of one’s conscience on matters that are not sin is legalistic. So, instead of being enslaved by legalism, Paul commends partaking with thankfulness to the Lord, who is King over all of His creation and is King over our liberties. That is how we “do all to the glory of God.” The glory of God is the goal in all things, including matters of conscience. And where the glory of God is the goal, the right balance will be struck.

We are Responsible to Not Give Offense for the Sake of the Gospel, But We Cannot Control the Reactions of Others

Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1st Corinthians 10:32-11:1). With the glory of God as the goal, Paul gives some concrete handles: “give no offense to Jews or Greeks or the church of God—just as I try to please everyone in everything I do.” Paul has in view non-believers when he says “Jews and Greeks” and believers when he says “Christians” (Christians are made up of Jews and Greeks so that is the reason for the delineation here). Paul says, “give no offense to unbelievers and believers”.

That word ‘give’ is significant. That phrase “give no offense” means “do not hurt or harm or cause anyone to stumble”. That is different than people taking offense. We live in a culture that is in a perpetual state of outrage. The question is not whether there is outrage, just as the question Paul isn’t concerned about is whether non-believers and believers were offended.

The question that should be asked is, “Is it [the outrage] legitimate?” Is there something the stronger believer should repent of? Have you dishonored God in your liberties causing someone to stumble into violating their conscience? Then confession and repentance are required.

Now what we know Paul is NOT saying is, fear man—be a people pleaser. That is enslaving and ungodly. We are to fear God. What he is saying, and continually commending, is this idea of not being a stumbling block for non-believers or believers by causing them to violate their conscience. Paul wasn’t concerned about his personal liberties to the detriment of the lives of others and his model for that was Christ. He concludes the section by saying as much: Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

And what sort of example is Christ in all of this? Paul answers that question in Philippians 2:5-11:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

The humility and love of Christ and His red-hot drive for the glory of God led to the salvation of His people. And He is our Savior and our example. Therefore, our humility and love for Christ should fuel a desire to ascribe glory to God that will in turn effectively build our neighbors up in Him.

Reference:

[i] Carson, D.A. On Disputable Matters https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/on-disputable-matters/

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