A couple weeks ago I was reading Gerald Bray's recent systematic theology God Is Love, and I came across this:
The church can support the right of individuals to freedom of conscience without necessarily endorsing what that conscience feels strongly about. A precedent for this can be found in the tolerance shown by Paul to the ‘weaker brethren’ who did not eat meat sacrificed to idols because of their tender consciences. Paul did not agree with their reasoning but he respected their scruple and told the Corinthian church that it must do the same [citing 1 Cor 8:4-13 in a footnote] (484).
Later he writes,
…there are always gray areas where it is not entirely clear what we should do. In the New Testament, we come across this phenomenon in the case of those who felt at liberty to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols [citing 1 Cor 8:1-13]. Christians do not believe that idols exist, and so it ought to make no difference whether meat has been sacrificed to them. In terms of strict logic, this is undoubtedly true, and the apostle Paul recognized that, in principle, there was nothing wrong in ignoring such pagan habits. Those who had been brought up as Jews, however, were sensitive to this….People who saw them doing such things might easily have thought that they were indulging in a pagan practice, if only by association, and therefore they believed it was better to avoid ‘idol meat’ altogether [citing 1 Cor 8:1-13; Rom 14:13-23] (691).
Bray makes some valid points, but I question whether 1 Corinthians 8 supports them. Now, 1 Corinthians 8-10 has its fair share of interpretive difficulties. Some of them don't make a dollar's worth of difference in the application of the text, but some of them do, and in this post I'd like to suggest that this common way of understanding the "weak conscience" in this text is exactly backwards. I argue this for pastoral reasons. I believe it makes a significant difference how we relate to any society in which we live as well as how we relate to our fellow believers.
This common position (which to be forthright is held by quite a number of top-notch scholars and preachers, among them Gordon Fee, D. A. Carson, James White, and John MacArthur) holds that a weak conscience thinks something is evil which is not really evil. In other words, it really was okay to eat food sacrificed to idols, but those with weak consciences didn't think so. They couldn't get over their pagan background. But they felt pressure from the "strong" Christians to go ahead and do what their conscience said not to do. This led them to violate their consciences, which is a dangerous thing to do.
Let me briefly suggest some reasons why this position does not seem to fit the text.
- We must not read Romans 14 into 1 Corinthians 8. The two texts are dealing with fairly different situations. The reason they are often confused is that they both mention food, someone who is weak, loving the brothers, and destroying one for whom Christ died. However, Romans 14 is not talking about the issue of food offered to idols but about Jewish scruples regarding food - a different scenario in which different instructions apply.
- Paul never approves of eating food sacrificed to idols when it is known that the food was sacrificed to idols, regardless of the setting. This is consistent with all the NT teaching on food offered to idols (Acts 15:29; 21:25; Rev 2:14, 20), as well as with its OT background (e.g. Exod 34:14-15). Granted, Paul argues that a believer has no need to try to find out the entire history of a piece of meat before he eats it because meat is a good gift from God, no matter what happened to it in the past. But the issue is participation in idolatry, which we must never condone in any circumstance.
- The meaning of "defiled" does not comfortably fit with the common position, which always seems to have a slippery, subjective notion of what defiled means. But "defiled" is best understood as "to cause something to be ritually impure" (BDAG). Besides considering the OT background of defilement, a comparison with Revelation 3:14 and 14:4 is helpful. In 3:14, the church at Sardis was accommodating herself to her pagan environment, which made her unfit to be in God’s presence. Yet there were a few people who had not defiled their garments, and they will walk with Christ in white. In 14:4 the 144,000 are described as virgins who had not defiled themselves with women. As we find in this text, molu,nw regularly had connotations relating to immorality (cf. Zech 14:2 [LXX]; 1 Es 8:80; Tob 3:15). So when Paul speaks of consciences being defiled, he is talking about them becoming ungodly, unfit to be in the presence of God. The weak consciences of people who are led to participate in idol worship become ritually impure for worship and fellowship with God (cf. 10:21). Defilement is simply incompatible with exclusive loyalty to the one true God (8:6). (That this is the concept in Paul's mind seems to be further strengthened by his reference to being "presented" or "close to" God in v. 8.)
- Further, the results that could come from the actions of the "strong" are extremely serious. Paul warns about becoming a stumbling block (i.e. causing someone to turn away from Christ) and destroying a brother. It seems like the Corinthians wouldn't be persuaded too easily that influencing someone to do what is right (even though he thinks it is wrong) would be a step toward perdition. On the other hand, if they were influencing the weak to think that it was perfectly okay to worship idols, then it is easy to see how that could result in the destruction Paul warns about. Participation in idolatry is incompatible with participation in Christ, as Israel's experience shows (10:1-14), and it does result in destruction.
- Verse 10 speaks of weak consciences being "built up" to eat food offered to idols. This does not mean that they were pressured into doing something against their better judgment. It means that they were actually influenced to think that eating food offered to idols was just fine. In other words, their weak consciences were trained incorrectly, so that they now had no problem doing what was wrong.
- The common position sometimes speaks of the weak as wounding their own consciences (v. 12) (e.g. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry, 123). While this may be true in a roundabout sense, the text says that the "strong" are the ones who sin against their brothers and wound the consciences of the weak. This simply reinforces the point that the weak are not going against their better judgment; they are having their poor judgment strengthened by the example of the "strong."
Therefore, rather than interpreting "weak consciences" to mean those who were over-scrupulous and unnecessarily rigid, it is better to see those with weak consciences as easily swayed into wrong judgments. They are not well-grounded in the faith, so they are easily influenced to think that it doesn't matter if they participate in idolatry.
Some sources I found helpful:
Cheung, Alex T. Idol Food in Corinth: Jewish Background and Pauline Legacy. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999.
Fotopoulos, John. Food Offered to Idols in Roman Corinth. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003.
Garland, David E. 1 Corinthians. BECNT. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.