Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.
Paul here turns the tables on the wise and sophisticated members of the community. Knowledge without love is not a blessing or a virtue, because it leads to pride and self-regard. Indeed, claiming to possess knowledge is itself a symptom of a deeper ignorance. We should seek to love God, and therefore be known by God, first and foremost.
This is important because the community is in conflict over how its members relate to the customary religious practices of the city:
Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
"Food offered to idols" may be the sacred meals of pagan temples, or oblations placed before household shrines to departed ancestors. Christians acknowledge only one God. So the question is whether eating food offered to idols is itself idolatry (the worship of idols), or whether it is just plain old eating, since the idol itself is an illusion. Some Christians in Corinth eat, some refrain, and there is conflict about what those choices mean:
It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. ‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.
So Paul is clear that the actual food is indifferent. It can't harm or help you. So the consideration is not in the food itself, nor even the idol to which it has been offered, but in the conscience of the brother or sister who still experiences the pull of idol-worship:
But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.
Paul is saying here that the exercise of your liberty, in good conscience (eating food offered to vain idols) can become dangerous because it can cause those of weaker conscience and understanding to stumble. So your Christian liberty needs to be weighed against the effect of your actions on your siblings:
But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
The word here for "I may not cause one of them to fall" is skandaliso, which we recognize from the English word "scandalize." There are acts that are permitted in themselves, but that are destructive to the brother or sister and therefore must be given up. So Christians are obligated to bear the burdens of sisters or brothers who are struggling in their conscience, weak in their faith, or otherwise entangled with the world and not to add to them by making a license of our freedom.
I actually think about this a lot. "Freedom" or, if you prefer, "liberty," is a big an often under-discussed aspect of Christian faith (especially if you don't happen to be worshiping in a Lutheran church or attending a Lutheran seminary). It is very important for us to recognize that the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross and his life-giving proclamation of God's kingdom set us free from vain taboos and destructive religious compulsions.
But for Paul (and for Martin Luther), this is not "liberty" in the secular political sense we often use it today. It doesn't mean "you can't tell me what to do" or "I can do whatever you can't stop me from doing." Instead, it delivers us to a relationship of care and obligation for our neighbor, starting with the Christian community itself. I am free to eat, and yet obliged to bear with my sister who will fall if I do. Therefore I do not eat.
It's worth thinking about how this applies in our own lives. It's easy for Christians to adopt a morality of strict purity, or at least of the appearance of purity (especially with respect to women's bodies and sexuality), often justified by the danger posed by anyone setting a bad example or creating scandal. And it's easy, though less common, for Christians to express simple scorn for norms and public decency. I think here of the seminary professor who would drop the occasional f-bomb in class to reassure himself that his salvation owed nothing to his own merit, or of the many pastors and teachers these days who take evident delight in being "politically incorrect" and insulting or demeaning their siblings as a show of freedom and dominance.
But I think Paul points us to another way, which is to start with love. How will my actions, even if they are neutral in themselves, affect my neighbor? If I wish to contribute to the welfare of my brother's soul, and not just mine, how might I speak and act to foreground the love for God that is the basis of all knowledge? Even if I have understood that profanity* is just a convention of language and not a moral issue, how will my words affect those around me?
These are the things Paul pushes us to consider. I hope you'll join me on Sunday as we ponder what this means for us, in a world of infinite options and limited rules.
*note: not blasphemy, which is an actual sin (believe me, I'm not any happier about this than you are)