Ground Rules for Christian Freedom — Part Two
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Ground Rules for Christian Freedom — Part Two

When Paul said, “Everything is permissible,” he was clearly not negating those things which Scripture expressly forbids; he was referring to debatable matters not directly addressed in the Bible. To these issues, biblical principles must be applied to avoid division and to fully understand the genuine experience of freedom. Alistair Begg teaches that while we want to avoid the bondage of legalism, sometimes we need to curtail our freedom for the good of others with weaker consciences.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in 1 Corinthians, Volume 4

Christian Freedom 1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1 Series ID: 14604

Sermon Transcript: Print

We are in the list of ten. If you recall, last time we had begun this, and you can find the outline on the page here in your bulletin this morning. In this paragraph, this final paragraph of chapter 10, Paul is essentially drawing together the threads of what he’s been teaching in the last three chapters. The issue, the matter of discussion, is that of Christian freedom. And at the very heart of the discussion is a phrase which would appear to have become virtually a slogan in the Corinthian context, and that phrase you find in verse 23: “Everything is permissible,” or perhaps in your Bible it reads, “All things are lawful.”[1]

Now, we’ve said each time, and I repeat for necessary emphasis this morning, that when the Bible says “Everything is permissible,” Paul is not here referring to things which Scripture expressly forbids. If there are things which the Bible says we mustn’t and cannot do, then clearly the phrase “Everything is permissible” does not negate that instruction, but rather, the phrase has reference to what we might refer to as debatable matters—to the things over which you may find disagreement with Christians. And certainly within the Corinthian context, the pressing issue, as we’ve seen in our studies, was that of idol feasts and whether the believers could attend these idol feasts, and specifically whether stuff—meat, poultry—that had been offered in the temple in idolatrous practices could be used in hospitality and could be accepted when offered in hospitality when we visited in others’ homes.

Now, this may seem very remote for us this morning. After all, when’s the last time you went over to your friends’ house and when they served you up something, your immediate thought was, “I wonder if this had been sacrificed to idols”? It’s highly unlikely, although I don’t know who your friends are.

But let me give you the kind of questions, and if one of these questions happens to fit you, then don’t feel bad about it, because this is just a question off the top of my head, and I could’ve come up with fifty of these. But here are the kind of things over which Scripture gives no express directives and for which we then need to apply biblical principle—questions such as these: Can I work for a company that produces alcoholic beverages? Can I in all honesty be a patron of Playhouse Square? Can I purchase this vast music library? Can I continue to hold stock in video companies?

Now, we’re not going to be able to go to a passage in the Bible and open it up and we see it there, it says, “Viacom” or “this com is taboo.” It’s not there. And we may find ourselves in raging disagreement with others. And that kind of debatable issue needs principle to be applied to it if we’re going to understand the nature of Christian freedom.

Now, we ought not to be in any doubt here at all: Paul is on the side of freedom—a freedom which is a real freedom, not an imaginary freedom. For when he writes to the Galatians—and you may like to turn forward just to see this—he states to them very clearly in Galatians chapter 5, “[I want you,]” he says, “[to make sure that you] plant your feet firmly … within the freedom that Christ has won for us, and do not let yourselves be caught again in the shackles of slavery.”[2]

All right? Now, that’s not in Galatians 5. Oh yes, it is in Galatians 5. I’m reading Ephesians 5. I thought someone had moved it, but it’s there. Galatians 5. I was having a dreadful time looking down at what I thought was Galatians 5, which begins, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children … live a life of love.”[3] I thought, “That’s not the same as what I had in mind.” No, it is Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Very clear instruction. And in expounding the truth, he provides us with a number of ground rules, and in this final paragraph of 1 Corinthians 10.

Don’t Tie Yourselves Up in Unnecessary Knots

Now, last time, we began them, and we wrapped it up just making a start at number three, which we entitled “Don’t Tie Yourselves Up in Unnecessary Knots.” We’re back now in 1 Corinthians 10, and the principle is “Don’t tie yourselves up in unnecessary knots.”

Every so often on television, we’re treated to a program about an escapologist, one of these characters that has himself tied up and then chained up and buttoned up and zipped up and jammed up, and eventually, he’s just completely smothered in straightjackets and chains and buckles and zips and all manner of things. And I always look at the man and say, “Why would you ever want to do that?” It seems such a dumb way to make your money in life, you know.

Now, if there are any escapologists here this morning, I apologize for condemning your career. I don’t mean to do that, but I think you could maybe move to another section of the circus that’s not as terrorizing. But it’s a pathetic picture of someone tied up. Now, they’re not tied up because they’re in bondage as a result of being captive by an alien army. They’re being tied up by choice. They stand there and let people tie them up, and then they spend the next few moments trying to escape from unnecessary bondage.

Legalism does not produce holy living. Legalism produces bondage.

The escapologist is a classic picture of many people within many churches. For we have stood there and allowed ourselves to be tied up in unnecessary knots, and we then spend the rest of our lives, as it seems, trying to unzip, unbuckle, and unchain ourselves, wondering why it is that we cannot be more useful.

Now, Paul has already given clear direction as to what they ought not to be involved in. In verse 21, he said categorically, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.” He was unequivocal about that. You can’t be involved in both sides at the one time. You can’t have it, as we said in that study, both ways. But he now makes clear that eating with your non-Christian friends and eating what your non-Christian friends provide is another matter entirely.

Now, some people would have difficulty with this, because they were wanting to say, “You see, verse 21 is very clear. Paul said this, said it categorically. Therefore…” We have to be careful about our deductions, because we can take good theology and make faulty deductions, and the faulty deductions get us in difficulty. Oh, we’re agreed upon the theology, but we deduce wrongly, and as a result of deducing wrongly, we just make non sequiturs, and we end up in By-Path Meadow.

So, Paul clarifies this. Some of his readers were clearly overscrupulous, and they were taking this whole matter to an extreme. They were apparently turning the routine transactions of their days—namely, going grocery shopping, for example—into a matter of deep conscience. And you can just imagine them at marketplace, asking all these intricate questions about where the stuff has come from, and the man would not have time to deal with that silliness. And Paul says it really is quite silly, because bear in mind that whatever process the meat may have come through and irrespective of any kind of pagan accoutrements, the fact is, as the psalmist states and as Paul quotes, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”[4] In other words, says Paul, even if this meat has been here and had that done to it, that’s an irrelevancy in any case, because God made all of this stuff, and he made it for our good, and “the [whole] earth is the Lord’s, and everything [that exists] in it.”

When he writes to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4—you can turn there and check this; you should on the basis of my first reference—1 Timothy 4:4–5 read, “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

Now, this is intensely practical stuff. But what Paul is saying is this: that when we’re on the receiving end of hospitality from unbelieving friends, or if we are back in the Corinthian context and we’re one of these people, “Well,” says Paul, “when the food comes and hits the table, don’t begin a great theological discussion. The lady was working hard in the kitchen, she made the food, she brought it out. Don’t immediately say, ‘Where did you get this?’ And don’t follow it up by ‘Have you been to the temple?’ And don’t then hit her up about idol sacrifices and about every other thing. Just eat what’s put in front of you.”

Sounds like your mother before you go to a friend’s house, doesn’t it? Incidentally, kids, those of you who are smart will be trying to use the conscience question as a means of knocking back various things that your mother presents you with in the next coming weeks—those of you who are smart. Those of you who aren’t don’t know what I’m talking about, so that’s okay. “Now, I want you to eat your broccoli.” “No, I have a question of conscience over broccoli.” “Would you finish your lunch?” “Have you been to the temple lately, Mom?” Okay, you got the picture, those of you who didn’t have it before? All right. Sorry, parents.

Now, what is the principle here? Here’s the principle, I think: we should not forfeit the privilege of Christian freedom lightly, just because of the way the wind blows. The only reason we should forfeit the privilege of Christian freedom is if it is going to offend another.

Now, this is the principle that is run all the way through. It’s kind of like the key verse in it all. First Corinthians 8:9: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” But it is a genuine freedom. It’s not an imagined freedom. It’s real.

We should not refrain from participating in neutral things just because someone has created an external list of their own choosing. Do you hear this? This is what the Bible is saying. We should not refrain from participating in neutral things just because what we are about to do or enjoy or experience happens to be on the top ten of somebody’s list, a list which they cannot substantiate from the list which God gave us—namely, the Ten Commandments. It is from their external way of life. Paul says, “Don’t allow that kind of thing to be coercive in your life.” The restriction of Christian freedom should be from within on account of principle, not from without on account of precept, and definitely not somebody else’s precept.

Legalism does not produce holy living. Legalism produces bondage. If you’re in doubt of that, turn to Colossians chapter 3, and look at what Paul says here. I think we’ve probably referred to these verses before, but you should underline them; you should cross-reference some of these things if you take notes in the margin of your Bible, so that along the line here of 1 Corinthians 10, you should mark in Galatians 5:1 and Colossians 3. Colossians 2. I’m sorry. I was looking there at Colossians 3 again, and it’s not there; it’s in 2.

Colossians 2:20: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world”—in other words, you came to faith in Christ, and an amazing transaction took place; you’re not the same person anymore—“[and] you died … to the basic principles of this world, why,” says Paul, “as though you still belonged to it, [which you don’t,] do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These,” he says, “are all destined to perish with use, because they[’re] based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”

You see, that is the great affair in the lives of our children as we seek to raise them. If we simply raise Pharisees for children, then when they go away to college and to university having been constrained only by an external frame of life and never having come to know the love and power and conviction of Christ, then it is almost inevitable that they will go out and sow all their wild oats and kick over all the traces. And that is why we look at the circumstances in the lives of guys in pastoral ministry, for example, and we’ve said, “Goodness gracious, how could that man ever be involved in that kind of thing? After all, I heard him at such and such a conference, and he wrote a book about this, and boy, was he strong on that.” The chances are—the chances are—in certain cases—in certain cases—that the man himself was operating from an external constraint rather than from a genuine, internal, liberating conviction.

Anybody this morning and you’re tied up in unnecessary knots? Don’t be overscrupulous. Don’t be legalistic. Don’t be constantly asking fussy questions. Don’t be going in the corners all the time, having a little party with yourself and trying to analyze and subanalyze and psychoanalyze. Just relax. The main things are clear, the plain things are obvious, the outs are out, the ins are in, the debatable things are debatable; therefore, we will apply principle. We won’t simply ask, “Am I allowed?” We’ll ask, “Is it constructive, and does it edify?” We will put the concerns of other people before ours. Thirdly, we will determine that we’re not going to tie ourselves up in unnecessary knots.

Be Considerate of the Weaker Conscience

Principle number four, verse 28 and 29: Be considerate of the weaker conscience. Okay? “If some unbeliever invites you to a meal, … you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience.”

Now, if it stopped there, that would be fine, but it doesn’t. He then goes on to an exception: “[However,]” he says, “if anyone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it.” “Oh, goodness! I thought we just had a rule here that I could apply, and now the principle is having another shadow cast on it, or another facet of light on it.” That’s exactly the way it is. Because, you see, offense usually arises in the Christian community, in my experience, when neutral things are handled indiscriminately. When neutral things are handled indiscriminately.

And it goes like this: “I can do anything I want, because ‘everything is permissible,’ and I don’t care who you are, and I don’t care what you are, and I don’t care what you think, and I don’t care about your kids, and I don’t care about your mom and dad, and I don’t care about the elders, and I don’t care about anything. I am free, and I am free, and I am free, and that’s all I need to know!” Oh, that’s not all you need to know. “Paul said I could eat that stuff if I went there.” Yes, he did. But he also said that if someone pointed out that it was a major problem to them, you ought to restrict your freedom. Indeed, the greatest Christian freedom is the freedom to restrict my freedom for the good of another. That’s the ultimate expression of freedom. The man on the street who’s addicted has not that kind of freedom. The secular man does not know that freedom. And it’s the work of the Spirit of God within our lives that takes a real, genuine freedom and allows us to curtail it, exercising our freedom to curtail it, so as to not hinder the weaker conscience around us.

“Well,” you say, “but that may end up with us not doing a ton of things that we were told we shouldn’t do as a result of external constraints.” Yeah, it might. “And therefore, it might seem or feel like we’re only doing it because of external constraints.” It might. But God knows the motive of our hearts—whether we are restraining from something because we’re afraid of the public perception or whether we are restraining from something because we are afraid of the impoverishment that we’ll create in the life of someone else because their conscience is sensitized to it.

Now, the only way that I can understand verse 28 is to assume that the “anyone” in verse 28—“But if anyone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice’”—presumably, the “anyone” is a fellow believer. All right?

Let’s say, for example, you go to somebody else’s house. No, let’s say you go to a wedding reception. You go to the wedding reception, and the conviction of your life in relationship to conscience on the question of alcohol has been that for you, you’re not going to touch it. Okay? Now, you go to the wedding reception, and what have you got immediately in front of you but champagne for the toast and wine for the meal? Now, what does it say here? Now, it doesn’t say anything about alcohol, so don’t tie me up in knots in that, but the principle is there. Here is something that is a debatable matter; it’s set in front of you by a non-Christian. What are you going to do? Paul says you’re free to go ahead and take it. All right?

That’s where the real bondage lies: when our conscience becomes subjugated to the external lists of another, so that we are not able to eat and drink to the glory of God.

Well, what about the fact that two tables over from you is one of your fellow believers, whom you know has wrestled with alcoholism for most of the last decade of his life, and for him, it is a major problem? So now you’re in a real quandary. On the one hand, we don’t want to offend the person who’s serving it up—and after all, our conscience is free, so it seems to say here. But there’s a guy over there looking across at us, and we may have an impact on his life that is far more detrimental than the offense that we may cause to our secular hosts, or our Christian hosts, for that matter. What do you do? I say offend the providers and don’t offend your brother. Let them worry about why you’re not drinking it rather than your brother looks at you and says, “I just don’t understand that, that destroys me,” and maybe even leads him down the garden path.

What is the picture? It’s the picture of a believer who has a problem with it: “This has been offered in sacrifice!” “Okay,” says Paul, “if there’s another guy around and that for him is a major problem, then don’t eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience’ sake.” Whose conscience? Because the believer’s conscience is free. The guy who’s about to eat the meal, he doesn’t care whether it came from Timbuktu or the temple. So it’s not his conscience, so Paul clarifies it, and he says, “The other man’s conscience, I mean, not yours.”

So, if there’s another believer present, he has a problem, mentions that the food has been offered in sacrifice to idols, “then,” says Paul, “don’t insist upon your freedom. Don’t argue. Don’t contend. Simply give up your liberty so that his conscience won’t be offended.”

“Well,” you say, “but isn’t that to tie me up in knots, then?” No. You’ll notice that the restriction is a restriction of activity; it’s not a restriction of conscience. We’re not restricting our conscience in doing that; we’re simply restricting our actions. Our conscience remains free. Our conscience is not controlled by another believer. Our activity may be controlled by our response to another believer, but not our conscience. You understand the distinction? Some of you don’t; I can tell just looking at your faces.

Our conscience remains free because our conscience is not under their control. What Paul is in effect saying is this to the Corinthian church: “While I am imposing a restriction upon you as far as practical relationships with others are concerned,” which is clearly what is mentioned here in 28 and 29, “let there be no question of that restriction bringing your conscience itself into subjection to somebody else.” And that’s where the real bondage lies: when our conscience becomes subjugated to the external lists of another, so that we do not have a realistic freedom; we are not able to eat and to drink to the glory of God; we are now tied and bound by someone else’s convictions.

So in other words, it is an exercise of necessary freedom. We’re not tying ourselves up in knots; we are simply being considerate of the weaker conscience. I think that’s the explanation of the ending question of verse 29: “Why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience?”

Now, let me say it again, in case we get this messed up in our thinking. The general principle mustn’t be missed. There will be occasions when we will have to avoid certain things, even though they are okay in themselves, because we don’t want to harm others. And those occasions may have to, by definition, be protracted, so that “occasion” may equal “lifetime.” Otherwise, unless we show a settled disposition towards a debatable matter that may offend others, we will be tempted to get into a kind of situation ethic whereby we are free to do it here, but we’re not free to do it there. We’re free to do it when he’s looking, but we’re not free to do it when he isn’t looking, or vice versa; I had that the wrong way around. That creates a kind of schizophrenia, which is really unhelpful, and also allows younger, weaker consciences to shoot holes in our position to such a degree that they look only for one loophole in our methodology to allow them to go down all kinds of paths.

There are times, which may be all time, when we need to restrict our freedom, avoid doing certain things that the Bible does not say absolutely, categorically, we cannot do, and the reason is not because we aren’t free; the reason is because we don’t want to harm others.

Do Not Allow Others’ Scruples to Control Us

However, and this brings us to our fifth point, and with this we’ll finish this morning: as important as our brother’s conscience is, we cannot allow his scruples to control, ultimately, all of our activities. “Well,” you say, “I thought you just said that you may have to do that?” I said, “Yeah, you may have to do that,” but we can’t push the principle to extreme. You can’t drive this into oblivion; you can’t push it way out on the end. It becomes silliness.

Now, the fact is that some believers try to use this principle—and we have all probably tried to use the principle—as a means of manipulation. But if ever we’re tempted to take the principle to an extreme, then it would mean that we would derive our conduct entirely from what other Christians say or think. And we would not then be operating out of a realistic, genuine freedom. I say to you again, along that pathway lie two major giants: giant one, hypocrisy; giant two, schizophrenia, in some minor form. Because it will either make a hypocrite of us, or it will make us a kind of walking contradiction in the same body.

Well, then, what is the significance of verse 30? This thirtieth verse and the end of 29 I found really hard. Indeed, I’d be prepared to think even more about these. I’m not sure that I’ve got it exactly even now, but let me give you my best at it.

What is verse 30 saying? “If I take part in [a] meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?” Paul may be saying, “Why should I be on the receiving end of judgment and criticism just because of the overscrupulous nature of another’s conscience?” That might be what he’s saying. It certainly fits the text.

Alternatively, he may be saying this—and I lean to the latter rather than the former. He may be saying this: “If we use our freedom as we like”—that is, not applying guideline four in consideration of the weaker conscience—“the result will then be that men and women will condemn our freedom.” And consequently, because of our lack of consideration, the end will be that this thing that Paul is trying to make sure is understood as a great gift from God will become the butt end of condemnation. And so, he says, unless we are on our guard about that kind of danger, we are ruining our freedom by making a wrong use of it.

I wonder: Do you understand that? In other words, if we take the principle of Christian freedom and use it indiscriminately, then it may call down the judgment of others because of a wrong use of Christian freedom. Then, rather than we are able to enjoy it and people are blessed by it, it just becomes a whole nightmare.

Now, with that, Paul then goes into four verses, 31 to 11:1, full of entirely positive guidelines for the life of the Christian community. The little word “So,” the two-letter word with which 31 begins, introduces this question of positive principles within the framework of the church: neither Jewish nor Greek but the third race—namely, “the church of God.” He’s not concerned about barriers nor stumbling blocks or about rights or responsibilities; he wants to make sure that nobody has cause to stumble, from a Jewish persuasion, from a Greek persuasion, or where you have them both thrown in together, in “the church of God.”

I think we’ll leave it there this morning, because when I go into this next point, it goes hard and long, and so I won’t be able to finish, and I’d rather finish here and come back to it again.

I wondered: Are there some here this morning who don’t have a clue what I’m talking about at all? I was speaking this week from the book of Jonah, and in the course of an afternoon I had occasion to be with a fellow from Connecticut, and he said, “I’ve been sitting there all week, working out what in the world you are trying to say.” He said, “And I think this morning”—and it was Thursday—“I began to understand.” There may be some here this morning, and you’ve come to worship because you’ve been invited, and this idea of Christian freedom and of responsibilities and rights is something totally alien to you, because you’ve never come to know the freedom that is found in Jesus Christ. And that is where we all need to begin.

And for others of us who’ve come from backgrounds that are phenomenally legalistic, some of the things that I’ve been saying in these days are liberation, and at the same time as they’re liberation, they’re also a little bit scary, and not a few of you are sitting there questioning whether I have actually left the rails myself.

And then others of you who’ve come from backgrounds where you thought that the Old Testament was locked in a chamber somewhere and the New Testament was completely on its own and there was no place for guidelines and law in the Christian life, you’re wondering just why it is that we’re mentioning these things.

But I say to you as I said two Sundays ago: we better get this right, as individuals and as a church. For to fall into the pit of legalism will be to close down most of the doors of opportunity in useful service in the coming days, and to fall into the abyss of a kind of antinomian, licensed chaos will be to neutralize our effective witness in the community. We need the Spirit of God to bring the Word of God to the people of God so that we might truly understand and truly live in the genuine experience of Christian freedom.

[1] 1 Corinthians 10:23 (KJV).

[2] Galatians 5:1 (Phillips).

[3] Ephesians 5:1–2 (NIV 1984).

[4] Psalm 24:1 (NIV 1984).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.