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Limiting Our Liberty for the Sake of Love

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: 1 Corinthians 8–9

Our freedom in Christ is a precious gift. However, we are called to limit the exercise of our rights at times in order to minister effectively to others. This is Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 8–9, and he supports it with his own example.


Many high school students struggle through those required history classes, and a big part of their struggle is wondering why in the world they need to know what happened a thousand years ago. How could that be relevant to them today?

People have a similar attitude toward the Bible. Even Christians might wonder what food sacrificed to idols has to do with us in our modern age. It does not seem to be relevant at all.

As we sail now into 1 Corinthians, chapters 8 and 9 provide an answer by giving us biblical principles to apply to our lives. We can call them “timeless principles” for they just might answer some issue you are facing today.

Here in chapter 8, Paul begins answering a question raised by the Corinthian church about eating food that had been offered to idols. In Paul’s world, sacrifices were made to pagan deities in pagan temples. These temples also served as places for public, social gatherings. The temples would serve and sell the meat that had been offered; merchants also would buy this meat from the temple priests and then sell it in the marketplace.

So, this was a big question: How do Christians handle this? Surprisingly, Paul does not just give a quick answer but instead presents some principles that can be applied.

For some Corinthian believers who had matured in their faith, the answer was easier. And Paul writes in verse 1 that all the believers in the church “possess knowledge.” In other words, they all know that there is only one true God, so eating such meat was not an automatic acknowledgment of other deities.

But Paul warns them to apply this principle to their decision making—the principle of love. He writes in verse 1, “‘Knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up.” It is one thing to have knowledge in some biblical matter, but a humble, loving attitude toward others is just as important.

We can call the next principle, the principle of liberty. Paul presents it in verse 4:

Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.”

The Christians have the liberty to choose their own response to this meat sold in the market. Paul writes that it is not wrong to eat the meat, simply because the god to whom it was offered does not exist.

But then he adds a warning in verse 7:

However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.

Eating the meat was a reminder to some believers of their former idolatry. It still represented to them the very real power that idol worship had over them. So, they cannot eat the meat with a clear conscience.

Shouldn’t Christians care about them? Paul says yes here in the next few verses. The Corinthian Christians are free to eat the meat, but their freedom needs to take into account what fellow believers think. He says in verse 9, “Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak”—that is, the younger or weaker believer. If weaker believers see more liberty-minded believers eating, they might do the same thing and violate their conscience, at best, or be tempted to return to idol worship, at worst. Either way, undue damage would be done to their walk with Christ.  

So, Paul adds to the principles of love and liberty, the principle of limitation. We need to be willing to limit our liberty in Christ if exercising our liberty harms a fellow believer. Paul expresses his own commitment to this principle when he writes, “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat” (verse 13).

Beloved, you might be free to engage in any number of activities with a clear conscience; but at the same time, do not forget this principle of protecting younger believers who are watching you.

Now in chapter 9, Paul illustrates these principles from his own choices. Yes, Paul writes, he has the freedom to “eat and drink” (verse 4)—a reference to eating and drinking what has been offered to idols. Yes, Paul writes in verse 5, he is free to be accompanied by a “believing wife,” as other apostles do. Verses 6-7 explain that he has the right to financial support from the church and to have his expenses covered by other Christians.

He asks, “Is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?” (verse 6). He and Barnabas evidently supported themselves without charging the church. We know Paul worked as a tentmaker (Acts 18:3).

But still, he and Barnabas had every right to be supported by the church. In fact, Paul goes on to give several reasons why. He mentions in verse 9 that the “Law of Moses” says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” That ox should be allowed to eat some of the fruit of its labor. Paul applies this in a way that many believers and churches have never considered: “If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” (verse 11).

Obviously, they have this right. But Paul goes on to write this in verse 12:

Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.

Paul did not want to be accused of preaching the gospel for financial gain.

Still, he reinforces his right in verse 14: “Those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” (see Matthew 10:10; Luke 10:7). But Paul is not going to demand that right. He is giving up his rights out of love for others—and for Christ.

How tragic to consider that the only church that faithfully supported the apostle Paul was the church in Philippi (Philippians 4:15). But Paul pressed on; everything he did was for the sake of the gospel. He writes, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews” (verse 20). In other words, Paul was willing to observe some Jewish practices so he could build a bridge to them. Likewise, verse 21 tells us he did everything he could to build a bridge to the Gentile community as well.

This is a good reminder that our focus in life must never be on getting our rights—exercising our Christian liberty—but on the advancement of the gospel. Like athletes who sacrifice everything to compete well in their sport—whether it is running, as Paul writes about in verse 24, or boxing, which he mentions in verse 26—Paul says, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things” (verse 25). The question for the believer is not, “What do I have the right to do?” but “What can I do that will enhance my service and testimony for Christ?”  

Paul writes, “I discipline my body and keep it under control” (verse 27). This means giving up some things that are acceptable in order to present a good testimony. And for Paul, that might mean giving up the best meat sold in the marketplace.

We are not told what Paul gave up in order to press on. But his example raises a question for you today: What are you giving up for the sake of the gospel? What liberty are you limiting out of love for others?

Let us not disqualify or hinder our testimony by demanding our own rights. Let us apply the principle of limitation to the principle of liberty for the sake of demonstrating the principle of love.

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