For Conscience Sake

Christian liberty is God encouraging us to determine for ourselves how best to follow Him: we each stand or fall before our own Master. (Ro 14:4-5) He isn’t encouraging us to sin (Ro 6:15), to break His law (1Jn 3:4), but to apply His precepts in extra-biblical matters in ways we believe most pleases Him. It’s something He calls us to do from the heart as we follow Him, rather than blindly conforming to man-made tradition.

A very challenging scenario for early Christians was whether to eat food that might have been sacrificed to idols. (1Co 10:28-29) It wasn’t technically sinful, but many weaker souls didn’t understand, so extra-biblical discernment was required in each particular situation. When one was offered food in a public context, either in the open markets or at a particular feast, one couldn’t be sure if it had been sacrificed to an idol or not, and how others might view this.

For mature believers, knowing rituals can’t contaminate our food (1Co 8:4), Paul resolves this with a don’t ask policy (25); it isn’t actually a matter of sin since no food belongs to an idol. (26) But if someone points out that some food’s been dedicated to an idol, then abstain to avoid causing others with a weak conscience to stumble. (28) Love limits freedom for conscience sake, not for ourselves but for others.

Taken out of context, this principle might be abused to claim that God doesn’t care what we eat now; no matter what kind of food’s available – don’t worry about whether it’s God’s design for food, biblically clean, or not. After all, Paul does say in the same context, “All things are lawful for me.” (1Co 10:23)

Yet taking such principles literally in isolation produces absurdity. If “all things are lawful for me,” then murder, sodomy and blasphemy are fine now? Of course not! And even if we limit this to food, is cannibalism OK now? Or poisonous frogs, cockroaches and flies? Not at all.  Contextually, it’s clear that Paul is saying every creature God has sanctified as food for us in His Word is lawful and good (1Ti 4:4-5), regardless what ritual has been performed over it.

When wrestling with passages like this, trying to understand the relevance of Torah in our lives, particularly dietary law, we must divide the word honestly, rightly harmonizing each text with the whole of scripture. It’s true that Paul doesn’t explicitly delineate how every single law in Torah is still relevant for both Jew and gentile, yet he shouldn’t have to: Jesus does, as clearly as it can be done – it’s all relevant for everyone for all time. (Mt 5:17-18) Saints are classified by our mind towards it (19), and all who break it as a manner of life are guilty without excuse. (Ro 3:19)

Paul never says Gentiles don’t have to obey certain parts of Torah, breaking God’s Law up into pieces, some of which are irrelevant. This can’t rightly be done (Ja 2:10); we get this mindset from those who’ve corrupted the Word. (2Co 2:17) Instead, Paul asserts that faith establishes Torah (Ro 3:31), and that it’s all good when used as God intended (1Ti 1:8), pointing out that our old man hates it (Ro 8:7) and our new man delights in it. (Ro 7:22) Once we’re aligned with Paul, serving Torah (Ro 7:25), we won’t be asking which laws we must obey, but which ones we’re allowed to.

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2 thoughts on “For Conscience Sake”

  1. Another observation about this text in 1Co 10 is that Paul is presenting a general principle to all believers, Jew and gentile alike; it is nearly certain that some of these Corinthians were Jewish. (cf 1Co 1:14, Ac 18:8) Yet, it is very clear from other contexts, such as Acts 21, that the Jewish believers remained zealous of Torah during this time, passionately keeping all of the dietary laws and other ceremonial observances, and that Paul and the 12 Apostles were all encouraging them in this. Thinking that here, Paul is encouraging all believers to disregard dietary law in contexts where food is offered us by unbelievers, or in open markets within non-Torah observant communities, is therefore inconsistent.

  2. A friend writes, “1Co 10:27 is precisely the opposite of what we see in the beginning of Daniel … the most straightforward interpretation is that no one expected gentiles to keep kashroot (Jewish dietary regulations).”

    The problem I have with this reasoning relates to the above comment, that Paul’s instruction here is evidently not just for gentiles, but also for Jews. He does not specify that this encouragement is only for gentiles, thus any Jewish brother reading this epistle would be encouraged to violate Torah.

    Yet Paul is on public record (Acts 21) claiming he doesn’t do this, encourage Jewish brothers to ignore the dietary laws, so he can’t be encouraging gentiles to do so here either.

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