What constitutes “sin” for a Christian? The definitions range from broad to narrow. Breaking the Jewish Law is sin. Or breaking local law is sin (we need to honor those in authority, after all). Or just the Ten Commandments are sacred, breaking those is sin.
Still narrower are the highly specific ideas of “sin.” Some think it is sin to use syncopation while singing to the Lord. Some believe knowingly withholding
information—a step away from lying—is sin. Some think nothing is sin that’s done in the name of the Lord. The Inquisition and perhaps the concept of a “just war” fall in this category: killing is not murder if it’s done to save souls or to protect the weak.
The varying ideologies of what constitute “sin” make it a messy subject and a fracturing point for the body of Christ. Are they correct who think, for example, that instruments are of the devil, or are those who have worship bands on the right path? They can’t both be right, can they?
Enter 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul talks about the eating of food sacrificed to idols. Some people think it’s sinful to do so; others think it is not. According to Paul, both sects are correct.
For those who think eating the food is fine, Paul offers this evidence: “ ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’ and that ‘There is no God but one.’ For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:4-6 NIV).
Idols are nothing. Even if idols were something—if there were actual gods or powers to which the food was sacrificed—the idol would still be as nothing because God is sovereign over all. His claim comes first and supersedes any claim the idols might have. The food is just food.
That said, Paul gives this caveat: “But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled”
(1 Corinthians 8:7 NIV).
Because the person thinks the food is defiled, it becomes defiled to them, and therefore it is sinful to eat. The conscience, the mindset of the individual
eating the food, determines the sin. Sin can be relative; the same action produces a different result depending on who does it and why.
This isn’t to say that all sin is relative or that the proper mindset can make any action “good.” I am unwilling to take the argument that far. Still, this idea of “relative sin” can help explain how Christians have so many ideologies of “sin.” For example, I don’t think syncopation is ungodly—music is music, whether it’s built with an arbitrary classical system or a jazz beat, with a violin or a drum or a didgeridoo, instrumental or in English or in Cantonese, it is music. The intent is what makes it worship, and I intend to offer up to the Lord my incense of praise.
Someone else might not have that mindset. To them, only Gregorian chants are pleasing to the Lord, and anything else feels like an ear-grating cacophony to him. Would it be right to offer the Lord a splitting headache? Maybe not. Maybe the person sees such an offering as giving less than the best, as sacrificing second-fruits to God rather than first-fruits. If they gave God this “unholy” music instead of their best, it could be a sin to their conscience. In this case, sin is relative. Further, because they who eat “defiled” food or offer “defiled” music still sin and harm themselves, those of us who hold a more liberal mindset must take care to “not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols?” (1 Corinthians 8:9-10 NIV).
We must remember that those who eat the food without knowledge, doing so only because they see other Christians eating, still commit to sin. It’s not in the eating, it’s in the intent. They know what is wrong and dishonoring to God—at least, they know what’s wrong to their conscience. Yet because they see what they presume are others “dishonoring” God without
consequence, they fall to the temptation of thinking they can sin without punishment. They, too, eat, knowing full well that what they eat is “defiled.” They act apart from God, in defiance of him and what they think he wants. Their intent makes the action sin.
When someone sins because they see what we do, we in turn “sin against them,” we “wound their weak conscience, and we “sin against Christ” (1 Corinthians 8:12 NIV). (Perhaps being a stumbling block—whether intentionally or unintentionally—is one of those immutable sins I mentioned earlier.) We may have the knowledge necessary to eat the food or sing the songs, but others do not. If exercising our freedom causes others to stumble, then we ourselves stumble. We must have compassion on those without the knowledge. Paul went as far as to say that he would stop eating meat—he would give up his freedom—if doing so would prevent others from sinning.
(1 Corinthians 8:13).
I admire the sentiment and agree with it. Those of us who are strong ought not abuse our strength, but should instead make concessions so that those who are weak will not be harmed. But it doesn’t end there. The weak are not expected to remain weak—we are to grow in our relationship with God, in our knowledge and our faith. Those who are strong are not merely called to give concession, but also to teach. How will anyone gain the knowledge that idol-sacrificed food is just food, if no one is willing to declare it?
Thus Paul teaches the knowledge. He acknowledges that he would give up practicing his freedom if doing so would help others, but by teaching the truth, he reveals an expectation. Those of us who are weak should not be content to stagnate. We, too, should give concession, by being willing to have our beliefs challenged and sharpened, by listening to the
arguments and evidence, and by communing with each other and with the Lord. Eventually, we may realize that what we once thought was “ungodly” is not really so. It was just our mindset holding us back, and we can embrace the freedom we’d long denied ourselves.
With that in mind, let us all continue to grow. Let us love each other and move towards a more perfect knowledge of God, bending to help those who might stumble, and if we are the stumblers, striving to learn what it is to live for God. Let us love God and love one another, for as Jesus said, on those things hang “All the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40 NIV).