We find incredibly strong language regarding one’s freedom in Christ, in that this freedom is to be done under the auspices of service to the weaker brother. Inherent to this discussion is not the idea that one ought not celebrate such freedoms in Christ, but rather, if winning a brother require we forego such celebration until we drink of the new wine with Christ – so be it. Put this in the context of the whole letter, and one finds the common theme of unity underpinning everything Paul discusses here. The simple idea being: true, God-honoring, moral obedience not only preserves unity of the Spirit, but so does refraining from exercising our Christian liberties if such liberty becomes an obstruction to this same unity of the Spirit.
Instead of flaunting his liberty, the goal for the stronger brother ought to be demonstrating his strength in postponing the enjoyment of that liberty for the sake of upholding his weaker brother, until they are properly instructed in the way of righteousness. This is evidently modeled by Paul in 1 Cor. 9, for though he recognizes he is free from all men – he has made himself a slave to all. For what purpose? So that he might win those who are under the Law, those who are without Law, those who are weak, etc. – for the sake of the gospel, so that he (that is, Paul) will become a fellow partaker of it (vv. 19-27). More clearly, Paul intrinsically links his ministry to the restraint of his freedom in Christ, specifically with an eye toward finishing the race well.
In chapter 10, Paul then displays the folly of Israel and urges the church in fleeing idolatry in a particular context: the taking of the Lord’s cup and the breaking of the bread (vv. 14-22). Evidently, those who felt their freedom extended to eat and drink of things offered in service to Pagan gods, also brought such things into the church to share in the blood and body of Christ with fellow believers. Paul strictly forbids this and calls it idolatry, as it is a profaning of the ordinances. From this, Paul then moves into general principle to address the question on whether one may eat or drink of it altogether.
Within the closing of this section, Paul then moves into specific instructions regarding the very same things formerly addressed in the previous chapters. We find some things Paul permits, whilst other things are strictly forbidden, again, expressing the idea that the extension of one’s freedom in Christ is to be intrinsically linked with the conscience of the weaker brother – but for a specific purpose. In this, one can make an incredible amount of parallels to other activities not expressly forbidden by the Scriptures.
This is where we see the oft quoted, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Yet most of us tend to leave out the following two verses: “Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved.” In other words, Paul is not all that concerned with the particular individual’s freedoms – but the conscience of the weaker brother. Why?
Everything that is not done in faith is sin (Rom. 14:23). So while you and I might enjoy our freedoms – if the weaker brother stumbles, we have caused them to fall into sin, not necessarily due to the action itself, but through the affliction of one’s conscience. It is also reasonable that Paul includes nonbelievers in this group also, seeing as he specifically indicates the “church of God” in addition to “Jews” or “Greeks”. In the end, the gospel is to be the only stumbling block before the unbelievers of this earth. To the regenerate, Paul indicates that we must not be guilty of causing them to stumble.
Many debate over the nature of this stumbling, yet akin to what was mentioned earlier, it is a generic statement informed by the preceding context (vv. 28-29). It is specifically in respect to one’s conscience – and not that of your own. It is the result of causing another, weaker brother to proceed in something, or even watch you participate in said thing, which violates their own conscience.
To be clear – this effectual stumbling is not the cause of the action itself, which is not sinful if done in proper accordance with the Scripture’s teaching (i.e. drinking a beer or enjoying sexual intercourse in a heterosexual, monogamous marriage). But it is also not precluding things which actually are sinful that you’ve excused under the auspices of freedom in Christ (i.e. watching/participating in sexually immoral behavior or drunkenness). Those are things, among others, which are expressly forbidden because they profane the temple of the Lord (the church, as outlined in 1 Cor. 6:12-20).
How do we practically do this in an age of constant offense?The teaching of this is particularly hard in the age we live in simply because the capacity for people to be offended over the internet is seemingly endless. People not only get offended for proper reasons, but improper ones, and more often than not this manifests itself through the art of snark and condescension. People on the web can be keenly brutal, trollish, and down-right wicked. So, tread this wonderfully strange place we know as the Internet with caution.
Do inasmuch is possible within you to be at peace with all men, meaning specifically: don’t be brutal, trollish, or down-right wicked (in other words: don’t answer a fool by being foolish yourself). Someone will still get offended. They can get over it – but you can also do much to not add to that offense. God forbid the online, Christian community live up to the ridiculous slander often presented as truth.
I hold the conviction that the most important place you can be exercising this is within the confines of your local church and the people whom you know in real life. Nothing against the wonderful people one might meet online – but at the end of the day, those whom we interact with in the flesh will ultimately be recipient to this blessing in more tangible ways. Seek to not only exercise care in your freedom so that you will not stumble, but also that you might win them to Christ and teach them of the excellences of this God-given freedom.
Lord willing, they will come to join you in drinking a good, craft beer and smoking a wonderfully hand-rolled cigar to the glory of God – or at the very least, come to see these things as gifts rather than curses. In the end, we ought not to be mastered by anything, even our sense of freedom, so that others might be built up in Christ. That doesn’t mean such things are sinful, but rather, such things are worthy of refraining from if another stands to benefit. By all means, let’s hope and pray they come to enjoy all of God’s good gifts in the fullness of measure and to the praise of His glory.
However, if one does not have a measure of restraint in these things, we ought to respect those boundaries they have instilled and have an understanding that no man is above the pale of temptation. Rather than flaunting our strength – we ought to not only intentionally guard our heart, but show tremendous patience and charity toward the weaker brother, and instruct them if need be. For the weaker Christian: one will not do well imposing legalistic and unbiblical standards upon others. Don’t expect others to battle your same battles, but most importantly, draw your convictions from the Scriptures rather than personal experience. This is the crux of the issue of Christian freedom.
It matters not if we personally struggle with the particular issue at hand; if alcohol were to be resoundingly condemned in the Scriptures – there ought not to be such a thing even named among the saints. We see this incredibly clearly with the sin of drunkenness; one cannot be a Christian and a drunkard. Yet the matter at hand does not display such a wide-reaching command from the Scriptures so as to condemn any and all enjoyment of alcohol. See though how swiftly Paul broadens the categories on sexual immorality and compare this to his condemnation of drunkenness, and hopefully you’ll understand not all things are “meat sacrificed to idols”.
For the “strong” in Christ who enjoy their moderate consumption even as I do, really consider if this exercise in freedom is to the edification of the weaker brother or sister around you. I’m not suggesting you stop enjoying your freedom – I am merely ushering forth a plea for caution in the age of cavalier. If people know more of your love for good drink than the Giver of this good drink, it may be time to pause for introspection. See if you can go a month without a drink. You’d be amazed at how quickly even our freedoms can become “masters” over us.