For an introduction to this series, click here.
This chapter starts a discussion of doubtful matters, always a fruitful discussion. There will always be things that we disagree about. Instead of criticizing or fighting people over them, we need to learn to consider our brothers and sisters in the Lord first.
The number one issue in the first century church was food offered to idols. The pagan temples would offer their meat very cheap after they finished using it for their ceremonies, and you know how church folks are when there are bargains to be found. Lots of people went down and bought the food, but others, especially those who had just been saved out of those pagan religions, were offended by that, saying that Christians should not eat that meat. Paul starts off in an interesting way, different than he handles the issue in Romans:
"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.' For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as indeed there are many 'gods' and many 'lords' — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist." (8:4-6)
Paul says very clearly that there is nothing wrong with eating food offered to an idol, since an idol is nothing but a statue anyway. But he goes on and acknowledges that some people have a problem with it:
"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. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble." (8:7-13, ESV)
Our first consideration is the conscience of our brother, not our own desires. I believe this passage, especially the part when Paul says clearly that eating meat is OK, teaches that we should try to teach weak brothers what is right. But until we do teach them, or at least have helped them mature to the point that they will not be offended if they see us do whatever the controversial thing is, we should avoid it. This is a very fine line. It's hard to know exactly what to do a lot of times. For example, I know lots of people who will not eat in restaurants that serve alcohol. What do you do when you go to a place that does? Most of the people I know will not say anything, so that is good. But what if someone did? I think it is our responsibility to try to teach them and strengthen their conscience a little bit, but at the same time, it is always wrong to be a stumbling block. I don't really know the perfect answer to that.
Notice that Paul says it would be Ok not only to eat the meat, but to eat the meat in the pagan temple. That would be farther than what I would probably go if I was living in that time. If you read the New Testament carefully, there are very few outward things that are sin. More than 90 percent of the sins taught against are sins of the heart. We tend to look at the places people go and the things they do as being sinful, but that is not always the best barometer. I think God's priority list is a little different than ours. We need to work toward evaluating people the way the Lord does, and not hanging on to our own man-made standard.
One final thing: Notice very carefully that the person with the stricter personal standard - the one who has a problem with eating meat - is the weaker brother. This is an important distinction. Too many people are proud of their weakness, glorying in the fact that they have a long list of things they won't do and blasting those who violate that list. This is clearly a violation of Paul's teaching and the inside-out of what Paul said about being a stumbling block. If it is wrong for a strong person to be a stumbling block of temptation for the weak, it is just as wrong for the weak to be a stumbling block of intimidation to the strong.