We know that an idol is nothing at all… But not everyone knows this. (1 Cor. 8:4,7 NIV)
A few months back, I was speaking at a conference in another city, and so was staying in a hotel. I had arrived late at night, checked in, and crashed out to get some sleep. I didn’t realize that the television in the room had an alarm on standby. Some kind and thoughtful person had set it to go off at maximum volume at two o’clock in the morning. An alarm clock that doesn’t go off when it should is bad news, but one that goes off when it shouldn’t is a problem as well.
I lived the first 38 years of my life in Great Britain, where turns are not permitted at any time on a red light. Coming to this country, I was surprised to find that turning right on red is legal. That took a bit of getting used to.
Many times in our first year here, I would be sitting in the right hand lane at a red light, quite unaware that the horn blaring somewhere behind was being sounded in frustration at me. Once a rule gets established in your mind, it’s hard to adjust, even when you know that it no longer applies.
The weak or oversensitive conscience is very common among Christians who were raised in strict families with many rules:
A person brought up with a strict work ethic, finds it difficult to relax. The minute he sits down, his overactive conscience tells him that there is something he should be doing.
A person brought up with a passion for sexual purity gets married, but now finds it difficult to feel at ease. Their overactive conscience inhibits even where God has given freedom.
A person brought up to be a peacemaker finds it very difficult to handle conflict. Your conscience condemns you, not because you have done anything wrong, but simply because conflict exists.
Dr. Lloyd Jones called this problem “morbid scrupulosity.”
Morbid scrupulosity… which means that we are in a constant spirit of fear, always wondering what we should be doing… People who suffer from morbid scrupulosity are always trying to lay down rules and regulations as to how everybody else should behave, and are always in trouble about this with regard to themselves and others.” 
Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. (Rom. 14:1)
Disputable matters are issues on which the Bible does not give a clear directive. We are not talking about lying, stealing, or adultery—on which God’s Word is abundantly clear. We are talking about matters of conscience in which God has given us freedom to make our own decisions.
What should a Christian do about schooling—public school? Christian school? Home school? What about sports on Sunday? What about dances? What about entertainment—movies? Rock music?
A weak conscience is more comfortable with rules than with freedom. The person with a weak conscience wants clarity about exactly what should be done in any given situation. Rules provide security for the weak conscience, which is why so many are drawn to legalism.
The person with a weak conscience has great difficulty when Christians disagree. They find it difficult to live with ambiguity: “Someone must be right and someone must be wrong!” But since conscience functions according to knowledge, Christians will disagree and so we need to learn patience and forbearance with each other.
A couple of years ago, a visitor came to our church and spoke to one of the pastors. She said that she loved the church and wanted to make it her spiritual home, but first she wanted to ask a question: “What was the church’s position on Harry Potter?”
Evidently she felt there was some spiritual harm in Harry. And she was looking for a church that would take a stand and establish a rule that church members would abstain from reading these books. When the lady discovered that the church had no position on Harry Potter, and that we had no intention of establishing a rule, she promptly decided that this was not the church for her.
A weak conscience is the natural condition of two kinds of people:
People with a nervous disposition—“Just tell me what to do. I’m afraid of doing wrong. I don’t trust my own conscience.”
People who want to control others—“I want my conscience to be the conscience of everyone else.”
A weak conscience can lead a person into sin as much as a corrupt conscience or a seared conscience. It does this by fostering a proud, critical, and censorious spirit.
Who Set That Alarm?
Now about food sacrificed to idols… (1 Cor.8:1)
John Macarthur points out helpfully that the Greeks and Romans were polytheistic (worshipping many gods) and polydemonistic (believing that the air was filled with evil spirits of many sorts):
It was believed that the evil spirits were constantly trying to invade human beings and that the easiest way to do that was to attach themselves to food before it was eaten. The only way the spirit could be removed from the food was through its being sacrificed to a god. The sacrifice therefore served two purposes; it gained the favor of the god and cleansed the meat from demonic contamination.
He explains that idol offerings were divided into three parts: One part was burned as a sacrifice; the second was given to the priest; and the rest taken home by the worshipper. The priests received so much meat from the multitude of sacrifices, that they sold their part in the market. And since it had been “cleansed of evil spirits,” people would pay a premium price for it.
Should a Christian eat meat that had been offered to idols? You couldn’t always tell what meat had been in the temple, since it was served at the best restaurants, and people often served it at banquets and weddings. Just to be safe then, should a Christian not eat any meat at all?
“We know that an idol is nothing at all.” (1 Cor.8:4)
Remember conscience functions according to knowledge, so what we know is important here: “We know that an idol is nothing at all… There is only one God from whom all things came and for whom we live, and One Lord Jesus Christ through whom all things came and through whom we live” (v4,6).
John is a member of the church in Corinth. He’s a Christian and he knows that an idol is nothing at all. It is nothing more than a creation and projection of man’s vain imagination. He goes to the butcher, buys his meat, and eats it with a clear conscience.
“But not everyone knows this.” (1 Cor.8:7)
We know that an idol is nothing at all… but not everyone knows this. Some people who had participated in the worship of idols now feel that they should not eat this meat.
Conscience is the ability to act with knowledge. That means the way your conscience functions will depend on the knowledge it is working with. Paul says, “We know that an idol is nothing at all… But not everyone knows this” (v4,7). Some Christians are still so accustomed to idols that their conscience tells them it’s wrong to eat this meat.
Mary was brought up in a world of idols. She has horrible memories of idolatrous festivals and the things that happened there. Now she has become a Christian, she feels that it would be wrong for her to eat meat that was slaughtered after one of these idolatrous festivals. And so just to be sure she has decided that she won’t eat any meat at all.
One evening Mary meets John and they go out to a restaurant. John orders a T-bone steak and Mary orders a salad. John says to Mary, “Why are you ordering a salad? I’m buying. Have a steak!” Mary says, “I don’t feel right about that.”
Now this story could continue in several ways, but I want to offer you three endings as a way of helping you understand Paul’s teaching.
Ending 1: Mary over-rules her conscience
“Why are you ordering a salad. I’m buying. Have a steak!”
“I don’t feel right about that,” said Mary.
“Why ever not?” John says, “Mary, an idol is nothing at all. Christ has set us free from all that. You are way too inhibited. You’ve got to break free from all this stuff.” He waves to the waiter, “Make that two steaks—done rare.”
Mary eats the steak. She over-rules her conscience, and that night her conscience is troubled.
Here is the principle: “As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean” (Rom. 14:14).
Mary must live by her conscience. If she feels it is wrong to eat the steak, then she should not eat the steak. Not that there is anything wrong with eating steak in itself, but there is something wrong with Mary over-ruling her conscience. Over-ruling her conscience will diminish its power, and that will be harmful to her—even if her conscience is working with the wrong knowledge.
That’s why Paul says, “Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled” (1 Cor.8:7). It is defiled, not because there is something wrong with the food, but because the person has gone against their own conscience, and this is always wrong
Ending 2: John loses his freedom
“Why are you ordering a salad. I’m buying. Have a steak!”
“I don’t feel right about that,” said Mary. “John, don’t you realize that this meat has been sacrificed to idols? Maybe you don’t know what they do at these idol festivals, but I do. Its wretched and debased, and I don’t understand how you could have anything to do with that. You’ve got to break free from this stuff.” She waves to the waiter, “Make that two salads—green!”
John eats the salad. That night his conscience is troubled. Has he been wrong all along about the meat? Is Mary right about this, or is this the beginning of Mary controlling him?
Here is the principle: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).
Mary is free to eat the salad. She has no right to impose the salad on John. John may choose to order salad out of courtesy and sensitivity towards Mary, but if John allows himself to be bound by Mary’s scruples, he is placing himself under her control. He is not following his own conscience; he is following hers, and being bound by another person’s conscience is always wrong.
Ending 3: John and Mary grow in Christ by accepting each other
Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. (Rom. 14:1-3)
John orders his steak. Mary orders her salad, and they enjoy their meal together. John does not “look down” on Mary because of her salad. Mary does not “condemn” John because of his steak. They eat together to the glory of God, with a thankful heart, rejoicing that God’s grace is at work in both of their lives.
How Can a Weak Conscience Become Strong?
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. (Rom. 15:7)
The lady who was concerned about Harry Potter will no doubt have found a church that takes a stand on her issues, but how will that help her to grow?
The best way for this lady to grow would be for her to be in a church that did not have a rule about Harry Potter. She could act according to her own conscience, and learn to accept and not to condemn Christian brothers or sisters who take a different view.
Mary’s dinner selection doesn’t matter, but her fearfulness does. It would be a good thing if Mary could see that her freedom in Christ was greater than she had realized. It is a good thing when a weak conscience becomes strong, when a person who has been bound by rules and traditions enters into the freedom of the gospel.
How can a weak conscience become strong? We saw the answer to that last week. A good conscience is powered by the Holy Spirit, set by the Word of God, and cleansed by the blood of Christ.
Ask the Holy Spirit to help you. Where the spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. “Lord, set me free from the spirit of fear. Cut me loose from morbid scrupulosity.”
Study what the Bible has to say about Christian freedom. Today can be a beginning for you. Read the book of Galatians and look at everything it has to say about your freedom in Christ.
Remember that you are cleansed by the blood of Christ, not by your own scruples. The more clearly you grasp the gospel, the more fully you will enter into the joy of God-honoring freedom.
 D. Martyn Lloyd Jones, Romans: Exposition of chapter 14:1-17; Liberty and Conscience, Banner of Truth Publishing, Edinburgh, 2004, p.7
 John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians, Moody Publishers, Chicago, 1984, p. 190
© Colin S. Smith
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