No Tripping (1 Corinthians 8)
It was a moment in Olympic history America will never forget. In the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, one of our country’s Olympic track heroes, Gail Devers, had what came to be known as a world famous fall. She was running the 100 meter hurdles and was having a great race, well in the lead and heading towards the finish line. Coming upon the last hurdle, the excitement was palpable as everyone was certain she was going to win gold. Then, as her feet left the ground, she hit the hurdle and never regained her balance, stumbling and eventually falling across the finish line in fifth place. It was just one moment and one hurdle. But that one hurdle meant the difference between victory and defeat. A gold medal gone, because of one simple mistake: she tripped.
Not everyone will get to experience the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat in an Olympic race. Not everyone will get to race for Olympic gold. But all of us, as followers of Christ, are runners in a race in which the stakes are considerably higher. Hebrews 12:1 tells us: “let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Paul often uses the metaphor of a race for living our lives. We are all runners, running the race of the Christian life heading for the gold of heaven. And how do we win this race? In one simple way: by living a life of obedience to God.
But, unlike most races, the race we run as believers is not a competition. To the contrary, instead of competing, we should be helping each other to win. We are in this together. We are on the same team. God wants us to do everything we can to help each other reach the finish line and get the gold. And just as important, we are to make sure that we don’t do anything to hinder a brother or sister in their race. God is pretty clear throughout scripture on this issue: don’t do anything to make someone fall.
This principle is at the heart of the eighth chapter of 1 Corinthians. It seems that some believers in Corinth were doing things that were making other brothers and sisters stumble in their Christian walk. The specific context of this problem is idol worship. This is pretty foreign to us, so bear with me while I do a little explaining. There were various kinds of idols worshipped in Corinth, but the main ones were the Greek and Roman gods. You may recognize some of their names: Zeus, Aphrodite, Athena, Jupiter, Venus, Diana and others. The culture was permeated with the worship of these gods and goddesses all the way from the emperor down to the lowest commoner. Everyone worshipped them…except of course, the Christians.
One of the characteristic activities in idol worship was animal sacrifice. The animals offered in sacrifice were killed and afterward, there would be a meal of celebration eaten in honor of the gods, where this meat was served. Some meat was also taken home by the offerer and served to family and friends and some was sold at the marketplace. So, meat connected with idol worship was everywhere. In fact, if McDonalds had been in business then, it may not have been the “Big Mac” but the “Big Zeus”…two big patties of idol burger. So the new believers at Corinth had some challenging questions: “When is it okay to eat this meat and when isn’t it? Or, should we not eat this meat at all?”
Most scholars believe that here, Paul is talking about the meat eaten at the temple meals to honor the gods. In chapter ten, Paul clearly forbids this activity, saying that if someone gives them meat saying “this has been offered in sacrifice,” they should not eat it. So then, Paul is most likely forbidding that activity here as well, although, he doesn’t specifically nor strongly say that. Instead, he comes at it from a different angle, addressing a deeper issue of the heart. In fact, this chapter is not really about eating meat offered to idols. At the core, this chapter is about something infinitely more significant…this chapter is about looking out for your brothers and sisters.
It seems that some in the Corinthian church were proud of their “knowledge,” which here refers to the knowledge that these gods were not real. There was no real “Zeus” or “Athena” but these were made-up, imaginary beings that did not exist at all. This is what Paul means when in verse 4, he says “an idol is nothing at all.” To the contrary, Paul says there is only one God, the one Christians worship: “there is no God but one” (v. 4)…“there is but one God” (v. 6). This does not mean there weren’t spiritual powers behind these religions, for as Paul will explain in chapter ten, the powers of Satan and his demons are at work in these religions. But since some believers had a solid understanding that these gods weren’t real, they were no longer emotionally drawn into the worship of them, even though they were former idol worshippers. They could eat the meat at the temple meals and not be bothered by it. There were others, however, who would eat the meat and it would do something to them emotionally that made them want to go back to idol worship, or they would, perhaps, still be worshipping that idol in their heart. Paul also explains that it is not the food itself that affects one’s relationship with God (v.8), but it is the emotional connectedness to the act that is important. What is happening in one’s heart when they eat this meat that is so closely connected to idol worship? It seems the former group, the ones who weren’t bothered by eating the meat, was encouraging the latter group to go to the idol’s temple and take part in this meal. This was putting a “stumbling block” in the path of these believers—a hurdle—causing them to stumble in their Christian race.
Whew! Aren’t you glad that we don’t have to deal with this issue in our modern American culture? Did you pick up any idol meat at the grocery store today? Eat idol turkey at Thanksgiving? Stop by the drive-thru at McDonald’s and get an idol burger? No? Great. Well, maybe we can just move past this scripture onto things that have to do with us, right? Wait a second…not so fast. There is a greater principle here that can be applied to our lives. (Darn it.) The greater principle is this: We are to be extremely careful in our behavior that we are not doing anything that can cause a brother or sister to sin. We don’t want to do anything that might lead our Christian brothers and sisters, the ones “for whom Christ died,” to fall. We are to do our best to keep hurdles off of their path.
So, let’s think about this for a minute. In what areas of life does this apply? Well, the most common one that many refer to when discussing this passage is drinking alcohol. If you know someone has an alcohol problem—if it leads them to sin by getting drunk or if it will tempt them to drink when they’ve quit—then don’t serve them alcohol or take them to a bar. This is certainly a key one. We want to be sure that we don’t cause others to stumble in the area of drunkenness and addiction. But what about some other applications? Well, let’s take a few of the ten commandments. After all, this issue in Corinth had to do with violating the first commandment, right? “You shall have no other gods before me.” So, what about some of the others? Here are some questions we can all ask ourselves…
Am I doing anything that would cause someone else to worship another God? This includes doing anything that might seem to promote another religion as a good thing. Hmm…interesting thought, isn’t it? This is especially dicey in our culture that rejoices in tolerating many, many different religions. If you’re not spouting the latest “good thing” about Islam or Buddhism, you’re not cool. But as Christians, we should speak boldly and clearly against these other religions, so that our brothers and sisters do not go anywhere near them, lest they are swept into their grasp and away from the one true God.
Am I doing anything that might cause someone to serve something as an idol, putting another thing in the place of God? Take money, for instance, probably the biggest idol that is worshipped in our society. Does the way I use my money lead others to exalt it in an unhealthy way? Or does the way I use my money point people to the worship of God?
Am I doing anything that causes someone to misuse God’s name? Wow, maybe I better change my driving habits.
Am I doing anything that will lead someone to dishonor their father or mother? This is probably a great one for teenagers who are infamous at urging their peers to do things their parents told them not to do. But how about us who are parents? Am I saying things to my spouse or treating him or her in a negative way in front of my kids that might lead my children to disrespect them? Ouch.
Am I doing anything that may cause someone else to commit adultery? How about other forms of sexual immorality, including lust? This is so important, as our culture has thrown modesty and sexual restraint out the window. Be careful, gals, that you’re not “dressing to impress,” if you know what I mean. Yes, dressing immodestly can lead a brother into sin…easily. And those of us with husbands would be very grateful if you would keep those certain parts covered…thank you very much. And men, are you behaving in ways that might lead a sister in Christ to cross lines in this area?
Am I doing anything that might cause someone to lie? Okay, for starters, stop telling your kids to tell people on the phone that you aren’t home. And if you get a goofy hairstyle, please don’t ask people what they think :).
Am I doing anything that might cause a brother or sister to covet? “Covet” simply means wanting what someone else has. Mentioned specifically in this commandment is a person’s spouse and property. But how do we make other people covet our spouse or property? Well, one way we might do this is by bragging about what we have. So, maybe you should temper your excitement about something, like that romantic trip you took to Paris this year. If you start talking about that, some covet meters may go off the charts. And my lifelong friendships with those who are struggling with being single has made me especially cautious about the “spouse bragging” that has become so fashionable in the Christian community. Is what I am saying causing them to covet what I have in life and they don’t—a wonderful husband? Or how about incessantly talking about our baby around someone struggling with infertility? The bottom line is that what you are doing or saying may not be wrong, but it might lead another brother or sister to sin.
As you can imagine, things can get a little out of hand. We could be so afraid of thinking we are going to cause someone to sin that we don’t do anything. This, then, borders on being law-bound. Okay, no more posting pictures of my cute kids on Facebook, because people with ugly kids may covet mine. Yes, I am just kidding! But you get the picture, right? I have found that the key to this issue is the way we are saying or doing certain things, the amount we are saying or doing these things, and who we are saying or doing these things around. We could all certainly benefit from putting our words and actions through a filter before we say or do them by asking, “Does what I’m about to do or say have the potential to make it easier for someone else to sin?” Or “Is it going to build another believer up, encouraging them, and helping them to honor and obey God?”
We all have a race to run: the race of the Christian life. And it certainly is full of hurdles. But let’s try not to place even more hurdles in each other’s path. Let’s think twice before doing things that may cause our brothers and sisters to trip. Instead, let’s encourage each other to run the race in such a way as to win. And on that great day, we can stand on the top podium together, with no other medal but gold.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day– and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” – Paul (2 Timothy 4:7-8)