“From Legalism to Liberty”
The Journey to Deep – Part 3
1 Corinthians 8-10

A couple of weeks ago I was flipping through the television channels one evening and I happened upon a program that was giving the viewers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how a live taping of a Hollywood television shows takes place.  It’s a process that takes about four hours, and they shoot numerous takes of numerous scenes.  All the while the studio audience has to laugh hard as if it is the first time they’ve ever heard the lines. 

But one of the things I learned about the process is that the hardest working person on the set is not one of the actors or characters.  The success of the taping is in the hands of the Warm-up Comic, a standup comic, who for hours must entertain the audience, keeping the crowd alert and laughing.  One of the best in the business is a comedian named Ron Pearson.

One of Ron’s talents is balancing things, so during the taping of the show he would balance a glass on his chin, then some time later he would balance a microphone, then sometime later, in between scenes, he would balance a small stool on his chin.  But toward the end of the taping, he had the stage crew hand him a 12-foot industrial ladder and, standing right in front of the studio audience, he somehow lifted it, placed it on his chin, balanced it in the air while simultaneously juggling bowling pins.  In all of my years of watching entertainers I have never seen such an incredible display of balancing skills. 

Well, today we’re going to find out just how important balance is in the Christian life.  In fact, some of these subjects are pretty heavy and weighty.  We’re in the third lesson of a study of the book of First Corinthians and today, again, we are going to try and cover the themes found in three chapters: 1 Corinthians 8, 9, and 10.  The apostle Paul is going to challenge the church in Corinth to do a better job of balancing things.  I’ve divided it into four balancing acts.  So, get your note page out and get ready as we dive in, take some notes and fill in some blanks on this Journey to Deep.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that most of the issues that divide us have nothing to do with doctrine—they are the result of legalistically adhering to rules or standards that someone arbitrarily set … instead of loving one another above ourselves.

Paul revisits the concept that most of the issues that divide us aren’t really doctrinal; they are merely matters of personal preference.  Within the issues that are talked about in chapters 8-10 of 1 Corinthians, he answers a specific question that the Corinthians had asked, “Is it ok for us to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols?”  Although this isn’t a common question for us today, the principles that Paul outlines as he answers this specific question are the same ones to which we need to adhere today if we’re going to move from the battleground of legalism to the peaceful fields of love and liberty.

This is an important topic because legalism rears its ugly head in almost every congregation, including this one.  So, let’s look at Paul’s words to the Corinthian church on this subject and see some practical steps we can take to move ourselves and our congregation from legalism to liberty.  We’re going to talk about four basic principles we need to guide us in our personal decisions in those grey areas of the Christian life. 

I. KNOWLEDGE MUST BE BALANCED BY LOVE. (1 Corinthians 8)

The first principle is this: Knowledge must be balanced by love.

The chapter begins with the phrase, “Now about…” (8:1).  In other words, Paul is saying, “Here’s another question you’ve asked.”  Knowledge can be a weapon to fight with or a tool to build with, depending on how it is used.  

Here was the situation: Paul first warns the church about the danger of taking knowledge and becoming puffed up about it, believing that logic is the answer to controversial questions.  Instead, he said that love is the answer.

Now, what’s the problem?  Eating “food sacrificed to idols” (8:1).  There were two sources of meat in the ancient world…one could be bought at the public market (at higher prices) and the other was from the temple resulting from people offering their sacrifices to their idols.  This meat was sold to the general public.  Since the people were very intelligent, they reasoned and figured out that the idols never got a taste of the meat which was offered to them.  So, since the price was much cheaper than the marketplace, those strong in the faith realized that the idols were not real gods – just stone and wood – so they saved money by buying at the temple.  And they then said, “What’s the big deal?”

The big deal was that many of those who Paul calls weaker and baby Christians had come out of paganism.  They had offered meat to idols (they had made those sacrifices) and at that time those gods seemed real to them.  Although now that they knew that there was only One God, they still couldn’t understand how a Christian could possibly eat meat offered to a false god.  (You must understand here that they didn’t necessarily believe that they were weak and that the more liberal Christians were strong.)

Paul says to the strong, more mature Christians, “We know that those idols aren’t real, so the sacrifices mean nothing, but you need to temper your knowledge with love.  Don’t cause others to stumble.”  You see, legalists love to talk about how much they KNOW.  They use the Scriptures as a battering ram, beating people into submission.

Knowledge PUFFS up, but LOVE builds up. 

The problem is that if you’re not careful, knowledge puts people in a seat of judgment where they can lord it over others.  They then can say, “This is the way I see it,” and they set up their own pet rules and regulations.  Henry Blackaby says about this particular chapter (1 Corinthians 8): “As Christians, we are wise to seek to prove our love, not our knowledge.  In the end, we are accountable to God not for how much we knew in our lifetime, but for how well we loved those whom the Lord has placed in our lives.”  

Fill this in on your outline…  RULES can become a DISTRACTION from the real priority.

You see, the other side of being a legalist is to say that anything goes and that everything is permissible.  So again, there has to be a balance.  Jesus set a great example for us in this: He followed the rules, but He also challenged those rules that were merely for the sake of tradition or legalism.  That’s why in John 1:17 we’re reminded “…the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

So legalism is a strict literal adherence to rules and regulations.  It is a term referring to an over-emphasis on law, codes of conduct, or legal ideas, usually implying an allegation of misguided vigor, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God.

Liberty is different.  Liberty is the freedom to do what you please without considering anyone except the wife, police, boss, life insurance company, state and federal authorities, neighbors, the church…etc.  Here’s the key verse for chapter 8: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (v. 9).

This is a verse that people refer to a lot.  Here it is in our text…and it’s a good check and balance for us.  Will my behavior or choice cause a newer or weaker Christian to stumble in their walk?  I think it was Earl Riney, preacher and politician, who said, “What this country needs is not more liberty, but fewer people who take liberties with liberty.”          

That means that you have to put others first rather than charging ahead and saying, “If there is something that I want to do, I’m going to do it regardless of how it may look to others.”  Instead, you might think twice. 

Fill this in on your outline…  We should love one another MORE than our FREEDOM.

If the exercise of your freedom causes someone else to stumble, then don’t exercise that freedom in front of them.  That would be selfish and senseless.  It all comes back to what your ultimate goal is.  Many people who go on short-term mission trips go to countries where the women dress more modestly than women do here.  Sometimes even “showing skin” of any kind can be considered immodest and flirtatious.  You may recognize the legalism in that.  But if you were to be in a different country and walk into a church service as a woman wearing a nice short-sleeve dress that goes down just past your knees (although something that might be very appropriate here) you will cause a lot of young men there to stumble because they’re not used to seeing that kind of thing in church.  Is it a sin to wear that dress?  No.  But it’s a sin to care so little about the effect your behavior is having on others.

So be truthful as you share expectations and make certain that you do so lovingly. 

Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:15: “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.”  

If knowledge is balanced with love, then it is healthy and productive.  And even when that truthful knowledge is painful, the truth can still be freeing. 

That’s why Jesus said, “…you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

II. AUTHORITY MUST BE BALANCED BY ACCOUNTABILITY. (1 Corinthians 9)

Secondly, here in 1 Corinthians Paul is saying that authority must be balanced by ACCOUNTABILITY.

Paul seems to divert a little from his topic…but if you look closely, it does tie in.  Paul here uses an illustration of another matter where he had the right to a freedom but didn’t exercise it for the sake of the Gospel.  The example he uses is the fact that he had every right to take a salary for his preaching.  He clearly had the right to do so, and he systematically gives numerous proofs and reasons for accepting a salary…but he chose not to because he thought it would advance the Gospel more quickly if he could preach for free.  

On your note page: We are to RECOGNIZE our freedoms in Christ but should not always EXERCISE those freedoms.  

When it comes to actually exercising those freedoms, quit being so prideful.  Instead of your own selfish agenda, consider what would best advance the gospel.  If refraining from that freedom would better advance the gospel, then become a slave for Jesus Christ and for the sake of His Kingdom.

Ecclesiastes 7:18 tells us, “It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.”

Remember we’re working on our balancing skills.  Every other religion is a set of rules.  Christianity is a relationship with a person.  Paul says, “I could accept pay if I wanted to, but I don’t have to—so it can never be said that my being paid to preach was a stumbling block to those who were new Christians.”  So, chapter nine is building on chapter eight.

Several years ago, a group of North Carolina Baptists traveled to Germany to visit and stay with a group of German Baptists.  They went to church services on Sunday morning, but in between services the German Baptists could hardly believe their eyes.  They were highly offended that the North Carolina Baptists were out in front of the church smoking cigarettes!  In fact, the German Baptists were so appalled, that they almost dropped their beer mugs!! 

I share that story because I think we all can have blinders on if we’re not careful.  You see, your ultimate goal is to set an example of a life of Christian freedom so long as it enhances your witness. 

Here’s the key verse of chapter 9: “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.  I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (vv. 22-23).

In other words, it’s not all about you.  You are here to glorify God and to try and impact as many people as you can with the gospel and with your life.  Your habits and your choices will influence them so make certain that, like Paul, you adjust your lifestyle and liberties to enhance your witness to the weak.  As Paul says, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”

Professional golfer Kenny Perry says, “My goal is when I die to go to heaven and to take as many people with me as I possibly can.” 

Fill this in on your outline…  The overriding goal is to CONNECT people to JESUS and one ANOTHER. 

That’s it.  That’s our goal.  Sometimes the exercise of our freedoms can be dangerous—not just because of what it does to others but because of the temptation it can lead us into.  We can begin to think we can do anything we want, and we soon get caught up in sinful behavior that harms us and the Kingdom.  

Freedom brings with it responsibilities.  Paul speaks to us in this chapter much like a parent who is releasing his child into the world.  “You’ve earned these freedoms but be careful.  Don’t think your freedom is a license to do what’s wrong—instead it’s the liberty to do what’s right.”

III.  EXPERIENCE MUST BE BALANCED BY CAUTION.  (1 Corinthians 10:1-22)

Well, let’s move on to our third balancing lesson.  It’s found in the first half of 1 Corinthians 10…  Experience must be balanced by CAUTION.

Paul warns strong believers that they had better not grow overconfident in their ability to overcome temptation.  Past victories and being offered privileges are no guarantee of future success.  Paul opens the chapter reminiscing and warning them of some things in their past.  He speaks of how the nation of Israel had been delivered from Egypt.  They all had spiritual food and drink; however, these spiritual privileges did not prevent the Jews from falling into sin. 

There’s another well-known passage in this chapter.  It’s 1 Corinthians 10:13 which says, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.  And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”  

Wow, what a scripture to memorize and refer back to when you are tempted.  One of the greatest dangers to Christians is to become overconfident.  When we think that we’re strong…we discover we’re weak.  God can enable us to overcome temptation if we heed His word.  He’ll give us the strength, or He’ll give us an escape route.

But you make certain that you don’t fall into temptation by exercising too much liberty.  

Galatians 6:1 says, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”

Several years ago, I asked a man who struggled with alcoholism if he had removed all of the alcohol from his home.  He said, “No David, I started keeping a beer in my fridge.”  He said, “Actually, it strengthens my resolve, and it increases my will power.  I know I won’t give in.”  I said, “Are you sure you want to do that?”  To which he said, “Oh yeah, it makes me stronger!”

It was just a matter of a couple of weeks, and he was right back where he had started.  Paul says, “Be careful if you think you stand, in case you fall.”  In other words, don’t toy with temptation.  Maybe for you it’s the internet without a filter.  Maybe for you it’s the freedom on an expense account.  Or it’s the close working relationship with the colleague who has a poor marriage and no morals.  So, you be cautious. 

IV. FREEDOM MUST BE BALANCED BY RESPONSIBILITY. (1 Corinthians 10:23-33)

The final balancing act is in the last ten verses of 1 Corinthians 10.  Here we see…  Freedom must be balanced by RESPONSIBILITY.  

No doubt that Paul probably appeared to be hypocritical to those who did not understand his principles of Christian living.  At times, he would eat what the Gentiles were eating.  At other times he would eat only “kosher food” with the Jews.  But instead of being inconsistent, he was actually living consistently by the principles he wrote about in 1 Corinthians.  You know, a weathervane first seems inconsistent—first pointing in one direction and then another.  But a weathervane is always consistent: it always points in the direction the wind is blowing.  That is what makes it useful.  And that’s what Paul sought to do with his life.  He used the setting and those who surrounded him to determine what would be the most responsible way to use his Christian freedom.  “Should I exercise it in this setting or not?” 

The key verse in this section is verse 31: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

That leads us to our next fill in the blank…  Regardless of what you decide to do, make certain that you can do it for the GLORY of GOD.

That’s a good barometer that may come in handy.  In fact it is a common theme of Paul’s writings – not just in 1 Corinthians but also in Colossians 3 – God’s glory is the goal.               

Now as we conclude, I’m going to give you four questions to help you determine whether or not an action is liberating or legalistic, whether or not you are making an idol out of something.  But before I go through these questions, in your mind I want you to identify which area you struggle with the most and is that struggle more with balancing things from the legalism side or the freedom side.

For instance, if in your heart, you choose that modesty is the issue where you struggle, then it may be that you struggle with provocative dress.  Or your struggle may be on the opposite extreme and you struggle with judging others who don’t share the same standards that you hold to.

Or, in your mind you may be thinking about the movies you attend, or the TV shows you watch, or the spending of money, or playing cards, or dancing, or working on Sunday, or having a glass of wine at your home, or parenting methodology.  These are grey areas where there isn’t always a clear cut right or wrong.  But in light of these chapters, we would be wise to err on the side that won’t offend the weaker brother.

So, take a second to think about it.  And at the bottom of the backside of your outline you will see a long line.  And I want you just to jot down the area that you think you struggle with the most.  Write down what that area is.  And then I want you to write down beside it whether you think you struggle with it by being too legalistic or by being too free spirited about it.  I’ll give you just a minute to do that.  (Pause.)  Have you picked an area that you are currently struggling with? 

Now, consider these questions…

Question #1.  Will my behavior lead me to FREEDOM or SLAVERY? (1 Corinthians 6:12)

Last week we considered 1 Corinthians chapter 6, verse 12, that says, “’Everything is permissible for me’—but not everything is beneficial.  ‘Everything is permissible for me’—but I will not be mastered by anything.” 

Maybe it helps if, in your mind, you play out your behavior over the long haul.  Could it lead to an addiction, or would it be liberating?

Here’s the next question to ask…  Question #2.  Will this decision be a STUMBLING BLOCK or STEPPING STONE for others?  

Look at 1 Corinthians 8:13: Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.”  

If others were to follow your example, could people use your behavior as an excuse for them to make a poor choice…or would your decision actually help them spiritually? 

Paul says something similar to the 1 Corinthians 8:13 passage over in Romans 14:21: “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything that will cause your brother to fall.” 

In this passage he adds drinking wine into the equation, and states that he doesn’t want that to become a stumbling block to other Christians.  I want my life to uplift and draw people closer to Christ—not to cause them to stumble or to miss the message of God’s love. 

Here’s the next question…  Question #3.  Will these actions only PLEASE me or glorify CHRIST?  

First Corinthians 10:31 says, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” 

We talked about this earlier…our goal is not self-gratification.  Our goal is to glorify Christ.  That’s easier said than done, I know.  Maybe we would do well to remember the opening line of Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life.  The first words of the book are, “It’s not about you.” 

Then, here’s the final question to ask…  Question #4.  Will your choices help to win LOST people to Christ or TURN them AWAY?  

Will your choices help to bring people to Christ, or will they serve to turn them away?

First Corinthians 10, verses 32 and 33 say: Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everybody in every way.  For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.”

Look at that last phrase again, “…so that they may be saved.” 

If something ever seems questionable to you then run everything you say and do through a filter that asks that question.  It just helps to raise your antennae and to be on the lookout for lost people who need spiritual direction as well as immature Christians who need to be strengthened and encouraged. 

People will always have differing opinions on those grey issues in the faith, so don’t be quick to cast stones of judgment, and by the same token don’t damage your witness by flaunting your freedom.  So let me remind you of one of the foundational slogans that was at the root of our churches in the Restoration Movement: “In essentials, unity; in opinions, liberty; in all things love.”

You see, we don’t need to spend a whole lot of time on those areas of opinion if we just practice Christian grace and Christian freedom and liberty.  Where we run into trouble is when we begin to get legalistic about things.

And I want to promise you that here at First Church of Christ we will lovingly teach you the truth so that you won’t have to live with a false hope.  We will do our very best to not major in minors and to truly extend liberty in the area of opinions.  But when it comes to the essentials of the doctrine, we will not compromise on the truth of Scripture.  Jesus said that the truth will set you free – and it truly can – for if you allow God’s Spirit to work in your life, I guarantee that you can make the move from legalism to liberty.

David Hall
First Church of Christ
October 3, 2021