Exposition of 1 Corinthians 8:9–13 Knowledge leads to love

1 Corinthians 8:9–13

9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

Paul is not nearly as optimistic about “rights” (1 Cor. 8:9) to eat meat associated with idols as those with knowledge seem to be. He can imagine situations in which their exercise of the right to choose can bring ruinous harm to “the weak.” In place of the blithe confidence of the “strong,” he commands watchfulness for potential harm. Think of the vigilance of a mother whose child is swimming in a lake when a boat comes quickly toward the shore.

Bear in mind that both the Old and New Testaments speak about life using a metaphor of walking step by step. With that common metaphor in mind, we can easily see that falling is an unwelcome and perhaps even calamitous event. That cause-of-falling is the metaphorical idea behind “stumbling block” (1 Cor. 8:9).

As we enter the conclusion of chapter 8, keep in mind that Paul has been carefully building his argument. He began his argument with this shot across the bow: “But knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:2), a theme that will recur at the end of chapter 8. Then he seemed to agree with the “strong” that an idol is truly nothing (verse 4). Slowly Paul has built his argument about the effect on the weak of those asserting their right to choose. He will end with a bang by expressing his own conclusion about how to behave.

In verse 10, Paul imagines the highly probable scenario in which the weak see the strong eating in an idol’s temple, which was a very public place. With great irony the apostle conjectures that the weak will be “built up” — NIV says “emboldened” — to imitate this behavior. In verse 11 we encounter a quirk of Greek grammar; the main verb can be translated either in passive voice (“is destroyed”) or reflexively (“ruins himself”). NIV takes the former translation[1], but Anthony Thiselton prefers the latter.[2] The believer with a weak conscience wants to behave like the “strong” one, follows his example, but finds himself ruined rather than built up. For the weak, this is a bridge too far, and it collapses! Their conscience cannot stand so much freedom.

Compounding the error perpetrated by the strong using their right to choose, the person they have “built up” for ruin is a “brother or sister for whom Christ died” (1 Cor. 8:11). That makes their provocative behavior a sin “against Christ” (1 Cor. 8:12). Because every Christian is united with Christ, a sin against a fellow believer is always a sin against Christ.

Thiselton corrects one possible abuse of Paul’s teaching when he says:

It has little or nothing to do with whether actions “offend” other Christians in the modern sense of causing psychological irritation, annoyance, or displeasure at a purely subjective level. It has everything to do with whether such attitudes and actions cause damage, or whether they genuinely build not just “knowledge” but Christian character and Christian community.[3]

Paul closes his argument with a very strong personal appeal (1 Cor. 8:13). Though he never actually commands the Corinthians to abstain from association with idolatry, the command is implicit because of the danger to those with a weak conscience.

Fee tells us, “The abuse of others in the name of ‘knowledge’ indicates a total misunderstanding of the nature of Christian ethics, which springs not from knowledge but from love.”[4] That statement in no way demeans the knowledge Christ gives us through his Word and his Spirit, but we must see that knowledge in its proper role. Only knowledge that leads to love can claim the imprimatur of Jesus Christ.

Copyright © 2013 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] A choice that inevitably leads to the view that salvation may be lost; see Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 387, footnote 61.

[2] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 653.

[3] Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 658.

[4] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 390.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!