Chapter 4: The Local Church and its Consideration
by B. Currie, N. Ireland
In the local assembly believers are brought together and interact with each other in a range of varied circumstances. These circumstances include the spiritual life of the assembly, with all the saints in attendance at the various meetings; the shared aspect of food preparation and the other arrangements necessary for prize giving meetings associated with children’s work; the more social occasions of visitation in one another’s homes. In each of these there is the potential for actions and words being misinterpreted leading to differences, quarrels and unfortunately sometimes division in the company. Every believer must be aware of the other’s sensitivities and seek to ensure that offence is neither given nor taken.
There is also daily contact with unbelievers in the community. Again the saints need to be guarded as to their behaviour before the unsaved so that nothing is done or said that may be interpreted as being derogatory to either the testimony of the individual Christian or the collective testimony of the assembly. The ungodly are very quick to judge even the most innocent of comments or actions and quickly spread stories and rumours that could prove harmful to the testimony.
Thus, in the language of the heading for this chapter, each believer must give due consideration to his behaviour. To highlight this in the local assembly context, a section of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is very useful.
This epistle may be divided thus:
The lengthy section that deals with this subject is chapters 8-10. To deal with these in a verse by verse manner would not be possible within the bounds of this publication. However the recurring word "lest", enables the truth to be expounded and grasped. Note the references:
Consider Your Brother - Ch.8.9,13
"But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak" – Ch.8.9.
"Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend" – Ch.8.13.
Consider The Gospel – Ch.9.12
"If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ" – Ch.9.12.
Consider Your Future Reward – Ch.9.27
"But I keep under my body, and bring [it] into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway" – Ch.9.27.
Consider Your Present Standing – Ch.10.12
"Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall" – Ch.10.12.
The subject matter of 1 Corinthians chapter 8 is clearly stated in the four-fold repetition in vv.1-10, as follows: "Now as touching things offered unto idols" v.1; "those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols" v.4; "a thing offered unto an idol" v.7; "those things which are offered to idols" v.10. Thus, there can be no doubt that Paul is dealing with the Christian’s attitude to "things offered unto idols". This is considered twice in 1 Corinthians. In chapter 8 the subject is dealt with from my brother’s viewpoint and in chapter 10 it is from God’s viewpoint; which explains why in 10.21, it is not permitted, "Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils." However, in chapter 8 the possibility is considered from the standpoint of how my actions will affect my brother.
Paul’s teaching revolves around the knowledge and consciences of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ Christians. Every Christian has knowledge, "Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth" v.1. A decision ought not to be made purely on the grounds of mere intellectual knowledge. This can inflate a person and lead to a disregard of the other person’s feelings and shut out the expected display of love that will build up or edify. This is not a display of real Christian knowledge and so Paul writes, "if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know" v.2.
Concerning those who are strong in their Christian faith it is written, "we know that an idol is nothing in the world" v.4. But others are to be considered: "Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge" v.7. He is stating that not every man in Christian experience has come to recognise this fact, and because of this the weak brother’s conscience must be respected and not callously overridden. No spiritual Christian will say, like Cain, "Am I my brother’s keeper?" Gen.4.9. He will have a care and concern for the spiritual welfare of his brother, and will seek to encourage him and do all he can to maintain his brother’s fellowship with God.
That this is a matter of conscience and not vital doctrine is seen by the repetition of the word as noted: "some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled" v.7; "shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened …" v.10; "wound their weak conscience …" v.12.
Paul gives seven results of ignoring or riding rough shod over the conscience of another Christian.
"Their conscience being weak is defiled" - v.7
The verb "defiled" means to contaminate or to pollute. W. E. Vine states the word means, "to besmear, as with mud or filth." This can be appreciated by considering the other occurrences of the word in the New Testament. These are; Rev. 3.4, "Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments", Rev.14.4 "These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins."
These saints had been delivered from idolatry but some were still not clear of the superstition that was latent in that system. Their weakness was in this unclear thinking concerning idolatry and thus, by eating, they were smitten with guilt and their conscience was no longer clean and at ease with God: it was polluted and they felt themselves to be defiled.
"A stumblingblock to them that are weak"- v.9
In v.8 Paul acknowledges that food and the partaking thereof are of no consequence: "But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse." This would leave the strong brother with the authority to say that he could eat anything because apostolic approval had been given. But in v.9 the apostle says there is another consideration and that is the weaker brother: "But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak."
The verb "take heed" is in the present tense and in the imperative mood, which means that this is an apostolic command: and it is continual and not an isolated incident. Thus we are commanded not to put a "stumblingblock" in the way of the weak saint. This is a means whereby others are tripped up. In a similar context Paul uses this word in Romans chapter 14, "that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way" v.13; "it is evil for that man who eateth with offence" v.20.
"The conscience of him which is weak be emboldened" - v.10
Paul continues, "For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols." We live in an age when some people say, "I can do my own thing"; "I don’t care where I’m seen or in what company I’m found"; "It’s nobody’s business but mine" etc. Such an attitude is totally condemned by the apostle. He commences this verse by saying, "if any man see thee" and so underlines that it is important where Christians are seen. This person was seen sitting "at meat in the idol’s temple". He had the knowledge that the idol was nothing and there was no reason why he ought not to enjoy his meal, but he must consider how his behaviour affected his fellow believer. He might have argued that he was doing no harm and doing nothing sinful, but in reality he was because he was causing grief to his brother. This was because he caused his weak brother’s conscience to be "emboldened", meaning that it was built up to do the same thing and that was something with which his brother did not fully agree.
"And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? - v.11
What a statement! It brings the solemnity of our actions into stark relief. Paul asks the question about the knowledge of the strong brother, is he prepared to use this knowledge to the detriment of his brother? The word "perish" means to be broken or rendered useless. This would be the result of the weak brother imitating the strong brother’s actions and being smitten by his conscience. Does it really matter about the weak brother? Is he worth considering? Paul gives us his value by commenting that he was one "for whom Christ died". There is no greater price than this. The weak brother is of inestimable value and so demands the consideration of his brother. The tremendous contrast is between the love of Christ who died for him and the callousness of the brother in disregarding him.
"When ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience" - v.12
Paul is reaching the climax of his argument as he uses these strong words, "sin" and "wound". These are words full of emotion and ought to bring the strong brother to realise how important it is to consider his weaker brother when decisions have to be made. J.N.Darby catches the continuity implied in the verbs when he translates it as, "thus sinning against the brethren, and wounding their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ". Thus Paul is not speaking of a single one-off action, rather this is the ongoing sinning and wounding of a brother who is in the continual state of being weak. Also the word has changed from the singular "brother" to the plural "brethren" and is widening the argument to embrace all within the Christian community.
The word "wound" implies to smite with the fist or a whip and illustrates how cutting and painful a wounded conscience can be and really no one with a modicum of Christian compassion would want to expose his brother to this.
"Ye sin against Christ" - v.12
This expression is the top stone of his argument and highlights the seriousness of a thoughtless or selfish action that could lead to grief and pain for a brother. When it is seen as "sin against Christ" any excuse is made invalid.
This is one of the references that clearly shows the intimate link between Christ and His people – sin against them is sin against Him. Paul learned this at the time of his conversion, when the Lord said that persecution of the Church was persecution of Him, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?" Acts 9.4; 22.7; 26.14.
"If meat make my brother to offend" - v.13
Paul states the final result of the inconsiderate action and the reaction of the spiritual man, "Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend." Twice in the verse he uses the verb, "to offend". This is our English word "scandalise" and has the meaning ‘to set a trap for’. What Christian would want to set a trap for his brother and cause him to fall? We must guard not only our testimony, but that of our brethren.
The reaction of the spiritual is quite simple: "I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend." A consideration of a brother with a desire to see him prosper in Divine things and be at rest with his conscience, demands that I do nothing that would hurt him, even though I feel there is nothing wrong in my actions.
"If others be partakers of [this] power over you, [are] not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ" 9.12.
Chapter 9 contains 20 questions, as Paul wants the Corinthians to think and come to conclusions in certain matters. He indicates the reality of his apostleship and then gives the reasons why he did not take financial support from them. For the sake of the gospel he forgoes his rights.
He Restates his Relationship - vv.1-2
He was not an inferior apostle. "Am I not an apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? are not ye my work in the Lord?" v.1. The fact that he had seen the Lord’s face attested his apostleship. "If I be not an apostle unto others, yet doubtless I am to you: for the seal of mine apostleship are ye in the Lord" v.2. This indicates that he had seen the Lord’s hand in blessing his service.
He gives Reasons for his Rewards - vv.3-14
He gives 5 reasons why he could have taken support from them.
- Example of Others - vv.5,6. "Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas? Or I only and Barnabas, have not we power to forbear working?"
- Example of Occupations - v.7. "Who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges? who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof? or who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock?" He highlights a soldier who may illustrate an evangelist; then there is the sower who may represent a teacher and finally the shepherd who implies a pastor.
- Example of Old Testament Scriptures - vv.8-10. "Say I these things as a man? or saith not the law the same also? For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith He it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope." In this he quotes Deut.25.4, "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn."
- Example of Old Testament Service - v.13. "Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar?" The reference to the Levite and the Priest of the Old Testament is obvious.
- Expression of The Lord - v.14. "Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel." This is probably a reference to Matt.10.10: "for the workman is worthy of his meat."
He Refuses His Rights - vv.15-23
He gives 5 reasons why he refused their support.
- He Preached From Necessity: Not For Glory - v.16. "For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!" In Acts 9.15 the risen and glorified Lord Jesus had commissioned Paul. He had no grounds for self-exaltation since this was all of the sovereignty of God, and being a bondservant, obedience was an absolute necessity for him. In fact, it was as a burden that lay upon him as suggested by the expression "is laid". This meaning can be ascertained from other usages such as, "the people pressed upon Him to hear the word of God" Lk.5.1; "It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it" Jn.11.38; "no small tempest lay on us" Acts 27.20. He emphasises the impelling nature of his service with the phrase, "yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!"
- He Preached from the aspect of Slavery: Not Greed - v.17. "For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me." If he chose to be a preacher, as the words, "willingly" and "will" imply, then he would be rewarded. However, since this was a matter of sovereign choice, then there had been a stewardship (as the word dispensation ought to read) committed to him. He looked upon his ministry as a deposit from God that had to be guarded and fulfilled.
- He Preached Freely: Not for Gain - v.18. "What is my reward then? Verily that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I abuse not my power in the gospel." His reward was to ensure the gospel was preached freely and no one could charge him with preaching for gain, or any other ulterior motive.
- He Preached Humbly: Not Grudgingly - vv.19-22. "For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some." He was free from all men in that he was not beholden to any, he served no committee and was responsible to the Lord alone. However, he came close to all kinds of men in order to win them for the Lord Jesus and he was able to do this without sacrificing any principle. He made himself a bondslave to all by forgoing his rights to receive support from them and, instead, he laboured with his own hands. His overriding consideration was his service for Christ and the salvation of men.
- He Preached Wisely, Not Glibly - v.23. "And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you." J.N.Darby’s rendering is more accurate, "And I do all things for the sake of the glad tidings, that I may be fellow-partaker with them." All that he did and all that he endured, were for the sake of the gospel and so that he would be a co-participant with the work of the gospel itself.
Why did he behave like this? The very heart of the matter is in v.12, "If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ." Such was his love for the gospel and his burden to see it spread and thereby souls being blessed, that he would not do anything that would impede its progress.
Here is a major consideration for every believer: does my way of life help or hinder the spread of the gospel? The best assistance to the gospel in any district is a good personal testimony by local believers, and unfortunately the reverse is true! This present day is largely marked by a decline in evangelical fervour. This fevour is essential for the maintenance and advancement of the testimony. It is undeniable that assemblies that wane in the spread of the gospel will soon begin to dwindle and die out altogether. It is a healthy sign when it can be said of an assembly, "For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing" 1 Thess.1.8.
"But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway."
Already in the chapter there have been illustrations that are; Occupational v.7, Agricultural v.9, Ecclesiastical (Levite and Priest) v.13. Now there are those which are Athletically orientated: v.24 a runner and v.26 a boxer. In these verses Paul looks forward to the day of reward and the possibility of gaining the prize. To attain this various attitudes or considerations are required.
Single Mindedness is Required - v.24
In this verse Paul argues that because the prize is obtainable by one person only, it becomes a priority and is all consuming to the runner. So he says, "So run, that ye may obtain." The athlete is not concerned with others and how they are performing, nor has he time to waste in looking around and admiring the view. Only one thing is in focus and that is the prize.
This is not teaching that only one Christian can be rewarded, nor is it encouraging a spirit of competition in Christian service, but it is teaching that every one should seek to obtain a prize and not be distracted by peripheral matters.
Self Denial is Required - v.25
Every athlete is careful about his lifestyle and diet. Things that are legitimate for other people are not suitable for him and so it is written, "every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things." So with the serious and spiritual Christian: things that others may do and have, even though they are not sinful, will be out of bounds to him. The worldly contestant lives like this, "to obtain a corruptible crown"; the Christian practices self-denial to obtain "an incorruptible".
Sole Objective is Required - v.26
The only thing that is before the runner and the boxer is to win and gain the prize. Likening himself to these athletes he says, "I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air." He was not wondering where he was going, nor was he wasting his time shadow boxing but he was a sincere striving runner and an accurate puncher. Hence every one participating in the Christian race needs to be focused on the prize and must control every desire that would divert this focus.
Superiority Over Nature is Required - v.27
Such a spartan and somewhat austere life, is not attractive to nature and so he comments, "But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway." Every natural instinct must be mastered. The athlete cannot live in luxury and loll about in leisure, thereby neglecting the rigours of training. So it is with the Christian. The spiritually minded believer will be involved in the training that comes with devotion to the Lord: his ‘spiritual muscles’ will be enhanced by a life of reading and studying the Scriptures, reliance upon God in prayer and fellowship with like-minded saints.
To neglect this or to seek advantage by breaking the rules will mean that he will become a "castaway". This does not mean he will lose his salvation, such a thing is impossible, but he will be disapproved and will therefore lose his crown. If becoming a castaway was a serious consideration for the apostle Paul, how much more for us?
This verse brings a most solemn consideration to all: "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." Some will say that being a castaway could never happen to them. The Corinthians may have argued that they were saved, baptised, enjoying fellowship in a greatly gifted assembly and listening to wonderful ministry and thus were protected against such a disaster.
Paul now illustrates the truth from an Old Testament company which, in picture had the same blessings. In 10.1-4 he employs the word "all" 5 times as follows.
"All our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea" v.1, which reminds us that they experienced redemption. "And were all baptised unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea" v.2, implying their baptism. "And did all eat the same spiritual meat and did all drink the same spiritual drink" vv.3,4, which illustrates their fellowship. This is the order outlined in Acts 2.41,42, "they that gladly received His word (Redemption); were baptised: (Baptism) ... And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Fellowship). Thus Paul brings to their attention a company that very appropriately suits this New Testament assembly.
What happened to them? "But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness" ("they were strewed in the desert" J.N.D.) v.5. It might be asked "what has this to do with us?" Thus Paul uses the same word twice to say they were "our examples" v.6 and "ensamples" v.11. If they are examples to give us warning, then how did they fall? There were 5 failures.
They "lusted" - v.6
They became Dissatisfied with God’s Provision - Numbers chapter 11.
Their Portion. The nation had been brought out from Egypt, and were feasting on roast lamb, which pictures Christ in His Passion. In the wilderness the provision was the manna, which portrays Christ in His Person. In the land they had "the old corn of the land" Josh.5.11,12 which depicts Christ in His Pre-eminence. The incident highlighted by Paul concerned the manna: they became disaffected by it. Not that they were really dissatisfied with the manna in itself, but by itself. They would have liked something alongside the manna: some tasty garnish. The reasons for this are revealed.
Their recollection. This is noted in Num.11.5, "We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick: But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes." They remembered all that catered to their natural appetite but conveniently forgot the taskmaster and the lash they experienced in Egypt. There they had 6 things, indicating that it was all of natural man and the earth. But in the land they were promised 7 things, reminding us of completeness and perfection, "A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of oil olive, and honey" Deut.8.8.
When reading, praying and feasting on Christ becomes a chore, it is then that the heart wanders back to things enjoyed in unsaved days and it is not too long until we are back at the things we once found did not satisfy. There cannot be growth for God if we feed the flesh and the corrupt nature. To seek something alongside Him will not work. It cannot be Christ and the world; it has to be Him alone.
The instigation. This was instigated by a mixed multitude, "And the mixt multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat?" v.4. This is an important warning in these days when separation unto the Lord, is becoming rare. Our company ought to be carefully considered. A former generation used to give the advice, "always keep company with those who are more spiritual than yourself".
Idolatry - v.7
They became Dissatisfied with God’s Prophet - Exodus chapter 32.
Moses had gone up into the mountain and had been away for a considerable time. They lost sight of him and grew weary waiting for his return. They wanted a god and Aaron made a great blunder when he manufactured the golden calf. They now had a ‘god’ before whom they could play, not a God to fear. How like our day when reverence and the fear of God are being lost. In present experience it seems the sight of the Man who went up has dulled and waiting for His return is becoming tedious. This leads to the ‘golden calf’, which suggests, in the gold, materialism and, in the calf, youth. These two things have led many a company astray.
Fornication - v.8
They became Dissatisfied with God’s Place - Numbers chapter 25.
God’s place for His people was one of separation from the nations of the world. However, when Balaam was hired by Balak the king of the Moabites, to curse the people of God and found this an impossibility, another plan was devised and that was to corrupt them by mixing them with the nations. The people fell for this ploy and were soon mixed with Moab and Midian, which led to the dread sin of fornication. Moab is a picture of the world in its luxury and ease. "Moab hath been at ease from his youth, and he hath settled on his lees, and hath not been emptied from vessel to vessel, neither hath he gone into captivity: therefore his taste remained in him, and his scent is not changed" Jer.48.11. "We have heard of the pride of Moab; he is very proud: even of his haughtiness, and his pride, and his wrath: but his lies shall not be so" Isa.16.6. Midian means strife and is a great ally for Moab. The warning is clear; that we ought to consider the impact of luxury and strife on our Christian standing.
Tempting - v.9
They became Dissatisfied with God’s Path - Numbers chapter 21.
It is recorded, "The soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way" v.4. It may be they found the going too strenuous and difficult. They would have wanted a smoother path to the land, one with less rigour. Believers gathered to the Name of the Lord Jesus are expected to go on in the path of pilgrims and strangers, and to "go forth therefore unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach" Heb.13.13. The next verse reminds us that all that we have relative to glory belongs to another world, "For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come" v.14.
Murmuring - v.10
They became Dissatisfied with God’s Priesthood - Numbers chapter 16.
Korah, Dathan and Abiram, together with two hundred and fifty princes, moved in rebellion against God’s leadership. They wanted part in the intimacy of priestly approach to God, and God miraculously showed His great displeasure. Regarding Korah, Dathan and Abiram it is recorded, "And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation" vv.32,33. Then God dealt with the princes, "And there came out a fire from the LORD, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense" v.35.
Rebellion against men who have been brought into leadership by God is most solemn and the warning needs to be heeded.
This incident serves to underline the truth being emphasised, that we cannot stand in our own strength or by natural ability, "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall".
We have seen the various considerations outlined in these very important and practical chapters of 1 Corinthians and every believer ought to:
Consider Your Brother, 8.9,13 - LOOK AROUND;
Consider The Gospel, 9.12 - LOOK OUT;
Consider Your Future Reward, 9.27 - LOOK ON;
Consider Your Present Standing, 10.12 - LOOK IN.