Assembly Characteristics - 08 Liberty and Separation

 Chapter 8

Liberties and Separation of the Saints

1 Corinthians 8-10

A local assembly in Scripture was marked by characteristics  that distinguished it from any mere religious gathering of men. It can  be compared to the gathering of Israel in Old Testament time, in  that they were not to pattern their behavior or practices from the  nations around them (Deuteronomy 7:1-6) nor after their own  manners in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 12:8). They were “a  peculiar people,” or a special people of the Lord's possession, and  they were to acknowledge this in every way and display it by their  submission to His commands and ordinances.

Today every assembly of believers seeking to carry out the  will of heaven on earth is to display this character of submission and  obedience (Matthew 18:18). Sadly, from the first, the opinions of  men and human expediency have often taken precedence over the  simple desire to follow precisely the pattern that God has given in  His Word for such gatherings. It is clear that God's Word neither  teaches nor anticipates anything apart from the local assembly that  seeks to continue in faithfulness to the Lord even in days of  departure.

One mark of a scriptural assembly is a willing submission on  the part of the believers to assembly authority vested in the elders.  Their authority is not exercised as dictators, “as being lords over  God's heritage” (1 Peter 5:3), but by their applying and upholding  the Word of God. Their weight and influence in the assembly will  depend on their ability to use God’s Word properly as well as upon  the reality of their godliness and testimony. As well, each one in the  assembly should recognize that personal behavior and assumed  liberties must be tempered by consideration for the convictions of  others in the assembly. Each one in assembly fellowship should  support the principles that the assembly seeks to uphold in its  testimony, and all should realize the restricting effect that  participation in privileges of assembly fellowship will place on him.  Most folks we meet in the world, even those who claim to be  saved, do not want any limitations on their “freedoms” to do what  they want or think is right. The last chapters of Judges typically  predict these conditions, when “every man did that which was right  in his own eyes.” The lack of a visible, authoritative ruler made  Israel forget that the Lord was their King (Isaiah 43:15), and the  inevitable result was that self-will became supreme and disaster  resulted. Those conditions are typical and instructive concerning  what would characterize the last days of church testimony and must  be a warning to us.

1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 does not deal with behavior that is  subject to plain commands of Scripture. It has to do with the willing  limitation of personal “liberties” out of consideration for a fellow  believer's conscience. Obedience to plain Scripture comes first, but  ultimately one must also recognize that what may outwardly appear  “harmless” has deeper implications that are contradictory to the  enjoyment of the Lord's table. The assembly cannot scripturally or  properly function if each believer is not willing to yield personal  views or rights in areas where they conflict with the consciences of  other sincere, godly believers or with what the assembly seeks to  uphold in principle and testimony. We might note that Romans  14:1-15:7 is concerned with a similar problem, but while there are  similarities, there are vital differences both in the problem and in the  result.

There are situations dealt with in the Corinthian Epistle that  we do not face today as far as the actual problem is concerned. For  example, we do not have a problem of eating meats that have been  offered to an idol or eating in the idol's temple. That condition is  past, but there are principles established that apply to present day  situations and can be very vital to the promotion of assembly  fellowship. What we must do in order to benefit from this portion of  Scripture is to discern the underlying principles, and seek to benefit  from them.

A. Defense of Liberty - An Idol is Nothing

1 Corinthians 8:1-6

The apostle begins in a way that might appear strange, for  he seems to defend the view of those who were saying that there  was nothing wrong if one ate meat offered to an idol or ate in the  idol's temple. These believers were claiming knowledge of what the  idol really was, that it was nothing, and therefore this activity had no  effect about which others should be concerned. However, along  with that defense, he clearly lifts the question to a superior level that  must be considered. Firstly, knowledge is not everything, but love  supersedes knowledge in its profit (8:1). This thought is introduced  here, but is developed further in chapter 13 regarding the misuse of  spiritual gifts. One may know more than other believers in spiritual  matters, but that knowledge will never edify the saints if it is not  exercised in love. Love must motivate and control our actions that  affect myself and other saints in the assembly.

Then the possibility is opened in 8:2 that the one with  knowledge may not have the clarity of understanding he claims to  have. A kind of knowledge that results in one disregarding the  consciences of other saints and not edifying them is insufficient and  misdirected, no matter how enlightened it may appear. In an  assembly, there should be room for various views on certain issues  where the Scriptures are not explicit, but over all, one must consider  whether the exercise of those views is displaying love for other  saints. Genuine love for the believers with whom we enjoy  fellowship will motivate us to do those things that will spiritually  benefit them and the assembly. It is often the case that those who  claim they can be involved in certain activities do not have the  knowledge of the truth they claim to possess. Many of us can look  back to things in earlier days that we practiced, thinking they held  no harm to us, but which we found to be spiritually harmful as we  learned more of the truth and had more desires to please the Lord.  This willing limitation on rights in an indication of spiritual  development.

B. Willing Restriction on “Personal Liberties”

1 Corinthians 8:7-9

The consideration of my brother's conscience introduces a  factor that limits the exercise of personal liberties. It may be that his  conscience is “weak” as the “strong” might consider it, but it must  still be considered, and if an action will wound that person's  conscience (1 Corinthians 8:12), it is sin against Christ. This truth emphasizes the  seriousness of a lack of consideration for others. One may justify  his own actions in a matter, but if in so doing it has a harmful effect  on another believer, it cannot be allowed because what is done  against another believer is against the Lord.  It is interesting that as Paul's argument develops, the  conscience of the “weak” brother is proven to be right because the  idol is shown to be linked with the demonic realm. Therefore, it is  wrong for one presuming to be “strong” to disdain the “weak”  conscience, but he should consider whether that “weak” brother is  actually, through spiritual exercise, more correct. The “weak”  conscience may be, in fact, a more sensitive, spiritually exercised  conscience.

Any believer who faces a similar situation and does not want  to stumble a weak brother should ask wisdom from God to  determine whether the objection by the “weak” brother is a matter  of conscience or of self-will on his part. It may be necessary to ask  counsel from elders in deciding such a case. No believer should  use this passage merely to enforce his own will upon others.  Five serious effects are defined in this case. In 1 Corinthians 8:7, the  conscience of the “weak” brother can be defiled. In 1 Corinthians 8:9,13, this  liberty becomes a stumbling block, or hindrance to the “weak” one.  In 8:10, the action has the effect of emboldening, or building up in  the wrong way, his weak conscience, thus causing him to do what  he feels is wrong. Then in 8:11, that weak brother may perish, or be  ruined in life and testimony through such careless actions. Lastly,  in 1 Corinthians 8:12, it has the effect of wounding the weak conscience and is  sin against Christ.

As if that were not enough to prove the need for  consideration of other believers and restriction of liberties for their  benefit, in chapter 9, Paul illustrates and reinforces this truth. He  shows that even he, with far greater knowledge than all the  Corinthian believers combined and with every reason to rightfully  exercise his fullest liberties, willingly limited them by determined  self-discipline. He does this, though he has every right to do those  things listed in 9:4-6, so that he might further the purposes of God  in the lives of the saints. Since this is true in Paul's exercise before  the Lord, the obvious conclusion is that we should follow his  pattern. He does these things because of spiritual constraint (1 Corinthians 9:16),  spiritual stewardship (1 Corinthians 9:17), spiritual determination to enhance the  spread of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:18-23) and spiritual anticipation of eternal  reward (1 Corinthians 9:25-27). These incentives should also be a constraint and  restraint to us in our assembly activities today.

C. The Danger of Presumption

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

To further emphasize the importance of this issue, he calls  on the example of Israel. What happened to them becasue of their  failure in the wilderness is an example to New Testament believers  (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11).  There were five areas of spiritual privilege in which they all  participated, areas that typify things true of every believer in Christ  (1 Corinthians 10:1-4). However, such common experiences did not preserve  Israel, for God was not pleased (or “disappointed,” JND) with most  of them, and they were overthrown in the wilderness. What they did  prevented them from going on to enter the land of God's promise,  and the inference is that similar activities of the Corinthians (or us)  will prevent any believer from going on to enjoy all the spiritual  blessings that God intends for believers in Christ.

Eating and drinking, with its accompanying activities, can  indicate an attitude toward God and His Word (Isaiah 22:13, 1  Corinthians 15:32). Notice that most of the five areas of failure listed  in 1 Corinthians 10:6-10 involved eating and drinking along with their rejecting  restrictions on the flesh. Most of these areas of failure centered on  activities that the Corinthians likewise were expressing in their  attitude and actions. Since Israel experienced judgment as a result,  the Corinthians needed to learn that similar conduct would bring  God's judgment on them as well. Does not this suggest that every  activity of the believer's life has its deeper, spiritual significance and  cannot be seen as something harmless and without effect? Those  who entertain the world in their homes by way of the television, or  who pursue the world’s entertainment in other forms, inevitably  manifest the effects of this in their lives in terms of their spiritual  exercise.

The conclusion of this argument seems to center on 1 Corinthians 10:12.  The Corinthians thought that they could freely exercise their  “liberties” and stand firm in their testimony. They had confidence  that they were right and could engage in this activity without harmful  effects, but they were wrong and their conduct would ultimately lead  to their downfall.

How often this proves to be the case when believers  confidently assert that they can engage in this or that “harmless”  pursuit or activity! The end result is that if it is continued, they  ultimately will be found away from the Lord and the assembly's  fellowship.

D. Exclusive Claims of the Lord's Table

(1 Corinthians 10:14 - 11.1)

It is impossible to fully consider this section within the scope  of this article, but it presents the crowning condemnation of the very  activity that some might have thought Paul defends at the  beginning. He shows that there is the matter of fellowship, or  participation expressed by involvement in certain activities. In  taking the one cup and the one loaf (1 Corinthians 10:16), they were expressing  their communion in the sacrificial work of the Lord Jesus, and their  participation in that work was the ground of their fellowship. In  addition, 10:17 teaches that in taking of that one cup and the one  loaf, they were expressing the unity of the assembly. The  expressions “the many” (JND) and “we” obviously are speaking of  the local assembly, as they took of those memorials of the Lord  together. So that, contrariwise, their eating meat offered to idols or  eating in the idol's temple actually involved partaking of the table of  demons (1 Corinthians 10:21). To enjoy the privileges of the Lord's Table  (possibly more than, but including the Lord’s Supper) and all it  involves makes it impossible to partake of the table of demons. The  two areas are mutually exclusive. Behind the idol stands the demon  (1 Corinthians 10:20), therefore what is connected with the idol has a far deeper  significance than what they claimed. The idol was nothing (8:4), but  the significance of the idol lay in that it represented a power that  was totally opposed to the Lord.

In 1 Corinthians 10:25, they could eat food purchased in the market  without concern about what had happened to it prior to its purchase,  because the conscience of no believer was involved. What is used  as food may be received as from the Lord (1 Corinthians 10:26) with a clear  conscience. In 1 Corinthians 10:27, a person could freely attend a feast with no  concern about whether or not the food had been previously offered  to idols; but if there were one who made an issue of telling him that  the meat was offered to idols, then he should not eat. This shows  brotherly consideration for the conscience of the one who has told  him, so as not to stumble the weaker brother.

In 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul concludes by reminding them of his own  behavior in chapter 9, so that they might be imitators of him even  as he was of Christ. There can be no higher standard of living for  the sake of others than the pattern given by the Lord Jesus Christ.  One could not have greater rights than He, yet there is no greater  display of willingness to limit what rightly was His, for the sake of  others (2 Corinthians 8:9, Philippians 2:5-8). Surely, His example  should be the incentive for the Corinthian believers and for us today  that we might be willing to curtail our “rights” or “liberties” for the  welfare and benefit of others.

This condition of mutual consideration for fellow believers  should be a characteristic of local assembly fellowship. We are not  “islands” unto ourselves so that our actions will not influence the  lives of others. One might take such ground if not enjoying the  privileges of assembly fellowship, but those privileges bring along  with them certain responsibilities. In addition, the fact that the Lord's  purpose is for believers to be in an assembly would indicate that  part of our spiritual development comes from the mutual care and  consideration found in that sphere of fellowship. There are general  principles that can apply to many facets of our lives today. Each  believer must consider if that act, practice, or pursuit of their life that  they intend is truly the will of God for them. In addition, it must be  considered in the light of its actions and impact on other believers  (what will it cause them to do if they follow that example), how it will  affect the testimony for Christ and how it will affect the testimony of  the assembly. If one is in an assembly fellowship, the principles and  practices that have characterized that assembly testimony down  through the years must be considered. If not, it may be the cause  of ruining that testimony or some of the believers who are in it.  May consideration of these principles cause each one of us  to consider actions that may be suspect because of their adverse  effect either on one's own testimony and spiritual exercise or on the  consciences of others who belong to the Lord!