Personal conviction has become today's standard for deciding right and wrong among many fundamentalists. No longer does it matter what God may have had to say about the matter in the Scriptures. In stead, the individual is given the freedom to make up his own mind. If he feels something is wrong, it is wrong. If he is not "convicted" about it yet, he may continue the practice.
Where could such a teaching come from? It is obvious that in the Old Testament God never gave such leeway to His people. In the book of Judges, every man did that which was right in his own eyes. However, what was right in their eyes was sin to God. Each time, God sent oppression upon them. Jeremiah cried out about the lack of conviction in his day: "Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? Nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush." (6:15) Therefore, God pronounced judgment upon His people: "They shall fall among them that fall: at the time that I visit them they shall be cast down, saith the Lord."
The idea that "personal conviction" constitutes an acceptable basis for deciding right and wrong comes from a common misunderstanding of I Corinthians 8, and a faulty comparison with Romans 14. Unfortunately, many times we get so deep in a verse we miss the lesson of the passage. We become like those who cannot see the forest for the trees.
Paul wrote to a troubled church at Corinth. They were a divided church (chapters 1-4). They had problems with immorality, and were even bringing the civil law courts into their personal disputes (chapters 5-6). Problems with appearance, actions at the Lord's supper, and the gifts of the Spirit (chapters 11-14) led to more divisions. Many misunderstood the doctrine of the resurrection (chapter 15).
One issue that created a problem was the eating of meat offered to idols. Paul dealt with that issue in chapters 8 through 10. Many make the mistake of set ting chapter 8 by itself, therefore, coming up with faulty conclusions about Paul's teaching. However, a thorough reading of the book obviously brings those three chapters together.
Before going into detail in chapter 8, it is important to see how the chapters fit together in the argument. In chapter 8, Paul addressed the Corinthians who felt there was nothing wrong with eating meat offered to idols. Paul appealed to their feeling of spiritual superiority. Basically, he said that if they were truly spiritual they should have been willing to do without meat offered to idols, for the sake of the ones who believed it was wrong.
In chapter 9, Paul reminded them of how he had been willing to give up things which were right for him to do to keep from offending others. He explained how he had the right to have his needs met by the church (vs 4). He had the right to a family life (5). He had the right to not have to work to support himself (6). Paul defended his last right with illustrations from the world (7) from Scripture (8,9), from reason (11,12), and from religion (13,14). But Paul declined taking advantage of those rights in order to keep his testimony before all. Surely, if Paul was willing to give up things which were definitely right for him to practice, the "spiritual" ones at Corinth would be willing to give up a practice they thought was right for the sake of others.
Chapter 10 begins with an Old Testament example of what happened when God's people became more concerned about the things of the world than their relationship with God, even after they had witnessed mighty acts from God. Paul followed with a strong passage condemning the eating of meat offered to idols. "Although it is true that the idol was nothing, the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils" (20,21). If we keep the context of the entire passage in mind, it will be easier to understand what Paul is saying.
Paul began by reminding those who ate meat offered to idols that we all have knowledge. Those who opposed their practice had knowledge, too. Many times our knowledge causes us to forget the love principle when dealing with others. Knowledge puffs up. Charity builds up. Knowledge is more concerned with me. Love is more concerned with others. Knowledge thinks, "Me first." Love thinks, "You first." Knowledge says, "I won't go to Hell if I do it." "It won't hurt me, I'm spiritual enough to handle it." "I'm not convicted about it yet." "I know what I can handle." A person with uncontrolled knowledge thinks himself more spiritual than he is.
The person who thinks he knows all he needs to know, is considered as knowing nothing by others. But a person whose love for God is supreme has a real testimony.
The argument used to justify eating meat offered to idols was true — the idol is nothing. Paul begins, "We know." As the psalmist wrote: "Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands. They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is everyone that trusteth in them." (Psalm 115:4-8)
They also had true knowledge about God. There is only one God. There is only one Lord — Jesus Christ. Yes, their knowledge was true, but they used their knowledge to come to a faulty conclusion. Idols are nothing, but devils are real. Really, what the gentiles were sacrificing to were devils (10:20). This latter truth is not explained until Chapter 10 because Paul began where the people thought they were at spiritually.
Paul used the term "weak" concerning those who believed it was wrong to eat meat offered to idols. This has been taken to imply that the "strong" Christians were the ones who ate the meat offered to idols. Many commentators have missed the sarcasm of the terms and the true point Paul was making.
Was Paul writing to spiritual Christians or to carnal Christians? If they were carnal, could they really have been strong Christians? A look at previous verses in I Corinthians will give us the answer as to the spirituality of this group.
In the first chapter, Paul scolded them because of the divisions in the Church (1:10-13). In Chapter 3, He called those who took part in the divisions carnal (1-3). Some may doubt that Paul could have used the term "weak" sarcastically, but he had already done so in chapter 4:9-19. In verse 10 he stated, "We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised." Really now, who were the weak ones, and who were the strong ones? In verses 18-19 Paul wrote: "Now some are puffed up, as though I would not come to you. But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will, and will know, not the speech of them which are puffed up, but the power." Remember, it was the "puffed up" crowd that ate the meat offered to idols.
Again in Chapter 5, concerning the man taken in adultery with his father's wife, they were puffed up (vs 1,2). Gross sin was practiced by a member in the church, and they were puffed up about it. In Chapter 6, Paul rebuked them because there was not one spiritual enough to judge between them in civil matters.
From the very context of the book, those eating meat offered to idols were not really strong Christians. They considered themselves strong. Paul's argument in chapter 8 was, "If you're so spiritual, you ought to be willing to do without meat to help another brother." By eating the meat offered to idols, they were offending other Christians, perhaps even causing some to fall back into idolatry. According to verse 12, this was a sin against Christ. Could these really be strong believers?
A point missed by many is that the Holy Spirit had already spoken on the matter of eating meat offered to idols at the Jerusalem council. "For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols..." (Acts 15:28,29). The letter to the Corinthians was written from five to nine years after the council, surely they were not ignorant of it. Could those openly disobeying the Holy Spirit really have been the strong believers?
This "puffed up" crowd has its counterpart today. "I can go to Hollywood movies. They won't hurt me." "I can take a drink. It won't hurt me." "I can wear my mini-skirt. It won't hurt me." "I can smoke my cigarettes. It won't hurt me." "I can listen to rock music. It won't hurt me." "I can watch soap operas. They won't hurt me." "I can go mixed swimming. It won't affect me." These people were not concerned about whether or not the practice was right or wrong. They were "free." They had "liberty." Truly, their practice could not send them to Hell. They were no longer condemned by the Scripture. All things were lawful unto them. However, they did not accept the fact that all things were not expedient (I Cor. 6:12).
Obviously, the ones eating meat offered to idols were not spiritual at all. They were carnal Christians. They used their liberty as a license to sin, just as many do today.
Evidently the early church came to the same conclusion about I Corinthians 8-10. Philip Schaff wrote in his History of the Christian Church, Volume II, Ante-Nicene Christianity: "He (Diocletian) issued in autumn, 308, a fifth edict of persecution, which commanded that all males with their wives and servants, and even their children should sacrifice and actually taste the accursed offerings, and that all provisions in the markets should be sprinkled with sacrificial wine. This monstrous law introduced a reign of terror for two years and left the Christians no alternative but apostasy or starvation." (page 68-- emphasis added)
Romans 14 says nothing about eating meat offered to idols. The subject matter of the chapter refers to those who differed concerning ceremonial and dietary laws of the Old Testament. None of the situations discussed in Romans 14 concerned the moral laws of the Old Testament. Unclean meats were cleansed at the cross. All days were to be the same to the Christian (Col. 2:14-17).
Still, many miss the message of Romans 14:23: "And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin." One should not wait until he becomes certain a practice is wrong before quitting. The moment a person is not 100% certain that a practice is right, he should quit. If one believes there is even the slightest possibility that the practice could be wrong, it is sin.
In short, I Corinthians 8 is the beginning of a rebuke to Christians who were taking part in a practice of idolatry which violated the holiness of God. Romans 14 is a call for understanding among Christians who differ on ceremony.
I Corinthians 8 does not hang a "spiritual" tag on those who are now partaking in things which have been preached against for years. With the Word of God as the final authority, the saved who takepart in activities which are spoken against in Scripture, are, at best, carnal.
Paul did not make "personal conviction" the determinant of right and wrong. Our final authority is still "Thus saith the Lord." That the Corinthians were sinning when eating meat offered to idols is clear in chapter 10, according to the context of the book and according to other Scriptures. Their lack of conviction did not make their practice right. It simply showed the kind of Christians they were.
"There is a way which seemeth right unto man, but the end thereof are the ways of death."
"He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool..."
"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?"
"Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths."
"Therefore I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way."
The final authority for right and wrong is not personal conviction. For the truly spiritual Christian, it is the Word of God.