Paul concludes his discussion of eating food sacrificed to idols by warning his readers to be careful how they use their freedom in Christ. You may be free to eat food sacrificed to idols, Paul says, but be careful to not cause another believer to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:9-10). Most people understand the metaphor of a stumbling-block. The word refers to something which literally causes someone to stumble, a hidden rock in a path, etc. How is eating food sacrificed to idols a stumbling block?
The situation Paul has in mind is the wealthy or elite in the churches who attend a banquet at a temple. A private meal may not have attracted anyone’s attention, but someone who is invited to an important civic function at a temple would make that sort of thing known to others. It seems highly likely the elite in the church boasted in their participation in the civic banquets, and they may have encouraged others to participate as well.
Why would the Corinthians think that they had a right to eat at a banquet? Bruce Winter suggests this may be a right as a Corinthian elite (After Paul Left Corinth, 280). The elite can eat rich meals at a temple because they were invited. A gentile Christian might consider eating the mean their right because they are free from the Law (they can eat food forbidden by the Law).
It is possible to have knowledge the idol-food is nothing, but not express that knowledge with love, therefore harming brother or sister in Christ (8:11-12). It is possible the Gentile believers in the church had no problem attending meals at a temple, while Jewish believers would find this highly sensitive. Gentile Christians may have been more socially higher class than Jewish Christians and felt more pressure to attend civic banquets. If the Gentile believers were encouraging Jews or others who believed that attending the temple meals with sin, then they would be “causing them to stumble.”
Paul therefore declares it is better to abstain then cause a brother to sin! (8:13) Earlier in the letter, Paul said it is better to be wronged than to bring a brother to a secular court. In 1 Corinthians 8 he applies this same principle to eating food sacrificed to idols. It is better never to eat meat again than to cause someone to stumble.
Setting aside one’s freedom runs contrary to modern (American) ideas of freedom. American freedom should never be confused with Christian Liberty in Christ. Because we have a right (as Americans) to some social behavior, we must evaluate the practice through the lens of the Gospel. As an American I might have a right to do something, but should I set aside that right, as a Christian, in order to not cause another Christian to sin? There are many examples of Christians abusing their rights as Americans which might cause others to sin 9Maybe you can give your own suggestion in the comments section!)
Paul is clear: we have freedom in Christ, but that freedom is an opportunity to serve others in love. For Paul, the Gospel always takes precedence to an individual’s freedom in matters of indifference. His over-riding concern is for the outsider who may be attracted or repelled from the Gospel based on how the church looks from the outside. This does not seem fair, but it is the way things work out in the real world!
Paul must balance Christian liberty in Christ with the need to present the Gospel to an entirely pagan world. He is clear that the Gospel is more important than personal liberty; you’re your freed in Christ interferes with the Gospel, then your freedom needs to be restrained. Like Paul and the Lord Jesus Christ, we ought quickly to set aside our insistence on our rights as free in Christ so we will be able to present the Gospel without hindrance.