Author: Ron Graham
Abstinence and Conscience
—The importance of example
Christians in Paul's day were commanded to abstain from certain foods. "Abstain from things sacrificed to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from fornication" (Acts 15:28-29).
You will notice that abstinence from certain foods is lumped in together with abstinence from fornication. So eating the forbidden foods would have been sinful, just as committing fornication is sinful (1Corinthians 6:9-10).
1 A Reason for Abstinence
The interesting thing about this is that Jesus declared all foods clean. Mark quotes Jesus as saying, "Nothing that a man eats can defile him. What he eats does not enter his heart, but his stomach, and is later expelled." Then Mark adds an interpretation, saying, "So Jesus declared all foods clean" (Mark 7:17-23).
If Jesus declared all foods clean, why was abstinence from certain foods required? Why was it sinful to eat meat sacrificed to idols? Paul explains that an idol is nothing, so food cannot be spoiled by offering it to an idol. How could an imaginary god defile a gift from Jesus Christ the fount of all blessings? (lCo 8:4-6).
The problem was that many people had faulty consciences. They had become so accustomed to idols that they couldn't eat meat offered to idols without feeling that they were worshipping idols.
Jews, likewise, could not shake off the belief that the law given to Noah and Moses must still hold good, that animals should not be eaten unless at the slaughter their blood was allowed to pour out of the carcass. So they thought of things strangled as defiled food and forbidden by God's law (Genesis 9:3-4,8:1-13, Deuteronomy 12:20-25).
Thus, even if the meat itself did not defile them, people could be defiled by their own guilt and doubt if they ate the meat (lCo 8:1-13, Romans 14:14,23).
The reason that abstinence from meat was necessay, was not that it was sinful itself, like fornication is, but because many people would have a guilty conscience if they ate it. Therefore abstinence was necessary to avoid encouraging such people to violate their conscience.
2 Laws and Taboos
Paul discouraged, even condemned, adherence to old taboos (Colossians 2:20-23). He did not want people to become obsessed with abstinence. He did, however, want them to adopt and live by the following principle:
"Whilst all things are lawful, not all things are helpful" (1Corinthians 6:12,8:1-13, 1Corinthians 10:23).
One might say, "If there's no law against it, and I can do it with a clear conscience, then why shouldn't I?" The answer is, because it is harmful and not helpful, and you have to think about the other person's conscience, not just your own.
The conclusion to which all this leads, is that whilst we should not make or be bound by food laws and taboos as such, we may still need to voluntarily abstain from some foods out of deference to those who would violate their conscience if they partook of those foods (Romans 14:13-23, Rom8:1-13, Romans 15:1-2).
3 Application to Strong Drink
We notice that Paul included the drinking of wine, as well as the eating of meat, in one of his exhortations to abstinence, "It is good neither to eat meat, or to drink wine, or to do anything whereby your brother stumbles or is made weak" (Romans 14:21).
We could have easily applied to alcoholic drinks the same principle which Paul applied to meat, however Paul himself made the application for us.
Many people today have a conscience about alcoholic drinks, having been brought up to believe that strong drink is sinful and total abstinence is essential. Others may think that strong drink is not sinful in itself, and is good, or at least permissable, in moderation.
However, if the one who drinks with a clear conscience leads one to drink who feels guilty, then a serious offence has occurred. This is the fault of the one who drank with a clear conscience and did not regard to the conscience of the other.
Of course wine, and other alcoholic drinks, can cause people to stumble not only in conscience but also in fact, because many people have a weakness for alcohol. This weakness leads to addiction or excess, so that they become drunkards.
Such people cannot practice moderation. They must practice total abstinence if they are going to overcome their alcohol problem, their sin, and the shocking harm it causes. Surely we should set an example of abstinence for their sakes. We will, however, deal with this topic in our next lesson, "Abstinence and Drunkeness".
In this present lesson we have looked at the principle by which abstinence is required out of dererence to those who would violate their own consciences if they did what we do.
In closing, I draw your attention again to Paul's remarks to the Corinthians about food, remembering that when writing to the Romans he applied the principle also to drinking wine. (1Corinthians 8:9-13, Romans 14:14,21-23).
It's Your Choice
If you are doing something which another person believes to be wrong, that person may weaken and be led by your example to do the thing about which he has qualms. Thus you have wounded his conscience and you sin against Christ.
Some who believe that it is wrong to consume alcohol are weak in applying that conviction, and they are easily led to go against their conscience and thereby sin. If you would hate to mislead anyone like that, then you have a very good reason to abstain from alcohol, don't you?
If, however, you abstain from that thing, then the person will be encouraged by your example not to do the thing which he believes to be wrong, and his conscience will be clear.