When eating and drinking identify us with idols, for example, and thus bring us into fellowship with demons, then we should avoid that kind of eating and drinking. Doing all to the glory of God requires us not simply to examine our hearts (which we certainly should do) but more importantly to examine the implications of what we are doing. Often the activities that we are considering have meanings that go beyond the bare acts themselves.
In 1 Corinthians 8–10 the apostle Paul addresses the question of whether Christians should eat meat that has been offered to idols. In chapter 8 his general answer is that an idol is nothing in the world. If an idol is nothing, then meat that has been offered to idols has literally been offered to nothing. To say that it has been offered to nothing is equivalent to saying that it has not been offered at all. Consequently, meat that has been offered to idols is just meat and may be safely eaten.
Nevertheless, Paul places an important caveat on implementing this conclusion. Even supposing that eating this meat is completely morally innocuous, some Christians still have qualms of conscience about it. Some people are keenly conscious of the idolatrous worship that provoked the offering of the meat. They may perceive eating the meat as idolatry-at-a-distance. For them to eat would be to transgress their consciences, and violating one’s conscience is not a good habit to form.
If it is not possible to eat this meat without transgressing the conscience, then one should not eat the meat. Furthermore, one should not eat the meat if eating would induce fellow believers to violate their consciences. We are responsible not only to protect our own consciences but also the consciences of our sisters and brothers. In view of this principle, Paul makes the radical assertion that if eating meat causes his brother to stumble, he will consume no flesh as long as the world stands.
We might think that this statement was intended as a hyperbole, a fantastic exaggeration to emphasize a point. If that is what we think, then we are wrong. The entire next chapter (1 Cor 9) is Paul’s extended explanation of how he is not hyperbolizing at all. Quite the contrary, he already practices similar disciplines in his ministry. As an example, Paul builds an extended case for why he, in ministering the gospel, has a right to expect compensation. He bases this case on Old Testament examples and principles, on the apostolic pattern, and even on common-sense natural law arguments. Then he makes it clear that, even though he has a right to expect compensation, he refuses to insist upon that right.
Paul’s example implies a principle that we should not insist upon rights and privileges when those rights and privileges get in the way of effective ministry. We should “become all things to all men” in the sense of exerting no privilege that would block our ministry by offending the people to whom we minister.