Lesson Two – The Function of the Mature Conscience

The Function of the Mature Conscience

Lesson Text:  I Cor. 8:1-12.


In Part II, Lesson Four, a broad view was presented of the thought to thought movement in I Corinthians.  The following is a more detailed proposal for Paul’s thought movement after the fourth chapter through the text of this lesson.  This is the writer’s train of thought couched in his own style.  We can move from topic to topic but we want to do better than make a mere outline.  In this case we will note some transitional words or phrases Paul used to move the readers through his letter.  We are concerned about the writer’s thought movement in relation to the topics he will introduce.

  1. Note 4:20: “Some of you have become arrogant.” This may serve us as a transitional phrase.  He may have selected the story in chapter five to illustrate his point about their arrogance.  They were boasting about a member in their fellowship who had his father’s wife.  The principle we learned was illustrated by yeast in bread.  The church must discipline itself.
  2. Note 5:12: “Are you not to judge those inside?”  In 6:1-11 Paul chose a different weakness in the church and applied this principle.  He closed out this scenario with, “the evil will not inherit the kingdom” and “that is what some of you were.  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”  6:9-11.
  3. In 6:12-20 after declaring, “Everything is permissible,” Paul went into the spiritual details about sexual immorality to show why it is not beneficial for Christians.  There had been an actual case in chapter five where he also mentioned a previous letter about sexual immorality (5:9).  It is a sin against the body of a Christian.  He or she must use their body to serve our Lord.
  4. 7:1-40.  Since Christians have an inherent need for a sexual relationship, Paul skillfully turned to the inquiry; “It is good for a man not to marry.”  As we understood in the previous lessons his answer was yes and no.  Yes, if a woman or man can suppress and sublimate this strong innate urge.  No, it is not good for him or her not to marry if they are “burning with passion.”  Even though pagan morals accepted prostitution in the prevailing culture and one man did have his father’s wife, it was not necessary for Paul to add: “But do choose a spouse of the opposite gender.”
  5. 8:1-11:1.  Paul introduced the subjects of conscience, idolatry and Christian freedom in his “chain of thoughts.”
    a.  Note 9:1: “Am I not free?”  Note the long line of rhetorical questions in 9:1-27.  The church had been taught the law of life in the new covenant.  He reminded them of it in 6:12 while discussing sexual activity and again in 10:23 while discussing idolatry.  He will “work in” the subject of “Christian freedom” while dealing with idols and things offered to them.  In fact, he introduced freedom while he was instructing the church about the strong urge in humanity for sexual relationships.  See 7:22, 32, 39.
    b.  10:1: “For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea.”  Paul reminded the church about Israel’s problem with both sexual immorality and idol worship (10:1-13).  This may be a “red flag” for us to keep in mind as we read these letters, the “false apostles” were probably dissident Jews (II Cor. 11:12-22).
    c.  10:14: The Lord’s Supper is a participation in the blood and body of Christ.  “You cannot have a part in the Lord’s table and the cup of demons.” I Cor. 10:21.  This is a transitional declaration that will lead us back to the text of this lesson in chapter eight.
    e.  The subject is still about “conscience” in 10:23-11:2.  The topic was presented in the context of communion in the Lord’s Supper and Christian freedom.   This freedom is enjoyed by Christians because we have the law of life in the new covenant.
    e.  “Do it all for the glory of God” in 10:31 may be Paul’s transitional phrase to introduce a way God’s children glorify the one who is his or her head in 11:3-16.
  6. “The following directives I have no praise for you,” re-opens the subject of the Lord’s Supper by the use of another actual happening in the church.  See 11:17-34.  “And when I come I will give further directions.”  With this Paul closed out the content in chapters 5-11.  Chapters 5 and 6 appear to have closed out the issue about boasting in chapters 1-4.  In these chapters, he also introduced the subject of sexual immorality and freedom to do what is beneficial.  The phrase, “Everything is permissible,” introduced the law of life that gives Christians’ freedom to love one another.


We know that we all possess knowledge.  Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  The man who thinks he knows something does not know as he ought to know.  But the man who loves God is known by God.  I Cor. 8:1-3

Paul sandwiched the foregoing declaration in between his double introduction.  One, “Now about food sacrificed to idols.”  The other, “The man who loves God is known by God.”  Reminding the church that “knowledge puffs up” may have been intended to refresh their memory about their problem with “boasting.”  This had been the cause of division in the church.  Love is required to keep a brother “in the know” from wounding the conscience of his weak brother “in Christ.”   This eternal life quality is fully explained in I Corinthians, chapter thirteen.  See my book entitled, Romans, Part V, Lesson Seven.

A standard principle we will want to apply while reading a letter is to know what the recipients knew.  The human conscience was referred to nine times in the Corinthian letters, yet there was no detailed explanation about how this unique human capability functions in relation to our other capacities – our mind, heart and body.  Evidently, Paul had explained the function of the conscience thoroughly to the church in his eighteen month preaching and teaching tour in Achaia.  They knew how their conscience functioned.  We must know what they knew to properly interpret this letter.

The Greek word translated conscience is suneidesis (sun – with and oida – to know).  The combination of these two words means “a co-knowledge with oneself – the witness borne to one’s conduct by conscience, that faculty by which we apprehend the will of God, as that which is designed to govern our lives.”  The Expanded Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.  People in the world must live each day with guilt on their consciences.  Some deal with it by blaming others for their behavior that made them feel guilty.  Others drink alcohol and use drugs.  Some harden their hearts until they are seared (I Tim. 4:2: Eph 4:17-19).

Every mature person will do something to shield our hearts from the guilt of our sins that is produced by the function of our own individual conscience (Rom. 2:14, 15).  God sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross in order for Christians to have a guilt free conscience while we develop into the image of His Son (Heb. 9:14).  There is no other sacrifice that will remove guilt from the conscience of a mature individual.  The cleansing only happens when and where faith in the cross is present (Heb. 10:1-3).  Since guilt robs people of our personal glory, and since all people have a very strong need for glory, guilt must be removed.  God’s new covenant for mankind includes the promise “I will remember your sins no more.”  Heb. 8:12.  When a person has faith in God’s covenant that was made in the blood of Jesus and then obeys that form of doctrine he or she will enjoy a guilt free conscience (Matt. 26:28; Rom. 6:17, 18).  Guilty people do not want to hear or see God (John 3:17-21).

However, happily, the conscience of a Christian will still become guilty when we choose what we believe is evil (Rom. 14:23; Jas. 4:17).    Since our own conscience, in conjunction with what we believe is good and evil, functions like a court room scenario, we will want to understand this human capacity God has instilled in each mature person.  Please carefully study again Romans 2:14, 15 to understand the court room scene that happens in our mind, heart and conscience.  The following is how the conscience is described in other scriptures:

An understanding of the function of our conscience demands an understanding of what happened to mankind because Adam and Eve broke covenant.  We got the knowledge of good and evil.  Since “from one man He made every nation of men” all mature people will experience the forgoing function of our consciences (Acts 17:26: I Cor. 15:48).  We begin to store up our lists of good and evil very early in life in the memory section of our minds.  Our lists become our value system from which our paradigms develop for viewing reality.   Our behavior is the result of our emotional attitudes that shaped our paradigms – the lenses through which we view reality.  Our lists we have stored in our minds also become the data base for the work of our consciences to compare our behavior with what we believe is good or evil.  If our behavior does not match what we believe is good we will convict ourselves.  Each of us will pronounce our “self” guilty as charged by the function of our conscience.  It is an inside job.

Therefore, we can compare our conscience with a properly working traffic light at a street intersection.  If the condition of our conscience is pure and good, we will receive a green light to go ahead.  This is because the behavior we plan to perform matches what we believe is good.  It will give us a red light when we are not “wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.”  Rom.  16:19.  Unless we, “hate what is evil; and cling to what is good” we will not be able to “overcome evil with good.”  Rom. 12:9, 21.  Mature Christians “by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”  Heb. 5:14.  Less mature Christians may have a weak conscience; that is, they may not have fully adjusted their lists of good and evil to God’s word.  They may call good, evil.  This was what Paul was speaking to in the text for this lesson.

“There is only one God from whom all things came.”  I Cor. 8:6.  “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world.”  I Cor. 8:4.  However, there was a Christian in the Corinthian church who was not comfortable with this new way of viewing idols.  He or she had a weak conscience (8:7).  Even though Paul labeled these thoughts in chapter eight “now about food sacrificed to idols,” his lesson is about love and freedom in the body of Christ.  How does a knowledgeable brother behave when a fellow member, who has a weak conscience, sees him eating in an idol’s temple and is emboldened to join him (8:10)?  Emboldened means the weak member is strengthened or encouraged to do what he still thinks is wrong.  If he eats food sacrificed to idols it will defile his conscience (8:7).

Before, we as a mature Christian, decide to go ahead and eat because “everything is permissible,” we will want to hear another scripture.  “When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.” 8: 11.  We might feel like quoting Paul in I Cor. 10:29.  “Why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience?” The answer is “’Everything is permissible,’ but not everything is constructive.”  I Cor. 10:23.  It is at this point we apply the quality of love we can learn about in chapter 13 to what we plan to do.  Our freedom is to love our weak brother by “bracketing” our own freedom momentarily.  The choice “not to eat” will be constructive for both parties and the body of Christ.  Bracketing in this particular case means, “I defer to my brother’s weakness even though I know he is off base.”  I do it for conscience sake, both his and mine (I Cor. 10:25-27).

The following is how Christians live with unbelievers in relation to the function of our consciences.

If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience.  But if anyone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience sake.  The other man’s conscience, I mean, not yours.  I Cor. 10:27-29

Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything?  No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons.  I Cor. 10:19, 20

Questions for Discussion

  1. We read poetry from line to line.  We read stories from narrative to narrative.  How do we read letters?
  2. What is the word Paul used often in the first four chapters of I Corinthians that may have related to by the phrase “knowledge puffs up?”
  3. How did the law of life principle, “love builds up,” serve in the scenario in the text of this lesson?
  4. Why is it necessary for each of us to clearly understand the function of our conscience before we can properly read I Corinthians chapter eight?
  5. After Adam and Eve got the knowledge of good and evil, what is the value of our conscience?
  6. Why is it important to have a good and pure conscience?
  7. How do Christians strengthen the function of our consciences?
  8. What do mature people in the world often do about the guilt they feel?
  9. What did God do for Christians about the guilt we would have if He had not done what He did?
  10. Why should a Christian be concerned about another member’s conscience?
  11. Explain the function of your conscience.
  12. When does a Christian not eat food sacrificed to an idol?

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