“Now concerning things offered to idols: we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.”
Have you ever seen a blow fish? It’s a little fish until it is threatened. Then it puffs itself up into to a big ball. It is a picture of arrogance and aloofness.
There are some Christian leaders today who understand the Apostle Paul to be saying that too much Bible knowledge inevitably puffs a person up like that. They find here a mandate to avoid heavy doctrinal teaching. Such teaching, they suggest, necessarily produces unloving, arrogant orthodoxy.
I seriously doubt that this is precisely what Paul had in mind when he penned these words.
Read Paul’s letters. Even a casual reading shows that he emphasized knowledge. Indeed he prayed for his spiritual charges that they might grow in knowledge. “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment” (Phil 1:9). Likewise, “[We pray] that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col 1:10).
Paul instructed Timothy repeatedly to be careful to instruct his flock in sound doctrine. “Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine” (1 Tim 4:13). “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine” (1 Tim 4:16). “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me” (2 Tim 1:13). “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2). “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).
Paul also clearly predicted that someday church people would turn away from sound doctrine. He said that they would demand to be told what they wanted to hear, rather than what God has said “For time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn away from truth” (2 Tim 4:3-4a).
What, then, did Paul mean by the expression “knowledge puffs up, but love edifies”?
Let’s first consider its basic meaning and then how Paul specifically applied it in 1 Corinthians 8.
The general meaning of the expression is that knowledge divorced from love produces arrogance and injures others, but knowledge wedded to love edifies. Paul later in the Book of First Corinthians repeated this same thought when he wrote: “And [if I have] all knowledge . . . but have not love, it profits me nothing” (1 Cor 13:2).
On the one hand, being well grounded in the Word of God does not guarantee that one will be loving. After all, a person can do what he knows to be wrong. On the other hand, being ignorant of biblical truth does not guarantee that one will be loving either. In fact, ignorance of biblical truth normally results in unloving behavior!
To be edifying knowledge must be united with love.
The specific issue Paul was addressing in 1 Cor 8:1 was meat offered to idols. Paul was urging his readers to relinquish their freedom in order to avoid hurting weaker brothers in Christ. Some believers at Corinth, weaker brothers, could not in good conscience eat meat which had been offered to idols. More knowledgeable and mature believers had no such difficulty.
While there is nothing wrong with eating such meat per se, it becomes wrong when my eating hurts a weaker brother. If I arrogantly and spitefully eat such meat in front of a person I know to be a weaker brother, then I have become puffed up and unloving since my knowledge has been divorced from love.
There is certainly no prohibition of intensive doctrinal teaching and preaching in this passage. Paul was not advocating the string-of-pearls approach where a preacher briefly mentions a Bible verse or two and then spends the bulk of the message sharing a series of human-interest stories.
The real pearl is the Word of God. Our illustrations and applications, no matter how clever, are uninspired. Of course, illustrations and practical applications can be helpful. Well-chosen illustrations and applications serve to challenge us to obey God. But they are not the main dish. The meat and potatoes of Christian education is the Word of God.
In closing, let’s consider another application of the knowledge-puffs-up-but-love-edifies principle found in this passage. God calls us to share our faith as often as we have opportunity. In order to share the Gospel clearly, we must know what the real Gospel is. However, that is not enough by itself. We might become puffed up in our knowledge and choose not to share what we know. In order to actually witness, our knowledge must be wedded to love. Such a union results in lovingly witnessing for Christ as a normal part of one’s life.