The Bible’s View
How Absolute a Guide Is Knowledge?
KNOWLEDGE is necessary for a person to make wise decisions in life. Lack of knowledge, on the other hand, may result in our wasting time, energies and assets. This is true even in connection with simple tasks. For example, wise King Solomon noted: “If an iron tool has become blunt and someone has not whetted its edge, then he will exert his own vital energies. So the using of wisdom [based on knowledge] to success means advantage.”—Eccl. 10:10.
However, in itself, knowledge on certain matters may not provide safe guidance. Something additional is needed. Especially is this the case with regard to relations with fellow humans. Our simply acting in harmony with what we personally know to be true could lead to serious problems.
The Christian apostle Paul made this clear in his letter to the Corinthians. When discussing the matter of “foods offered to idols,” he wrote: “We know we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone thinks he has acquired knowledge of something, he does not yet know it just as he ought to know it.”—1 Cor. 8:1, 2.
Christians at Corinth knew that there was but one God, Jehovah, and one Lord, Jesus Christ. They knew that the many gods and lords venerated by the nations were actually nonexistent. Idols were merely objects of wood, stone or metal that had no power. Based on such knowledge, certain members of the Corinthian congregation may have concluded that there was no harm in eating foods that had been earlier offered to idols. These believers were correct in concluding that such food was no different from any other food. The lifeless, powerless idols had in no way effected a change in it, nor could they take possession of it.
But was this particular knowledge respecting the nothingness of idols a safe guide in determining whether it was proper to partake of food offered to idols? No. Why not? The apostle explained: “There is not this knowledge in all persons; but some, being accustomed until now to the idol, eat food as something sacrificed to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.”—1 Cor. 8:7.
On account of their having been idolaters in the past, some of the believers at Corinth had not progressed to the point where they had gotten over the religious feelings that used to accompany their eating foods offered to idols. Hence, they felt that it was wrong for them to do so, and in such case it would have been. Their weak conscience did not allow them to regard food offered to idols just like any other food. The Bible states: “If he has doubts, he is already condemned if he eats, because he does not eat out of faith. Indeed, everything that is not out of faith is sin.”—Rom. 14:23.
If such believers saw another Christian eating food offered to idols, they would become greatly disturbed. They might conclude that this Christian was actually worshiping an idol. This could lead to their being stumbled, taking offense at what they believed to be a serious wrongdoing on the part of one of their brothers. Or, they might be emboldened to eat meats offered to idols and be ensnared into giving way to the worshipful attitude that they had while they were still idol worshipers.
So the Christian who simply acted in harmony with what he knew to be true about idols and about foods offered to idols would have become responsible for bringing about the spiritual ruin of his brother. Emphasizing this point, the apostle Paul wrote: “Keep watching that this authority of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone should see you, the one having knowledge, reclining at a meal in an idol temple, will not the conscience of that one who is weak be built up to the point of eating foods offered to idols? Really, by your knowledge, the man that is weak is being ruined, your brother for whose sake Christ died.”—1 Cor. 8:9-11.
The person who fails to take into consideration the weak consciences of others is really puffed up with his knowledge. He tends to look down on others as being overly scrupulous and yet fails to recognize that for those of weak conscience a particular course of action could be spiritually damaging. Thus, his knowledge alone does not prove to be a safe guide, as it ignores the hurtful effect that his course may have on others. Only when love directs the application of knowledge is knowledge an absolute guide. When love is lacking, the possessor of knowledge generates in others feelings of inferiority and shame. His associates will not be encouraged. However, whenever love prompts the individual to use his knowledge in furthering the welfare of others, those so helped will be built up.
When a person merely thinks that he knows something, reflecting an attitude of superiority toward others, he does not really know the matter as he should. (1 Cor. 8:2) He has lost sight of the basic objective of sound knowledge, that is, its being used to promote the welfare and happiness of others. Furthermore, the more a person knows, the more he may come to realize that there is much that he does not know. This may make him more aware of his limitations and less likely to be dogmatic and unreasonable in his views.
For it to serve a good purpose, knowledge must be seen in relationship to love for God. The apostle Paul wrote: “If anyone loves God, this one is known by him.” (1 Cor. 8:3) The unmistakable evidence of a person’s having love for God must be seen in that one’s attitude and actions toward his fellow believers. The apostle John expressed this thought as follows: “Everyone who hates his brother is a manslayer, and you know that no manslayer has everlasting life remaining in him. By this we have come to know love, because that one surrendered his soul for us; and we are under obligation to surrender our souls for our brothers.” (1 John 3:15, 16) “Let us continue loving one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born from God and gains the knowledge of God. He that does not love has not come to know God, because God is love.”—1 John 4:7, 8.
Thus, in itself, knowledge is not an absolute guide in determining what is proper in a given situation. A particular course may be right for us. However, if we recognize that this course could injure the weak consciences of observers, we certainly would want to refrain from insisting on taking it. May we, therefore, continue ‘seeking, not our own advantage, but that of the others,’ thereby using our knowledge to build them up.—1 Cor. 10:24.