Vol. 1 - No. 6
All Things Lawful, But Not All Expedient
by R. L. Hester
In his first epistle to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote, "All things are lawful; but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful; but not all things edify." (10:23, ASV)
This writer welcomes the opportunity to deal exegetically in "The Expository Review" with this text, but with no claim to unusual ability, and while trying to avoid any undue dogmatism. The appeal to the reader is for an objective consideration of the views presented, in the light of divine revelation.
"All Things Are Lawful"
Whether the phrase "all things" in literature, be it inspiried or uninspired, is or is not limited, is to be determined by the context. For example, Paul says of Jesus, "In him were all things created;" (Colossians 1;16) while John says, "All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made." (John 1:3) Observe that the last part of John 1:3 assures us that "all things" in these verses include everything within the realm of God's creation, nothing is excluded. But not everything within the realm of human behavior is (scripturally) included in the "all things" declared by Paul to be "lawful." It is not lawful to lie, (Colossians 3:9) to steal, (Ephesians 4:28) to commit fornication or to covet, (Ephesians 5:3) or to sin in any way. (1 John 3:4) Paul's "all things" are limited to a class of things, which are (1 all lawful, and (2 not all expedient. There can be nothing in this class which is either prohibited or made obligatory by the doctrine of Christ; because nothing prohibited can be lawful, and nothing obligatory can be inexpedient. Thus Paul's "all things" are seen to be within the class of indifferent things, with respect to both sin and righteousness; they are things in which a child of God may indulge, or from which he may abstain. Paul spoke of the individual's freedom from the Lord to indulge in, or abstain from, things of this class, saying, "...this liberty of yours..." (1 Corinthians 8:9) Paul is certainly not saying here that all things without qualification are lawful, nor is there the least justification here or elsewhere in Holy Writ for the idea that we are in no sense under law today. Sin is still lawlessness. (I John 3:4; cf. I Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2) The class, in which the things of the text fall, is comprised of many specifics; attention to the specifics with which this context deals will be given later in the article.
"But Not all Things Are Expedient"
The Greek word from which expedient is a translation in this verse signifies, "To be an advantage, profitable, expedient (not merely convenient)" (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, by W. E. Vine). It is translated profitable in the New American Standard Version. In New Testament usage, expedient denotes that which expedites, carries out, is profitable to, and does not impede the work of the Lord. Christ died, and "the faith" was "once for all delivered" with spiritual objectives in view; and the same embodiment of truth demands that we expedite, and not impede, true progress in pressing toward these objectives. The things of which Paul spoke were all lawful, but not all expedient. Denoted is the fact that there were circumstances under which one or more lawful (but not essential or obligatory) things would, if practiced, impede rather than carry out the objectives of Christ, respecting a soul for whom he died. The apostle said, "All things are lawful; but not all things edify." The original for edify here denotes, "Literally, to build a house ...signifies to build whether literally, or figuratively" (W. E. Vine). To edify is to build up, and building up in Christ is both lawful and obligatory. Paul says in another context, "Exhort one another, and build each other up (edify one another, KJV), even as ye do." (I Thessalonians 5:11) Under any condition where indulgence in a lawful (permitted but not essential) thing would impede rather than expedite a lawful (essential) thing, "this liberty of yours" (I Corinthians 8:9) must not be exercised.
According to W. E. Vine lawful in the text is from an original which means, "it is permitted, it is lawful." Webster defines the word lawful, "1. a: conformable to law, b: constituted, authored, or established by law." All of the lawful things, of which the text speaks, have been permitted by law, and are conformable to law; which law is "the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2) Yet there are conditions, and were conditions when Paul spoke, under which not all of these things were expedient; and this being true of a thing permitted by and conformable to the law of Christ, it surely follows that no unlawful thing can be expedient. When called upon for a passage of inspired scripture, giving a command, an approved example or a necessary inference, or for either generic or specific authorization of some unlawful religious practice, organization or project, the reply is likely to be, "It's just a matter of expediency."
Or, "it gets the job done, and you can't argue with a demonstration." All such implies more reliance upon human judgment than upon the word of God; it implies a walking by sight (appearance) rather than "by faith." (II Corinthians 5:7) The inspired statements of our text clearly demand that expediencies be lawful. It is better to argue with what a man thinks is a demonstration of success in striving toward the Lord's objectives, than with His inspired word.
"The Text In Context"
The Corinth of apostolic days was a large commercial city, which attracted both Jews and Gentiles. It is said to have had many heathen temples, where sacrifices were offered to the gods, and where the worshippers ate a portion of the sacrificed animals. We are told that fornication was also common in the idol temples, and that at one time the temple erected to the goddess Venus kept 1,000 prostitutes, who were free to strangers. R. C. H. Lenski says in introducing his commentary of First Corinthians, "The very term 'Corinthian' meant profligate." The church there was largely made up of individuals with a heathen background, and to some extent the church reflected the character of the community. It was also plagued by Judaizers who denied Paul's right to be called an apostle, and taught that Gentiles could not be saved without keeping the law of Moses, thus accepting Jewish circumcision and abstaining from the unclean things of that law. Paul referred to these Judaizers, saying "Such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, fashioning themselves into apostles of Christ." (II Corinthians 11:13) He had no doubt taught them that "all things are lawful," or as he says in another epistle, "Every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified through the word of God and prayer." (I Timothy 4:4) But it seems that while some were giving heed to the Judaizers, there were others trying to make Paul's teaching that "all things are lawful" justify sinful things (study I Corinthians 6:12-20). The church at Corinth had various problems with which Paul deals in this first epistle.
First Corinthians 10:23 appears in the concluding part of Paul's reply to an inquiry from the church, regarding one such problem. He had said to these saints, "Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote." (7:1) Thus we understand that they had written to Paul requesting information concerning certain things, and his reply identifies certain things of which they wrote. It gave instruction concerning marriage (chapter 7), things sacrificed to heathen gods (chapters 8 & 10), proof of his apostleship, and of his practice in sacrificing personal liberties for the sake of expediency and edification (chapter 9). The problem with which the text primarily deals is introduced by this expression: "Now concerning things sacrificed to idols." (8:1) The Judaizers' contention that it was sinful for the brethren to eat the unclean things of the law of Moses was wrong; "all things are lawful." But what about "things sacrificed to idols?" If a redeemed child of God knew the idol was nothing, and that there is but one living God, and could eat with a clear conscience, was it lawful for him to eat? According to Paul's reply, it was; of itself, the flesh of the animal which had been sacrificed was lawful food. Some of this flesh found its way to the public markets; and the apostle says, "Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, eat, asking no questions for conscience sake; for the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof." (10:25-26, cf. Psalms 24:1) The earth and its fullness being God's, every creature is of God, is good; and is sanctified through the word of God and prayer, for man's food. (I Timothy 4:4) The offering of the creature in sacrifice to a heathen's god cannot make its flesh unlawful.
The Corinthians were to "fulfill the royal law." (James 2:8) They were to abide by the righteous principle of love in the exercise of their liberties, taking care to avoid injury to a weak brother in Christ, whose knowledge was not yet sufficient to permit him to eat without defiling his conscience, and committing sin; but the weak brother had no right to sit in judgment of the liberties of others, demanding that all act according to his weak conscience. (10:29-30) Paul deals in this context with a specific problem at Corinth, but also with a righteous principle, which all are to apply, and with reference to many things. "Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. Give no occasion of stumbling, either to the Jews, or to the Greeks, or to the church of God: even as I also please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved." (10:30-33) Chapter 10, verses 14-22 should also be considered in studying the text.
But there was another matter to be considered. Was the eating of "things sacrificed to idols" expedient? Did the practice edify? The eating of such flesh was innocent unless circumstances made it otherwise. The inspired writer says, "But food will not commend us to God: neither, if we eat not, are we the worse; nor, if we eat, are we the better." (8:8) Abstaining from a certain kind of food takes nothing from our spiritual standing, and partaking of the same adds nothing to our spiritual standing. "The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." (Romans 14:17) Though the particular food here considered could not commend the saints to God, great care was to be taken lest by partaking the spiritual standing of a weak Christain be injured. Paul said, "...We all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but love (agape) edifieth." (8:1) "...We know that no idol is anything in the world, and that there is no God but one." (8:4) "Howbeit there is not in all men that knowledge: but some, being used until now to the idol, eat as of a thing sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled." (8:7) "But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to the weak. For if a man see thee who hast knowledge sitting at meat in an idol temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be embolded to eat things sacrificed to idols. For through they knowledge he that is weak perisheth, the brother for whose sake Christ died." (8:9-11) "Let no man seek his own, but each his neighbor's good." (10:24) "If one of them that believe not biddeth you to a feast, and ye are disposed to go whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake. But if any man say unto you, This hath been offered in sacrifice, eat not, for his sake that showed it, and for conscience sake: conscience, I say, not thine own, but the other's; for why is my liberty judged by another's conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks?" (10:27-30)