I have been meaning for a while now to post some of my studies on 1 Corinthians that I presented to my volunteers at Grace to You over the last year. I was particularly anxious to toss up my studies on chapters 8-10, because I believe they are so wildly misunderstood by the larger Christian community.
But alas… I got distracted and put it off. However, a little dust up with some NCT folks on Facebook ignited my passion, so here we are.
Like I noted, I think chapters 8-10 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is totally misunderstood and misapplied by Christians, especially among the Red State evangelical and neo-Reformed types I bump into on social media. The chapters address specifically the idea of eating meat sacrificed to idols and the concept of Christian liberty, and the wrongheaded thinking among Christians about the subject has created a misapplication of what it is exactly Paul was addressing.
The idea of Christian liberty, in my opinion, has fallen upon hard times nowadays. It is usually defined along the lines as having the freedom to sit in pubs, drink beer, smoke cigars or pipes, and watch popular television programs, while at the same time conversing about theology. Many of those new libertines once circled around in the orbits of strict, fundamentalist congregations that were ran like a concentration camp by straight-laced, kill joy finger-waggers who condemned those activities they now celebrate.
Yet, at the same time, any Christian who even suggests that drinking and smoking and consuming entertainment is not necessarily the wisest testimony to present before the world, are shamed as being legalists. They will be labeled the “weaker” brothers, and some go so far as suggesting that they are “in sin” because they wish to place a yoke of burden upon the “stronger” believers who have been freed by the work of Christ to enjoy their new found merrymaking. The entire scenario is a concept taken from the chapters in Corinthians that are before us here.
That liberty/strong and weak conscience dichotomy represents the classic understanding of 1 Corinthians 8-10. It is taught that Paul was responding to an internal squabble taking place in the church of Corinth over whether or not Christians were at liberty to eat food that had been offered in sacrifice to idols. Two factions had emerged. On the one hand there were the so-called strong believers who felt that all Christians have the ethical freedom because of Christ to eat any food that may have been offered to idols. Yet on the other, there were Christians in the church, who came out of the rank paganism of the Corinthian culture, who are weak in conscience regarding the eating of food sacrificed to idols.
The strong believers wrote Paul asking him to arbitrate the dispute. They wanted his instructions regarding the matter, especially they wanted Paul to inform the weak to stop worrying about offending God with partaking of delicious food that just so happened to be sacrificed to idols. When Paul wrote back to them in our letter that is 1 Corinthians, he sided theologically with the strong, but rebuked them for not considering the weaker brothers among them. Instead of giving them total freedom to eat a succulent prime rib that just so happened to have been used in a sacrifice to idols and telling the weak to shut up and enjoy their freedom, he informed the strong to lay aside their liberty for the sake of the weaker brothers serving them until they had sufficiently matured in conscience so as to enjoy the prime rib with them.
That interpretation is the standard one taught from the pulpits and believed by most Christians today; but it misses the point of the passage.
Rather than Paul deciding between two groups arguing at Corinth over whether or not the food they were eating was tainted with pagan hands, Paul was disagreeing with all the arrogant, enlightened Corinthians who insisted they could be a practicing believer AND still participate in idol temple ceremonies that were a staple of their culture there in Corinth. Chapters 8-10 isn’t about eating food that just so happened to have been used in a pagan sacrifice. Paul was telling them to get out of the temples and stop eating idol food all together, because the food was being eaten during a pagan service. These chapters have nothing to do with the freedom of strong believers eating food sacrificed to idols and deferring to the weak in conscience.
Now, before I unpack all of that, a little background is in order.
We in the 21st century, western society really cannot comprehend the power of religion, particularly a pagan, non-Christian one, forming our political-social lives. Here in the good ole U.S of A., we consider ourselves a “Christianized” nation, but if we are honest about it, we for the most part experience a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian ethic. As much as atheists will complain bitterly that atheism is shut out of the political arena and a person has to be a Christian to run for office because the entire US is “Christianized,” given the trajectory of our country’s moral decline, that is absolutely untrue.
Probably the closest we can come to the situation in Corinth during the time of Paul would be Islamic states and those countries where Roman Catholicism has a heavy influence among the people like Croatia and Mexico. India, with its commitment to Hinduism would be another, as well as a number of Asian nations committed to Buddhism. In those countries the politics and culture are interwoven to such a degree with the main religion that it dominates everything.
When the Apostles began to take the Gospel into the uttermost parts of the world beyond the boundaries of Israel, they went into a world that was pagan with a myriad of different religions, idols galore, and temples everywhere. We see in the book of Acts how the Gospel bumped up against idolatry. For instance, in Acts 14:11-13 the pagans tried to sacrifice to Paul thinking he was a god, Acts 17 records Paul’s famous encounter on Mar’s Hill in Athens, and in Acts 19, a riot breaks out in Ephesus when Paul preached the Gospel and challenged the cult of Diana.
A huge part of the pagan religious world was the feasts served in idol temples. Those feasts were what connected the pagan gentile to his culture and his gods. Just think about the religious milieu that was part of the everyday living for the OT Jews. In the same way, the temple practices were at the center of every facet of their lives, and the feasts and food offerings God required were considered to be so important that He brought judgment upon Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, for their sacrilege with mishandling those offerings on behalf of Israel.
Thus, when we come to Paul’s letters in the NT, idolatry and idol worship were a major theme he often addressed. For example, in his two letters to the Corinthians, Paul explained how idols were a part of their former lives (1 Corinthians 6:9), how idols lead people astray (1 Corinthians 12:2), and asked the Corinthians what business does God’s people (that would be them) have with idols (2 Corinthians 6:16).
In other NT passages Paul commends the Thessalonians for turning away from idols to the true and living God (1 Thessalonians 1:9). In Acts 15:20,29 it is interesting that the letter from the Jerusalem counsel told gentiles to abstain from fornication, things strangled, consuming blood, and idols. Acts 21:25 reiterates those same commands.
With those passages in mind, it is important to recognize that Paul is not okaying the so-called stronger believer eating a pot roast he bought at a market that was only offered in a sacrifice. The fact that the Jerusalem counsel condemned all of the areas gentiles participates in when worshiping in a false, idolatrous religion, and the fact that Paul spoke against idolatry throughout his epistles, makes it clear he was not talking about a pot roast someone bought at a market that was offered to an idol. What he was telling the Corinthians in 8-10 was to get away from the idols and temples and the pagan feast.
But we need to keep in mind that it was a major struggle for the gentiles to abandon their idolatry. That is because the new gentile Christians came from a pagan saturated society. Eating a meal in a temple to a deity would be a big, social-economic opportunity. It would be difficult to just give that up. Participating in those ceremonies and showing interest in the goings on in the local temple is what made them Roman or Corinthian. It demonstrated they were fit for leadership, that they were diverse and multicultural. In our day, it would be similar to attending a gay wedding of a business colleague.
What the Corinthians were proposing to Paul was not the question of “do you think it is okay for us to eat food sacrificed to idols,” but rather they were brashly stating, “What’s the problem with attending pagan festivals and eating food sacrificed to idols?”
First Corinthians 8-10 lays out four reasons why it was a problem for the Corinthian Christians to eat meat sacrificed to idols.
1. It was a danger to believers
2. It disqualified one’s ministry
3. It destroyed Israel
4. It disrupted the fellowship among believers
I’ll consider each one of these points in turn as I work my way through these chapters over the course of the next few posts.