Summary of the Text
There is an interesting dynamic I have noticed that often occurs as people begin to mature into adults. In my life it was a stage that took place following high school, as I and my friends began working or leaving for college. The maturing happened sporadically and at different levels for each person individually. This isn’t the interesting part; this is quite what we would expect as people begin weaning themselves off of their families of origin and begin discovering both their identities and their potential vocations through schooling and experience. What was interesting, however, was how many of my friends (including myself), often looked down on their peers who did not seem to be progressing quite to the same level. They were “stuck in high school” or simply “immature.” Some of us even distanced ourselves socially when we were back home from those we thought of as being less refined.
I think there may be a similar dynamic that is occurring in our passage today. One group sees itself as mature in Christ, with that maturity leading to quite a lot of freedom in their daily activities, including their relationship to a culture where most meat consumption is connected to pagan worship. One group in the Corinthian church feels quite comfortable eating food sacrificed to idols, whereas another faction sees it as a significant sin that should be avoided at all cost. One group, those who “possess knowledge,” (vs.1) recognize an idol “is nothing at all in the world,” while the other is “so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.” In other words, eating the meat itself is a sin. Now, we might assume, had we never read this text before, that Paul would side with the “mature” faction, who recognize that, since there is only one God, that any behavior connected to idolatry, so long as it does not include the worshipping of idols, would be permissible. “Idols aren’t real, get over it!” we might paraphrase. But Paul’s theology, and more particularly, his ecclesiology (doctrine of the church), produce a very different outcome indeed.
Paul ultimately sides with the “weaker” party, not because they are correct that eating meat that was involved in a pagan sacrifice is sinful, but rather, anything that significantly hurts the body of Christ ought to be avoided. This passage is fascinating on a number of levels, but one thing it does is reveal just how individualistically we live our lives. I can’t imagine many Christian leaders, put in the same situation as Paul, giving the same advice. We might, like the “mature” faction of the church, encourage the others to “Get over it.” Or perhaps, we might offer a postmodern approach, “Do what you are comfortable with.” But one outcome we probably wouldn’t consider is what Paul actually argued for, which is the “stronger” faction, those who didn’t believe eating meat sacrificed to idols was sinful, ought to refrain from partaking of this food for the sake of the “weaker” faction. As I (Stu) reflected on this passage, I couldn’t think of a single instance in my own ministry in which church leadership decided not to do something because one faction believed it sinful.
Now that being said, the situation Paul finds himself here in 1 Corinthians 8 is quite extreme. Most Christian leaders don’t find themselves trying to discern how to deal with members flaunting the consumption of meat that was a part of a pagan sacrifice. Nevertheless, what this passage seems to be demonstrating is a significant concern for the body of Christ, and that sin (or even potential sin) needs to be understood not simply between me and God, but between Me and God and the body of Christ. As J. Paul Sampey notes in the New Interpreter’s Commentary,
“For Paul, sin is never simply a private act between an individual and God or Christ. Such a wrong relation with Christ or with God always inevitably spills over and harms others as well. We hear persons say that what they do with their bodies, for example, is their own business and not anybody else’s. Paul would have none of that. If you harm your body, it affects others in ways you do not imagine. Sin in whatever form is corrosive not only of the individual sinner but of those proximate. Paul’s notion, therefore, is totally out of joint with the modern inclination to privatize not only our relation to God but also our moral choices, both good and bad.”
A modern reader may come across this text and ask a perfectly good question, “Why all this drama around meat sacrificed to idols?” Why not simply get your meat elsewhere? And this is where understanding the original context can be helpful. The majority of the meat accessible to those living in Corinth at the time would have been made available either at a temple sacrifice, where offerings were first made to the gods, and then a portion given to the public, or, you could purchase meat at the markets, most of which would have been a part of the pagan sacrificial system. Therefore, there would be no way for a consumer to go to a market and purchase “non-sacrificed” meat from a vendor. Meat in the ancient Greco-Roman world was inextricably linked to the pagan sacrificial system of the time. This makes Paul’s pronouncement upon the dispute all the more significant, because it would most likely mean that unless the “weaker” faction changed their minds about the sinfulness of eating such meat, the entire community would be required to eat as vegetarians for the foreseeable future.
There is so much more that could be discussed in this summary, but in the interest of brevity, we will conclude with a short discussion of Paul’s movement from “knowledge” to “love.” Paul begins the section by quoting what is believed to be an axiom of the Corinthian community, “we all possess knowledge.” Paul, in keeping with the literary traditions of the day, does not reject the axiom, but rather amends it. “We know that ‘We all possess knowledge.’ But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” What is Paul getting at here? Is Paul against knowledge? Is Paul against religious knowledge specifically? Absolutely not. But what he is against is the use of knowledge as a status symbol, where some are considered better than others. This is a regression to a worldly approach to the Christian faith that smacks of Pharisaism. Rather, the upside-down kingdom of God will be known not for knowledge that separates, but for love that unites. The Christian love, the sacrificial love that both Paul and Jesus care so much about, is a love that is willing to give itself up for the sake of the other. And in this instance, the love of Christ is willing to give up the eating of meat so that no one may stumble.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
A Brother’s Sacrifice
An eight-year-old boy had a younger sister who was dying of leukemia, and he was told that without a blood transfusion she would die. His parents explained to him that his blood was probably compatible with hers, and if so, he could be the blood donor. They asked him if they could test his blood. He said sure. So they did and it was a good match. Then they asked if he would give his sister a pint of blood, that it could be her only chance of living. He said he would have to think about it overnight.
The next day he went to his parents and said he was willing to donate the blood. So they took him to the hospital where he was put on a gurney beside his six-year-old sister. Both of them were hooked up to IVs. A nurse withdrew a pint of blood from the boy, which was then put in the girl’s IV. The boy lay on his gurney in silence while the blood dripped into his sister, until the doctor came over to see how he was doing. Then the boy opened his eyes and asked, “How soon until I start to die?”