Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
At first glance, this might seem like a good text to pass over as the basis of a sermon.
How does one bring out the contemporary relevance of an ancient debate over whether to eat food offered to idols? However, the other passages offer their own challenges — from Mark (casting out an unclean spirit) and Deuteronomy (prophets who speak on behalf of other gods shall die — an observation or a command?). All three passages call on us to get at the heart of the gospel and at the heart of a community of faith. So, what about this question over meat offered to idols?
For many people in the US, the primary questions raised about meat are “Do I want chicken, beef, or pork tonight?” “Is this beef grass-fed or grain-fed?” “Do I want regular bacon, low-sodium bacon, or turkey bacon?” Or, there is the contemporary continuum along the lines of vegan, vegetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, to those omnivores who eat and enjoy anything, including Spam, potted meat, and haggis. People at various points on that continuum engage in debates that typically start along ethical or environmental lines and might get to theological considerations of whether meat is right or wrong to eat. That is not the arena of Paul’s debate here.
Paul focuses on how we might gauge the impact of our actions on the lives of others and how we might use that impact as a reason to restrict our own behavior. A closer parallel to our own day would be debates over “political correctness,” for example, whether to use gendered language for God or the people of God in worship. No one debates whether the words “father,” “mother,” “he,” or “she” are, in themselves, good or bad. They’re just words. But in various contexts, those words take on additional layers of meaning.
The importance of that fact is made clear by Paul’s take on meat offered to idols. For Paul, a piece of meat is a piece of meat. It does not matter if that meat was offered as a sacrifice to a false god in a pagan temple. Eating it will not hurt you. There’s no actual power in it to do damage to you or to your faithfulness to God. But that’s not the only consideration. Suppose that there is a covered-dish supper at your church. Someone brings a platter of food saying, “The local Satan-worshippers had a table set up at the mall giving away this food. It’s delicious!” Would you eat it in front of everyone? There would be no actual power of Satan in the food. It would be fine to eat it. But how might that be interpreted by others? What impact might it have on a new convert or on someone who would take that to mean that there’s no real difference between things offered to Satan and things offered to God? In a context where no one would have a problem with it, it would be fine. In a context where someone might be led to “fall” because of it, it would be wrong.
For some this might sound suspiciously like situation ethics or simply giving in to political correctness. But there exists an underlying ethic that skewers any pretentions held by anyone on either side of a political correctness debate. Paul doesn’t attack either side of the debate. He attacks both sides of the debate. Or, more precisely, he attacks everyone, regardless of which side of a debate they stand on, who focuses on showing that “I’m right. You’re wrong. And, it’s stupid of you to think and act the way you do.” Paul goes after both sides of liturgical wars, worship wars, talk radio hosts, even up to ideologically deadlocked members of Congress and says, “Tape this up on your mirror so that every time you see yourself you also see these words: ‘Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by [God].'”
Anyone who can only see “how right I am” and does not pause to consider the intrinsic value and worth of those who think and act differently misunderstands the heart of the gospel. Paul says, “If you have to choose between being loving and being right, be loving. If you see someone wavering on the brink of their faith in God, think about what you can do for that person on their terms, not on your terms.” Paul calls us to humility before God and our fellow human beings, to an awareness of the immensity of our own ignorance and the enormous extent of our own capacity to fall into error.
Paul says that, objectively speaking, and in actual fact in the eyes of God, people who oppose eating meat offered to idols are wrong. Nonetheless, people stand at different points in their understanding and in the strength of their relationship to God. So, for their sake and out of respect for their relationship to God, I’ll act as if they’re right. At least for now and in this case. And, he takes that approach not out of condescension or self-righteousness but out of his recognition that on a scale of one to a hundred, when we compare our understanding and love to the understanding and love of God, we all stand, at best, at, maybe a two, or on our best days, a five.
A closing dilemma. When we’re in a community, faced with a choice to do something or not, we can’t help but make a choice. We’re either going to do that something or not. For example, a few paragraphs above this I chose to take the translation “anyone who loves God is known by him” and state it this way, “anyone who loves God is known by [God].” Would you call that choice good or bad, right or wrong? And why?