Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
The text assigned is an entire, but fairly brief, chapter in 1 Corinthians, located at the beginning of a longer unit extending over three chapters (1 Corinthians 8:1 through10:33).
In that lengthy section, Paul questions whether it is permissible for believers at Corinth to eat meat (in temple dining areas) that remains after animal sacrifices have been made at pagan temples. The opening verse (8:1) indicates that this was a live issue at Corinth. Those who refuse to eat such meat consider it a matter of conscience (8:7). Essentially, Paul argues that because idols have no real existence as actual gods, one has freedom in regard to this question (8:4, 8; 10:23, 25-27). Nevertheless, out of love and regard for the other person for whom it is a matter of conscience, one who claims such freedom should be willing to relinquish it (8:9-13; 10:23, 28-29).
At the outset of this chapter Paul places two terms in contrast: “knowledge” (gnosis) and “love” (agape). The two need not be antithetical, but in this case “knowledge” is used in a derogatory sense. Paul is not speaking about knowledge in general, but of a religious sophistication that is arrogant. It “puffs up.” On the other hand, the love of which Paul speaks is a self-giving love. It is modeled on God’s own love, demonstrated in the giving of his Son. It is a love not based on the worth or attractiveness of the other person, but generated from within. Love such as this, Paul says, builds up (or edifies) the community. The two terms are set against each other: “knowledge” leads to spiritual self-aggrandizement, whereas “love” promotes a healthy, vibrant, spiritual community.
Paul goes on to speak of knowledge in a positive sense (8:4, “we know”), saying that believers know idols do not “really” exist. But later on he says some persons who have come out of a pagan background do not have such “knowledge.” Then he gets to the heart of the matter: “they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled” (8:7).
Paul has to use skill to wend his way through this local controversy. But he has come to a conclusion; eating such food or not is a matter of indifference. However, those who agree with him are to use their “liberty” in a way that does not cause “the weak” to stumble (8:9). In other words, eating this food could cause a misunderstanding. Those who are weak might think Christians can worship both God and idols, and thus, revert to pagan rituals. Therefore, it is better to refrain from eating food that has been offered to idols.
The specific issue being discussed is not a live one for most Christians throughout the world and can even seem strange for persons at worship who hear this text being read. Therefore, preaching on this text makes it necessary to transpose its essential message to other issues that people face.
As in a previous lesson assigned from 1 Corinthians two weeks ago (6:12-20), this one has to do with the use of one’s freedom. The term translated as “liberty” in the RSV and NRSV and as “freedom” in the NIV is exousia (8:9), often translated as “authority” in other contexts. It carries the nuance of possessing the right to act in some particular way.
One question many contemporary Christians need to face is how to use the “freedom,” even the “authority,” they have to behave in ways that are responsible. The old inhibitions and restraints that Christians, especially Protestants, inherited (embedded in “code morality,” “blue laws,” and more) have passed from the scene in most communities. In days gone by, that inheritance, in spite of its faults, served as a social glue, holding people together in a common consensus. Losing these guidelines concerning behavior within society and the church can be perilous for many people.
The message of Paul for the church of today is that one may well have freedom in Christ, but it must be used with discretion and, in particular, with care for the sake of the vulnerable. One’s own freedom in some matters of behavior can be put aside when a faith crisis for another is at stake. To relinquish one’s freedom is not to lose it; it is one way of using it.
This message is more difficult when applied to corporate matters, so extra caution is called for in applying it to congregational life. For example, if a congregation faces an issue in which some members call for change, and others seek to preserve what is familiar, it can be too easy to consider one of the groups as “in the know” and the other as “the weak.” One should avoid thinking this way, and certainly not speak in those terms, for it only leads to feelings of superiority among some and the sense among others that they are not being heard.
Still, this text can be applied in a corporate setting. In that case, the use of freedom; indeed, the use of authority; will not consist of abandoning one’s convictions. Instead, freedom and authority will be used to accommodate the views and feelings of all, making way for communal discernment and working toward a consensus. In the end, decisions have to be made. But they are made best when steps are taken to open up dialogue, and when genuine care is actually demonstrated.