Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

Their weak conscience does not mean a lack of faith

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January 28, 2024

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

The Corinthian community is a good example of the early church being far from perfect. Discord was all over within this faith community by the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. Paul, the founder of this church, sent this letter to the Corinthians to offer his advice on the matters that the Corinthians were struggling with. 

First Corinthians 8:1–13 addresses one of the subjects over which they were experiencing disagreement and conflict: whether or not to eat food sacrificed to idols. This topic may look obsolete and thus not intriguing as a preaching or teaching topic for the church today. But I want to invite readers to take this passage as a message of pastoral care, not necessarily as a lesson in systematic theology, and this shift can lead us to a timely and timeless lesson on community-building.

The passage begins with “And concerning” (peri de), which denotes that the following—“food sacrificed to idols”—was a topic known to, possibly broached by, the Corinthians (7:1; 7:25; 12:1; 16:1). Paul starts his response by directly quoting the Corinthian slogan, “All of us possess knowledge” (verse 1). He continues to expound this knowledge: “No idol in the world really exists” and “There is no God but one” (verse 4), both of which Paul himself and his readers already know as he continually says, “We know” (oidamen).

Understanding the social context of eating food—technically, meat—sacrificed to idols is seminal. Meat was not easily accessible; many Romans would have been vegetarian because meat was expensive. Cults, which often included animal sacrifices, provided the most common occasions when many had access to meat. Archaeological evidence shows that some temples had dining rooms. In Corinth, the Asklepeion, a temple dedicated to Asclepius, the god of healing, located right outside the agora (marketplace), and the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore on Acrocorinth had rooms used for dining. 

In the ancient Mediterranean world, religious life was not quite separate from civic and social life. It is likely that some Corinthians joined those cultic events without hesitation as an extension of their civic and social life and consumed food there; they had knowledge that their monotheistic faith would not be impeded by such activities. Then, Paul’s primary concern in this passage (and also in 10:23–30) would not have been about whether the meat is holy or unholy. It was the eating of meat because it could have involved certain forms of attendance in cults, such as joining suppers in those temples. 

It is to those possessing this knowledge that Paul is addressing the words “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (verse 9). Paul is well aware that some Corinthians “still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol” as they “have become so accustomed to idols until now” (verse 7). The Greek word for “liberty” in 8:9 is exousia, literally meaning “power” or “authority” (the New Revised Standard Version translates the same word as “right” in 9:12, 18). It is noteworthy that in 10:29, where Paul again discusses whether to eat food offered in sacrifice (“For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience?”), Paul uses eleutheria, which more straightforwardly indicates “freedom.” 

Paul’s use of exousia in 8:7 suggests that at issue here is the power dynamic that the eating was creating within the Corinthian community. Eating food sacrificed to idols becomes controversial when some Corinthians, who have considerable knowledge, inconsiderately exercise their power to the degree of destroying those who have not yet possessed the knowledge, those with a weak conscience. Paul is worried that those whose consciences are weak might join those with knowledge in eating the food and still believe there are other gods and idols (verse 10). For this reason, Paul believes it is better to refrain from the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. In Paul’s words, “If food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall” (verse 13). 

It is also interesting that for Paul, those who do not yet have the knowledge about one God are weak in conscience, not in faith. Their weak conscience does not mean a lack of faith. Syneidēsis, translated as “conscience,” being a compound word of syn, “with,” and eidēsis, “seeing,” has a connotation of knowing or awareness. Paul uses this word in several places (Romans 2:15; 13:5; 1 Corinthians 10:27, 28, 29; 2 Corinthians 4:2; 5:11), but nowhere does he explicitly associate it with faith. Anti-intellectualism is not a message this passage conveys. 

Paul’s solution to this conflict is not to encourage those with a weak conscience to grow more in knowledge and agree that there is only one God. Instead, he asks those with the knowledge to grow in love. He equates offending members of your family (adelphoi, “siblings”) with sinning against them and, moreover, with sinning against Christ (verse 12). It is love that binds and strengthens a community. As Paul puts it, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (verse 1b). Paul wants the Corinthians to understand that the church will be united when those with knowledge are careful in choosing what they can do when they choose to care for siblings with a weak conscience. 

Paul is speaking here as a pastor, not as a theologian. We may be reminded today by Paul that the key to community-building is love—to love those who do not agree with me, those whom I cannot understand easily. Harmony is not the state of agreeing with each other on certain knowledge, but of loving each other amid disagreement.