So today, we begin another significant section of 1 Corinthians. The first was (arguably), chapters 1-6 (though there are obviously significant sub-divisions there). The second was chapter 7, which begins the pattern that we see in the letter where Paul uses the phrase “now about…” to indicate his topic. As we’ve said, this “now about…” tells us that Paul is responding to something that the Corinthians have brought up or asked about in their previous correspondence. However (and again), we don’t have that correspondence, so we have to guess, to a certain extent, what exactly is going on.
Therefore, we know by 8:1 (“Now about food sacrificed to idols.”) that this is the beginning of a new topic or section. And without getting into it too much yet, this section takes us all the way to the end of chapter 10 (actually, 11:1 – this is one of those times when the chapter/verse labels are less than helpful).
So then, we have a couple of questions about this section. Firstly, what was the Corinthians’ response, issue, or question to which Paul was responding? That is, what did the Corinthians say? And secondly, what then is the flow and logical structure of Paul’s response?
Now the first thing to consider is some background regarding “food sacrificed to idols.” Here, we remember again that Corinth was a city which was home to many different religions. And there would consequently have been numerous shrines to various gods or goddesses to which people would bring animals to be sacrificed. Now the meat from these sacrifices would be eaten by the family and whoever else they wanted to share it with. In other words, this cultic meal, along with being a religious activity, was a centerpiece of social engagement in the city (that is, you wouldn’t say to your neighbours, “do you want to go to the restaurant?”, you would say, “do you want to go to the temple?”
Now along with the meat that would be shared as part of this cultic/religious meal, the leftover meat might be sold at the marketplace. It is this use of the temple meat/sacrifice that Paul deals with much later in the passage (chapter 10). But it is the participating of the cultic meal, the meal that is actually part of the sacrificial rite, that Paul is primarily concerned with.
Now with that (very basic) background in mind, what might we determine about the correspondence between Paul and the Corinthians? Again, we can’t say with certainty what was said between Paul and the Corinthians, and what specifically Paul is responding to, but we can make some educated guesses. Here, I am following Gordon Fee (along with borrowing a little from N.T. Wright). In brief:
- It seems that some of the Corinthians are participating in these cultic meals (likely returning to their pre-Christian habits/practices).
- Paul has prohibited such practices, and they are therefore taking issue with Paul’s prohibition.
- Their rationale seems to be that the gods aren’t real/don’t matter, and that food doesn’t matter (i.e. the previous spiritual/physical dichotomy that we’ve discussed), and therefore, participation in these meals don’t matter.
- Further, they seem to have brought up again their doubt/skepticism about Paul’s apostolic authority (i.e. “why do we have to listen to you?”)
Now with that re-construction in mind, we might understand the flow of argument in chapters 8-11:1 as something like the following:
- Chapter 8: Paul says that the Corinthians’ basic assumptions are wrong
- Chapter 9: Paul asserts/defends his apostolic authority (in this matter). And here, we will see some of the reasons why the Corinthians doubt Paul’s authority (or why they are skeptical of Paul). Further, Paul says that his actions (rather than casting doubt on his apostolic authority) should serve as an example to the Corinthians.
- Chapter 10: Paul provides some theological/scriptural background for his position.
- Paul again asserts the basic principle – avoid food sacrificed to idols
- Paul provides an “exception.” Though this isn’t an exception – it’s more of a consideration of a related situation – that is, Paul makes a distinction between joining the cultic meals and buying meat at the marketplace.
Now of course, all of this is introductory and we’ll get into each of these things in greater detail. However, as again we need to recognize that this whole section (8-11:1) hangs together, I hope that it’s useful to understand how it flows. But with all that said, let’s return to our actual passage for today, chapter 8.
So again, Paul identifies the issue at hand as food sacrificed to idols. Or more precisely, the issue seems to be that some in the Corinthian congregation are participating in these cultic meals. Obviously, the concern here is that those who claim to acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Lord and their God are participating in the worship of some other gods.
Now apparently the Corinthians have offered some kind of defense of their behaviour. Presumably, the Corinthians have “knowledge;” they know that “an idol is nothing at all in the world,” and that “there is no God but one.” In other words, these other gods are no gods at all. You cannot worship something that does not exist. And therefore, participating in these meals, participating in these sacrifices, doesn’t matter because their faith is in God, and there is no God but God alone.
Of course, that all sounds great – it makes a certain amount of sense. But for Paul, the Corinthians’ reasoning is vitally flawed.
In v. 7, Paul seems to acknowledge that the Corinthians’ basic premise is correct – that meat sacrificed to idols is just meat. But there are still those – within the community, and perhaps those watching the community – to whom the action of participating in these meals signals precisely an acknowledgement of these other gods. And so, Paul warns against what is essentially setting a bad precedent. That those who are “weaker” will see the actions of the so-called “stronger” and then think it’s okay to participate in these idol meals.
Now a couple of things are worth emphasizing, at this point. Firstly, though Paul acknowledges that an idol is “nothing,” that doesn’t mean that therefore thinks it’s okay to participate in these meals. Later on in this section, (though we are not examining this passage now) in ch. 10:14-22, Paul makes it quite clear that participating in these idol meals, these sacrifices to false gods, are to be avoided.
So the point I simply want to emphasize is that Paul considers participating in these cultic meals to be serious business.
The second point is that, given Paul’s strong feelings about this issue (participating in the cultic meals), the relationship between the so-called “stronger” and “weaker” is not just a matter of setting a bad example, or of confusing the issue for the weaker. Rather, it is a matter of the “stronger” actually leading the “weaker” into sin – and a grievous one, at that (idolatry).
Therefore, Paul’s point here (among other things to be sure), is something along the lines of, “what good is your knowledge, then?” “Is your so-called enlightenment actually doing any good – for yourselves, to be sure, but especially for your brothers and sisters?”
So let’s return to the opening verses of our passage. In vv. 1-3, Paul says:
1 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.1 Corinthians 8: 1-3
As we’ve already seen earlier in this letter, one of the hallmarks of the Corinthian congregation is their proto-Gnostic bent (i.e. an early form of Gnosticism). We saw this earlier in the letter in Paul’s treatment of the Corinthians’ love of wisdom (or Sophia). For these Corinthians, salvation or redemption is largely synonymous with enlightenment. Or, that spirituality is about escaping the physical (for example) and taking hold of or embracing the mind, or gnosis.
So in this particular situation, this gnostic tendency (or at least, the privileging of knowledge), leads some in the community to say that what they do with regards to these cultic meals doesn’t matter because they are freed by the knowledge that they possess. We might also infer some of the spiritual/physical duality to be present here, as well – i.e. what they do with their bodies doesn’t matter. Regardless, the emphasis seems to be that, because they know that these gods aren’t real, what they do in the material world doesn’t matter.
However, for Paul, this knowledge doesn’t matter if it doesn’t lead to the building up of the community. Or to put it the other way, this knowledge doesn’t matter if it causes harm to others. What good is one’s knowledge, if it causes another to stumble, or leads them into sin. For Paul, what matters in the life of the kingdom, what matters in a kingdom people, is not knowledge but love. Knowledge puffs up while love builds up.
For the Corinthians, the key question is, “How much knowledge have we attained? How much knowledge have we amassed?” For Paul, the key question is, “how well have we loved?”
This may sound to us so obvious as to be completely unhelpful. If we were to take a poll among Christians in the western world and ask what’s more important, knowledge or love, I suspect that “love” would win easily (at least I hope that’s the case). One of the things we know is the importance of love.
Now at this point, it’s worth noting that Paul’s issue is not with knowledge or wisdom per se. He’s not saying we should avoid knowledge (as, incidentally, some do) or that greater knowledge is somehow wrong. One of the hallmarks of Paul’s writings, after all, is theological sophistication and accuracy. Paul is concerned because of the extent to which the Corinthians put their trust in knowledge alone. We might also say that Paul is concerned with knowledge that leads to arrogance. And in the immediate context, Paul is concerned with those who are so arrogant about the knowledge that they possess that the exercise of their “superior” knowledge causes harm to their brothers and sisters. As Paul says it, “9 Be careful…that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”
What Paul is talking about, of course, is love. Is the exercise of one’s rights so important – the demonstration of one’s knowledge so important – that one doesn’t care what it does to someone else?
Again, this probably seems fairly obvious. We think we know how important love is – more so than anything else. And we may think that, especially as the world grows more and more postmodern – with an apparently increasing disdain for objective truth – we may think that knowledge or wisdom is not as much of a priority for many in the western world.
But I think that the truth of the matter is that western civilization owes much of its character to the Enlightenment, which had as its priority the discovery and establishment of truth and knowledge. Or to put it simply, it’s a lot more important to a lot more of us than we tend to realize. One need only to consider how many Christian denominations there are, each with our own take on the “correct” theology, to recognize this.
However, maybe in our society, knowledge no longer holds quite as high a place as it used to. We can likely think of any number of values or characteristics which are highly prized in our society that we, as members of the church of Christ, tend to prioritize. And we can likely imagine (or even remember from personal experience) how prioritizing such things have actually caused harm to others and have possibly even led people away from Christ.
So for Paul, in this context, love is the thing. I would pray that for us also, love would be the thing. I would pray that for this community, for this people, the defining characteristic would be how well we love one another.
Now make no mistake, Paul is not calling for a blind, shallow kind of love here. If he were, he might say to the “stronger,” do whatever you want. It doesn’t matter, after all. But instead, what Paul is concerned about is how we build one another up, how we lift one another up. Paul is concerned with how we might encourage one another to holiness, how we might spur one another to take hold of the life into which we have been called – to know and love Jesus more.
And it’s also worth acknowledging that, here at Grace, it might be said that we tend to focus on teaching. I tend to think that this is my own inclination – my wheelhouse, so to speak. And we are fortunate that we have as part of our community numerous people who are trained and skilled in teaching and preaching the word of God.
Now make no mistake – I believe that this is a priority for any Christian community. If we are to be the people of God, a commitment to studying and understanding the word of God must be a primary value.
But we don’t seek to understand the word of God for its own sake. That is, we are not seeking to understand the word of God so that we can say that we understand the word of God. Rather, understanding must lead to living. And understanding must form and shape how we are living.
And what Paul is pointing to is that the how must first and foremost be about love. How we are navigating this life, how we are occupying this place and this time, how we are living out the kingdom, as a kingdom people, must be characterized by how well we love one another.