Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
1 Corinthians 8.1
Crowd Control and Self-Control
Would we know who Paul was had he arrived after various Councils regulated Christian doctrine and behavior? Even in today’s relaxed climate, it’s tough to imagine many pulpits welcoming him. He’s a devout believer, brilliant theologian, and also a fiercely independent thinker—a true iconoclast, which makes him as troublesome now as in his own day. He typically opens a topic with a preview of where it will end. Yet he often reaches his orthodox conclusions via startlingly unorthodox routes. For Paul, understanding why supersedes knowing what.
While his contemporaries cite apostolic authority to declare, “Do this” and “Don’t do that,” Paul applies a unique perspective. He’s the only apostle directly called away from Judaic legalism, and he glories in total freedom through Christ’s love and power. There are no rules, as he sees it. At the same time, he insists liberty isn’t synonymous with unaccountability. It’s the opposite. Rules (“crowd control”) are replaced by responsibility (“self-control”). “’Everything is permissible for me’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible to me’—but I will not be mastered by anything,” he writes in 1 Corinthians 6.12. Two chapters later, he gives a sterling example of this, saying Christians can eat whatever they like, a huge departure from Jewish dietary restrictions. However, having the right doesn’t always make it right. “Watch what you eat,” he admonishes, and we understand why once he explains what he means.
A Big Beef
The Early Church’s first crisis involves identity. Is it a Jewish sect bound by Mosaic Law or a new faith with its own creed and conventions? Both sides have strong opinions, with Peter leading the Judaic schism and Paul advocating a total break with tradition. While their relationship is prickly on its best days, both agree Christ’s grace is open to all nationalities. This sets off several controversies—if Christian men, Jew or Gentile, must be circumcised, for example. In European cities like Corinth, where temples sell meat used in pagan sacrifice, eating food offered to idols becomes a big beef. Church leaders meet in Jerusalem to settle these issues and James suggests writing to Gentile churches, “telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” (Acts 15.20)
Paul sees this as a regression into legalism. Yet keeping the Church unified is more essential than splitting hairs. So, as only he can, Paul defends the Jerusalem edict by first disputing its legitimacy before appealing to the Corinthians to embrace it for the greater good. Basically, he writes, food sacrificed to idols is no different than other food since pagan gods don’t exist. It can’t be “polluted” by deities having no power. “But not everyone knows this,” he says. (1 Corinthians 8.7) He describes such believers as “so accustomed to idols… their conscience is weak.” They believe the food is defiled. In contrast, the strong-minded know food doesn’t affect their faith. Then he cautions in verse 9: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”
Love Builds Up
Paul poses this scenario. A weaker believer sees a stronger one engaged in activities he/she considers sinful. Instead of realizing the stronger Christian’s freedom comes from deeper knowledge of the faith, the weaker one boldly overrides personal conscience to indulge in similar practices. “So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ,” verses 11 and 12 read. In terms of food offered idols, then, eating it isn’t sinful. But a stronger believer exercising the right to eat anything without considering confusion it may bring to weaker Christians is wrong. “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak,” 1 Corinthians 9.22 says. “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”
Confidence in Christ’s acceptance should never be taken as carte blanche to flout the limitations of those not strong enough to believe with like certainty. It’s not about knowing our rights. “We all possess knowledge,” 1 Corinthians 8.1 reminds us. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” To the weak, we become weak, lest we mislead them into behaviors they don’t sufficiently understand. Romans 15.1 says, “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.” Pleasure gained by what we know can destroy brothers and sisters who know less. And Jude 20 encourages, “Dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith.” Sometimes building up a weaker believer requires us to take things down a peg. As it’s said, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.” That’s why, when those around us can’t digest freedoms we relish, it’s just better for all concerned, them and us, to watch what we eat.
Liberty to eat anything doesn’t free us from responsibility to watch what we eat.
(Tomorrow: Stay Close)