I have read, re-read, and read again, 1 Corinthians 8-10, concerning food offered to idols. I realize greater minds than mine have contemplated this topic, but I have struggled to come to grips with it as well. It has bothered me for a long time because I have heard particular verses “unveiled” in ways I have felt uncomfortable with, and I really desire to understand what is truly going on here. Let me explain…
I believe many Bible students (me included) have been adept at making glib conclusions from these chapters by pulling verses out of the context of Paul’s overall discussion. How often have we heard “Knowledge puffs up”, “God will not give us more than we can bear”, or “All things are lawful…”etc? I now see that all of these verses- singled out – can sometimes lead one down possible rabbit trails of wrong conclusions. Similarly, if any of these three chapters is read alone (with subsequent conclusions drawn ) it completely removes the big picture of the argument that is being made.
Probably the most prevalent conclusion I have heard is one I call the ‘Freedom vs. Restraint’ reasoning. It focusses on the idea that the more mature in conscience (knowledgeable) are not to act in ways to weaken new or weaker believers. The contention is that – for the sake of unity – believers may need to give up personal perceived freedoms. I have sometimes heard this idea transferred to modern church issues in what I think are inappropriate ways. I believe the Apostle Paul is driving at something much broader and deeper.
My discomfort with this Freedom vs. Restraint line of reasoning, is because it focuses on the weak people – rather than the idolatry – as the main issue here. It portrays the stronger believer sitting in the idol’s temple (9:10) as the wise one that just needs to defer to the weak (more ignorant) brother. Drawing this conclusion opens the door to the “strong” daring others to challenge his more liberal (but right) point of view (the very arrogance of knowledge Paul points out at the outset of his discussion.) Once this reasoning takes a foothold it grows doubt and weakens faith as its spreads in a community. I believe this leavening effect was the modus operandi of false teachers in the churches that were later roundly condemned by the Lord Jesus for symbolically or literally encouraging others to “‘eat things sacrificed to idols” (paired with immorality). Revelation 2:14,20 I think this is what Paul already saw happening, or at least its potential, in Corinth and thus he spent a great deal of time addressing this issue. Perhaps my biggest red flag is the idea that flirting with idolatry (even when knowing it is nothing) is so anti-Old Testament. The stories there show us how fatally prone we are to idol worship. Freedom versus Restraint applied to idols contradicts the fact the Bible seems to almost scream, “Stay away from all things idol-ish!!” in so many places. Sadly, Paul’s words can be twisted out of context to be saying it really might be okay for the brother of strong conscience to go visit Aphrodite’s temple – if no one saw him there. That doesn’t make sense to me.
Instead, I now see chapters 8 thru 10 as Paul’s answer to a probable rising conflict in Corinth over a simple but problematic question; “Why can’t we eat food offered to idols?” Perhaps some of them were getting belligerent with each other, or Paul himself, in asking that question – because they thought they were strong in their knowledge and it would do no harm. (cp. ch. 9:3) Or perhaps the seeds of the Revelation 2 type teachings were already bearing bad fruit among the Corinthians. So Paul launches into his skillful response as only he can. This is not a simple “yes’ or “no” answer. He sees how insidious this problem is and takes his argument very seriously.
Paul begins with their own rightful sense that, “Yes, idols are nothing. You are absolutely right about that! God is the only God. ” vv.1-6 He then inserts a big , “HOWEVER”. v.7 And instead of talking about a literal brother (which leads down that aforementioned rabbit trail) he starts a hypothetical discussion of the ideas. “Hey, what if you are at a temple and someone like a newly-baptized, former pagan (that used to worship there), sees you – have you ever thought of that? Are you going to sit in your proud knowledge of God’s oneness and justify yourself?” To me, that is the gist of the rest of chapter 8.
Then in chapter 9 he broadens his argument. He uses himself as a positive example of someone who has taken extra pains to be above reproach. He didn’t HAVE to preach without financial aid but he CHOSE to do so. Verse 19 clinches this idea that “though I am free…I made myself a slave so that I might win the more…” Paul – even as an apostle specially singled out by Jesus – didn’t allow his knowledge to puff him up to justify living on the edge, as we might say it, of potential sin. ” Not seeking his own profit” (ch. 10:33) he joined the weak in their weakness in his attitudes in order to (hopefully) save them. v.22 He also acknowledges his own keen awareness of weakness and vulnerability to failure – which is the force that drives him to “exercise self-control”, “run to win”, and “buffet himself.” vv.24-27
Chapter 10 takes it to the climax of his argument – it is the great crescendo of why they should not eat idols’ food in idols’ temples. He moves to the stellar negative example of where such behavior often leads – the instructing story of the Children of Israel. A key to unlocking the mystery here is that Paul directly quotes Deuteronomy 32 in verses 20 and 22. That is the definitive anti-idolatry chapter in the Old Testament. It describes the human tendency to superstitious thinking – so prone to idolatry – and all of the repercussions of that in their history. It’s basically a longer version of what Paul sums up in verses 1-13.
He starts this chapter by reminding them that Israel was “baptized into Moses” and “drinking from the spiritual rock” of Christ. v.1-4 They were, in essence, like those having “knowledge” in Corinth. “And yet,” Paul seems to say, “just consider what happened to them when they flirted with idols…” His words are – “craved evil things.” v.6 I think he is possibly exposing the belligerent of Corinth (who are using their knowledge to justify wrong actions) with those powerful words. This is reinforced when he concludes with a THEREFORE warning to those who “think they stand” to “take heed lest they fall.” v.12
Dabbling with idols will lead you believers down the same road Israel traversed – namely, unbelief. It will turn your hearts to small, controllable gods (idols), sexual immorality, minimizing God’s character, discontent – and ultimately destruction. vv.6-10 He then encourages them to know that God will not tempt them beyond the breaking point – if they stay the course. Fully knowing the difficult path this required in a culture literally saturated with idolatry in its religious, economic and social fabric – he calls them to the high road. The same one he is taking in not accepting payment for preaching. He reminds them God will give them a way of escape through which to flee. v.13 He will be faithful to them, even in the difficult lifestyle of separation from their culture that Christianity represented.
In my mind, he is saying, “Don’t sit down to eat and drink in those pagan temples or soon you will be rising up and playing with them – just like Israel.” In fact, a second definitive THEREFORE precedes a command to drop everything and run away as fast as they can (my own “dictionary.com” definition of “flee”☺) THEREFORE, my beloved, FLEE FROM IDOLATRY! v.14 This is the heart of his answer. It is the context of Deuteronomy 32. It is the context of the Old Testament. I believe it is the context here.
In fact, he says, if you persist in justifying consorting with idols, you become double-minded and you “share in idols”. vv.20-21 In this justified attitude you are actually provoking the true God to jealousy and anger – like Israel did so long ago. vv.15-22 He then bookends his discussion with the word “edify”. v.23-24 He started it by telling us that love edifies. And he concludes it by saying we must live lives that choose the edifying behavior all the time – no matter the cost to our own convenience or philosophies. vv.23-24 Because LOVE (AGAPE) EDIFIES. Love considers relationship with God first and then it considers the impact of behavior on others – in all decision-making. He is expounding the two greatest commandments in a nutshell. This is an amazing buildup for his discussion in the next chapters of; the Lord’s Supper, Spiritual Gifts and The Love Chapter.
I believe his concluding comments in Chapter 10 are clarifying the practical application of the point he is making. After making it clear they must NEVER have ANYTHING to do with the WORSHIP (places, rituals, or practices) of idolatry, he gives some good advice. This is not a legalistic issue – it is a lifestyle issue/a heart issue. Where your own common sense can kick in is outside the domain of the idol – meat in the market, meat served at your friend’s house. Even there, however, they are to consider the impact their choices have on others – and do it all to God’s glory. vv.25-33
How would I summarize the message I see Paul outlining? In a culture saturated with idols and idol worshippers, don’t cave in – even a little bit. Don’t justify your behavior leaning on your supposed greater knowledge. If you start down that slippery slope, like Israel, you may not smarten up before it’s too late. Love God exclusively and obey Him no matter the cost. Consider the effect your behavior has on others, and out of love for them, too, don’t give in to craving evil things. Yes, it’s the harder way – but you will have Divine assistance and it’s worth it. Jesus did it. Paul did it. And you need to do it too.
How does this transfer to 21st Century Christian living? We must be acutely aware of potential idol worshipping in all its modern forms. We are just as prone to the seductions of superstitious thinking as Israelites and Corinthians. We must consider how we view ourselves in a pagan world – self justified in our knowledge and dabbling with idols, or humble in buffeting our thoughts and behaviors to keep them aligned with Jesus? We have attractive, beckoning temples too – figurative temples with subtle but mesmerizing power. They glorify; things that blinds our hearts to God, sexual sin, our own versions of who God is and what He requires, and discontent with the things He asks of us. In Paul’s words – ” craving evil things.” In Old Testament words – anything that fuels “unbelief.” Like those Corinthians, we must make our decisions day-by-day and moment-by-moment examining ourselves to see if these things we spend our time, money, and head-space on, truly glorify God. And we must consider thoughtfully their effects on our worship of the only True God and on our fellow believers and friends. We must seek the highest good (ultimately salvation) for all we interact with, and thus imitate Paul who imitates our Lord Jesus Christ. In so doing, we show our love for God and find our own ultimate highest good by being “known by God” Himself. Ch. 8:3 What an awesome thing that is!
Friends, it’s not an easy calling – but oh so worth it!