Balancing Our Freedom with Responsibility: Looking back at 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Food Sacrificed to Idols

We’ve now closed out a section that seeks to talk about Christian freedom in the context of our responsibility to our neighbors. The conversation started with food offered to idols, talked of Paul’s right to be financially supported, and now has circled back to food and idols. Paul at times gives a statement that is clear, along the lines of “you can eat the food.” But that principle then has its exceptions. So as we read it, and this is especially true if we are only reading little bits at a time and not keeping the larger movements in our mind, it can be confusing because Paul will say, “Yes, but no, but yes, but no.”

To lean heavily again on Ken Bailey’s commentary, since he puts its so clearly in review, these last chapters tell us four things, and I’ll paraphrase:

  1. Eating meat offered to idols and eating in these temple-restaurants is OK. But it is only acceptable if you’re mature in your faith so as to understand that these idols are nothing, and as long as no one that doesn’t see things that way sees you. After all, you don’t, by expressing your freedom, want to cause anyone to stumble. (1 Cor 8)
  2. But what about eating and drinking not only at a temple-restaurant, but actually as part of an idol worship service? Well, Paul is clear cut on this one. No. That would be participating with demons. (First half of 1 Cor 10)
  3. Back to the food, if you buy it from the market, then you’re fine eating it at home, for the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. (1 Cor 10:25-26)
  4. If you’re at the home of an unbeliever, then eat up and don’t ask questions. But again, like in 1 Corinthians 8, be careful of your witness. If someone tells you that the food is offered to idols, presumably because of their concern about the issue, then don’t eat–not for your conscience but for the other. (1 Cor 10:28)1

The issue is not so much the food itself. Rather it is the witness we are making by eating it. While it may be a fine piece of food and it is the believers right to eat it, as long as the proper understanding is present, the more important element is how we can best love and serve our neighbors. If that means sacrificing a right, then so be it.

  1. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 291-292. ↩

Jesus, the one who gave up his rights for us

Let’s not lose sight of Jesus in all this talk of Christian freedom and responsibility. Paul has spoken of how we should use our freedom and knowledge to love our brothers and sisters, and at times this leads us to sacrifice our rights.

With this discussion going on, how can we not look to Jesus who has done this for us?

There is one example that overshadows all others when we think of one who gave up his rights in order to love. And he did so to love a bunch of sinners.

Jesus Christ is the only perfect one. He is the only one who lived without fault, without transgression, but the people turned on him. The powers of this world sought to accuse him of wrongdoings. But the innocent one kept silent. The one who is the true judge allowed himself to be judged by sinners.

They took Christ to the cross and Jesus was tempted to call upon his rights. They mocked him saying that if he were really the Son of God, he’d come down from that cross.

But the Son of God, whose right it would be to show his power and judge the world, showed us that he is one who would forgo his right in order to love. Jesus, the strong and faithful, loved his weaker brothers and sisters by giving up his rights, and dying in our place. The strong took the place of the weak.*

*Quote taken from my sermon this last Sunday. Redundancy is the key to learning, right?

A Review of the First Half of 1 Corinthians

Now halfway through 1 Corinthians, let’s get nostalgic and take a walk down memory lane.

(Quick editorial note: This is not exhaustive. But that’s why we read the Bible, not just summaries!)

Week 1 – 1 Corinthians 1:1-17

Memory Verse 1 Cor 1.1-3

Here we are introduced Paul, who writes with the authority of one who is sent by God, and to Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth and the saints every where who call upon Jesus Christ as Lord. It will be a letter tailored for Corinth, but in no way limited to this one group.

In this section we also find out one of the problems arising in this church, that is there is quarreling and divisions among the body as people are aligning themselves to certain teachers. Paul comes down clearly against this.

Week 2 – 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Memory Verse 1 Cor 1.22-23

The response to the issues of Corinth is the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross is a message that is not always attractive, indeed it appears foolish to the world. But the “foolishness” of God is wiser than men. Therefore, we shouldn’t boast in any associations with a certain teacher, nor in ourselves. If we are to boast, we should only boast in the Lord.

Week 3 – 1 Corinthians 2:1-16

Memory Verse 1 Cor 2.12

The cross is the wisdom of God and in chapter two Paul writes how we receive this wisdom from God by his Holy Spirit. The natural person doesn’t understand the things of the Spirit, but we can have judgment and discernment because God has gifted it to us.

Week 4 – 1 Corinthians 3:1-23

Memory Verse 1 Cor 3.6

Having taught on the wisdom of God in the cross and from the Spirit, Paul returns to the issue of divisions in the church and seeks to correct Corinth’s view of Paul, and other teachers. Paul is just a worker, given a certain assignment, just like Apollos, but through it all it is God who truly is at work. They work together with a common goal, always building upon the one foundation of Jesus Christ.

Week 5 – 1 Corinthians 4:1-21

Memory Verse 1 Cor 4.7b

Paul continues on the topic of how the church should view its teachers, like Paul or Apollos. Their incorrect view has led to boasting and being puffed up. Instead Paul wants them to follow his example and make sure they do not go beyond what is written–which is an especially troublesome territory that lends to speculation and arrogance.

He doesn’t want them to think that they can continue in the way that they have gone without any oversight. Paul has some stern words about the manner in which he’d return with rebuke.

Week 6 – 1 Corinthians 5:1-13

Memory Verse 1 Cor 5.7

Corinth has had issues with divisions and quarreling and now Paul mentions the sexual immorality that has made its way into the church, like a leaven that is affecting the whole dough. To make matters worse, some think that their tolerance of sexual sin is to their credit and they boast (see a pattern?) in their behavior. Paul points them again to the cross, arguing that Christ sacrificed himself as our Passover lamb to remove the leaven–the sin–from our lives. He says the church shouldn’t embrace the sin, the very thing Christ died to remove. In fact, Paul says to cast the man who has committed the sin out of the church.

Week 7 – 1 Corinthians 6:1-20

Memory Verse 1 Cor 6.19-20

The wisdom the church ought to have received from the Spirit is not being manifested in the body as they are neglecting their call and responsibility and instead are taking their issues and submitting them to secular courts. This is a poor witness to the world about the call of God’s church to be judges of all things, and it is shameful that the world sees the sinful practices that should not be part of the kingdom of God.

Perhaps quoting the Corinthians’ argument, Paul confronts the notion that freedom in Christ makes all things permissible now. It is true that we have freedom in Christ, but we are freed from sin, not for sin. Some practices may be allowed, but that does not mean it is good for the person or for the body. After all, our body is not our own, rather we have been bought with a price. The believer is now, miraculously, a temple of the Holy Spirit, so we should glorify God with our bodies.

Week 8 – 1 Corinthians 7:1-40

Memory Verse 1 Cor 7.22

Having discussed sins, and specifically sexual sins, that are not in line with the kingdom of God, Paul turns toward some questions the Corinthians had and teaches about what sort of sexual relationships are appropriate. He relates these questions to the broader issue of our calling in Jesus Christ. Whether married or single, and Paul then goes on to include Jew or Greek and slave or free, we all have callings. Paul may encourage singleness, but to him it comes down to our ability to serve God wholeheartedly.

Week 9 – 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Memory Verse 1 Cor 8.6

The topic of freedom in Christ comes up again and this time in relation to the eating of food offered to idols. Here Paul urges people to consider sacrificing their “right” to do what is greater: to love their brothers and sisters. If they use their knowledge to disregard the needs of others, they are puffed up and sinning not only against their fellow believer, but against Christ as well, since we are all members of his body.

So there you have it. Eight chapters down, eight more to go. If I missed something that stood out to you, don’t let me get away with it!

Paul now in chapter nine continues the discussion of our freedoms and rights, and how we at times ought to sacrifice our rights for a greater purpose.

On Triggers that Cause Us to Stumble

This morning in a Bible study with some men someone spoke a bit about “triggers.” We’ve all got them, some sort of stimulus that can bring about a memory, an action, a feeling, etc. Sometimes they are good triggers, sometimes they are not. We can see this food that has been offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8 as a sort of trigger. For those still struggling against their old ways and old life in which they worshipped false gods and took part not only in the feasting, but in all the activities of the temple, just seeing that meat may have triggered a whole wave of associations. NT Wright puts it like this in his commentary, “Paul for Everyone”:

They knew what went on there – the dark sense of mystery and fear, the sense that in feasting at the god’s table you were really eating and drinking the god himself, taking his life to be your own life; and then the drink, the sense of casting off moral restraint, the girls and boys waiting round the back to do whatever you wanted in return for a little extra payment to the god … And once you had shared in that dark but powerful world on a regular basis, perhaps for many years, it would be difficult, in your memory and imagination, to separate part of it from the whole thing. Now that you had become a Christian you would feel you had been rescued from the world of darkness and brought out into the light. True worship wasn’t like that; truly human living wasn’t like that. You had escaped. You were free.

Paul wants those who have the knowledge that leads them to be secure in whatever they eat to, in love, think first about their Christian brother or sister. If by eating meat sacrificed to idols or going to those temples to have a meal you cause you fellow believer to conjure up all these past experiences, is it really worth it? Of course not.

It’s important for us to know our own triggers, as well. It isn’t so that we can impose new rules and restrictions, setting up our own laws. It is so that we can protect ourselves and by setting up boundaries prevent falling back into sin. When we know our triggers we can prepare ourselves against temptation. The trigger can be even mundane things like, as I mentioned in this morning’s study, someone cutting you off on your way home from work. Let’s say you notice that when this happens you’re more likely to be rude and impatient to your spouse or roommate when you get home. If you are aware of this trigger and how it makes you anxious and a bit on the grumpy side, that will help you prepare yourself and cause you to say an extra prayer before you walk in the door for the help of the Spirit to give you the strength you need.

And when we are aware of our own triggers we can be much more understanding of others around us. Something that may have no affect on you may have a huge affect on someone else. If our goal is to build one another up that may mean that we forgo our rights and freedoms and instead seek to remove the stumbling blocks from our brother or sister’s path.

NT Wright with Some Helpful Background on the Ancient World in 1 Corinthians 8

Ancient Temple at Corinth Engraving by William Miller

As you read chapter eight of 1 Corinthians, keep this short passage in mind. It is the opening two paragraphs from NT Wright’s commentary, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians. As usual, Wright opens with a short anecdote that relates to the passage, in this case about food that is sacrificed to idols and just how prevalent this practice would have been. It provides background on the ancient world that will be helpful for this week’s Bible reading:

There is a restaurant in Rome which is built around the ruins of an old temple. Two of the pillars are still visible. The restaurant makes a feature of them, and is proud of the ancient origins of the building where they now serve excellent pasta, great local cuisine, and fine Italian wines.

But what people don’t normally realize is that in the ancient world the temples normally were the restaurants. Each town or city had plenty of shrines to local gods and goddesses, to the great divinities like Apollo or Venus, and, in Paul’s day, more and more to the Roman emperor and members of his family. And what people mostly did there was to come with animals for sacrifice. When the animal was killed, it would be cooked, and the family (depending on what sort of ritual it was) might have a meal with the meat as the centrepiece. But there was usually more meat than the worshippers could eat, and so other people would come to the temple and share in the food which had been offered to the god.”

Coming Up on the Halfway Point of 1 Corinthians

Moving into chapter eight we are going from a chapter with 40 verses to one with only thirteen. So again, this reading plan takes a bit of self-direction. How do I best use my time throughout this week to not just check off reading 1 Corinthians, but how do I read it well? How do I study it? How do I pray through it? How do I open myself up to hear what God has to say to me? It’s short so you get creative.

I had the opportunity, due to a bit of a road trip today, to listen to 1 Corinthians in the car. I listened starting in the beginning and then went through chapter eight. Then I listened to chapter eight again. (Either to gain more emphasis for our current chapter, or maybe because it is easy to let my mind drift as I try to pay attention to driving.) This is a great way to spend some extra time this week. As I listened I could better detect the themes coming up again and again–words like puffed up and calling jumped out more than they have before. Also, as I went through the chapters I paid close attention to the memory verses, verses that now I can (almost) recite along with the reader of the audio Bible. It was great to be reminded of the context in which these verses fall.

If you need help in doing something like this, ie. listening to the Bible, let me know. There are websites for it such as biblegateway as well as phone apps like the youversion Bible.

So, with the shorter chapter, try rereading old chapters, or even listening to them. Also work on memory verses, either as a refresher or for the first time. It’s never too late to start.

And if those ideas aren’t enough, you could try writing me (or posting in the comments) some really hard questions about this chapter. I always like a challenge. Maybe your question will work its way into Sunday’s sermon!