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. ↩

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.