I Corinthians 8
I Corinthians 8:1-13
Paul continues to comment on the relation of Christian faith to bodily existence, but the focus changes dramatically. He now writes about food sacrificed to idols. Meat which had been sacrificed to gods other than the God of the Christians might be available for purchase in the market or might be served at a dinner. Practically all meat sold in the marketplace had been ritually slaughtered in connection with some temple. Could Christians continue to purchase and eat such meat at home? Could they continue to attend dinner parties at the homes of their non-Christian friends, where such food would be served? (People’s New Testament Commentary). These questions bring with them questions about fitting in to the surrounding culture, and questions about how people of differing opinions might live together in community.
“All of us possess knowledge” was another one of those slogans used by some in the Corinthian Christian community. These “enlightened” and very spiritual Christians often reveled in their freedom in Christ. The way Paul writes about this attitude, it seems to lack humility, hence Paul’s response that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Paul is not trumpeting an anti-intellectualism, but cautioning against unwarranted pride and encouraging persons to be centered in love. We want to love God and be known by God – that is the best “knowledge.”
Paul acknowledges that other gods and idols really have no existence, at least not an existence equal to the existence of the God of Jesus Christ “from whom are all things and for whom we exist.” At best they represent forces or spirits of some sort, but not equal to God. But not everyone understands this. Some have a weaker conscience, that is, their religious awareness is not deeply developed. Some among the Corinthian Jesus community claim that food is irrelevant (“food will not bring us close to God”). From that they might feel free to eat whatever is sold or offered. Paul concedes this point, but then argues that Christians need to use their freedom wisely, taking care that their actions don’t become a stumbling block to those still new to the faith. Eating at a temple did not entail worshipping of the temple god, rather dining rooms were often attached to temples and they were the sites of social occasions as well as religious ones. Nevertheless, eating there might be misinterpreted, and misinterpreted is such a way that persons might drift away from Christian faith. If that can happen, perhaps one ought to take that into account when one acts.
The issue of meat sacrificed to idols is not a live issue in our day and time. However, issues about our behavior and how it may affect others remain important. Should our lives be completely “other oriented,” so that we never do anything that might “offend” another? I think that is a misreading of this passage. On the other hand, we should not simply be content with claiming our rights to act in this way or that. Rather we need to take seriously how our actions may affect others. The precise way this balance plays itself out in our lives is a matter for deep thought and prayerful discernment. I may think my faith leads me to a certain position on a difficult issue confronting society, say, the war in Iraq. I could choose to say nothing, but I am not sure that is very faithful to the Christian calling. If I come to believe that continuing the war is wrong, it may be important for me to say that, even knowing that it will offend others. However, how I say what I feel I need to say matters. There I can be more or less sensitive to the opinions of others. Taking Paul seriously, I think I need to be sensitive to the differing viewpoints of others.
I Corinthians 9
I Corinthians 9:1-24: Paul has been arguing that Christians ought to take into consideration the impact of their actions on others in the faith community. There are healthy limits to this idea, but in our very individualistic society it is a concept we as Christians need to take more seriously. If church communities were to do that, it might strengthen our ability to share our faith meaningfully with others.
As noted, some Corinthian Christians were enjoying their freedom in Christ tremendously, and were not concerned with the impact their actions might have on others. Paul discusses the meaning of Christian freedom more deeply by referring to his own situation. Paul is an apostle and a free person. He has “seen” Jesus.” Given who he is as an apostle, and the work he has done with the Corinthian church, Paul could assert certain “rights,” among them the right to receive some material support from this faith community. He chooses not to assert his rights, concerned that such action would get in the way of the gospel. He is concerned that if he were to receive some kind of compensation it may be like charging for the gospel, which he feels compelled to preach. People who make their living working in the church have a right to their wages, but all of us who do so need to be careful. We all know situations where the material lifestyle of clergy became a hindrance to ministry.
Paul, though free, has made himself a “slave” so that more people might become persons of Christian faith. Again, Paul is using highly rhetorical language, and there are limits to how much one can give of oneself and remain healthy enough to give into the future. Nevertheless, there is a lesson to be learned here about setting aside one’s “rights,” about reaching out to others in ways that are meaningful to those others – the “religious, the nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized” (Peterson, The Message). All this requires healthy self-discipline, and Paul encourages this, using metaphors from Greek athletic games. Punishing the body and enslaving it are metaphors for such athletic training.
I Corinthians 10
I Corinthians 10:1-22: “The subject continues to be the same: to what extent Christians can participate in pagan culture, especially attendance at festive meals in pagan temples” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Paul has argued that such behavior needs to take into account the impact on others in the faith community. In this section, he is concerned that such behavior might have a negative affect on the person engaged in it. To make his point, he uses the Exodus story as a metaphor.
In the Exodus, all who participated ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink, and all were “baptized,” as it were. Many, however, seem to have lost their way on the journey. Paul likens their temptations to the experiences of the Corinthian Christians already discussed in the letter. Guard against sexual immorality. We must not turn our religion into a circus. We must be careful not to stir up discontent. (The Message) “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” Paul is not trying to make this group of disciples constantly anxious, only trying to remind them that all of life provides opportunity for learning and for growth. When we think we have nothing left to learn, then we have more to learn than we even imagined. “Cultivate God-confidence” (The Message).
From caution against becoming spiritually blinded by one’s own sense of spirituality, Paul returns to the topic of what it means to live in community. We participate together in Christ, so we need to be considerate of others. He also uses this image to suggest that if Christian rituals involve a deep participation in Christ, what might be involved if people find themselves at temple rituals? Paul encourages caution, even if these other gods are no gods.
I Corinthians 10:23-32: Verse 23 is reminiscent of 6:12, but notice a subtle shift. In chapter 6, the second “all things are lawful” is followed by “but I will not be dominated by anything.” Here it is followed by “but not all things build up.” In deciding about our actions, we take into account not only their impact on our own lives, but also on the lives of others. Often what might be detrimental to others turns out to damage us as well. Paul offers some very specific guidance in these verses. Buy what you like at the meat market. Eat what is set before you, unless you are told that the meat has been sacrificed to idols. In that case, for the sake of others refrain. Such food still belongs to God (“the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s), but, again, we need to be concerned for the well-being of others. “We want to live well, but our foremost efforts should be to help others live well” (The Message).
On the other hand, there are limits to always watching out for what others think, and Paul notes that here as well. He encourages the Corinthian Christians to “do everything for the glory of God.” Yet he quickly reminds them again to “give no offense.” What a fascinating balance we are asked to strike. What an adventure we are asked to live.