GOD AND IDOLS 1 Corinthians 8–10
“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor. 8:9).A person can be right about doctrine, and yet very, very wrong.
Meat offered to idols.
These chapters consider two separate but related issues. In Corinth most fresh meat was purchased at temple markets, which sold carcasses of animals offered to the deity they honored. Some Christians in Corinth argued that to buy a steak at such a market was participation in idolatry. Others thought this view foolish. After all, the gods represented by the idols weren’t real. Paul affirmed the right of the Corinthians to eat such meat, but urged those who feel free to do so to consider surrendering this “right” in any situation where a weaker brother’s conscience might be harmed. The other issue concerned participation in banquets, which in the Roman world were typically dedicated to some god or goddess. Here Paul warned against participation, on the basis that though idols are not real, real demonic forces as well as immorality were associated with such feasts. A final note dealt with an ordinary supper invitation to the home of a pagan friend. Paul suggested the guest make no fuss about the meat, but if the host made a point of saying it had been offered to some pagan deity, then don’t eat.
Eating meat purchased from a temple meat market is not wrong, but harming a weaker brother is (8:1–13). The Corinthians should follow Paul’s example, for he had surrendered many apostolic “rights” to better serve others (9:1–27). Idolatry and associated immorality were to be avoided (10:1–13), so it was wrong to participate in banquets held in honor of some pagan deity (vv. 14–22). But a Christian could eat meat at an unconverted friend’s house, unless the friend specifically said the meat had been dedicated to a pagan god (vv. 23–33).
Understanding the Text
“Since their conscience is weak, it is defiled” 1 Cor. 8:4–12. It’s nice to be right. Those folks in Corinth who scoffed at pagan idols and held tight to the one true God probably felt a glow of self-satisfaction when Paul confirmed their view (vv. 4–6). They could pull up their chairs to a steak every night if they wished, and do so with a clear conscience. The glow may have faded quickly, though. Paul reminded them, and us, that there’s something more important than being right. And that’s caring about the spiritual well-being of others. Paul didn’t ask folks who are right to surrender their doctrinal insights. He didn’t even ask them to surrender a steak dinner now and then. He just asked them to care enough about others to be more concerned with their well-being than with either being right, or exercising personal rights. Eating that steak at the church social doesn’t improve or harm spirituality. Meat has nothing to do with that. But sin has a lot to do with spirituality. And it is sinful to knowingly wound the conscience of a weaker brother or sister in the Lord. So be glad if you have a mature grasp of theological issues. But take pride in your mature surrender of personal rights out of love for a less mature Christian brother or sister. “Am I not an apostle?” 1 Cor. 9:1–27 Paul presented himself as one who had surrendered many personal rights for the benefit of others. This was not bragging. It was sharing. As such, it was a powerful revelation of the motives that not only drove Paul, but also can energize us as we seek to serve the Lord. Note first the rights Paul surrendered—and then his motives. He gave up the right to marry and travel with a “believing wife” (v. 5). He gave up the right to be financially supported by those he ministered to (vv. 6–12). And he gave up the right to live as he pleased in order to meet the expectations of those he ministered to (vv. 19–23). Why? Paul wanted to make preaching the Gospel a gift, not a purchase (v. 18). He wanted to fit in with others, so as not to personally offend anyone who needed to hear the Gospel (vv. 22–23). He placed such a high value on the rewards Christ will give in the future that mere earthly pleasures held little attraction (vv. 24–27). If you and I are as eager to serve God, as sensitive to others, and as focused on eternity, our “rights” will seem unimportant to us as well. “These things occurred as examples” 1 Cor. 10:1–11. Paul turned again to the question of idolatry. This time he made an important point. The Bible isn’t just a book of doctrine. It’s a book of human experience as well. The experiences recorded in Scripture are intended to serve as examples for us. Here Paul’s argument from experience was that though the Old Testament community like the New participated in Christ (vv. 1–6), this was not enough. Some turned to idolatry and the immorality associated with it—and were destroyed (vv. 7–9). Some complained bitterly about their lot—and these too were destroyed (v. 10). These experiences should serve as a warning to those Corinthians who are so sure of their doctrinal correctness. Those who “think you are standing firm, be careful that you do not fall!” Being “right” is no guarantee we won’t sin! “God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear” 1 Cor. 10:13. Being right is no guarantee against sinning. But God does make us a promise. We are able to successfully overcome every temptation—if we take God’s way out of it. Don’t think that God’s way out is all that hard to find, either. Paul summed it up in the next verse when he said, “Flee from idolatry.” That word “flee” occurs several times in Paul’s writings. The Greek word, pheugo, is found here, in 6:18; 1 Timothy 6:11; and in 2 Timothy 2:22. We’re not only told to flee idolatry, but to flee fornication, flee love of money, and to flee youthful lusts. We may have to stand and fight Satan (James 4:7), but when it comes to temptation, Scripture’s “way to escape” is just that: escape! First-century banquets like the one pictured above were commonly dedicated to a pagan god or goddess, and all were expected to offer a libation as part of the festivities. Paul urged Christians not to attend. Demonic forces lay behind paganism. One who participates in Christ can hardly join in the worship of demons (vv. 14–27). “Eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience” 1 Cor. 10:23–33. It’s not necessary to parade your faith. It’s not even necessary, when eating lunch with non-Christian business associates, to bow your head and fold your hands in obvious prayer. You can say, “Thank You” to God as you lift that first spoonful of soup. That’s essentially what Paul was telling the Corinthians here. You don’t have to make a big show of being a Christian. Go on out to supper, and if your host makes no big deal out of the meat having been offered to an idol, enjoy it! There’s another side to this issue, though. Sometimes non-Christians have their own ideas about what a believer ought and ought not to do. So the host might feel uncomfortable offering a believer a dish made from dedicated meat. In that case, Paul said, don’t eat, for the sake of his conscience! And, if your associates ask if you want to “say grace” before the meal, do it. Again, for the sake of their conscience, not yours. What a sensitive way for Christians to live with others. Free, because we know the truth in Christ. But willing always to surrender any freedom that will benefit believer or unbeliever alike.
When Doctrine Divides(1 Cor. 8:1–13)
At first glance it looks like a fight over roast beef. One group said, “Don’t eat it! It’s polluted!” The other said, “Looks all right to me. Mmmm. Tastes good too!” Actually it’s a doctrinal battle, set in the kitchen. The folks who cried, “Polluted” were saying that any animal offered to a pagan deity bears the taint of idolatry. The folks who said, “Tastes good. And less filling,” were saying that pagan deities aren’t real! So whatever was offered to an idol can’t be polluted by the act! What fascinates me here is that Paul showed us a fascinating approach to resolving our doctrinal disputes. He didn’t say, “Well, this group is right.” Instead he said, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves is known by God” (vv. 1–3). What in the world was he saying? Simply that those arguments about “who’s right” won’t help settle doctrinal disputes! The claim of superior knowledge just leads to pride. And that pride was ill-founded. Whatever we know, we know it imperfectly. So those fights about who is right about doctrine can only isolate us from one another. In view of our human limitations, we can’t even be sure the winner of the argument is more than half right! What Paul suggested is that we approach doctrinal disputes on the basis of love, rather than of knowledge. Love doesn’t puff people up, it builds them up. And love opens up our hearts to the ministry of the Spirit of God, who is able then to instruct both parties in the debate (implied by v. 3, “is known by God”). What about while we’re waiting to learn? Why then, each group needs to be sensitive to the other’s convictions and conscience. We can exercise our freedom and live by our personal beliefs. But we also need to be “careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (v. 9). Is it wrong to dispute over doctrine? Not at all. It’s only wrong if dialogue becomes a dispute, and dispute dissension. We need to hammer out our understanding of God’s truth. But we need to do it together, so we can learn from each other. And we need to do it in a spirit of love, so that both parties can grow spiritually through the experience.
Hold on to your doctrines, but hold on even tighter to your brothers and sisters in Christ.
“It has not pleased God to save His people by dialectic.”—Ambrose of Milan