I have been prayerfully reading through 1 Corinthians. There is so much that is obviously relevant for the modern church. The challenge for unity, which I talked about in a previous blog, wise teaching on singleness and marriage, the use of spiritual gifts and the primacy of love. There are other passages that are also relevant but less obviously so. Paul’s answer to the question of whether the Corinthians could eat food offered to idols is also very relevant. Not because we face the same issues, but his reasoning is so relevant to us.
Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 8-10 is that love trumps everything including our freedom and our rights. Something that it is so important for us to both hear and apply. The primacy of love is repeated in Paul’s most famous chapter 13.
This has so many applications for today, where our society values our individual rights over everything. No, as Christian’s love is our prime motivator not rights.
E.g., Drinking alcohol in the presence of certain individuals might cause them not just to fall off the wagon but to abandon Christianity. The food we eat, the way we spend our money, the language we use, the shows and movies we watch and even the clothes we wear have the capacity to lead others away from Christ by tempting them to violate their consciences.
It is also relevant regarding vaccines. Obviously, we have the right not to be vaccinated as I have seen many Christians declaring. However, I believe that Paul would say that our love and desire to serve our neighbours means that we will be vaccinated to keep them safe. We will apply the maxim that love trumps our freedom not to be vaccinated.
Many will be happy to leave the blog at this point. For those who are interested in exactly what Paul is saying read on!
Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 8-10 in more detail.
The context is that pagan worship centred around sacrificed animals, the meat could then be eaten in either a Temple dining room as part of an act of worship or sold in a market for ordinary people to buy and cook at home.
The Corinthians ask Paul if they can eat this meat. Paul’s answer in summary is that it depends. If idol food is eaten in the context of idolatrous worship in a pagan temple, then no (8:1 – 10:22). If it is bought in the meat market without knowing where it comes from, then yes (10:25-26). If it is eaten in a private home, then yes, unless it will harm the conscience of anyone present, in which case no (10:27 – 11:1). The food itself, in other words, is not the issue; the issue is the character and context of the meal taking place.
The church was church divided on the issue. One group saying it is ok to eat idol food, another urging people not to. The argument of those who said it was ok was that we all possess knowledge, an idol is nothing, there is no God but one. Idols don’t exist therefore how can eating food offered to idols mean anything at all? A good argument but Paul doesn’t accept it.
It is his reasons for rejecting this argument that is so helpful and relevant for us. Love trumps knowledge.
“But knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (8:1). Knowing things can make our egos and heads bigger; loving people can make our brothers and sisters bigger. So, if you’re obsessed with “knowing”, then you may not know anything at all. Loving God, on the other hand, means that you end up with the best sort of “knowing” there is: being known by God (v 2-3).
Idols are not real, but they do exert a power. Not everyone knows that there is no God but one. They associate the sacrificial food with the god to which it was offered. Therefore, since food doesn’t bring us close to God, eating it doesn’t help us, we should be careful of flaunting our right to eat what we like.
“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling-block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9). This, in a sentence, is the point Paul is going to press home throughout 1 Corinthians 9, using himself as an extended example. Paul gives example after example of where he has given up his rights in order to serve and love others. The Corinthians may or may not have the right to eat idol food but what they absolutely must not do is to exercise their “right” in such a way as to destroy their weaker brother or sister.
Put the care of others above your own rights. Love trumps freedom. This sets the scene for Paul’s most famous chapter 13 where the priority of love is developed.