Letters to the Corinthians: Idolizing Knowledge

1 Corinthians 8 turns out to be quite the diversion from the last few posts. It also turns out to be the half-way point for the whole letter of 1 Corinthians, so that’s cause for celebration in and of itself.

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.

Because our cultures are vastly different, there are some passages that are difficult to get a grasp as to whether or not they still apply. Even worse, our lack of knowledge about food sacrificed to idols tends to make it very easy for us to fill in the blanks by guessing – which means that we’re wrong more often than not. Paul starts by talking about what is known.

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

So let’s talk about their culture; from what we know of ancient Greek and Roman mythology, they believed in a pantheon of gods (the Romans copied the Greek’s myths, opting to give them different names.) They believed that these gods were not threatened by the gods of the peoples they had conquered and absorbed into the empire. (After all, if these gods couldn’t fight off the Romans’ gods to protect their people from getting conquered then odds were there would be nothing they could do to harm them because their own gods were superior.) So for the most part, the various regions were allowed to keep believing in their gods. Belief in a god or goddess wasn’t an exclusive all-or-nothing relationship, one might have one household god, one fertility goddess, and one occupation-related god or goddess to which they were expected to honor. (It can’t hurt to have a rain-god in your back pocket if you’re a farmer, or a war-god fighting your corner if you’re a soldier.) If Christianity means having an exclusive relationship with one deity over all others – then it means having to decline meals with your co-workers or cut yourself off from family dinners … it means having to refuse opportunities to join social groups (unions, guilds, higher-class social functions) and having to risk your livelihood … it means turning your back on friends and family members who still worship false gods because you know to whom they pray for their food and you don’t know the rules about what your new deity has to say about that.

But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

Conversations about food sacrificed to idols also appear in Acts 15, at the Council of Jerusalem, so we have to think of it as a big deal to have been a topic of conversation right alongside with whether or not Gentiles can be Christians and if so, whether or not circumcision was a requirement.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

Much of this conversation sounds similar to Romans 14:1-15:13, perhaps that’s the general teaching from which this specific question arises. For us, the question might not be about food sacrificed to idols, but about social drinking or vacations in Las Vegas. The lesson isn’t to belittle another person’s choice because they’re a weaker brother or sister, because we know better. It’s to put their needs above our own arrogance and pride. And that’s a lesson that endures even today.

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