Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
1 Corinthians 8:7-13
7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
Paul concludes Chapter 8 with advise on eating food offered to idols. From The Pulpit Commentaries, starting with verse 7:
There is not in every man that knowledge. A correction of the somewhat haughty assertion of the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 8:1. With conscience of the idol; literally, by their consciousness of the idol. In eating meat offered to any god whom they had been accustomed to worship, “being used to the idol,” as the Revised Version renders it (reading “by familiarity with,” συνηθεία for συνειδῄσει) cannot dismiss from their minds the palatal sense that, in eating the idol sacrifice, they are participating in the idol worship. Their conscience being weak is defiled. Being Gentiles who till recently had been idolaters, the apparent participation in their old idolatry wore to them the semblance of apostacy. The thing which they were eating was, in its own essence, indifferent or clean, but since they could not help esteeming it unclean, they defied a conscientious doubt, and so their conduct, not being of faith, became sinful (Romans 14:14, Romans 14:23). St Paul admits that this was the sign of a conscience intellectually weak; but the weakness was the result of past habit and imperfect enlightenment, and it was entitled to forbearance and respect.
Here Paul makes a couple of points. First, he states that there is nothing overtly wrong with eating meat once offered to idols. Those who understand that have the “knowledge” to which Paul refers. He also begins a compassionate defense of those people who do not eat this meat. He argues that they avoid this meat, due to their conscience. Is there a difference between having a weakened conscience, due to past association, and just being overtly wrong? Yes, as Paul explains going forward. Continuing into verse 8:
But meat commendeth us not to God; rather, will not recommend us. God would think none the better of them for eating idol sacrifices, even though they asserted thereby a freedom which was the reward of clear insight. This verse will serve to show why “fasting” is nowhere rigidly enjoined on Christians. If fasting is a help to our spiritual life, then we should practise it, but with the distinct apprehension of the truth that God will think none the better of us merely because we eat less, but only if the fasting be a successful means of making us more pure and more loving. If the Bible had been in the hands of the people during the Middle Ages, this verse would have rendered impossible the idle superstition that to eat meat in Lent was one of the deadliest sins, or that there was any merit whatever in the Lenten fast except as a means of self improvement and self mastery. This verse says expressly, “We lose nothing by not eating; we gain nothing by eating.”
After stating that those who refuse to eat meat have a weakened conscious, Paul (perhaps) pokes at the pride of some Corinthians by noting that those who do eat this meat are no better off than those who do not. Paul is thus shifting the burden of behavior away from those who do not possess the full knowledge, and onto those who do possess it. He make that more clear in verse 9. Let’s look at Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:
(9) But take heed.—On this very account, because the matter is one which is indifferent, because there is no right or wrong in it, you must look elsewhere for your guide as to how you ought to act. In things which are not indifferent, right or wrong is the sole test of action. In things indifferent you must look for some other guide, and you must regulate your conduct by the effect it may have on others. Your liberty, which arises from the bare fact of the indifferent nature of the thing, may become a stumbling-block to others, may be the cause of their taking a false step in the Christian course.
That note is worth reading twice. If the conflict is over a matter which is indifferent, you must use something else, other than the matter itself, to determine right and wrong.
I am imagining in my mind’s eye, one camp of idol meat eating Christians, having a BBQ, right in front of a separate camp, protesting this practice as sinful. What Paul says here is that just because the people in the protest are wrong is no reason to rub their noses in it. You will not have unity if your base your decision-making around knowledge alone. Knowledge without love can look a lot like the sin of pride.
In addition to potentially causing disunity (remember, 1 Corinthians is a letter specifically addressing Church disunity,) what happens if you force someone to do something that they (wrongly) believe is sinful? Would that lead to other sin as well? it very well might. Continuing with Ellicott in verse 10:
(10) For if any man (i.e., any of the weak brethren) see thee which hast knowledge.—The fact of your being avowedly advanced in the knowledge of the faith will make your example the more dangerous, because more effective.
Sit at meat in the idol’s temple.—Some went so far as to not only eat, but eat in the precincts of the heathen temple. The Apostle being concerned now only with the point of the eating, does not rebuke this practice here, but he does so fully in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22. He probably mentions the fact here as an instance in which there could be no salving of his conscience by the heathen convert thinking that it was not certain whence the meat had come.
Be emboldened.—Better, be built up. The people addressed had probably argued that the force of their example would build up others. Yes, says St. Paul, with irony, it will build him up—to do what, being weak, he cannot do without sin.
Keep in mind that the note here directs us to 1 Corinthians 10:14-22. I’ll quote that below:
14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? 19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
Paul’s explanation regarding freedom, here in chapter 8, is not intended to be an argument that Christians have so much freedom that even participation in idol worship is acceptable. He makes that clear overtly in Chapter 10, as we later see.
The point being made by Paul is that an action that might be free of sin for one person, who is not weak, could lead to sin if imitated by another who is weak. The Pulpit Commentaries makes the same point here in verse 10:
Sit at meat in the [an] idol’s temple. To recline at a banquet in the temple of Poseidon or Aphrodite, especially in such a place as Corinth, was certainly an extravagant assertion of their right to Christian liberty. It was indeed a “bowing in the house of Rimmon” which could hardly fail to be misunderstood. The very word “idoleum” should have warned them. It was a word not used by Gentiles, and invented by believers in the one God, to avoid the use of “temple” (ναὸς) in connection with idols. The Greeks spoke of the “Athenaeum,” or “Apolloneum,” or “Posideum;” but Jews only of an “idoleum”—a word which (like other Jewish designations of heathen forms of worship) involved a bitter taunt. For the very word eidolon meant a shadowy, fleeting, unreal image. Perhaps the Corinthian Christians might excuse their boldness by pleading that all the most important feasts and social gatherings of the ancients were held in temples. Be emboldened; rather, be edified. The expression is a very bold paronomasia. This “edification of ruin” would be all the more likely to ensue because self interest would plead powerfully in the same direction. A little compromise and complicity, a little suppression of opinion and avoidance of antagonism to things evil, a little immoral acquiescence, would have gone very far in those days to save Christians from incessant persecution. Yet no Christian could be “edified” into a more dangerous course than that of defying and defiling his own tender conscience.
Here I think of another more modern comparison. What would you think if you found your Church pastor at the local bar, knocking back a few drinks? Some denominations within the Church would think nothing of that – provided the pastor did not become intoxicated. Other believers though, perhaps especially those who have struggled with alcoholism, or someone from a teetotaling background, would really struggle to see this. This might encourage them to take up an old sin which they’ve struggled with. Or it might spur disunity within the Church. Who carries the greater burden here – the spiritually strong pastor or those weaker congregants who see him? Does it make sense to tell those who are weak to “deal with it” or “get over it”? No. Returning to The Pulpit Commentaries in verse 11:
Shall the weak brother perish. The fact that he was “weak” constituted a fresh appeal to pity. It made him more emphatically one of “Christ’s little ones,” and Christ had pronounced a heavy malediction on all who caused such to offend. But if there is this “ruinous edification” upon the trembling and sandy foundation of a weak conscience, what could possibly follow but a gradual destruction? The tense is the present (the praesens futurascens), “and he who is weak, in thy knowledge, is perishing“—”the brother for whose sake Christ died.” The order of the original often gives a force to the words, which it is difficult to reproduce, as here. The word “is perishing” becomes very emphatic by being placed first in the sentence. “Destroy not him with thy meat for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:16). Perish; terrificum verbum. Clarius. He could use no word which would more effectually point his warning.
And wound their weak conscience; rather, and in smiting their conseience which is weak. “What,” asks St. Chrysostom, “can be more ruthless than a man who strikes one who is sick?” Was it not a cowardly exercise of liberty to strike the conscience of the defenceless? It is another form of “defiling” (1 Corinthians 8:7) the conscience, but brings out the cruelty of such conduct. Ye sin against Christ. Because Christ lives and suffers in the persons of the least of his little ones (Matthew 25:40, Matthew 25:45; Romans 12:5, etc.).
The point here for Paul is that those who are strong in the faith must care diligently for those who are weak. Sometimes that care must include abstaining from something that the stronger person might technically be e permitted to engage in without sin. The meat offered to idols is thus not the point. Caring for others is the point. Looking at Ellicott in verse 13:
(13) Wherefore.—He states his own solemn determination, arising from the considerations which have just been urged. If a matter of food cause a brother to fall in his Christian course, I will certainly never again eat any kind of flesh, lest I should be the cause of so making him to fall.
It is noticeable that St. Paul in discussing this question makes no reference whatever to the decision of the Council at Jerusalem (see Acts 15:29), that the Christians should abstain from “meats offered to idols, and from things strangled, and from blood.” Probably, the Apostle felt the importance of maintaining his own apostolic authority in a Church where it was questioned by some, and he felt that to base his instruction upon the decision of the Church at Jerusalem might have seemed to imply that he had obtained authority from them, and not directly from the Lord. It was also more in accordance with St. Paul’s usual style of instruction to base the smallest details of conduct upon that highest of all principles—our union as Christians with Christ. An appeal to the letter sent from Jerusalem would have been no step in the ascending argument, which reaches its great climax in the 11th and 12th verses, and which, in 1 Corinthians 8:13, the Apostle enunciates as the guide of his own life.
Let’s look at Acts 15:
28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
With the knowledge of Council at Jerusalem in mind, then we can read 1 Corinthians 8 as an explanation for how that decision was reached. The early Church does not deny the freedom from Christ, however, it discourages members from eating meat offered to idols because doing so might cause congregants to stumble in their faith.
We see in this chapter some principles which apply to modern times. Technical freedom cannot and must not be the determining factor in whether an action is undertaken. The guiding principle must be love and care for others, especially those others who are believers.
Of course, this debate does not occur until the issue in dispute is indifferent. If the Lord has provided a clearly stated rule, that rule should be followed unless or until that rule is removed by the Lord, through a person with authority (as was done in the case of the rule about circumcision, the rule about not eating pork, and some other cases.)
That’s the end of Chapter 8. Chapter 9 shifts focus to an examination of Paul, and perhaps Church leadership more broadly.