Knowledge, Christian freedom, and love

Roman idol sacrifice

Roman relief: sacrifice of bull. Now at the Antiques Museum, Royal Palace, Stockholm

Have you ever noticed that the world of the Bible is very different from our own society? Sometimes it can seem hard to relate to some of the topics.

But we’re not as far removed from the ancients as we like to think. After all, we’re human, too.

The church at Corinth sent Paul a letter with some questions. We can reconstruct them in the structure of 1 Corinthians.

Paul begins various sections with the phrase “now concerning.” In 1 Corinthians 8, it’s “Now concerning meat sacrificed to idols.”

It still matters.

For one thing, we’re as idolatrous as they were. What’s not idolatrous about putting faith in riches, human power, or our own righteousness? We just don’t kill an animal at some statue’s temple and burn part of it.

The next “now concerning” comes in 1 Corinthians 12:1. It’s not always obvious, but everything in the intervening chapters comprises Paul’s answer to the same question.

In fact, Paul broadens the question so much that meat sacrificed to idols becomes incidental to his answer.

Strong and weak faith

Saint Paul

Saint Paul / Bartolomeo Montagna (1481)

The ancient Greeks took great pride in knowledge. Apparently, many in the Corinthian church had very accurate knowledge that idols were not gods at all. And they knew that all meat is meat. No ritual changes it.

Paul calls that attitude “strong faith.”

But some of them apparently had strong scruples. Meat left over from pagan sacrifices might lead to guilt by association. It might offend God and cause him to withdraw favor. So they were very leery of eating it.

Paul calls that attitude “weak faith.”

All Christians will be confronted by moral issues that weren’t issues before we were saved. Sometimes we can’t just walk away and shut them out. In ancient Corinth, for example, no one could be sure if meat available for sale had been part of a sacrifice. Should a Christian eat it?

Knowledge can give people an inflated view of themselves. Love builds up other people

Today, should a Christian drink wine, watch TV, do yoga exercises? Comparable questions are limitless. Paul makes two important points.

First, the person with strong faith can act in freedom.

  • The idol is no god at all. A meaningless ritual to no god at all doesn’t affect the meat. It’s OK to eat it.
  • Jesus made water into wine. It’s OK to drink it. (Just not in excess.)
  • TV is morally neutral. The person of strong faith can find and watch edifying programs.
  • Yoga is morally neutral. The person of strong faith can learn it and all those Sanskrit names. Without any Hindu gods, who are no gods, interfering with their exercise.

But the person with weak faith lives in fear of doing the wrong thing. Whatever is not of faith is sin. So the same action appropriate for a person with strong faith is sin to the person with weak faith.

Also, the person with weak faith falls back on rules and can be tempted to judge the person who violates these rules as having no faith.

Second, therefore, the person with strong faith, who has freedom to choose to eat the meat, also has freedom to choose not to eat it if it will lead the person of weak faith into sin.

Freedom means that we can do something, not that we must. Otherwise, we’d be slave to our freedom!

Suppose I think I must eat the meat regardless of what effect it has on another Christian for whom Christ died. I’m acting from my knowledge that for me it’s not sin. But I’m not acting in love toward the weaker Christian.

Failure to walk in love violates the most important principle in the kingdom of God.

Rights, Christian freedom, and living the gospel


We still have idols!

Paul begins chapter 9 by asking about his own freedom and apostleship. He strongly asserts his rights as an apostle to have the church support his ministry.

Not only that, he has the right as an apostle to have his wife with him. So the church would have to support her and any children, too.

If we’re not careful, we could get the idea he’s finished answering their question and started complaining about how badly they mistreated him.

Until we get to v. 12, where he says that he (and Barnabas) chose not to exercise that right. In fact, he as much as begs them not to start supporting him. He’d rather die than give up his boast that he never burdened his churches.

He declares himself a slave to everyone. When he’s with Jews, he’ll gladly conform to all the obsolete dietary regulations and other ritual observances. When he’s with Gentiles, he’ll gladly make them comfortable in his presence and not hang back from non-Jewish practices.

When he’s with people of weak faith, he’ll act according to their weakness. When he’s with people of strong faith, he’ll exercise his Christian freedom.

It’s called love.

By tailoring his behavior to the spiritual condition of the people he’s with, he avoids placing any barrier to someone coming to Jesus as savior.

Lessons from antiquity

Child sacrifice to Molech

Child offered to the Canaanite god Molech to be burned alive.

The generation Moses led out of the wilderness had advantages every succeeding generation of Jews and Christians has longed for.

Only two of them lived to set foot in the Promised Land. Paul summarizes this history to begin chapter 10.

God intended large part of the ceremonial law to make sure that Israelites didn’t adopt the practices of the people they were supposed to drive out of the land.

Instead, they made idols and fell into sexual idolatry whenever Moses turned his back. Finally, they committed full-scale rebellion and refused to take possession of the land God had brought them to.

Why should anyone think that, in the absence of all those advantages, we can stand on our own strength?

Temptation surrounds us as it did them. If idolatry is at bottom worship of human accomplishment and power, we face exactly the same temptation as the Israelites and the Corinthians.

Practicing idolatry is not freedom, as many suppose. It is bondage.

In this context, Paul returns more explicitly to the subject of meat sacrificed to idols and compares idol sacrifices to temple worship and the Lord’s Supper.

Sacrifices are acts of worship. Temple sacrifices were made to the living God. The Lord’s Supper commemorates Jesus’s sacrifice of himself. All other sacrifices are actually made to demons.

Don’t ask questions about the food, he says. But if someone says that it was sacrificed to an idol, don’t eat it.

Why not?

For the sake of conscience. Not one’s own conscience, but another’s. In this case, he tells them not to use their freedom in such a way that it implies acceptance of demons’ legitimacy.

Does Paul propose a dress code?

woman at prayer

No veil. No longer a disgrace.

Every commentary I have seen considers chapter 11 to start a new section. But the next “now concerning” doesn’t come till chapter 12. As in chapter 9, what seems like an abrupt change of subject logically continues the same discussion.

The opening of this chapter gives feminists a hissy fit. Is it a disgrace for a woman to have short hair? And must she cover her hair in church? If so, most of the women in our today’s church are disgraceful.

That’s what the Bible says explicitly, but let’s not be satisfied with superficialities. In the first 16 verses of I Corinthians 11, Paul is still dealing with the same issues he started discussing in chapter 8.

At first, he answered a question about meat sacrificed to idols and concluded that people of strong faith are free to eat whatever they want. But they shouldn’t use their freedom to trample on people of weak faith.

As we have considered other related topics, we find that Paul’s primary concern is that we should do nothing that interferes either with someone else’s faith or the reception of the gospel by unbelievers.

And at that time, participating in a pagan feast would have done both. So would a woman who decided to cast off the norms of her society.

Women who used their freedom in Christ not to cover their hair with a veil offended the rest of the church and the rest of society. We need to see Paul’s instructions as commanding propriety and respect for worship and the experience of the rest of the congregation, not as a dress code.

True worship

Ultima Cena [Last Supper] / Francisco Ribalta, 1604

This section of I Corinthians began with a question about the Christian’s relation to pagan religion. It concludes with a description of the Lord’s Supper and proper Christian worship.

In this regard, the Corinthian church showed a complete failure of love. It went far beyond their worst failures regarding food or hair styles.

Pagans often had communal meals where the rich would provide food for the poor. It appears that the early church had a meal together to commemorate the Last Supper.

But in Corinth, the rich didn’t share and didn’t even wait till the appropriate time in the service to start eating. The poor came and left hungry.

Paul follows his harsh criticism with the earliest account of any of Jesus’ sayings we have. Jesus pointed out the meaning of the bread and wine. Paul concludes that we must each examine ourselves and discern the body of Christ. Jesus clearly said that the bread and wine are his body and blood.

He clearly teaches in the next chapter that the church and its individual members are the body of Christ. When we examine ourselves, we will notice and acknowledge sin.

Never refrain from taking communion because your sin makes you unworthy. Of course we’re all unworthy. We wouldn’t need the remembrance if we were worthy of it.

Confess sin and repent. God will forgive and cleanse from unrighteousness. Then our taking communion will be worthy, even though we ourselves are not.

Earlier, Paul offered his own ministry as an example of curtailing freedom for the sake of love. Now he describes the divine humility that led the Lord of the universe to become flesh and dwell among us. Being Lord of all, he came as servant of all.

1 Corinthians 8-11 broadens the church’s original question to help us model ourselves after Jesus, as Paul did.

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