A Clash of Cultures ~ 1 Corinthians 8
Big Idea: True Christian faith is not about following a strict set of dietary rules. How we love matters more to God than what we eat. Truly mature believers are willing to give up what they’re rightly entitled to, in order not to stumble other fellow believers.
You are what you eat. What’s true for health is also true for faith. Hindus don’t eat beef. Buddhists are vegetarians. Muslims don’t eat pork, nor drink alcohol. In many religions, food is a handy measure of piety. Not so for the Christian. Christians can eat whatever we fancy. Nothing we eat (or don’t eat) can bring us closer to God.
But not everything we eat is equally pleasing to God. While all meat is OK to eat, not all meat-eating is OK. Sometimes our ‘right’ to eat can be wrong to God. That’s what the Corinthians had to learn.
Not everyone at Corinth looked at meat in the same way. As one commentator pointed out:1
Meat was usually difficult to obtain for most Corinthians who were not well-to-do, except at pagan festivals, when what was cooked and remained from sacrifices was doled out to the masses. Many of the socially powerless (the “weak”) thus associated meat with idolatry.
Most believers did not eat meat as part of their regular diet. Much of the meat available in the market had already been offered to idols in pagan temples. During major pagan festivals, however, meat was given away to the poor, as many animals were sacrificed and could not be sold before it spoiled. So to the uneducated poor, meat and idolatry went hand-in-hand.
For rich believers, meat was just part of life. They ate it at home. They also ate it in temples while conducting business with associates or with relatives at wedding banquets. (Pagan temples were more than just simply places of worship. Ancient temples had large dining rooms that functioned like a clubhouse for the upper class.)
So Paul was most likely speaking to the rich, upper-class Gentile converts here. They had “knowledge” : idols are not real (cf. 8:4); it was not wrong to eat food that had been offered to them. (They still had deals to make and parties to go to.) Paul, however, framed his response not on rights but on love.
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. (8:9)
While it was legally and socially right for them to eat, it wasn’t right in terms of love. Sometimes a ‘right’ can be wrong.
A new convert, not used to having meat, might be tempted to eat when offered, violating his moral qualms. While meat-eating is not a sin in itself, the habit of violating his conscience might set him down the path to sin in other areas of life.
Be mindful not only of what you eat, but who you are eating with. Will the taste of meat – or alcohol or any other permissible thing – have a detrimental effect on another person’s spiritual health? Is insisting on your ‘rights’ today worth a brother or sister doing wrong tomorrow?
The heart of the matter:
Worldly people eat what they can, to please themselves.
Gospel people don’t eat (even if they can), to please God.
1 Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary (Second Edition), (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), p. 477.
Questions for personal reflection or group discussion:
1. Aside from food, what are some ‘worldly’ habits that Christians might indulge in, that can cause new Christians confusion or unease?
2. What would you do (in the light of what Paul said), if you were about to drink wine or beer (or hard liquor) over dinner or at a party, and a young Christian questions you directly, stating that he/she believes Christians should be teetotalers?