1 Corinthians 8:1-13
8Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3but anyone who loves God is known by him.
4 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ 5Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— 6yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
7 It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. 10For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
When I was a kid in Allentown, Dorney Park was a lot like Knoebles Park still is today. It was a much smaller, wooded place where folks strolled, sat on benches and also purchased ride tickets for the kids. On Saturday nights they had stock car races which you could hear at my house 5 miles away in town.
Every Labor Day Dorney Park had their annual Ox Roast and Apple Butter Festival. Everyone in town was invited to get free food. Free anything was a powerful motivation in my house. So each Labor Day we’d head over to Dorney Park to get our free piece of ox.
When I read about Paul’s discussion of meat sacrificed to idols I think about the Dorney Park Labor Day Ox Roast. There were no idols involved (although there was Alfundo the scariest clown until Pennywise) but the idea of roasting an animal for the purpose of creating community at a public festival is precisely the kind of event Paul was addressing in his letter to the Corinthians. (He also discussed this issue in Romans)
Anthropologists suggest that a higher protein diet allowed humans to develop smaller mandibles creating more cranial space for a larger brain. Whether or not that is so, we humans (mostly) like our meat, but for most of history (and much of the world) meat is hard to come by. In the ancient world people ate a lot of fish (if available) and grains but if they wanted meat, especially red meat, they had to go to the local temples.
Animals sacrificed in religious/civic festival (there was no separation) were not burnt to oblivion. The animals were sacrificed, grilled and distributed to those in attendance. This was also the case at the Jerusalem temple where the priests became excellent butchers.
So what do you do for meat if you are part of a religion that does not practice animal sacrifice, like Christianity? This is the question Paul addresses. Some Corinthians, although practicing Christians, were continuing to go to the civic/religious (there was no separation) festivals for community and… their free piece of ox.
This created a problem for the Corinthian Christian leaders. What to do about those attending the “pagan” festivals and eating meat that had been sacrificed on behalf of Zeus or Athena?
Paul counsels the Corinthians that he doesn’t have a particular issue with the idea of eating meat sacrificed to idols since those idols don’t actually represent existing deities. But he recognizes that some Christians were very much bothered by it. Therefore, for their sake, Paul suggests that Christians avoid those festival and thus, not eat meat.
This vegetarianism was not principled on animal rights but on account of meat pretty much always being associated with sacrifice.
It is important to recognize that Paul was willing to make this accommodation because he believed a Christian’s actions should be defined by how it affected the faith of those around them. He recognized that the scruples of some might be considered a sign of weak faith, and not damaging a tender shoot of that faith made the sacrifice (sacrifice of the sacrifice) worthwhile.
There are a couple of issues this text brings up in my mind that I will be thinking about this week. What are some of the “meat sacrificed to idols” issues which prick the scruples of believers today? What is the best way to deal with these issues balancing the very Pauline idea of Christian liberty against a desire to act in a way that does not damage the conscience of those whose faith is rather more conditional?
Paul wrote earlier in his Corinthian correspondence, “All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial.” (1 Corinthians 6.12) This is a concept that makes some Christians very uncomfortable. How might our concern for these Christians affect Lutherans and others who are a bit more robustly Pauline in their allowances for practices others cannot abide? And what might we be “weak” about?
These are super delicate questions. Nobody wants to be told they are “weak” because they feel a certain way about an issue. Especially if they are convinced a practice is immoral and ungodly. And while all may be lawful for Paul not all is beneficial. I believe we see Paul apply this principle to the issue of meat sacrificed to idols. How might this principle be applied to other issues?
Lots to think about.