Eating of Food Sacrificed to Idols – An Issue? (1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1)

The main topic of chs. 8-10 (including 11:1) is what to do about food which has been used in sacrificial settings in Roman Corinth. Here it is necessary to look into some of the historic-cultural aspects to look further into Paul’s argument. For sure, there are theological arguments to the topic, but Paul argues from an ethical-ecclesiological standpoint to win those who are causing trouble in the Christian community at Corinth. Witherington rightly observes that “[i]n Paul’s view the issue is not what kind of meat one eats. It is, rather, the social and moral effects of eating in certain contexts” (187). To these contexts we will give our attention to.
First we need to be reminded that Corinth was a city of commerce. Through its strategically setting and its geographical opportune surrounding, Corinth was one of the main centers were the opportunity to gain riches and influences through commerce was made possible. Here it is where the nouveau riches (or: homo novus) found their place. “It was necessary for such people to maintain their social contacts…in order to keep their business growing” Witherington writes (Conflict And Community In Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary On 1 And 2 Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 186 n. 2). But where were the places for such maintenance of social structures? Well, mainly the temple and private feasts at people’s home. But this is exactly where the argument takes its full force. How are the Corinthians (especially the nouveau riches of the Christian community) to maintain business if there are objections to meat sacrificed to idols?
The problem as we have stated earlier is the meat per se but the social and cultural norm in which the meat was eaten. The temples had rooms (somewhat restaurant like) where the meat which had been sacrificed to idols was eaten. Here now comes the question of conscience into play. Not the conscience of the believer who eats the meat necessarily, because the meat is not evil in itself, but the weak conscience of some of the Corinthian brothers and sisters as well as the conscience of him/her who offers meat to a Christian in a private home. Paul makes clear that if it is not inquired as to where the meat is coming from then there is no need to bring it up. But what if the party host brings the issue up? Well, then, according to Paul, the Christian should abstain from eating it so that there is no confusion to where the believer’s alliance is.
Some brief remarks on meat and parties in general: Meat was a nutrition which could hardly be afforded by the common person so that the issue at hand is more an issue of the richer person within the church. Further, dining parties whether held in temples or at home did not only have elements of eating, but also of drinking (heavy drinking!) and sexual immorality. How is the believer to behave in such a setting? Is he/she to leave before the drinking and sexual parts, should he/she stay but not participate etc.? These are some of the questions Christians face in the city of Roman Corinth.
In the first section (8:10-13) Paul makes clear that it is love (agapē) and not knowledge (gnōsis) which is the essential characteristic of the Christian community evident in their behavior towards each other.
In vv. 1-6 Paul introduces the problem of meat sacrificed to idols and what it means to have true knowledge. Love is more important than knowledge (vv. 1-3) and true knowledge is practiced in love. In vv. 4-6 Paul writes that “no idol in the world really exists.” Though there is a reality to spiritual powers other than God (v. 5) for Christians Paul essentially is stating the Shema (cf. Deut 6:4) with a Christological emphasis (v. 6). The idols are “nothings” (the prophet Isaiah calls them “coal dusts” – idol images made out of one part of the wood, whereas the other is used for warming the house; cf. 40:19-20). There may be so-called deities in heaven or on earth which are worshiped as gods and lords, but in reality there is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ.
In vv. 7-13 Paul then picks up the discussion about meat sacrificed to idols and the dangers which come with it for fellow Christians. Immature and young Christians who coming out of paganism (associated with the temple cult) might not yet be fully established to understand how some other brothers and sisters can eat meat which has been sacrificed to idols. Seeing fellow Christians partaking in such eating might cause them to follow. It is not the meat as such but the practice and idolatry associated with it. Those who posses “knowledge” are a stumbling block to the Christians who have a weak conscience, and cause the latter to lapse back into paganism and to eat food sacrificed to idols. Thus the seduction of a fellow believer is actually a sin against Jesus Christ. Therefore Paul exhorts to refrain from eating any kind of food if this causes a fellow Christian to fall.
In ch. 9 Paul states his rights as an apostle to illustrate proper conduct of freedom and love. In vv. 1-2 Paul writes about his authority to which he could refer as an apostle. But in vv. 3-6 he shows them how he behaves as a missionary. Though apostles do have a right to have their needs being met (vv. 7-14) which he argues by everyday life examples, Scripture (Deut 18:1-3 and 25:4), a word from the Lord, Paul does not make use of such.
            In 9:15-23 the apostle gives an explanation as to why he chose not to use his right as an apostle for material support – his divine calling, his understanding of being a servant, and the gospel-centered behavior of Paul. In vv. 24-27 he concludes the chapter with athletic metaphors to talk about the purpose of the Christian life in general and his in particular.
            Starting in ch. 10 Paul comes back to the issue of participating in cultic meals in pagan temples (vv.1-22). Verse 10-13 deal with the example of the Israelites and how they, though being under the pillar of the cloud (Ex 13:21-22; 14:24), though having crossed the Red Sea (Ex 14:21-22), though committed to Moses as savior and to his authority as God’s leader of his people and other stories from the Exodus account (cf. Ex 16:1-16; 17-7; Num 11:4-34; 20: 7-11), experienced God’s judgment in the wilderness period. In vv. 6-11 Paul exhorts the Corinthian church not to make the same mistakes and to take heed of Israel’s example: “do not become idolaters (v. 7) and commit sexually immorality (v. 8); do not put Christ to the test (v. 9) and do not complain (v. 10).” Though believers should be cautious and not take lightly issues of idol worship and sexual immorality but they can overcome the temptation, because God is providing for them.
            In vv. 14-22 Paul compares the Lord’s Supper and pagan banquets. “Flee from idolatry” is Paul’s advice to the believers. The Lord’s Supper is incompatible with eating in pagan temples in view of its meaning (vv. 15-17) and in view of demonic reality (18-20). Thus Paul concludes that participation in the Lord’s Supper by definition has to exclude participation in pagan temple practice (i.e., feasts and banquets) (vv. 21-22).
            First Corinthians 10:23-11:1 deals with Paul’s advice in regards to meat and meat sacrificed to idols. There is freedom as to eat meat but this freedom is limited by the standard of love practiced in the community (vv. 23-24). There is no problem with buying meat from the market or eating meat in private houses if no matters of conscience are raised. If, however, they know that the meat comes from pagan temples and others are observing them they must abstain from it. In all, the conduct of the church God is to be glorified and honored (v.31). How such a life looks like and how the Corinthians should live is stated by Paul the following way: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).
One of the main applications is that sometimes it is good to abstain from our rights. There is no need to always press the issue and say “I have the right”…well maybe you do have a certain right but out of Christian love you might want to refrain. We need to be cautious in our behavior to other believers so that we will not be a stumbling block to them and so sin against our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The OT story of Israel should be a guide and example to today’s church 

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