In 1 Corinthians 8-10, Paul responds to a situation regarding meat offered to idols. What strategies did Paul suggest and how can these suggestions be applied to Christians in twenty first century Britain?
Corinth was a large city located on the Peloponnesian peninsula, which gave it importance as a major trade route between Africa, Asia and Europe. It has a two stage history. Firstly as a major Greek city before being destroyed by the Romans in 146BC and secondly as a Roman colony rebuilt by Caesar in 44BC, when it was probably the capital of the Achaia province, due to its militarily strategic location. Corinth was also wealthy due to the imposition of taxes and tariffs. Subsequently, Corinth was multicultural, pluralistic and rife with immorality. Aphrodite was worshipped devotedly with temple prostitutes and slaves, dedicated to her. Apparently due to the predominant immorality, the word ‘korinthiazesthai’ was created to describe their reputed behaviour. With emperor-cult worship probably being the fastest growing religion in the Roman Empire, a new temple was built in Corinth to tower over other pagan temples. The social strata including people from slaves to wealthy citizens, Jews and Greeks (1Cor. 12v13). It is noted by Philo as part of the Jewish Diaspora.
(1b) Corinthian Church, Paul and 1 Corinthians
It was in this context that Paul preached the Gospel and the church in Corinth started (1 Cor.4vv14-15). It was this city, that Paul based himself for eighteen months (Acts 18v11). Prior hypothesises rightly, that Paul found Corinth “uniquely awesome” due to this multiplicity of “races, creeds, languages and cultures”. Paul frequented the local synagogue, to persuade Jews and Greeks about Jesus. Erastus, probably a city treasurer, was one of Paul’s Corinthian converts. The church met in houses for worship and fellowship, probably including a house belonging to Priscilla and Aquilla. Christiasn could not meet in synagogues, as these were out of bounds, due to Christianity not being an unofficial religion. Paul (whose authorship is not disputed), wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus sometime between 51AD to 55AD. This is probably one of four letters that Paul wrote to them, including 2 Corinthians and 2 non-extant documents. As Fee rightly notes, Paul had two main difficulties in composing this epistle. Firstly that he need to assert his diminished apostolic authority, whilst using servant-hood as paradigmatic leadership (1Cor.3vv5-9; 4vv1-5) and secondly to persuade them to alter their thinking and actions to conform to his as he followed Christ.
(1c) Place of 1 Corinthians 8-10 within the letter – One of the major foci of 1 Corinthians is on keeping the church united and not fractured (1v10; 3v1-3; 4v14, 16; 5vv4-8; 6:1-20; 8vv9-13; 10v14 11vv33-34; 12v14). Bracketed by 1 Corinthians 6:20b and 1 Corinthians 11:1, whereby he issues commands to follow him in honouring God and imitating Jesus, Paul answers the queries set for him in their latest correspondence to him. 1 Corinthians 7 sees Paul tackling the issue of sexual immorality and marriage, where Corinthian-type attitudes to sex had infiltrated the church.
In chapter 8, Paul turns to the no small matter of whether Christians can eat tōn eidōlothutōn (food offered to idols). It was not a problem unique to Corinth, as it is referred to elsewhere in the New Testament (Acts 15vv20, 29; Romans 14; Revelation 2vv14-17, 20). Christian converts from paganism faced two problems. Firstly the uniqueness of Christianity that demanded undivided loyalty to Christ alone, in a society where syncretism was endemic. Secondly, whilst avoiding overt idolatrous worship, they were not sure what they were to do with food that had been sacrificed to idols, if it was served to them when with family, friends or business associates. With animal sacrifices to idols integral to Corinthian culture, these questions naturally arose within the church.
(2a) Meat offered to idols
Chapter 8: That the meat was offered to idols is not disputed. The argument arises over whether the food was from the marketplace or from the temple’s cultic meals. Fee, decides that Paul refers only to cultic meals, on the basis that they were a ritualistic part of pagan life in the first century. However, Gill insists that Paul refers to meat bought from the macellum, based on archaeological evidence. However a more balanced viewing is that both are equally correct insomuch that meat, resultant from pagan sacrifices, was either eaten in temple restaurants and feasts or sold in the marketplace (macellum). Either way, it was meat sacrificed to idols. Paul further on, talks about meals in private homes, so ergo, macellum meat (10vv25-27). Horrell, correctly states that idolatrous temple feasts and private meals can “hardly be separated” due to “the impossibility of dividing sacred and secular contexts”.
Meat could be purchased either at a normal market at a high price or at one the temples for a a lower price and where meat was readily available after a sacrifice had been conducted. Garland suggests several ways in which sacrificed food maybe proffered to a Christian to eat: civic life, trade unions or social clubs, party invitations and being a guest in the home of a non-Christian. The ‘strong’, realizing that the meat was not contaminated by the idols, ate this meat without qualm or bother to conscience because they knew that idols do not actually exist (8vv4-6). Whilst their synopsis was indeed correct, their application of it was not, because they did not exhibit love to those who they caused to stumble. This was somewhat of a discouragement to those of a ‘weak’ conscience who had not yet come to know this fact (8v7,9,11-12). They thought they were being encouraged to eat this meat sacrificed to idols, and therefore go against their conscience by those who were ‘strong’. To not partake in meals was seen as anti-social and depraved – it was not the done thing! So for the ‘weak’, it was a challenge: to go against their conscience and weaken their faith, or risk social and/or civil ostracism. Paul, however, called such blatant ignorance by the ‘strong’, founded on knowledge and rights, sin against God and the ‘weak’. To do so, was not encouragement built on love, but a discouraging arrogance and pride (8v1). True knowledge in the Christian realm, is not some form of quasi-intellectualism, but rather a “profound insight into what one’s neighbour wants.”
For Paul, faith was the obedient response of gratefulness to the calling of God into fellowship with Christ, rather than mere knowledge. Paul is less concerned about what the strong have become, than he is about what they are to do, which is to show Christ’s love to all purported ‘weak’ members of the Corinthian church.
Chapter 9: In order to bolster his argument, Paul now reflects upon his own choice to finance himself whilst living amongst them. The Corinth church accepted his apostleship (9v1-2), whilst others denigrated him for not using his right to fiscal and material support (9vv13-14). Paul appears to contradict what Jesus has commanded “that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel “ (9v14). Dunn, quite rightly says that Paul “ignores the Lord’s command.” This was due to his mission of promoting the Gospel, where Paul states he had given up his apostolic privileges, so that some may be saved through his sacrificial actions (9vv15-18). Paul goes furthers and says that “I am not anyone’s slave. But I have become a slave to everyone, so that I can win as many people as possible.” (9v19 CEV).Why does Paul do this? So the Gospel may progress unhindered, and that the prize may be won. (9v23-27). Galloway rightly asserts that Paul sought “work as a way of establishing his freedom and declaring that the gospel is not for sale”. Paul’s rewards was also in ensuring the Gospel was free (9v18). For Paul, he knew he had rights, both as an apostle and as a Roman. As a Roman, he ensured he used those rights only when expedient (Acts 16vv37-39; 22v29). In expressing what his rights are, he also shows that occasionally the right the thing to do is to not claim your rights, and to reflect upon the Gospel and the demands it makes. In talking about his apostleship, Paul extinguishes his own rights so that the Gospel can go forward. In so doing, he becomes weak to the weak, and that having rights does not necessarily mean using them so as to be a stumbling block to others. Paul’s message was that to become the person God intends, will involve sacrifice of rights in order to be obedient.
Chapter 10: Paul now turns to a warning – that if they pursue knowledge and freedom at the expense of love, they are on the road to destruction just as Israel was in the desert (10v10). The examples of Israel and the golden calf, sacrificing to Moabite gods or grumbling were all examples of idolatrous behaviour. They were supreme examples of “apostasy and opposition to God.” Rosner, rightly stipulates that 10v22b shows God’s jealousy will “lead him to take stern action” against the Corinthian believers without mentioning what that action might be. As Clement so succinctly stated “Those who take advantage of everything that is lawful rapidly deteriorate into doing what is not lawful.” Paul states that nobody should boast about their own spirituality in case they fall (10v12). God however, is always wise and merciful, and provides a means of escape should anybody be tempted to sin in this manner. God called them into fellowship with Himself through Jesus and will guard them against unbearable tests of faith, whereby God’s faithfulness is a guarantee that Paul’s own words are dependable. Paul writes, “Everything is permissible” (10v23) but overall, the community’s betterment as a whole overrides the rights of an individual. Paul goes further and states “Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.“ (10v24) In so doing, the body is built up and encouraged. Paul’s own maxim seems to be as Prior puts it “I am prepared to do what others believe to be right if that will ensure that their edification is not impeded.”
Paul is quite clear that faithful people withstand temptation due to God’s supreme faithfulness. The one assurance they have, is that God is always faithful, and shouldn’t trust ”their own super-spirituality”. Ergo, there is no reason not to show love to others at the expense of conceited knowledge (10v13). As an example, Paul retakes hold of the idol and food issue. When at a meal, writes Paul, don’t ask where the food came from, just eat it (10v27) for the earth’s entirety belongs to God (Psalm 24). If however, the food was a result of a sacrifice, then it is best not to partake (10v28). Paul, finally reminds the Corinthians that he does all for the glory of God, and they should too (10v31). Paul is guided not by his own rights and needs but by the Spirit. How is God glorified? When Christ is imitated and held as an example, just as Paul endeavours to do (11v1).
Much discussion continues to take place on various issues regarding 1 Corinthians 8-10. Garland highlights the conjecture surrounding the question Paul was actually answering: Was the question “Can we eat idol food?” or “Why can’t we eat idol food?”. Sumney discusses whether 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, actually fits into this section. There has also been some discussion as to whether or not Paul is specifying particular groups of people or not. Paul does not raise any titles or group names himself, but speculation continues as to whether the two groups were ‘Jew and Gentile’ or ‘Gnostics and non-Gnostics’.
However for the purposes of this paper, there will be concentration on just the one area of concern; what was Paul’s solution?
2b. What was Paul’s Solution
What solution does Paul offer the Corinthians, in relation to eating food offered to idols? Fee suggests that they not inhabit the temple for meals at all, based on that it is not showing love to others and that it is demonic fellowship(10vv21-22). Bultmann however disagrees and states that Paul “declares the eating of food offered to idols permitted as far as any principle is concerned” based on his summation that as idolatry is “parenthetically among other vices a practice that is out of the question for a Christian… it simply belongs in the past”. However this view patently contradicts scripture, which forbids idolatry of any kind.(1 Cor.10v14; Gal.5v20; Col3v5). Still takes a differing point of view and says that “some temple meals were not necessarily idolatrous in character” In this section, Paul commands that they run from idolatry (10v14) and that idol food is demonic. Just as the communion meal is sacred, creating a bond within participatory believers, idolatrous food feasts symbolise what Garland calls “the realm of the demonic”. Those who sit at the Christian Love feast (the communion), cannot simultaneously partake in demonic pagan feasts. There can be no flirtatious juxtaposition between the two, as the Israelites did in the wilderness. For demons, Wright rightly argues, “twist and distort God’s world and God’s image bearing human children”. Was the food itself the problem? No, for as Wright states aright “The place is off limits, the food isn’t”.
Paul in essence pleads for believers to love one another; glorify God; put others needs above self; and not to be so wrapped up in their own salvation, to the detriment of others in causing them to stumble. Believers lives should not be governed by anything else but by “being in Christ and their belonging to Him.” Above all, writes Paul “imitate Christ” (11v1). For this, “is Christian freedom – being free from ourselves to glorify God by being like Christ”. As long as idolatry is not involved, Christian can freely accept “God’s created gifts with relaxed openness”. As Christ is imitated, His cross becomes the focus, and the Gospel an imperative over supposed rights or privileges. In so doing, the Church may not have uniformity of ideas, but it will have unity of purpose – the glorification of God through imitating Christ. This supreme example, gives the Church an “indelible character by its conformity to Christ”. Paul calls for the church to “respect its dignity as God’s ransomed community” in order that it can fulfil its explicit calling to be a holy people.
Currently in the United Kingdom we may not face persecution or ostracism due our not eating of particular foods which result from pagan animal sacrifices. What does this passage have to say to us, in twenty-first century Britain, and how we apply it? Should Christians refrain from drinking alcohol, in a country which has a seemingly inherent problem with alcohol, in order to show that alcohol is not necessary to live life to the full?
The question posed, polarises opinion. Some would say, there is no problem because alcohol in and of itself is not the problem, and it is an individual’s choice whether or not they regularly imbibe without getting inebriation. This of course is true. However, the problem may arise when a Christian brother who has turned from alcoholism, sees his fellow Christians freely drinking alcohol, and reverts once more back to an alcoholic lifestyle. As Christians, we are free to drink alcohol in public houses or in private, that is our right. However, if we are to take the application from 1 Corinthians 8-10, it would be better for us not to partake of what is euphemistically called ‘the demon drink’, in order that some may be saved. Whilst drinking alcohol in itself is not a sin, it may causes others to sin.
That is not to say, Christians should not frequent public houses or other places where alcohol is imbibed, but rather by drinking non-alcoholic drinks, he or she may be asked as to why they do not drink alcohol, and then be able to give an answer in accordance with 1 Peter 3v15.
It may well be that by giving up this right, that some may be saved. There is a tension that exists between loving others and an individual’s personal rights, and it is how we deal with it, and are lead through the quagmire of issues that if we seek to glorify God, “the community as a whole should make it possible to extend justice and peace to more and more people who may thus be drawn into the reign of God”.
We have seen in this passage, Paul give an exposition regarding rights, freedom, encouragement and loving of others. As twenty first century Christians, we need to forego what we perceive are our rights, in order that the body is built up and that our Lord is glorified through our imitation of Him. In so doing, the church can be a bright light in a dark, secular world.
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