1 Corinthians 8:4-13 (meat sacrificed to idols)

corinth-anc-temp-apollo-acro-beyondPaul now gets to the issue at hand: meat offered to idols. As the Pulpit Commentary explains,

But Gentiles had always been accustomed to buy meat in the markets. Now, much of this meat consisted of remnants of animals slain as sacrifices, after the priests had had their share. … 

Theophrastus, in his ‘Moral Sketches,’ defines the close-handed man as one who, at his daughter’s wedding feast, sells all the victims offered except the sacred parts; and the shameless person as one who, after offering a sacrifice, salts the victim for future use, and goes out to dine with someone else. The market was therefore stocked with meat which had been connected with idol sacrifices.

The Christian could never be sure about any meat which he bought if he held it wrong to partake of these offerings. Further than this, he would — especially if he were poor — feel it a great privation to be entirely cut off from the public feasts (sussitia), which perhaps were often his only chance of eating meat at all; and also to be forbidden to take a social meal with any of his Gentile neighbours or relatives. 

The Jews avoided the issue by having their own butchers, who slaughtered animals according to the strict kosher laws of the Torah, but not every city had a Jewish butcher because not every city had a Jewish community. And the Jews only ate a limited palate of animal flesh. No pork. And no camels.

If Gentile believers could not eat any food that might have been sacrificed to an idol, they would not be able to eat with any non-Christian (unless the Christian provided the food from his own farm), eat at any public feast, or eat at any banquet hosted by a non-Christian. It would have been a major inconvenience. Indeed, as is true of some conservative Jews today, the option may well have been strict vegetarianism when not near a kosher kitchen — which for many Gentiles would have been every day of the rest of their lives.

Of course, the Christians who’d become believers while Jews would see no problem here. This is a commitment and sacrifice the Jews of the diaspora had been making for centuries! Why should they care if the Gentiles were too uncommitted to do the same? Why fight over a little barbecue? Just buy from the Jewish butcher and deal with it! Indeed, I’m sure every older Jewish church member had a well-recalled story of eating nothing but vegetables for weeks for the sake of kosher.

(1Co 8:4-6 ESV) 4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.”  5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” —  6 yet 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.

The lesson of “knowledge” is sound enough. The Corinthians correctly understood some important truths: “An idol has no real existence.” “There is no god but one.” Therefore, to offer meat to an “idol” is to do nothing because idols are figments of our imagination. They have no reality.

Therefore, it was argued, those with scruples on this matter should get over themselves. They are provably wrong.

Paul agrees with the premise but not the conclusion. Yes, there is one God and one Lord. And in so saying, Paul seems to be revising the Jewish Shema but in Christian terms — quite likely repeating a saying or liturgical text familiar to his readers.

The key words of v. 6, “Lord,” “God” and “one,” are taken from Deuteronomy 6:4 (“the Lord our God, the Lord is one”), in which Lord and God both refer to the same (one) God. Here Paul “has glossed ‘God’ with ‘the Father’, and ‘Lord’ with ‘Jesus Christ’, adding in each case an explanatory phrase: ‘God’ is the Father, ‘from whom are all things and we to him’, and the ‘Lord’ is Jesus the Messiah, ‘through whom are all things and we through him.’” Paul thus simultaneously reaffirms strict Jewish monotheism and the highest possible Christology imaginable. Christ finds his identity within the very definition of that one God/Lord of Israel.

Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 383.

And so Paul gets down to basics — the One God of the Shema, interpreted in light of the resurrected Jesus. Yes, God is One.

We know the truth of one God and one Lord. We know that all creation comes from the Father and that he is the reason and goal of our existence. We know the Lord Jesus, the agent of all creation and the one to whom our new existence is due as well. The structure of the text implies both a relationship and a contrast between us and the rest of creation. All of creation originated with the Father through the Son. We are a part of that creation and our existence comes from the Father through the Son as well. But both this text and its context highlight a contrast between Christians and the non-Christian world. For them there are many “gods” and many “lords,“ but for us there is only one God and one Lord. They are part of God’s creation but we represent the restoration, renewal and destiny of God’s creation, his new creation (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17), which is accomplished through Christ.

Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 385.

It’s not just that we now understand things better. Rather, we are in relationship with Jesus and God, beloved by each and so made into new creations by each. We’ve been changed to become different kinds of people altogether. We have been re-created, made new, to love as God loves, that is, sacrificially. And our own sacrifice changes everything  and if you miss this, you miss it all.

(1Co 8:7-9 ESV)  7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.  8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.  9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

Paul first brings up the problem of former Gentiles to whom the idols are real gods. They have a “weak” conscience due to their lack of understanding, but they are nonetheless brothers and sisters.

Thus, even though those who understand more correctly — the strong? — have a “right” to eat meat regardless of sacrifice to a non-existent entity, they have no right to “become a stumbling block” — a source of temptation — to the weak.

(1Co 8:10-13 ESV) 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?  11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.  12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.  13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. 

The fear is that someone who believes it to be sin — idol worship — to eat meat sacrificed to an idol will be tempted to sin against his conscience by peer pressure. He might join a common meal among Christians and find that he cannot eat the meat in good conscience.

But if he violates his conscience in eating, he is not led to become strong. He is led into subjective sin — which is sin. Thus, the strength and knowledge of the “strong” results in sin — an intolerable, unacceptable outcome.

Notice further that Paul is not speaking about the risk of causing someone to be offended. The notion that my rights are restricted by what might give you offense is taken from the KJV’s translation —

(1Co 8:13 KJV) 13 Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.

Our misunderstanding of this verse has allowed many a church member to manipulate and control others by claiming offense at all sorts of things. The Greek is skandalizo and is used frequently by Paul. The literal meaning is to place a stumbling block in someone’s way. BDAG gives as the primary definition: “t0 cause to be brought to a downfall, cause to sin.”

On the other hand, the secondary definition is “to shock through word or action, give offense to, anger, shock.” In short, the KJV translation ignored the context, which is not about shocking someone by outrageous conduct but tempting a beloved brother to sin. It’s about peer pressure.

Modern Christians rarely think in these terms. We see sin as about violation of law — law issued by God. It’s an objective fact. Either you broke God’s law or you didn’t. But Paul is concerned about subjective sin. To him, it matters greatly whether you sin against your conscience. You may not be in fact in violation of God’s will, but if you think you are, your heart is in rebellion and will be hardened by your decision to violate God’s will (as you understand it). It’s just as deadly and damning as objective sin — and so it’s unthinkable that a Christian would tempt a brother to sin against his conscience.

But Paul is not finished. This is just Paul setting up the discussion. He has much more to say on the subject.

There is something about many ministers that insists on imposing actions on the weak on the false belief that they’ll learn by being forced to violate their own consciences. Paul would be horrified! On the other hand, Paul would insist on teaching what is right. He has no problem disagreeing with his congregation — but he does so in love, gently instructing, not imposing and certainly not surprising with unwanted change.

This is not to say that a single hold out should prevent a church from making needed changes. Rather, the point is that surprise changes and eliminating choices can force good people to sin against their consciences. We cannot use peer pressure to impose behaviors! Rather, we persuade in love, and for those who aren’t persuaded, we offer choices that do not violate the teachings of this chapter (and Rom 14).

Of course, the problem of peer pressure only exists where someone might be tempted to actually sin against his or her conscience. Much of the time, this is not the problem, and there is no risk that anyone will violate his or her scruples. When Christians disagree but there is no risk of peer pressure pushing someone into subjective sin, this passage does not govern.

Hence, the “weak” may not insist on his or her way just because he or she is weak. Indeed, to claim to be weak is to claim to be wrong on the facts. It’s not a proper negotiating tactic.

Ultimately, while Paul teaches us not to tempt the weak to sin against their consciences, he doesn’t provide a decision tree for what exactly conclusion to reach. We’ll soon see that Paul takes a very pragmatic stance in chapter 10.

In any circumstance, though, love must encircle and suffuse the entirety of the disagreement — love by both the weak and the strong. And the congregation’s leadership must be respected (Heb 13:7, 17; 1 Thes 5:12-13; 1 Pet 5:5).

(Heb 13:17 ESV)  17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. 

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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9 Responses to 1 Corinthians 8:4-13 (meat sacrificed to idols)

  1. George Guild says:

    “to claim to be weak is to claim to be wrong on the facts. It’s not a proper negotiating tactic.”

    Very good! To claim to be weak is also a claim that you have more knowledge on the situation, such as what the “strong” position of this argument is. To claim to be weak is to tip your hat that you understand the opposing argument.

  2. If you think about it, the line “However, not all possess this knowledge” is one of the most amazing in the whole New Testament. Paul is saying that there were some in the church who did not realize there was only one God. Yet he called them brothers.

    That’s a far cry from “if you don’t agree with me, you’re not really a Christian.”

  3. Price Futrell says:

    The degree that Paul went to try and find some common ground for unity is amazing… Seems many now days go to extraordinary lengths to find reasons to denominate themselves from others. This has been a great series btw.

  4. Monty says:

    Jay,

    I have(and I suppose you have too) heard of churches with the elders and preacher meeting in secretive meetings, perhaps for weeks, and out of that comes IM in the worship. Many of the brethren feel betrayed, they never even had a say so or got to voice their problem with it(hence the secret meetings). I’m curious how you think Paul would respond to this type of “keep the brethren out of the loop until change is implemented” (or sprung on them) leadership.

    PS.

    I’ve even heard of a church where it was written into it’s charter by the original founding members that there was never to be IM used in that church. Fast forward, say 30 years, and the current elders(without even discussing it with the church) decide to write that part out of their by-laws.

  5. Jay – How do you react to those who would say that bringing in the instrument in to a previously acapella worship service represents a situation where you’re inviting some to go against their conscience?

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    I’m unaware of any church that went instrumental without providing an a cappella option.

  7. laymond says:

    Matthew 15:11 KJV
    King James Version

    Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.

  8. R.J. says:

    It’s possible that by “destroying” them is not meant their souls but simply their minds. We’ve got to remember not everything was about falling from grace in the early church(and no I’m not arguing for OSAS lol).

  9. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    RJ,

    “Destroy” is one of Paul’s usual words for “be damned.” Here are the other places where he uses the same Greek word.

    Rom. 2:12   For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.

    Rom. 14:15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.

    1Cor. 1:18   For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,
    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

    1Cor. 8:11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.

    1Cor. 10:9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.

    1Cor. 15:18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.

    2Cor. 2:15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing,

    2Cor. 4:3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.

    2Cor. 4:9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;

    2Th. 2:10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.

    It can also refer to physical death as a punishment from God.

    It does seem extreme for the apostle of grace to speak of people being “destroyed” — damned — just because they eat meat sacrificed to a false, non-existent god against their consciences, but to these people, they are engaging in worship of these gods by so participating. It’s at the very core of their faith in Jesus and commitment to God as the One God.

    And these are new Christians, obviously very fragile in their faith. The last thing Paul wanted was for them to take a step backwards toward the worship of pagan gods due to the temptation of fellow believers.

    This is quite a different thing from “I don’t want a fellowship hall built with church funds and am taking offense at the thought.” There’s no risk of such a person being led away from Jesus. It’s a question very far removed from the Shema. They may say that it’s about “faith,” but it’s just not — because the question of Jesus as Messiah and God as the One God are not at issue. Hence, there’s no risk of someone being “destroyed” over a fellowship hall.

    If anything, it’s the other way around. If we teach our members that the most legalistic among us always gets his way, then we set the Churches of Christ on a rightward tilted course that moves authority from the elders to the legalists — and we fail to teach our members the lesson of submission that comes from the crucifixion. We politicize the functioning of the local church, moving leadership away from relationship and shepherding toward discerning the will of the legalistic minority who always get their way by playing the victim. And that’s bad for them as well as the church — and for God’s mission through the church.

    That doesn’t mean we can callously run over fellow church members to get our way just because we think we’re right, but it also doesn’t mean they can claim “weak” status and force the congregation to heel to their scruples. Rather, sometimes we have to just love each other and sort things out the best we can — in love, gentleness, and patience — recognizing that my conscience doesn’t mean that I always get my way. Sometimes I need to be willing to learn a better way to think from my shepherds.

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