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The problem of offense: meat offered to idols
Knowledge is not enough
1st Corinthians, Chapter 8, verses 1-3
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.
The Corinthians wondered whether they would be involving themselves in the practice of idolatry if they ate meat from an animal of which a part had been sacrificed to an idol. The meat of an animal brought to a Greek temple for sacrifice was divided into several parts. One part became an idol offering on the altar, another part was usually eaten at a sacrificial meal in the temple, and some was given to the priests. The worshiper might take some of the meat for use at home. A portion of the meat was also sold in the meat markets in the temple area or in the city. It was this sacrificial meat that was available for purchase, and the Corinthian Christians also might buy such meat.
As Paul will make clear in chapter 10, Christians were free to eat this meat because it does not belong to an idol but to the Lord. Yet it is understandable that some Corinthian Christians, recently rescued from idolatry and brought to faith in the true God, would feel uncomfortable about contact with any aspect or reminder of idol worship. They now feared and loathed idolatry. These were the weak Christians whom Paul refers to in this chapter. The strong Christians knew that God did not forbid the eating of this meat; their consciences did not trouble them when they ate it. But the consciences of the weak Christians were disturbed; these Christians had not yet attained the knowledge and insight their stronger brethren possessed.
Paul knew that the weak Christians were distressed by the example of their strong brethren. If the weak Christians ate of the meat, their consciences would be violated. It should have been obvious to the strong Christians that the situation called for consideration and love. To avoid distressing and offending their weak brethren, the strong Christians should have refrained from eating this meat until their weak brethren had gained sufficient knowledge and conviction that they too could eat of the sacrificial meat that was for sale in the meat markets.
In answer to the question of the Corinthians concerning eating meat sacrificed to idols, Paul writes: “Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge.” Even weak Christians may know that idols are really nothing. But head and heart are not always in tune. Knowing about something does not always make us feel right about doing it. In fact, knowledge can stand in the way of brotherly relations. Those who “know” look down on those who do not know. Those who are proud of their superior knowledge lack love for those who have less knowledge. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” The strong Christians in Corinth were forgetting that love, in this case, was more important than knowledge.
Paul questions whether the strong Christians who were so sure of their knowledge really had as much knowledge as they claimed, because their knowledge was deficient in love and understanding. “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.” If we are God’s people, people whom God knows and has made his own, we will love God, and we will also love our brethren, whom God also knows and has made his own.
1st Corinthians, Chapter 8, verses 4-6
So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
Idols do not really exist; their statues and images do, but idols themselves are not real living beings. There was no person like Baal or Jupiter or Diana. These idols were just figments of heathen imagination.
The argument of the Corinthians with knowledge appears to have been this: “It is absurd to be concerned about meat offered to idols, for there are no idols. Therefore there is no meaning in things sacrificed to what does not exist. Therefore it does not matter. We can eat this meat.” (Note 12: from G. Campbell Morgan, The Corinthian Letters of Paul, Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1946, page 108.) Significantly, Morgan adds: “But love thinks of something else.” Love thinks of weak Christians who, in spite of knowing that idols are really nothing, still are troubled by any kind of association with idol worship.
The gods of the heathen are only so-called gods. Furthermore, as Paul will point out in chapter 10, there are also supernatural beings who are called gods and lords by the heathen, but they are not divine; they are demons, lurking behind Jupiter and Diana, Manitou, Brahma, Allah, and all their kind.
The answer to all idolatry, to all so-called gods, is the true God, the Father, the Creator of all, and the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father made all things and through whom we live. Having found that God, the Corinthians should have bidden farewell forever to all idols.
Knowledge needs love
1st Corinthians, Chapter 8, verses 7-8
But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
Having disposed of the idols, Paul returns to the question the Corinthians asked about eating meat offered to idols. A weak conscience is “defiled” when it is uncertain whether it was right to eat the sacrificial meat or when one feels shame and remorse for having done so. Luther writes: “In heaven and on earth there is nothing more tender than the conscience, and nothing less able to tolerate abuse. It is said that the eye is tender, but the conscience is much more tender and soft. That is why we note in the apostles again and again how gently they have dealt with the conscience.” (Note 14: from Dr. Martin Luther’s Saemmtliche Werke Vierzehnter Band, Erlangen, Verlag von Carl Heyder, 1828, page 128.)
If eating the sacrificial meat, perhaps as a demonstration of their Christian liberty, would bring the strong Christians in Corinth close to God, then they would have a reason for not giving up their right to eat that meat. They would then be exercising their Christian liberty even if the weak Christians are offended by their action. But it was not a matter of such importance; it would not commend them to God. It was a matter of choice. Why, then, should they eat the meat and thereby distress the weak Christians? “Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.”
1st Corinthians, Chapter 8, verses 9-13
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.
Every Christian who feels that he may exercise his Christian freedom when and where he pleases should read verses 9 to 13 slowly and thoughtfully. Burdening the conscience of a weak brother can have fearful consequences. How dare strong Christians offend their weaker brothers and endanger their souls’ salvation, when it cost the Son of God his life to redeem them and to make them his own? How can they be so indifferent to the salvation of their brothers’ souls?
Glen makes a shattering application: “. . . not unlike . . . the self-confident Christian who in the assertion of his freedom largely identifies himself with [worldliness] in his mode of living, choice of friends, and loyalties. His [worldliness] contributes to the defection of weaker Christians, possibly younger members of his church or family. . . . An irresponsible broad-mindedness can tempt a weaker Christian into atheism.” (Note 15: from J. Stanley Glen, Pastoral Problems in First Corinthians, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Westminster Press, 1964, page 109.) To have a son or daughter lost to the church and to salvation because we insisted on our Christian liberty—what a tragedy!
No wonder Paul concludes this chapter by vowing, “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.” Paul respected the sanctity and the eternal worth of his brother’s conscience.