Food offered to idols. 8:1-13
In 8:1-11:1 Paul deals with the issue of eating food associated with pagan worship, obviously one of the matters raised by the Corinthians in their letter to him. It is clear that some members of the congregation feel that their new found spiritual independence, which Paul titles "knowledge, "this knowledge" in the NIV, gives them quite a bit of latitude in the Christian life. In dealing with the problem, Paul makes that point that we cannot function independently of a brother's, or sister's, welfare. Love must motivate our actions.
v1. Paul sets out to examine a position argued by libertine members of the Corinthian congregation, namely, that eating food associated with idols is not a problem for a believer, given that the idol-gods are no gods. These libertines, "the strong", claim to have acquired a spiritual independence, a "knowledge", that guides their Christian life (and their ethically insensitive behavior). As Paul puts it, "we know that (as you claim) `all believers have a special gift of knowledge.'" The problem is, the Christian walk is not one of self-sufficiency controlled by some special gift of spiritual insight (especially when that insight is flawed, as here), but is one of love, of the upbuilding of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and this shaped by a growing knowledge of the revealed will of God.
v2. As far as Paul is concerned, those who claim to have acquired "this knowledge" have not even begun to know the wisdom of God in Christ - the acquisition of true knowledge.
v3. True knowledge is reflected, not in some ethereal spiritual wisdom, but in the way love is expressed toward our brothers and sisters. The person who loves is the one who is growing in knowledge. Note, the reference to "God" in this verse is probably a later addition to the text. "The person who loves is the person who is growing in true knowledge."
v4-6. So now, to the subject at hand, eating food associated with pagan worship practices. First, Paul quotes from their letter and agrees with their "knowledge"; "we acknowledge with you that 'an idol has no existence in itself' and 'there is only one God.'" Paul then explains further that for a believer there is only one God, the Father, the source and purpose of life, and only one Lord, Jesus Christ, the agent and means of life. Yet, Paul qualifies his words because the libertines' spiritual insight is not as complete and flawless as they suppose. There may be no real god associated with idol worship, but these "so-called gods" are very real to those who believe in them. And of course, there are demonic forces associated with idol-worship, a point that Paul will develop later.
v7. Paul now makes the point that the libertines' "knowledge", which gives them their sense of assurance, self-awareness and independence, is not possessed by all believers. For many, their past experience with paganism has left an indelible mark - "some are still gripped by the idol by force of habit", Thiselton. As a consequence, those whose self-awareness is weak are easily led into sin by the thoughtless behavior of others.
v8-9. Paul again quotes a slogan from the libertines: "food does not bring us before God's judgement seat." Of course, Paul agrees, eating, or abstaining, is of no interest to God, but he goes on to qualify his words; Demanding our rights at the expense of another person's damnation is of interest to God.
v10-12. Paul now drives home his point. It is precisely because God is indifferent about food that we should not demand our right of free action independent of the welfare of our brothers and sisters. To demand rights of free action based on a questionable spiritual insight, an insight which then destroys a brother's faith, is to "sin against Christ."
v13. Paul concludes by saying that if eating causes a brother's downfall, then he is quite willing to "never eat meat again."
Knowledge and love
It is often stated that there is no growth without change. Whether or not this is true, change is the order of the day. Changes faced by a Christian congregation can range from the significant to the insignificant, from changing worship style to changing the color of the church carpet. Those who oppose change are often charged with resisting the Spirit, blunting gospel ministry, or being deaf to the guiding of their gifted minister. Those who promote change may well be charged with acting as dictators without due consideration for the will of God's people at large.
Often, conflicts in a Christian congregation are settled by the application of secular logic; the side with the most forceful argument (those with more Bible verses!) wins. In confronting the issue of eating food associated with idols, Paul questions the veracity of a form of conflict-resolution which relies on "knowledge" (a special authoritative spiritual insight which promotes assurance, self-awareness and independence) as against love, the bearing of one another's burdens. "Everything one does that affects relationships within the body of Christ, should have care for brothers and sisters as its primary motivation", Gordon Fee.
The claim to a special gift of "knowledge", a gift of spiritual insight, cannot serve as the basis for Christian behavior. True knowledge centers on the unity of God expressed in the redemptive work of Christ, a knowledge that always leads to compassion. It is very easy to use our theology, insights, "personal revelations", gifted status... as a batten with which to establish our agenda over the personal sensibilities of others. Such an approach leads to personal pride and disunity in the Christian fellowship.
Beware of such tyranny. Issues which may divide a Christian fellowship should be resolved harmoniously without one group demanding their rights over another, cf. Rom.14.
Discuss the resolution, or otherwise, of a recent church conflict in light of this passage.
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