An Interpretation of Paul’s Teaching in 1 Corinthians 8
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.
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. 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. (1 Corinthians 8:4-13 ESV)
Knowledge can be harmful. If used incorrectly, it can hurt other people.
Christians believe that we have a knowledge of the truth, but we need to be careful how we use this knowledge.
The members of the church in Corinth valued knowledge. They knew that Christians have been privileged to have a knowledge of the truth in Jesus; but Paul reminds them in 1 Cor 8:1 that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Knowledge has a tendency to puff people up with pride, but love builds others up. Knowledge without love is destructive. Knowledge helps our brains to develop, but the knowledge that we have will not help others unless we act towards others in love.
Paul applied this principle of knowledge guided by love to Christian behavior generally, but the particular issue that this applies to in 1 Cor 8 is the issue of the eating of meat offered up to idols. Most of the meat produced for consumption in Corinth was associated with pagan rituals or pagan temples. A practical question for Christians in such a context was: “What meat, if any, is okay for us to eat?”
There were some Christians who argued that all meat could be eaten. Their argument is summarized in 1 Cor 8:4–6. They rightly believed that because there is only one true God, all other so-called gods and idols are false and not real. There are lots of so-called gods and lords that people believe exist in heaven or on earth, but as far as Christians are concerned, “there is one God, the Father, from whom all things are, and to whom we belong”; and there is also only “one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:6). These Christians were arguing that everything belongs to the one true God as the source of all things, and to the one true Lord as the agent of all things; therefore, every type of meat also belongs to God; consequently, Christians can eat whatever we want to eat.
These Christians rested upon orthodox Christian theology to justify their practice when it came to eating meat, regardless of its origin. Paul fundamentally agreed with this theological argument. What they were saying about there being only one true God was true. What they were saying about every type of meat being permissible to eat was also true.
The problem was, however, that “this knowledge does belong to everyone” (1 Cor 8:7). There were some Christians for whom eating such meat was problematic. These were Christians who had grown up in the pagan environment, and who associated eating meat with the pagan rituals that often accompanied the slaughter and the eating of such meat. For all their belief in Jesus as Lord, these Christians still had a weak conscience; and eating such meat would feel to them as if they were doing something wrong.
To resolve this issue, Paul applied his principle of knowledge guided by love. His argument applying this principle is found in 1 Cor 8:8–13.
Paul’s first point is that food, in and of itself, is neither here nor there (1 Cor 8:8).
Christians are no more presentable to God whether we eat beef, chicken, dog, or even whale. What matters to God is our hearts; and what we eat does not affect our hearts spiritually. So the issue is not food per se. The issue is people’s conscience, and especially the conscience of those whose conscience is weak.
This then leads to Paul’s second and main point.
Christians need to make sure that whatever knowledge or authority or freedom that we have does not end up becoming a stumbling block to people who might have a weaker conscience (1 Cor 8:9). A stumbling block is any impediment that stops a person from progressing on the pathway to salvation. A stumbling block is anything that encourages someone else to sin or to give up on following God. The danger for those who said that they had the authority to eat whatever they wanted (because of the knowledge that all food belongs to only one true God) is that by eating meat that had been offered up to idols, they could encourage those with a weaker conscience to sear their own consciences by doing the same thing while believing that such action was sinful.
The example that Paul gives in 1 Cor 8:10 illustrates this. Paul mentions how if someone with a weak conscience saw a fellow brother eating meat in a temple, then the former might be encouraged to copy the practice of the latter even though that went against the latter’s conscience. And so, by exercising one’s freedom in Christ to eat anything, a Christian could actually be causing spiritual harm (or even the spiritual death) of a brother or sister, someone for whom Christ has died (1 Cor 8:11).
True knowledge, therefore, can be dangerous if it is not guided by love.
Whatever we do in the presence of fellow Christians will have some effect on them. Obviously if we do something bad, we present a bad example to those around us. But Paul here is talking about eating meat, which in and of itself is not sinful. In other words, sometimes even doing something that is not wrong can have a negative effect on fellow Christians. We should always do what is good, but some of the things we do are matters of personal choice rather than strictly being a matter of what God has explicitly commanded. For example, what we eat, what we drink, what job we do (for the most part), what clothes we wear (within reason), how we pray, whether or not we fast, are all basically matters of personal freedom and preference.
In Christ, Christians have freedom to engage in these activities according to personal choice; but if the way in which we exercise our personal choice could prove to be spiritually troublesome for any Christian brothers or sisters that possess a weak conscience, then to insist on acting according to our own understanding and freedom is actually to wound the conscience of a weaker brother or sister. And, according to Paul, to act in such a way is actually to sin against the brother or sister in question. And to sin against a brother or sister in Christ is to sin against Christ himself (1 Cor 8:12). This is why Paul can conclude in the way that he does in 1 Cor 8:13: “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, in order that I might not make my brother stumble.”
Paul’s teaching challenges Christians to be considerate and tolerant of one another.
Consider how this teaching might apply to the issue of prayer by way of example. If our heart is right with God, then there may be a limited number of body postures that we might avoid, but there are also many potential body postures that could be employed when praying to God: eyes open, eyes closed; head bowing down, head looking up towards heaven; hands together, hands open; hands by your side, hands raised towards the sky. Or even laying hands on others, or not laying hands on others. But is there more power involved if you lay hands on the person that you are praying for compared to if you do not? No. Jesus did not have to be physically present with people in order for them to feel the effects of his prayers. So it is our heart that matters more than the manner in which we actually pray.
We have freedom in a sense to pray how we want to, as long as our heart is right with God. But if the manner in which we pray makes someone else feel uncomfortable, or perhaps even feels wrong to another Christian (whether rightly or wrongly), then it is much better to curb our freedom, to use our knowledge with love, and to avoid that activity in the presence of those for whom it is troubling, than it is to wound the conscience of a fellow brother or sister in Christ for whom Jesus has died.
Paul’s principle of knowledge guided by love applies to all of those areas of freedom where Christians have not been given a specific command from God, or where we have been commanded specifically by God but the details as to how to implement that command are a matter of individual choice.
Overall, Paul’s point in 1 Cor 8 is that Christians are meant to be encouraging one another in the faith rather than discouraging one another. Instead of forcing our opinions on others in areas of personal freedom, out of love we should be mindful of how our actions might impact negatively on those around us, even if there is nothing wrong in and of itself with what we are doing. Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor 8 is a challenge for Christians to be mindful of exercising our knowledge and freedom in Christ in accordance with brotherly love.
Steven Coxhead has served as a visiting lecturer in Hebrew and the Old Testament at the Sydney Missionary and Bible College since 2002. He also teaches Johannine Theology and the Old Testament at the Wesley Institute in Sydney. In addition he has worked as a part-time lecturer at the Presbyterian Theological Centre in Sydney from 2002–2010, teaching the Old Testament, Romans, John’s Gospel, Biblical Hebrew, and New Testament Greek. He has had experience teaching Old Testament, New Testament, and Systematic Theology in South-East Asia.