Who we are is not determined by history, status, or social class. In Christ, we are all free from judgment and shame.
The Apostle Paul often used real-life situations to highlight the unchanging truths hidden beneath the surface. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul addresses an issue that, while not sinful on the surface, was still causing harm to members of this fledgling church.
“Now let’s talk about food that has been sacrificed to idols. You think that everyone should agree with your perfect knowledge. While knowledge may make us feel important, it is love that really builds up the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much. But the person who loves God is the one God knows and cares for.” 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 (NLT)
Corinth was filled with pagan temples. It was common for worshipers to offer animals to the god as a sacrifice. After a tiny part was burned on the altar, the remainder would be given to the temple priest, servants or local magistrates who then sold the surplus to the town butchers. If you lived in Corinth, there were several ways that you might come in contact with meat that had been sacrificed to idols:
- Buying meat in the marketplace. At the end of the day, a lot of meat was taken from the temples and sold. Christians who was shopping always encountered the possibility that they were purchasing meat previously offered to an idol. (1 Corinthians 10:25).
- Eating dinner at the home of friends and neighbors. If your neighbors invited you to dinner, there was no good way to know if the meat they served had been sacrificed to an idol (1 Corinthians 10:27).
- Eating in the pagan temples themselves. Some of the pagan temples could accommodate huge crowds for public affairs or community social functions. The subject had nothing to do with the idol worship, but often the meeting would include a meal. If you were a Christian attending one of these public meetings, the meat served at this banquet had probably been offered to the temple god earlier that day.
Two different views arose in the church at Corinth about how a believer should handle this. One group considered the food to be defiled by its association with the pagan idol. This group refused to eat the food, and they were offended by other believers who did eat.
The other group claimed that the food itself was not defiled in any way. Since these idols were not gods at all, the meat was not really defiled. It could be eaten guilt-free. Paul goes into great detail as to why this belief is better than the other – but he doesn’t stop there.
This second group of believers looked down on other believers who abstained from eating the meat sacrificed to idols. The first group thought those eating were traitors to their faith. Predictably, the church was full of confusion, tension, arrogance, and probably a lot of gossip.
This tension is bigger than just meat offered to idols, though. It’s really about relationships in the community --- and that community is the church of Jesus Christ.
“Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies” (1 Corinthians 8:1)
Paul isn’t saying that knowledge is unimportant. Having correct knowledge is crucial! Rather, he’s saying that knowledge alone tends to create pride. But when knowledge is joined with love, it becomes a much better guide to righteous behavior.
"If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know" …" (1 Corinthians 8:2)
We use factual knowledge in much the same way a building uses a foundation. I’ve been watching the construction of a drugstore here in Traverse City. It is a very well built structure – cement blocks covered with a brick veneer. There is nothing flimsy about that building! But before any of that construction began, they spent over a week digging and pouring massive foundations, wide and deep. The building will be secure for a long, long time.
I think we use knowledge is a similar way – to substantiate our worth and position in a world where we are often timid and uncertain of ourselves. Sometimes it’s a tool to establish ourselves as worthwhile individuals among others who are obviously less well-informed. Remember, the foundation isn’t wrong or unimportant to that drugstore that is being built. Nor is knowledge bad or unimportant in the relationships we’re building. It is a tool - and like any tool, must be used properly.
So, the first step in making knowledge useful is to know its limitations. Christians are fallen creatures with limited knowledge – being saved doesn’t miraculously turn us into all-knowing beings. God alone has unlimited or complete knowledge! Humility is precious, and nothing tempers our knowledge like humility. The true purpose of knowledge is to promote the welfare of others. Knowledge must be accompanied by and delivered in love.
Those who have the greater knowledge and spiritual maturity are the ones who should accommodate the less mature. They should abstain from activities that might harm the faith and life of those who are weaker. Paul already said in verse one that the whole “eating thing” doesn’t make believers better or worse in God's eyes, but that this sense of superiority can cause harm to others. It’s a stumbling block to the weaker brother or sister and it can lead them into confusion…and possibly even lead to sinful behavior in the young believer’s walk. So, rather than causing a brother to sin, it was better for them to forgo their Christian liberty (change their behavior) in these cases.
Our choices and our behaviors should be motivated and characterized by self-sacrificing love for those around us, rather than by knowledge (or freedom) alone.
Paul addresses who we are in Christ in 1 Corinthians. He begins, “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” If we are followers of Christ, we are sanctified and called to be holy. We are saints.
“Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly —mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?"
“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” (I Corinthians 3:10-15)
There were at least ten temples to ten different gods in Corinth at the time the New Testament was written. If people had a particular need (money, harvest, fertility, power, hunting, wisdom) they went to a particular god. That temple had a particular group of people, a particular kind of feast, and a particular kind of worship ritual. If that god answered their supplication, they made sure everyone knew that they had the ability to earn that god's favor.
That was how they rose to the top - they earned the grace and favor a a god. That's how they knew they were somebody. That's what made them matter.
Perhaps this dynamic from the old way of life was the reason Paul had to address the first issue in his letter to the Corinthians:
Christianity was not like the pagan religions, whose gods were in competition with each other. God is One, and those who serve Him are on the same team. This claiming of allegiance to one person was not a sign of serious discipleship. It was a a lingering effect of the Corinthian search for power, reputation, and control.
Perhaps you've experienced something similar. You've been in a conversation about a passage of Scripture, and you hear, “Well, Mark Driscoll says this… Beth Moore says this….Billy Graham said…Ravi Zacharias…John Piper...James Dobson…Kay Arthur…Bill Hybels...” Finally someone says, “I don’t listen to other people’s opinions, I just read the Bible.”
Or you've been in a conversation where one person focuses on Israel, another on politics, another on end times prophecy, another on baptism, another on apologetics, another on the gifts of the Spirit, another on church models, another on marketplace ministry.... And they all think that the others are missing the boat because they don't have the same passion for this particular part of the Kingdom of God as they do.
Those kind of conversations can end badly. The problem is not the people or topics who are cited; there are many solid ambassadors for Christ who preach, teach, and live in a way that should be admired and emulated. The problem is that we can begin to build our personal worth and identity by the people or causes we follow – and question the worth (and wisdom) of others by the people they don't. If we are not careful, we will judge the character and content of another person’s heart because they don’t build their knowledge of and relationship with God and His Kingdom in the same way we do.
Paul says that mindset is divisive - schismata in Greek, which means “tear, or rend. ” This is what happens when someone tears a calf muscle or an ACL. I have done that twice playing softball (which is kind of sad, really), and let me tell you, it was no fun at all. It felt like someone hit me in the back of the leg as hard as they could with a bat. I could actually run my fingers through a ditch in my calf muscle.
Instead, the church was to be united. The Greek word carries the idea of “joined together,” a medical word used to describe the mending of bones or joints that have been fractured. The variety of people, gifts, and skills in the body of Christ are meant to join us together, not tear us apart. The church may be full of broken people, but the grace of God enables us to find unity, peace and wholeness in the midst of our diversity.