After working through the minefield that was Greco-Roman marriage and family relationships (1 Corinthians 7), Paul moves on to something even more challenging. He starts to work through a practical matter about being a Christian in a religiously pluralistic world: what about the offshoots of idolatry? Specifically, in this case, meat that had been sacrificed to idols.
Understanding this takes a bit of research into the ancient world, and even then our knowledge is a bit limited. For example, we know that Paul is talking about “meat that has been offered to idols,” as the ESV has in 1 Corinthians 8:1. What, though, does that mean? There are a couple of possibilities, and it’s necessary to touch on them here rather than write them off as belonging to the nerd domain. The first possibility is the less likely one: that meat which went all the way through ceremonies at the various temples in Corinth (and other places) would then end up resold in the marketplace for a profit. This is less likely because, generally speaking, the way most of the priests and workers in those temples ate was off the sacrifices brought in by worshipers.
The concept that is more likely is that the meat in the marketplace was from animals which had been consecrated for sacrifice but the whole animal was not part of the ceremony. Think about it this way: Athena requires a sirloin to bless your upcoming venture. So, you take a cow to the doorway of the temple dedicated to Athena, the priest consecrates the cow, and then….well, you’re not surgically extracting the sirloin. The animal is butchered, Athena gets her steak in the matter, the worshiper may take some home, and the rump roast goes on sale at the market. Simple, right?
Except, for some (and especially those who have just abandoned Athena for Jesus), that meat is a reminder of the way their life used to be lived. It troubles their conscience because it feels a bit like they are helping with the worship of a false god. After all, the one who gave Athena a sirloin covered a large portion of his costs by selling you the pot roast for Sunday dinner. Were they enabling people to follow a religion that would send them to Hell?
To clear this up, take a look at Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 8:12. Through the first 10 verses, he has made it clear that there is no power in idols and therefore no problem can arise between God and the Christian for eating good cheap beef. This verse, though, highlights where the problem arises: how is the brother in Christ treating his fellow Christians?
It is not sinful, Paul asserts, to eat food that had been offered to idols. It is sinful, Paul asserts, to wound the fellow members of the family of faith. Because to bring harm to your brethren is to sin against Christ—the two are inseparable. This is the critical truth: how Christians treat one another is how they are treating Jesus Christ the Lord.
Let us deal with the immediate objection of the Western mind: “What about my right?” I would point out that, first of all, you were bought by the death of the Son of God on the Cross. Your rights belong to Him. Beyond that, Paul is not saying that every action you take has to be controlled by the ideas of the most restrictive person, but something much more important: be aware that in all things you do, you are part of a body and ought not harm it.
Now, to the specific point: what about food offered to idols? Well, I don’t see much of that these days. Except, perhaps, the idols of consumerism (cheap meat at Food ’n Stuff) or the idols of environmental quackery (like ultra-grass-fed-methane-recovered-super-green beef at Complete Grains). Ever insist on one or the other? Or deride your brother or sister in Christ for their use of either?
The practical aspect here is simple and difficult. Simple to understand but difficult to implement: know your fellow Christians, and live your life recognizing that their need to be strengthened spiritually is every bit as important as yours. Even if you are right about something, your implementation of how you are right must come back to strengthening the body as a whole.
A few points:
1. What effect does Paul’s statement that there is “no such thing as an idol,” by which I think we can take him to mean that these idols have no powers at all, have on our view of angels/demons? Specifically, does this push back against the Miltonian view that gods and goddesses like Athena, Zeus, Artemis are representations of demons and do have power?
2. Knowledge can make arrogant (v. 1), but it is still necessary. Paul’s following arguments are based on knowledge, but it is a knowledge that acts in love.
3. This passage is often used to claim liberty to drink alcohol is irrelevant because your liberty to drink alcohol might cause someone to stumble. But the direct context is about worship/religious items. Not about behavioral issues. The alcohol argument is in Ephesians, Proverbs, and elsewhere.