1 Corinthians 8
“Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.
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.
But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, 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.
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.
I have a bad habit of being incredibly picky. Not when it comes to food or music or any material aspect of life. No, I tend to be picky about what I want to see from worship services that I attend. While I can and have enjoyed the broad spectrum of expression which the Christian church enjoys – from contemporary services to traditional, from masses and great liturgies to revivals and prayer meetings – I find that there are certain criteria I create in my mind for what does and does not constitute a good worship experience. As with any organizational scheme, some of these criteria are better than others.
What stands out to me about my pickiness is that it is proportional to my familiarity with something. I am pickier about a traditional church service with hymns and collects and litanies and processionals, because it is the kind of service which I know and love best. If someone is preaching on Ecclesiastes I have particular things I do and do not like to hear from that book because, as it is my favorite book in scripture, I know it better than most. Meanwhile, if I go to a service conducted in an orthodox church where very little is familiar, my heart will probably be more open to the things I see and the experiences that I take part in. Familiarity, somehow, breeds a sense of entitlement in our hearts.
For many of us in the Church, we can find something quite refreshing about Sundays where we break the mold, but we get more defensive when there are slight alterations to things we regularly participate in. Think of when the lyric of a favorite hymn is rendered slightly differently in a hymnal or when a version of scripture is used that we do not know but of a verse we love dearly. We begin to sing or speak along with the verse, but then the sudden break from familiarity upsets us.
The only way to know that something has violated our sense of what is normal is if we have a definition of the norm. When we hear about something miraculous, we can only know it is miraculous in reference to how it defies the mundane. The parting of the Red Sea is uncommon, sudden healing of the sick is rare, the resurrection of the dead is unbelievable. We discern a thing is exceptional only when we know what is typical. In the same way we define a thing’s acceptability by its commonality.
The people of God often create their own concepts of normality, usually changing them every few decades. Though building off of traditions that stretch back throughout time, we define our norms about once a generation. Sometimes the changes are small, prayers being slightly different in wording and message. Other shifts are extreme, the addition or removal of entire articles of the faith and rites of the Church.
Scripture shows us such shifts occurring several times across its pages and history beyond that shows ever greater examples. Even looking only at the locations where God was worshipped throughout scripture, we see changes happening across generations. The patriarchs worshipped God under sacred trees while the Wilderness wanderers had a mobile tabernacle. The tribes, once settled in the land, worshipped primarily at Bethel while the people worshipped at the Jerusalem temple during the united monarchy. If we were to move beyond location and look at the rituals and prayers of the people, we would see that these too changed. Festivals, sacrifices, and prayer likewise morph over time.
The whole span of Scripture, across a compositional history of three thousand years, shows us that we approach God differently depending on when we meet God. One generation will worship differently than another than another. Yet, the one constant that remains is the God who is worshipped. Though we alter our words or shift our focus, the center of the faith is left unchanged. God, the founder and author of all creation, is the ultimate focal point of the lives of the faithful.
The first four decades, maybe even centuries, of the Church were even more volatile than most generational shifts. Suddenly, rather than simply being Jews and Gentiles (which are already two diverse groups to begin with,) there are now Christians. Not only that, but some Christians are Jewish, and some are Gentile. Two worlds were coming together and stepping into a new one. To Jewish Christians, Christianity was a continuation of centuries of faith in the God of Israel. For Gentile Christians, it was a revelation unlike even the most charming mystery religion. It was familiar to them both, but in wildly different ways. Both joined knowing things would be different, but what differences they were willing to accept was a matter unto itself.
The issue in question for our scripture today is the eating of food sacrificed to idols. This sort of food was, surprisingly, not hard to come by. It was freely sold in markets and, though it was pricey, it was good quality meat to those who could afford it. The well-to-do in a town would buy this meat to eat. Whether its ritual status was important to the buyer was a largely personal matter. To some within the Church, however, whether it was right to buy and eat this meat was a matter of grave concern. Paul specifically highlights how those in the community who came from idol worshipping families and cultures had yet to separate this food from its religious origins.
To them, eating food offered to idols was too close to participate in the ritual that sanctified the meat. It was too close for comfort, too much like what they had left behind, too gentile to look Christian. Paul’s language suggests that some Gentiles and likely more Jews in the community lacked this concern. The meat was meat, neither special nor abhorrent, and there was no worry about eating it. Pressure was put upon those who refused to eat the food, pressure to eat the expensive gift brought to communal meals against their conscience.
Paul could have easily taken this opportunity to chastise or belittle those who did not want to eat consecrated meat. It would have taken nothing to push Paul’s own secular view on the matter but instead he addresses the people with a proverb of sorts, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” To know something, or to think you do, and then to try and force people to agree with it against their conscience makes the aggressor feel important, as though they have championed over their colleagues. That is not what Church is for. Church is for building one another up in holiness, not competing with one another.
Love, that is what guides our actions. Transformative love that promotes community and seeks what is best for one another. For the Corinthians, and indeed for ourselves, that constitutes getting over ourselves to a certain degree. It means that sometimes it is better to allow something we would rather not have around for the good of others, it means lifting up and supporting those who feel differently than us. It means putting God and substance over preference and appearance.
Let us return to our own churches and our earlier example of worship. Imagine a guest came in and led worship differently than we usually do. Perhaps they are an ecstatic Pentecostal, or they are a high church Anglican. If we rejected them because, “That’s not how we do things here,” we would not only insult them, but lose out on what they brought to our conversations on faith. Likewise, if we visited another church and criticized their services for being different and demanded they act more like us, we would likewise find them cut off from us and miss an opportunity to work together with one another. Sadly, this has often been the case, and many non-European or American Christians throughout history, even till today, have been told their Christianity is lesser because it does not look like Augustine or Billy Graham.
This goes deeper than worship preferences though. Some of our cultural and personal customs are treated as absolute despite being non-essential. Some in the church believe alcohol is fine to drink in moderation, others believe in absolute abstention. In an attempt to preach God’s grace, some may insist that the teetotaler should respond to scriptures lack of a prohibition and imbibe. Paul is adamant against such teaching. Leveraging scripture – whether through a valid interpretation or not – to bring someone to act against their conscience is wrong. God calls us all differently – one to abstention and another to liberty – but to push the former to act against their conscience is a grave sin.
Some believe fasting is absolutely necessary on a regular basis, others never fast. Those who do not fast should not prevent those who do. Those who pray specific prayers cannot be forced into extemporaneous prayer. We must discern how our perspectives, especially our preferences, are not always the sort of thing that others must join in. I do not like contemporary worship music, in fact most of it is bad to me, but if I stood here and spoke against it as a matter of authority it would be betraying the sensibilities of many here. God calls us to defer to others and to make allowances, not to become judiciaries of what is and is not of God.
This does not mean that anything goes or that in flexibility there is always virtue. Nor does it mean that sin can just be written off as a difference in perspective. We must be open to participating in all things which do not betray our conscience and occasionally even in examining our own to seek out our faults. If my conscience is such that I never do anything I’d rather not do, for example, may it’s not my conscience stopping me.
As with much of our Christian life, there is no universal rule for how we extend grace of matters of conscience and preference. Sometimes we must yield, sometimes we must stand firm, sometimes we must even let ourselves feels uncomfortable. The balance must be struck out across different situations differently. Yet, we can be sure that when we act out of love and not control, out of seeking what is best rather than what we would like, then we can be confident in our actions. We are free for one another, not for our own desires. Let us love one another fully, let us get over ourselves, even just a little. – Amen.