Epistle: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 (Epiphany 4: Series B)

Reading Time: 5 mins

This Spirit of love permits no Christian to exercise their freedom at the expense of another Christian still troubled by old associations.

This is an enormously relevant pericope worth preaching with clarity and emphasis given today’s conflation of one’s Christian freedom or rights with political rights.

At first glance, it looks as if the Epistle reading sits awkwardly with the Old Testament and Gospel lessons, but that is not so. Deuteronomy 18:15-20 presents the great prophecy of another coming in the office of Moses, that is, one who speaks for God and leads an exodus. 1 Corinthians 8 calls for primary allegiance to the One greater than Moses, as the author of Hebrews would put it (3:3-6). Likewise, with the Gospel lesson from Mark 1:21-28, Jesus is Lord, in fact, the one and only true and living Lord and there are no other gods. Even the demons confess this, evil spirits that receive worship in the temples of the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 10:20-21).

Additionally, in Corinth the issues surrounding the consumption of meat offered to idols also pertain to matters of allegiance and freedom. Both texts from Deuteronomy and Mark inform Paul’s two-part instruction, with the first portion given in 8:1-13 and the second coming in 10:19-22.

Corinth’s socio-religious context was quite inclusive. The city teemed with gods. Its citizens freely moved between temples, a veritable cornucopia of deities, although temples had their own class system, demarcated by spaces. The public was welcome within the great courtyards, but more exclusive, and as a result more desirable, were the dining areas where food and drink offered to the god(s) was served. Meat was a luxury item in the city. Therefore, an invitation to dine in temples like those of Asclepios, Demeter, and Kore, was a special treat. Reflecting on the Corinthian situation, Gregory Lockwood writes: “It is likely that some Christians in Corinth would have defended their right to eat there, whether of their own accord or in response to an invitation.”[1] These dining areas were a meeting place, an important location to forge relationships and business transactions within earshot of the presiding “god.” And there was the issue of their liberties. After all, they had rights to such things. In fact, they could argue it from their freedom as a Christian with the very words of Paul himself: “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). But was this how they were to use such freedom, especially with “weaker” Christians looking on?

Ok, that was the problem as it related to the public domain. There was a domestic issue, too. What about when a Christian received a meal invite to the home of a non-Christian, especially during a feast in honor of the gods and family celebrations when oblations and other such sacrifices were offered? As Larry Hurtado has brilliantly written, exclusive Christian devotion to Jesus presented unavoidably awkward, even dangerous scenarios with far-reaching implications which included economic consequences, familial alienation, legal prosecution, and social persecution.[2] Paul needed to thread the needle with wise counsel on both matters, public and private. Compromises with idols and pagan temples could endanger the souls of the Corinthian Christians. An uncompromising spirit with family and friends, however, could endanger their mortal life.

Compromises with idols and pagan temples could endanger the souls of the Corinthian Christians. An uncompromising spirit with family and friends, however, could endanger their mortal life.

To help with this and make his point, Paul differentiates between the Christian with “knowledge” (8:1, 7, 10, 11) and the “weak” Christian (8:7, 9, 10). Significantly, explains Lockwood, Paul’s use of these terms in chapter 8 seems to refer not to the strength of one’s faith, but how “easily a Christian is offended.”[3] It would be simple to condemn such persons as “snowflakes,” but to do so would be to miss the point and fall into the error of those with “knowledge,” namely arrogance. Consequently, Paul will not try to strengthen the “weak” with more “knowledge,” but show both a better way which emerges from love and is the truest expression of Christian freedom: “Paul’s concern is... that all Christians—especially those who consider themselves wise or strong—act in love, a love that builds up others in Christ.”[4]

Here enters the idea of freedom that comes out in a two-part instruction. In 8:1-11, Paul seemingly tolerates the knowledgeable Christians participating in the festivities of the pagan temple. He notifies such Christians to the faith-injury it may have upon the “weaker brother” who has painful, shameful, or altogether alluring memories of pagan worship. But in 10:19-22, Paul absolutely forbids participation in pagan rites. Syncretism is forbidden for the Christian, tantamount to commingling the chalice of Christ’s blood and the cup of idol oblations. Lockwood summarizes the Apostle’s phasing model of instruction:

Paul is aware that he cannot address everything at once. As a good pastor, he uses a “strategy of persuasion” which first offers one general argument, then another more specific discussion. In chapter 8, his primary concern is how reclining in an idol’s temple will harm one’s brother (8:11). In chapter 10, he will argue at length that flirting with idols (instead of fleeing from them) will harm oneself (10:1-22).[5]

Centuries later, Martin Luther would pen a treatise reflecting on the implications of the Gospel on Christian freedom emergent from love, saying:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.[6]

Paul explains there is no love present when one’s so-called freedom is manifest as, “knowledge that puffs up.” “Love,” on the other hand, “builds up” (8:1). Building up, of course, has a sense of other directedness which results in mutual edification. This is the inevitable result of love. Here, we see knowledge turns out to be immaturity, whereas freedom manifested in love yields wise decisions and behavior. It is the fruit of the Spirit, the consequence of the Gospel upon the regenerate mind and heart. The Spirit of love permits no Christian to exercise their freedom at the expense of another fellow Christian still troubled by old associations. That is Christian love in action, the freedom to be a dutiful servant of all, as Luther would say.

Notice how the one who loves does not assert authority (rights and/or freedom) in such situations because they bear responsibility for their impact on the consciences of their fellow Christians. The Christian, within the context of the Church, is not one who asserts their rights but gives them up for the sake of others. This point will be hammered home in chapter 9. However, here Paul sets the axiomatic principle for the ethic of the Kingdom of God: Love sets one free to selflessly serve... like Jesus the Son.

To be sure, there is nothing to fear about idols. They are “a nothing in the world” (8:4). This Corinthian truism (likely a saying of theirs) is matched by an even greater truth: The Gospel which reveals, “One Lord Jesus Christ” (8:6). Notice how Paul essentially posits a New Testament “Shema” in these verses (see Deuteronomy 6:4 in comparison). Jesus Christ is the one and only living God, with the Father and Holy Spirit.


Additional Resources:

Craft of Preaching-Check out 1517’s resources on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you preaching 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!


[1] Lockwood, Gregory J. 1 Corinthians, Concordia Commentary: A Theological Exposition of the Sacred Scriptures. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2000. 272.

[2] See Hurtado, Larry. Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016. Also, Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2016.

[3] Op. cit., 273.

[4] Ibid. 273.

[5] Ibid. 274.

[6] Luther, Martin. “The Freedom of a Christian” (1520) in Timothy F. Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1989. 596.