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 lesson sits awkwardly with the Old Testament and Gospel readings, but it would not be so. Deuteronomy 18:15-20 sets forth the great prophecy of one coming in the office like unto 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, demons that receive worship in the temples of the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 10:20-21).

Now, in Corinth the issues surrounding the consumption of meat offered to idols pertain to matters of allegiance and freedom. Both texts from Deuteronomy and Mark inform Paul’s two-part instruction, with the first part imparted in 8:1-13 and the second part 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 so, 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 with an invitation to dine at the temples of Asclepios, Demeter, and Kore, being 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 place to forge relationships and business transactions within earshot of the presiding “god.” Ah, their rights. After all, they had rights to such things. In fact, they could argue it from their freedom as a Christian from 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 that 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 the mortal life of the Corinthian Christians.

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

Paul’s differentiates between the Christian with “knowledge” (8:1, 7, 10, 11) and the “weak” Christian (8:7, 9, 10) to make his point. 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 could be easy 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 “weak” brother who has painful or 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” that first offers one general argument, then another more specific discussion. In chapter 8 his primary concern is that 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]

Syncretism is forbidden for the Christian, tantamount to commingling the chalice of Christ’s blood and the cup of idol oblations.

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 about it which results in mutual edification. That 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; the fruit of the Spirit, that is, the consequence of the Gospel upon the regenerate mind and heart. This Spirit of love permits no Christian to exercise their freedom at the expense of another 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, of course, 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. Jesus Christ is the one and only living God, with the Father and Holy Spirit.

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Additional Resources:

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

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