The Corinthians wrote to Paul, their apostle and pastor, to ask him about some questions they had. These were things about which there was disagreement or, at least, uncertainty in the church of Corinth. Having received the Gospel, they needed guidance about the nature of Christian freedom amidst the challenges they were encountering in familial and social settings. Not surprisingly, their questions have retained relevance. Each generation of Christian finds themselves asking related questions about freedom and the ethic of the Kingdom of God. Revisiting Saint Paul’s divinely inspired response exhibits the space in which the Gospel and the Third Use of the Law overlap in cases of conscience.
However, one Corinthian issue may not seem terribly relevant anymore. But this impression would be mistaken. It is the question of whether a Christian may eat meat previously offered to an idol. In discussions with Christians from distant cultures, the question is a live one.
The inquiry is basically this: Suppose the Jones family invites you to dinner. Just as they are serving up the main course you say, “That looks like a lovely steak, Mrs. Jones.” “Best sirloin,” she replies, “I couldn’t usually get it, but there’s just been a big sacrifice to the god Jupiter, so there was meat in the market — not too expensive either.” Now, you believe in religious freedom, but you are a Christian. Should you share in this meat which has been offered to an idol?
Now, this question is brought up elsewhere in 1 Corinthians. In chapter 8, Paul started with these words: “Now concerning food offered to idols….” But what the parishioners in Corinth wanted to know is, “Can we eat the meat or not?” The Apostle, however, did not give them a clear answer. Instead, Paul started talking about some deeper questions, about freedom and conscience, about sensitivity to another person’s beliefs and understanding, about the dangers of a little knowledge, and the love that builds people up. This is the nature of an apostle so intoxicated with the spirit of God that he cannot walk a straight line but explores every byway on his route before getting to the point. By now, he has been wandering for three chapters. In other words, Paul explores and probes the implications of the Gospel where the Law used to strictly and narrowly apply.
Paul explores and probes the implications of the Gospel where the Law used to strictly and narrowly apply.
Chapter 10, then, is the conclusion of his great meandering answer. Here we finally get his response to, “Is it permissible to eat the meat offered to idols or not? Yes or no?”
A lot hinges on this question. We may never even get the opportunity to eat meat offered to idols. But it is the principle that is important. Other questions cause disagreements or uncertainty among Christians today. For example, is it okay to drink a glass of wine? Or two glasses, or four? You may wonder if it is okay to buy a lottery ticket or bet on a horse race. Is it alright to take a day off work when I have got a bit of a sniffle, and the duvet is inviting? Does it matter if my child attends the school assembly when they are celebrating Transgender? Can I go to the supermarket and do my shopping on Good Friday? Do I set a placard of my political affiliation on the front lawn? A lot of things hinge on this test case: Is it permissible to eat the meat offered to idols or not?
And the answer is…. the answer is the Corinthians are asking the wrong question. They (and we) are asking “Is it lawful?” That is the wrong question because the answer resounds clearly in Scripture: Everything is lawful because you are free of the Law. That is exactly what Paul writes: “All things are lawful for me” (1 Corinthians 6:12). He writes it twice in the same verse. Because the Corinthians had difficulty getting their heads around it, he says it again in chapter 10: “All things are lawful.” In fact, he again says it twice in the same verse — four times in total.
Consequently, the Corinthians (and we today) have a great gift, the gift of freedom. “For freedom, Christ has set us free,” Saint Paul says in Galatians 5:1. It is a great gift because it means Christians are free from the curse of the Law and the punishment of disobedience, that is, the coercion of both which motivates one out of fear. So, fear is driven out and its place is overtaken by love. As 1 John 4:18-19 says: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because He first loved us.” What Paul attempts here is to alert the Corinthians that there abides in them now a different motivation, a different spirit, a renewed heart capable of divine love by way of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Dictatorial obedience to the Law (yes or no scenarios) does little toward the cultivation of wisdom. However, exercising the freedom to love in every way entails the cultivation of wisdom.
Fear is driven out and its place is overtaken by love.
So, we have the great gift of freedom. But it is not the only gift. We also have the gift of conscience, and we have the gift of love. Rather than a law, let us take these gifts to the table at the Jones’ house. Now, I am not going to ask if I am allowed to eat it. That is simple: Yes, I am allowed. All things are lawful. It is, after all just a piece of meat, the same as any other, nothing different about it, even if some bogus theology was uttered over it at a pagan temple. I am not going to ask if I am allowed to eat it, that is the wrong question. But am I going to eat it? Conscience come out. Love show yourself. Here is the issue. Across the table is another fellow, we will call him Smith. Smith is a new Christian. To be honest, he has not even read 1 Corinthians yet. He knows Jesus. He loves Jesus. But he does not know all about freedom in Christ at the moment. Now, suppose I eat the meat. It looks and smells delicious and I am perfectly at liberty to eat it — that is my prerogative. Still, if I do, what about Smith? Will he understand? Will he maybe think I am saying I agree with offerings to idols? Might he even think I especially want to take part in the dish to be involved with the sacrifice to Jupiter? Conscience, what do you say? And conscience defers to love, so what do you say?
“Mrs. Jones, that does look delicious, but I’ll pass if you don’t mind. Just the roast potatoes and Brussel sprouts for me.” An awkward moment, perhaps. But you will explain it all to Jones when an opportunity arises.
Saint Paul does not bind the Christian mind. He does not dictate to Christian conscience. As a matter of fact, the decision could go the other way. Sometimes a conscience driven by love leads Paul himself to assert himself. By the time he has finished writing to the Corinthians that much will be patently obvious. Let us suppose things unfolded a bit differently at the Jones’ house. Suppose someone, maybe even Smith himself, had taken a stand and said you may not eat the meat because it was contaminated by being offered to an idol. Your conscience must defer to love again. But this time love regards a different concern. Can I let everyone see me endorsing this misunderstanding, this denial of the freedom Christ has won for us? No, if I refuse the meat, I become enslaved to a man-made law. That may lead people away from the Gospel. They might think I regard the idol as a real force. I cannot do that. “So, thank you very much, Mrs. Jones. I’ll have a large portion, please.”
Love is the real answer lurking behind every ethical or moral issue Paul tackles.
The apostle refuses to instruct on the matter. He does not give a law. Rather, there is something far better. It is a gift. We have, in Christ, the gift of freedom and the blessing of conscience, and the example of love lived out for us in Jesus Christ. Of course, it would be easier if Paul would just give a yes or no. But his answer to the question of eating meat offered to idols is “love.” It is the real answer lurking behind every ethical or moral issue he tackles. “Owe no one anything,” he wrote to the Romans, “except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Law.” “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word,” he told the Galatians, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (5:14). “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (10:31). He concludes by saying: “Give no offense to Jews or Greeks or the Church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1).