The beginning of an extremely challenging portion of Scriptures, 1 Corinthians 8 edges towards discussing liberty and constraints. Chapters 8-11 showcase Paul’s pastoral nature, for rather than writing a polemic list of do’s and don’t’s to a church of diverse believers with questionable devotion, he has devised an all-embracing construct for Christian life, worship and the spiritual realm. The implications of these chapters are more radical than the sexual ideals put forth in chapters 6-7.
The issues of enforcing ecclesial norms plagued the Corinthian Church just as it plagues the Catholic Church in America. One central issue emerges: eating meat sacrificed to idols. Rather than burn or discard meat used for ritual purposes, pagan temples and local markets sold vast supplies of cheap, edible meat. It was common in Corinthian culture for one to eat his meal right at the temple, and the vast quantity of meat made these temples a sort of banquet hall for trade guilds; in either case these affairs were tainted with pagan idolatry.
Paul prepares the groundwork for his argument by beginning chapter 8 very carefully; writing across the Aegean Sea to a church with which he has a deep spiritual bond, he is like a careful parent not trying to lose control of rebellious teenagers. As an Old Testament scholar, he knows the need to eradicate idolatry among God’s people. Certain Corinthian Christians had long argued it was licit to eat meat sacrificed to idols, since they knew there was only one true God, but the early Church’s harsh treatment of those who burned incense to the Roman gods provides a proper precedent against such a practice. Nevertheless, the Corinthian Church was in turmoil over this issue, dividing families and splitting the church.
For a bit of history, the Christian faith came to Corinth after the Council of Jerusalem which insisted that uncircumcised Gentiles refrain from eating meat with blood in it or that had been strangled, avoiding all things associated with idols and all forms of sexual immorality. Blood was so stringently avoided primarily because of God’s commandment to Noah and his sons, not Israelites, of whom we are all descendants. Now, the Corinthians bristle at Paul’s authority and perceived "legalism" in regards to meat sacrificed to idols.
He offers a valuable lesson, "’all of us possess knowledge’. ‘Knowledge [without love] puffs up, but love builds up’" (8:1). After discussing love and knowledge, he concedes that "although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth–as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’ — yet, for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ" (v 5-6). He follows with "not all possess this knowledge. But some, through being hitherto accustomed to idols, eat food as really offered to an idol" (v 7). The mature Christians must bear patiently with their co-religionists who do not possess the knowledge in verses 5 and 6; the alternative is to sin against Christ (Cf. v. 12). He then finishes the chapter by edging up to a prohibition on eating meat sacrificed to idols which he will state definitively in chapter 10.
As an aside, when Paul says "all things are lawful," he is not being an antinomian [law-abolisher], but instead referring to those who have the full life of Christ and never act except in accord God’s perfect will. This statement is also an attempt to warm those who respond negatively to legalism to his pastoring.
Music: La Cornara from the album Italian Music of the 17th Century, performed by Altri Stromenti. www.magnatune.com