1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. 4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. 7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. 
It might seem strange that, beginning with this chapter and continuing through to 11:1, the Apostle Paul devotes so much time and energy to arguing with the Corinthians about food. After all, what do any of us care about food sacrificed to idols? It is not as if you were going to be invited over to someone’s house for a cookout, compliment them on the perfectly cooked T-bone you’re eating, and then hear them say, “Thank you! That was sacrificed to Apollo this morning. The temple of Apollo always has the best T bones.” Even if we did hear our hosts say something like that, it’s doubtful it would bother too many of us because we live in a culture of personal freedom and individualism and scientism. We know that Apollo is nothing more than a fairy tale. But a good steak is always a good steak — only if it’s cooked medium rare.
In our modern Western culture, we can be guilty of two subtle errors. The first is geographical snobbery. There are still many parts of the world where this issue is quite real today. It would be dangerous for us to assume we have nothing to learn about these issues. The second subtle error we can slip into is historical elitism. We assume we are far more culturally and scientifically advanced than people who lived centuries ago. But questions and solutions of the past are a treasury of wisdom. Once the Christian realizes that she is not inherently more intelligent than other people from other places and times, she will be able to start reading the text with humility.
These 13 verses deal with an important question: How should members in a gospel culture exercise their Christian rights and privileges? How do we use our rights rightly? By “rights,” we’re not referring to civil law, but to the liberties and privileges that are ours in Christ. Again, we will divide our consideration into three movements based on the theme of rights: the essence of rights; the goal of rights; and the realignment of rights.
THE ESSENCE OF RIGHTS
We live in a culture that predominantly believes that if I want something then I have right to it. It is a firmly held belief that an individual has a right to do anything they want as long as it does not endanger or harm someone else. Who cares if somebody else has a hard time with what I’m doing? It’s my right; the ultimate good in life is self-actualization and self-expression. Anything that would hinder that right is inherently bad, downright abusive and oppressive. All of our individualized rights are justifiable. Rarely do we ask questions about “should” or “ought.” We are simply not conditioned by our sin nature and our culture to think through the implications of our decisions. In our culture, it’s a question of “can” and not a question of “should.”
Some commentators see this entire section of 1st Corinthians as addressing only the minor issue of whether one should eat meat purchased from a marketplace that was previously sacrificed to idols. Paul will briefly address that at the end of these chapters. But that is absolutely not all of what is going on in Corinth. The Corinthians are questioning Paul about his previous prohibition to stay away from the temple orgies. They argue that if there is only one God and they possess that knowledge, therefore Apollo and Aphrodite and the rest of the Greek pantheon are not real and possess no power. So, going to their festivals is meaningless and eating their food is meaningless and they are free to do so in Christ. After all, meat was a luxury in the ancient world and most of it was offered to idols in the temple. Ancient temples functioned as restaurants, social clubs, and trade organizations all rolled into one. They touched every area of ancient life. They served the best food and had the best wine and hookers in the business.
So, two factions develop in many ancient churches like they did in Corinth. There are the Victorious Vegetarians and the Carnivores for Christ. In Corinth, the Victorious Vegetarians were new believers, or pre-believers, who had recently come out of the Pagan temples and Pagan mystery cults. In those places, they had been the true believers who have now come to investigate this person of Christ and his work. They were quite sensitive to the fact that they had been hoodwinked by false religions. The Carnivores for Christ, on the other hand, had been Christians for at least a few years and understood that the ancient Pagan “gods” and mystery cult “lords” were no gods at all. They had no scruples about having a T-bone in the temple of Apollo. The Carnivores for Christ were primarily concerned with personal freedom. The Victorious Vegetarians were primarily concerned with personal holiness.
In these first 13 verses, Paul directs his comments to the Carnivores for Christ who have posed a “why can’t we” question. He writes:
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. 4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.”
The Carnivores for Christ had written to Paul with a theological defense of their actions, expecting he would back up their position. The slogan, “all of us possess knowledge” (8:1) is a quote of their position. They know that because there is only one God, there is nothing of substance in the idle. Paul will later pointedly argue there is something of substance behind the idols – demons! But for now, his primary concern is dealing with the implications their theology has upon the gospel culture. Their knowledge led them to embrace the common practice of eating meat sacrificed to idols during Pagan temple orgies.
On the other hand, the Victorious Vegetarians expect Paul to pounce on this horrific practice. They still remember what it was like to live under demonic deception with no understanding of truth or holiness. They were no longer deceived, and they were extremely sensitive about opening themselves up to demonic deception again. In verse 8, Paul affirms that what one eats does not really make a difference because “food will not commend us to God.” Neither the carnivore nor the vegetarian is worse because of their diets, and neither is better than the other one. Paul says in verse six that all things are created and given by God so that ultimately no material thing is evil in and of itself. In 10: 23, Paul explains it this way: “‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.”
Christians who have a right understanding of the gospel and God’s sovereign ownership of the world are not moralistic and rigid. If you have encountered a version of Christianity that is primarily about measuring behavior, about tracking morality, about what we cannot do, then those believers have an incomplete and distorted picture of the gospel. When the gospel changes our affections and transforms our life, it uncovers former idols for what they were – lifeless things, forms without substance.
If you are trusting into Jesus, you cannot find ultimate fulfillment and satisfaction in the consumption up any kind of food. You have the ability to enjoy food for the creational blessing that it is. You can enjoy, but find no lifegiving storyline, in art, films, novels, and music. None of these things is the center of our experience in Christ. Paul tells the Corinthians they absolutely have the liberties to exercise their rights in all of these areas. In fact, our rights and privileges in Christ are far greater than we could ever imagine. We will spend eternity learning about them. We have all kinds of freedoms. Paul tells the Galatians that we are set free because we are no longer under the bondage of slavery. Christ has set us free to be actually and absolutely free.
When we understand this, we can properly consume the stuff of culture as something that points us to the gospel. Our rights and privileges in Christ are huge. We are so free that it ought to make us nervous, and it should cause us to think of ways to use our freedom for God’s glory. We are free to enjoy things without looking to them as the ultimate experience or as functional saviors.
THE GOAL OF RIGHTS
If that is true, then why all this upset in Corinth? Why is the source of trouble in the modern-day Church centered around alleged “gray areas?” The Carnivores for Christ had their theology mostly right, but their practice was completely wrong. They were living opposite to the gospel, as if they belonged to themselves. Paul, in verses 1 and 2, pointed out that their knowledge had puffed them up, but God’s love had not built them up. They think Christian conduct is predicated on gnōsis (knowledge) and that knowledge gives them exousia (rights/freedom/authority) to act as they will in this matter.
Note in verse 1 that they did not say “we all know,” but that “we all possess gnōsis.” This is one of several places where this word appears in 1st Corinthians (cf. 1:5; 12:8); here it is a predominate word (“But if anyone loves God, he is known by God,” 8:3).  Paul attempts to correct their theology and practice by explaining the goal of their rights and the purpose for which those rights were given. Even though the Carnivores for Christ were correct in their assertions that they all had knowledge and that an idol was not real, that good theology had not touched their hearts. They had become proud of their knowledge rather than understanding the goal of their rights was to exercise love.
Why was meat such a giant grey area for the early church? As we mentioned, meat was not common in the diet of an ancient Corinthian as it is in our modern cities. It was a delicacy reserved for those able to regularly afford it. Unless you lived on a farm, all edible meat began its journey to the plate as a sacrifice to an idol. Some meat went to the priests. Portions were eaten in the temple festivals, and the rest were sent on to the market for purchase. If your income were modest, the only time you would have meat in your diet would have been at a festival for idols. The Victorious Vegetarians were people of modest income who associated meat with idols because they only got to eat it at the temple orgies and could not afford it otherwise. The Carnivores for Christ had more disposable income to buy meat in the marketplace, but they also liked going to the temple feasts to drink and dine with their friends and neighbors because they were “free” to do so.
Christian rights and liberties had the end goal of love, of building one another up in the love of Christ and neighbor. But love is not on display with the Carnivores for Christ, the so-called stronger brothers, and sisters. Paul points out that not everyone in the congregation has the “knowledge” the Carnivores for Christ have. “7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” The issue here was not mere moralism for the Victorious Vegetarians. The issue was that pre-believers were being coerced to return to the temple orgies for T-bone Steak Night where they are tempted to return to their old ways of idol worship.
Paul commands, “9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.” The Carnivores for Christ were so self-focused on their freedom they had not thought of how unloving it was to destroy another brother or sister’s not-fully-formed faith for the sake of a steak dinner. It is one of the great lies of the world, the flesh, and the devil that the exercise of personal freedom is simply personal. No, we like to think our actions don’t affect others around us or the society as a whole. Yet, no person exercises their rights in a bubble. Overemphasis on self-rights and self-expression erode a sense of community. Valued social norms such as civility and manners get weakened. A simple principle we often miss in our demand for self-expression is that our failure to give something up for the common good is a clear indication that we are enslaved by our sense of entitlement.
Right in the middle of this discussion of knowledge and authority Paul places one of the highest Christological statements in all of scripture. “6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” The prepositions “from” and “for” are attributed to the one God the Father, and the object of the preposition “through” is the one Lord Jesus Christ. God is not only the agent of creation, but he’s also the final cause and the goal of all things. He is also the instrumental cause (“through all things”). But, notice, the instrumental clause is applied to the Lord Jesus Christ as an equal to the father. A devout Jew would recite Deuteronomy 6:4 twice every day (“the Lord our God, the Lord is one”).
True authority (exusia) is shared among Father and Son (and Spirit). There is mutual deference, love, and sharing within the community of the divine Trinity. That is the basis for the gospel community of God’s people to share their rights and revolve around others needs rather than standing statically and expecting others to orbit around them. What the Corinthians needed to do was realign their rights. If the goal of our rights is freedom to love, then how do we get to a point where we use our rights for their true purposes? How can are over-individualized understanding of rights be communalized? How can our inward bent bend outward in love? How can we free ourselves from slavery to our so-called freedoms?
Christians are able to enjoy freedom because one man sacrificed his freedom on our behalf. Our rights and privileges result from Christ laying aside his rightful claim to any and all of his rights. Our liberties are ours because the ultimate stronger brother gave up his liberty to secure liberties for all his weaker brothers and sisters. Knowledge of the gospel recognizes two things. First, the privileges we have are shared privileges. “11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.” Christ did not die to save the solitary individual; he died for his bride, his collective people, his church. Rights are never exercised in isolation, because they always have a bearing on the people around us. Christ surrendered his rights to gain us ours. But our rights are not about what one can or cannot do. Our rights exist so that we can question how best to serve others and live a life that makes the gospel compelling.
Second, failure to care for Christ’s bride is a failure to care for Christ himself. When one sins against one’s brother, he or she sins against Christ. “12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” Remember the context in which Paul’s instruction takes place. Victorious Vegetarians are the relatively poor and are very new to the faith, quite possibly pre-believing seekers. They are being dragged back to temple orgies in an attempt to build up their “weak consciences.” Dragging those people back to that from which they have just been rescued could become an act of destruction, a temptation for them to return to their former (and very recent) pagan life. There is far more at stake here than whether someone is offended that you were seen going to an “R”-rated move or drinking and dancing in a bar.
What is really going on in the hearts of the Carnivores for Christ is idolatry. They idolize their right or privilege to have a T-bone in Apollo’s temple. It’s easy to confuse outward action with inward motivation. Paul could simply have told them, “stop going to Pagan temples and eating Pagan food.” But that’s not the underlying heart issue. Their underlying heart issue was controlling their horizontal relationships to get horizontal approval. They were so determined in their horizontal approval, they were willing to drag pre-believers back into paganism just to prove that what they were doing was more spiritual, more advanced, more mature. So great was their pursuit of their heart idol, they refused to see the implications of sacrificing someone else’s salvation in favor of their own functional saviors – the almighty T-bone steak (the outward sin) and horizontal approval (the underlying heart idol).
How do we know whether or not we recognize the deep implications of Christ’s work on the cross? One of the ways we know is when we give up our rights for the sake of loving our brothers and sisters within the gospel culture, we’re starting to understand something of the implications of Calvary. Our rights are secured by Christ as collective rights, not individual rights. Our freedom is given to us to build up the church. So, Paul writes in verse 13, “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” We are only totally free when we can set aside our freedoms for the sake of others. It’s never a question of what we can get away with. It is always a question of how we can best use our liberties for the sake of others.
Our unity in gospel community is to reflect the unity of the Godhead. “… there is one God, the father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (8:6). All things are ours in Christ. So, all things are meant to be used in service to and worship of Christ. Only the gospel tells us we’re so free that we can give up our rights for the sake of another. Our identity is not bound up in self-expression. Our identity is bound up in the ultimate self-expression of a God who is completely self-giving love. Jesus voluntarily renounced his rights and abased himself for people that hated him. The most entitled person gave up his rights for us. That is a powerful story that everyone should hear. Nothing, not even our rights and privileges, should ever get in the way of sharing that!
So, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 8:1–13.
 Fee, 359.
 Um, 152. Kindle Edition.
 Fee, 363.
 Id. 365.
 Um, 156 Kindle Edition.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Php 2:1–11.