What’s Food Got to Do with Anything? (1 Corinthians 8:1a)

Sometimes, I read the Bible, scratch my head, and wonder what it’s talking about. I scratched my head when I read 1 Corinthians 8:1a: “Now about food sacrificed to idols…” These words introduce a three-chapter argument Paul makes against the Corinthians in 8:1–11:1.

I haven’t seen any idols lately, let alone sacrificed food to them. So, I feel tempted to skip this portion of Scripture and move on to another that relates to my world. Perhaps you feel tempted to do the same.

Resist that temptation! The particular example Paul uses may not be relevant to people like us—because we don’t eat food sacrificed to idols—but the way he thinks about this example definitely is

In the ancient world, people sacrificed animals to the gods. They gave some of the meat to the priests, and they consumed some of the meat in a religious feast at the temple. The priests sold leftover meat in the public market, which was then consumed in private homes.

Today, our post-Christian society considers religion to be a private affair. Ancients interpreted religion differently. Religious duties, including religious feasts, were an integral part of a person’s civic responsibilities. Performing these duties and attending these feasts generated social and political benefits. Failing to do so generated social and political costs.

The first generation of Christians strove to avoid idolatry, which violated the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Living in cities where idolatry constituted the majority religion forced them to ask themselves three hard questions:

  1. Can we eat food sacrificed to idols as part of a religious feast at the temple?
  2. Can we eat food sacrificed to idols, sold in the public market, and consumed in private homes?
  3. Can we afford the social and political costs associated with answer “No” to the first two questions?

The Corinthians and Paul offered contrary answers. The Corinthians answered, “Yes,” “Yes,” and “No,” respectively. Paul answered, “No,” “Maybe,” and “Yes.” How they reasoned to these contrary answers explains why we shouldn’t skip 1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1.

The Corinthians based their answers on knowledge. “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one” (8:4). Knowledge confers rights. If idols are nothing, then eating food sacrificed to them is also nothing. And if nothing, I have a right to eat food sacrificed to idols and to enjoy the social and political benefits my city confers.

Paul based his answers on love: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (8:2). Love confers responsibilities. If I love God, I avoid anti-God rituals. If I love people, I take their scruples into account as I choose how to act. If those loves conflict, I take responsibility for the costs my decision imposes.

Eating food sacrificed to idols may not be relevant to us today. But how we negotiate the tensions of decision-making—knowledge and love, rights and responsibilities—certainly is.

More on that in our next devotional.


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