Good Theology Rightly Applied (1 Corinthians 8:9–13)

In 1 Corinthians 8:1–13, Paul answers the question of whether Christians can eat food sacrificed to idols. For modern American Christians, this question is not relevant, since our culture does not sacrifice to idols. The way Paul answers this question is relevant today, however, for it addresses how we educate people out of their ignorance. Paul identifies two crucial issues: what we know and how we use that knowledge.

For Paul, knowledge liberates. Idols are objectively unreal, so eating food sacrificed to idols is objectively insignificant. Knowledgeable Corinthian Christians therefore eat such food freely.

On the other hand, ignorance oppresses. Idols are subjectively real to some people, so eating food sacrificed to them violates their conscience. Ignorant Corinthian Christians refuse to eat what they are free to eat, or if they do eat, their “conscience” becomes “weak” and “defiled.”

Ironically, instead of criticizing the ignorant Corinthians for their bad theology and weak consciences, Paul criticizes the knowledgeable Corinthians. Consider what he writes in 1 Corinthians 8:9–13:

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.

The theology of the knowledgeable Corinthians is incomplete and therefore wrongly applied. Idols are objectively unreal. Eating food sacrificed to them is therefore objectively insignificant. This theology is two-thirds correct. The missing third is the relationship between Jesus Christ and the ignorant Corinthians. They were people “for whom Christ died.” When the knowledgeable Corinthians flaunt their freedom, they become a “stumbling block” to the ignorant Corinthians. Their knowledge “destroyed” them. Their actions “wound their weak conscience.” This “sin against your brothers” becomes a “sin against Christ.”

Paul accounted for Jesus Christ in his theology, so he applied his theology in a Christ-like way. Yes, idols are objectively unreal. Yes, food sacrificed to idols is objectively insignificant. But since Christ died for the weak, my goal as a Christian is to educate them out of their ignorance. If doing so requires that I subordinate my freedoms for their wellbeing, then so be it. Love compels me to observe their scruples as I move them from ignorance and weakness to knowledge, strength, and freedom. “[I]f what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin,” Paul writes, “I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.”

Knowledge is power, the power of freedom and the power of love. As Christians, we sometimes subordinate our personal freedom in order to love others. This is good theology rightly applied.

3 thoughts on “Good Theology Rightly Applied (1 Corinthians 8:9–13)

  1. Good thoughts.

    Interesting that in our past as a holiness movement the idea of not doing something becasue it was a “stumbling block” was oten used to attack someone’s liberty, but was seldom interpreted in light of the reality that the one who stumbled was a weaker Christian. I have in the past often heard people say someone should not do some act (or wear some clothes or participate in some event) because it was a stumbling blok to other Christians. Almost always the implication if not the outright statement was that the ones doing the action were the weaker or more immature beleivers and that the ones being caused to “stumble” were in fact stronger Christians who were correclty looking at the conscience issue.

    Also interesting to say what Paul has to say about idols in the following chapters, and the very real power behind them.

  2. I was sure you would tackle teh Chpater 10 references. I havespent most of my life in parts of the world where eating food offered to idols was very much a hot topic, adn a very real issue.

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