In 1 Corinthians 8:1–10:11, Paul examines the practice of Christians eating food sacrificed to idols. 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.
Chapter 8 lays the theological and ethical foundation for Paul’s argument, while chapter 10 builds a house of practical application. At first, chapter 9 appears to be a digression from the main argument, but it is not. Rather, to continue the building metaphor, chapter 9 describes the person who lives in the chapter 10 house built on the chapter 8 foundation.
In chapter 8, Paul agrees with the Corinthians that idols are objectively unreal and idol food objectively insignificant. This knowledge led the Corinthians to eat idol food whenever and wherever they desired. Paul seasoned his knowledge with love, however. In chapter 10, he prohibits the practice of Christians eating idol food in religious feasts at pagan temples because—as we will see—this requires them to participate in demonic deceptions. However, he allows them to eat idol food in dinner parties at private homes, if—and this if is crucial—no one has scruples about the practice. Love of neighbor determines what one should do.
The Corinthians exercised rights based on knowledge. Paul exercised restraint of his rights based on love. The entire point of chapter 9 is that restraining the exercise of one’s rights confers advantages on those who share the gospel. And since saving others is more important than serving oneself, Paul offers his personal example as a lifestyle worthy of imitation.
In verses 24–27, he uses athletic imagery to challenge the Corinthians to pursue the same lifestyle with equal fervency:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
On several occasions, I’ve noted that the issue of food sacrificed to idols is not a live one for most of us in America. (A missionary emailed me, though, to tell me that it’s a life issue in his cultural context.) The relevant question for us American Christians is this: Do we spend more time and effort cultivating our rights or cultivating our responsibilities to those who need to hear the gospel?
It’s a tough question. I can’t answer it for you. But I am certainly examining my lifestyle and asking it of myself.