Sometimes the Weak Brother is Right
In 1 Corinthians 8-10, Paul wrote about idol meat. The one who avoided idol meat had a weak conscience. Romans 14 refers to meat-avoiding weak believers as well. Both passages warn the eaters that their eating could cause stumbling and destruction. Both argue for love over liberty. Both deal with standing and falling. However, though these passages deal with similar issues, the Corinthians were struggling with much closer involvement with idols.
In 1 Corinthians 8:1-7, the strong are said to have knowledge. Paul used two words for knowledge. First, γνῶσις, “knowledge,” is found in 1 Corinthians 8:1,7,10,11. The same word as a verb, γινώσκω, “I know,” is found in 1 Corinthians 8:2,3. Second, εἴδω, “I see” or “I understand,” occurs in four verses in 1 Corinthians 8:1 (know), 2 (know), 4 (know), 10 (see). These two words are somewhat interchangeable1. Romans 14:14a uses εἴδω, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus.” Romans 14 does not use γινώσκω.
The knowledge of the strong2 was this: Because there is only one God, they could recline at the table in the temple where meat was sacrificed to idols and eat. At the end of chapter 10, Paul discusses a different issue (eating idol tainted meat sold in the market), but in chapter 8 and most of chapter 10 the issue is meat eaten at the idol temple.
Paul says, (v.10) “For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple3, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?” The “strong” position of ch. 8 was reclining and eating in the temple (not just eating market bought meat). This is also seen in Paul’s use of the word εἰδωλόθυτα, which has been shown to refer to meat offered to idols and eaten in the presence of the idol4. The concern in 1 Corinthians 8:10 is that the weak might be emboldened to eat in the temple, not just the market.
There is some disagreement over whether eating in the idol temple was religious or secular. Garland says, “They may also have justified their actions by downplaying any religious ceremony … as a bunch of mumbo jumbo that had no spiritual effect on them whatsoever”5. Willis argues that such events were essentially secular6. Witherington refutes this by giving evidence that even in the adjoining rooms, the idol was present and a short ceremony honoring the idol would have preceded the meal7. However, engaging in a socially dictated religious ceremony doesn’t imply personal religious belief. As an example from popular culture, the baptism of Michael Corleone’s son8 comes to mind. The strong of Corinth seem to have thought in a similar way, as Paul demonstrates when he explains their knowledge.
The knowledge of the strong was a chain of ideas: An idol is nothing (8:4) since there is one God. Participating in an idol’s ceremony is worshipping nothing and means nothing. Therefore, it doesn’t violate the prohibition against having other gods. The weak, however, does not have that knowledge. He also holds to the doctrine of one God. He believes that the idol does constitute a sinful violation of “No other gods.”
Paul’s Extended Argument
Other than the fact that his “conscience is weak,” how does Paul depict the ethical position of the weak and the strong? Let’s look at Paul’s extended argument in 1 Corinthians 8-10:
- Paul warns about knowledge. It puffs up (8:1). It keeps one from considering that he lacks knowledge (8:2). Being known by God is better than having knowledge.
- Paul says the thinking of the strong is supposition. In 8:2, he says, “If anyone imagines that he knows something.” (ESV) That word for imagines is “δοκέω.” Paul uses it again in 10:12, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” Paul did not use this word for the thinking of the weak in Romans 14:14 (he chose λογίζομαι). Paul’s respect for the weak seems to be greater than his respect for the strong.
- Using the Old Testament (10:1-18), Paul argues forcefully against temple-idol meat. We must note that Paul is making the argument of the weak.
- The objection of the strong in Paul’s audience is inevitable and Paul expresses it for them: (v. 19) “What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything?” Garland says, “Paul is conscious that his statements might seem inconsistent with what he wrote in 8:4, ‘that an idol has no real significance’ ”9. The question of v. 19 is written to expect a “No” answer10. Paul answers it, (v. 20) “No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.” Without admitting there are other gods, he says there are demons behind the idols. Paul is arguing that the strong are wrong and their “knowledge” isn’t very good thinking.
- Paul concludes: (v. 21) “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.” We must see this in Greek, “οὐ δύνασθε ποτήριον κυρίου πίνειν καὶ ποτήριον…” (“Not strong you are to drink…” The strong, if they follow and apply Paul’s argument, are “not strong.”
- Note what Paul says to the strong at the beginning of chapter 10. “For I do not want you to be ignorant” (10:1, NIV). In Greek, “Οὐ θέλω δὲ ὑμᾶς ἀγνοεῖν” (“But I don’t want you to be without knowledge.”) What follows (10:1-18) is precisely what the weak brother thinks: Idolatry is forbidden and idols are idolatry. The strong need the vital knowledge Paul gives in ch. 10, not the weak. This is why Paul (8:2) warns the strong that they think they know, but they do not yet know as they should. And in 10:12, if anyone thinks that he stands, he should take heed lest he fall.
Re-examining the “Knowledge” of the Strong & the Thinking of the Weak
To summarize, let’s re-examine the “knowledge” of the strong and the thinking of the weak.
The “knowledge” of the strong
Premise 1: There is only one God; these idols are not false gods (they are nothing).
Premise 2: It is forbidden to worship false gods.
Therefore, The prohibition doesn’t apply to our idols.
The thinking of the weak
Premise 1: There is only one God; idols are false gods.
Premise 2: It is forbidden to worship false gods.
Therefore, The prohibition does apply to idols in our city.
First, is the reasoning of the strong logical? The strong in Corinth could say that the weak is committing a logical fallacy: Because “gods” in Premise 1 is a false god and what is forbidden in Premise 2 is real gods, the idolatry prohibition doesn’t apply to Corinthian idols.
The weak might reply: Then what was the point of God prohibiting idolatry in the first place? What did God want? Clearly, from Moses to Achan to Daniel, God wanted it applied to the idols of the day, even though they were never “really other gods.” So the thinking of the strong would mean that all Old Testament instances of idol avoidance were not really necessary and all Old Testament instances of idolatry would not have been sinful if the people had just remembered that there is only one God. If the prohibition against idolatry ever applied to anything, it applied to the idols in our city.
The response of the strong to this counterargument, while important, goes beyond the point of this paper.
Paul uses “suppose” for the thinking of the strong, warns him about the dangers of “knowledge,” tells him he might actually be “without knowledge,” corrects the knowledge he does have, and finally tells him that he is “not strong” to sit in that temple and eat idol meat. The “strong” is gradually encouraged to become “weak.” Is Paul trying to weaken the faith of the Corinthians? No. We are in need of re-thinking what Paul meant by “weak in faith” and “conscience is weak,” because the weak position can be the faithful, knowledgeable, and right position.
1 They are used this way in v. 2, and in vv. 4-7.
2 Paul doesn’t call them “strong.” They’re “strong” by being counterparts to the “weak.” Here, Paul calls them the ones “with knowledge.”
3 The Greek text says, reclining in an idol’s temple.
4 Ben Witherington, Not So Idle Thoughts about Eidolothuton, Tyndale Bulletin, 44:237-254.
5 David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003, pp. 356.
6 W. Willis, Idol Meat in Corinth. The Pauline Argument in I Corinthians 8 and 10, Chico, Scholars Press 1985, p. 63.
7 Ben Witherington, p. 242-5.
9 Garland, p. 479.
10 The word “No” in Paul’s reply (v. 20) is added. This might be because the question was phrased to expect a “No.” V. 20 can be translated, “But I say, that…” (KJV). Is Paul answering it “yes” or “no”? I believe that the question in v. 19 is presumed by Paul to be on the lips of the strong—it is their question, so they expect the “no” answer. Paul himself doesn’t really see it as a “No.” If so, it should read like this:
v. 19: What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything!?
v. 20: But I AM saying that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.