The Bible describes with clarity many responsibilities of believers in the contexts of government and society. Still in some areas believers are not given specific instructions, and instead must rely on applying general biblical principles to contemporary challenges. For example, Paul mandates without compromise that the Roman believers should pay the taxes required of them (Rom. 13:7), but when it comes to eating meat sacrificed to idols, Paul gives the Corinthians options (1 Cor. 8-10).
Pagan temples in first-century Corinth often included animal sacrifice. Even beyond the temples themselves, the marketplace was well represented with meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Consequently, the issue of whether a believer should eat such meat became an iconic cultural problem for the Corinthian church. Each era and context presents its own unique challenges. Every culture encounters, From time to time, moral issues so complex as to defy simple solutions. Still, in each and every instance, despite any level of complexity, these challenges can be answered appropriately by biblical principles. But before one can correctly apply a general principle to a specific situation, the person must understand the principle. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians is helpful, as he explains the principles and their grounding so that the believers at Corinth could apply them well, and in so doing could maintain clear consciences.
Paul recognizes that even though the meat issue was a cultural hot potato, essentially it really wasn’t a significant issue at all. Because there is no God but one (1 Cor. 8:4), and because through Christ all things have their existence (1 Cor. 8:6), Paul and the Corinthians could have certain knowledge that at its core, the sacrificed meat issue was no issue at all. Food would not commend them to God (1 Cor. 8:8). Nonetheless, Paul warns against pride, contrasting it with edification (1 Cor. 8:1). The moral issue in play was not about an essential wrongness of eating sacrificed meat. There simply was no essential wrongness. Rather, the issue to which the Corinthian believers needed to be attentive was that of edifying or building up brothers in Christ (1 Cor. 8:1, 9-13). Paul provides and illustrates in 1 Corinthians 10:23-32 several principles to that end.
First, “All things are lawful (or possible), but not all things are profitable” (1 Cor. 10:23). All things that are not restricted are permitted. Where there is no regulation given in Scripture, there is freedom for the believer. This is one reason Paul wants the Corinthians to “learn not to exceed what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). To place a heavier yoke on people than the Bible places on people results in pride—which is a tremendously destructive form of idolatry. Not only does pride tear down rather than build up, but ultimately, it is in conflict with God’s doxological purpose (His purpose of glorifying Himself—or expressing His own character).
Second, “All things are lawful (or possible), but not all things edify” (1 Cor. 10:23). The Greek term (sumphero) translated here as profitable means to bring together, and the term translated edify (oikodomeo) means to house-build, or build up. The second term explains the scope of the first. In other words, what is profitable or bringing together is that which house-builds or builds up. In this context, what is profitable for believers is that which builds up.
Third, “Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor” (1 Cor. 10:24). The word good is not in the Greek text, rather it has been added by the translators to help clarify the meaning of the passage. I think the passage is better translated without the word (“Let no one seek his own, but that of his neighbor”), because it causes the reader to ask, ‘Let no one seek his own what?’ Rather than assuming the good without realizing its specific definition in this context, the reader should be drawn to the word edify. This is not referencing general good, as in saying we may not pursue good for ourselves, rather it is referencing specific good in terms of building up. Paul speaks in universal terms of all believers (“Let no one…”), and mandates that we should seek the building up of our neighbor. As Paul references the concept of building up elsewhere (e.g., 2 Cor. 10:8, 13:10; Eph. 4:12, 16), it is evident he is speaking in terms of spiritual growth.
We should be attentive to the spiritual needs of others, basing our decisions, where we have freedom, not on our own growth but on the growth of others. Paul restates this in 1 Corinthains 10:33, noting that he seeks not his own profit (sumphoron), but the profit of many. There are obviously many specific biblical directions regarding how we are to attend to our own spiritual growth, so we are certainly not to ignore our own spiritual growth and building up. But in cases where we have options, we should look for the benefit of others.
Next, Paul illustrates in 1 Corinthians 10:25-30 the above three principles in action, applying them to the specific situation at hand. Eat and don’t ask questions—it doesn’t matter if the meat is sacrificed or not. The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains (10:26)—all things belong to Him, even if an item has been misappropriated by one to whom it had been given. Further, even when interacting with unbelievers, there is still no issue. Only when it is made an issue by someone perceiving that there is an issue (10:28), the believer should act in consideration of that person. In other words, the believer—seeking the good of the other, rather than the good of his own—should be sensitive and attentive to the (spiritual, in this context) needs of others.
Finally, Paul announces the highest order principle: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:32). His words here accomplish two important purposes. First, by adding the phrase “or whatever you do,” he shows that the principles he is discussing are relevant for every area of life and not just for the occasion at hand. Believers are not at liberty to compartmentalize areas of our lives—employing one set of principles for our spiritual endeavors and a whole different set for our societal and political ones. Paul shows us here that all of our actions are to be governed by the same principles. Secondly—and most importantly—he reminds the reader of the ultimate purpose for every action in the believer’s life: God’s glory. The glory of God is God’s purpose, and it is to be ours as well. If our thoughts, words and deeds do not pass the doxological test, then they need to be changed.
We should seek not what is permissible, but what is profitable. What is profitable is that which builds up. That which builds up others rather than ourselves, on issues of conscience, is the focus of these principles. These principles are applicable not just to what we eat, but to every area of life. In every area of life our divinely mandated goal is to glorify God.
Where the Bible offers no specific direction, it still answers every situation we can possibly encounter, bidding us to apply these principles comprehensively and faithfully. If we are diligent to that end, we will not lack for confidence or be burdened with uncertainty in discerning whether or not our actions are appropriate for the occasion.