1 Corinthians 8

Can Anything a Human Does Be Morally Neutral? A Look at 1 Corinthians 8:8 (Part 1)

In a recent exchange here at SharperIron, I was asked what I thought 1 Corinthians 8:8 meant. I had just asserted that a being bearing the image of God could not possibly do anything that is morally neutral — neither right nor wrong, because such a being must either express that imago dei, or in some way insult it (or both at once, in different ways).

1 Corinthians 8:8 seems to say otherwise.

After offering a brief explanation of how Paul’s meaning there could be understood as consistent with the view that human actions are always moral, the question continued to nag me. My answer felt inadequate. And, since any answer to the question could have a lot of implications, it seems important to be confident.

Hence, this brief study.

The Passage

First, a bit of context. The apostle Paul is helping the Corinthian congregation work through how to behave in the matter of consumption of meat that had been offered to idols. He has just asserted that idols are not really real (1 Cor. 8:4), in the sense of representing or connecting to some deity (but cf. 1 Cor. 10:21, another study for another day). He then points out that not everybody understands this (1 Cor. 8:7), and 8:8 comes as further explanation of the true nature of eating this idol-associated food.

Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. (ESV, 1 Cor. 8:8)

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Christian Liberty and Love

The Apostle Paul responds to questions from the Corinthians in his first epistle. Chapter seven addresses concerns about marriage, and chapter eight with eating meat offered to idols. Although idol meat was the question, Paul’s answer leans heavily upon the underlying issue of Christian liberty. Some activities, though not sinful in themselves, should still be avoided because they harm others.

The Corinthians lived in an idolatrous society, and most of the church members were saved out of a pagan background. Much of their former social life involved meals eaten in pagan temples. No wonder, then, that questions relating to idol meat were high on their agenda. Two questions emerge. First, is it right to eat food at home which has been offered to idols, and second, should I refrain from eating at pagan temples? The Apostle Paul addresses both questions.

What We Know

All Christians know the truth about pagan gods, but knowledge can puff us up, which is why we need a generous dose of Christian love to build others up. Knowledge tends to promote overconfidence in ourselves fueling an inflated estimation of our knowledge. Yes, we know something about pagan gods which our neighbors do not, but none of us knows as much as we ought. Knowledge should make us humble, but often instead expands our pride. There is something more important than knowledge, namely love, which causes us to consider others and their needs, not trumpet our superior understanding. May our knowledge always be seasoned with love.

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Issues of Conscience

roast meat

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.

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