Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. – 1 Corinthians 8:1-7 ESV
With the opening words of this chapter, Paul reveals that he is answering yet another one of the questions sent to him by the church in Corinth. It had to do with food offered to idols. To modern, 21st-Century Christians, this will sound like a strange discussion that has nothing to do with us, and little in the way of practical application. But Paul’s primary point has to do with knowledge and what we do with it, especially in our interactions with “weaker” or less spiritually mature Christians and with the lost.
There are two major views as to what was going on in the Corinthian fellowship that caused them to raise this question with Paul. The more traditional view is that there were former pagans in the church who had come to faith in Christ and who were still buying meat in the marketplace that had been sacrificed to idols. It was a common practice for pagan priests to offer sell in the market some of the meat left over from a sacrifice to their god. This was considered good, high-quality meat. The converted pagans in the church knew that the meat was good and they also knew that there was no such thing as idols. So their conclusion was that it was perfectly acceptable to buy and eat the meat and even serve it to their believing friends. And Paul confirms their conclusion when he writes, “we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one’’ (1 Corinthians 8:4b ESV). Their “knowledge” or understanding of the matter was correct, but that same knowledge was a source of pride. It was causing them to look past the negative influence they were having on their fellow church members. There were younger, less mature believers in the church who did not yet understand the truth regarding idols. Paul writes, “not all possess this knowledge” (1 Corinthians 8:7a ESV). These people were confused by the actions of their fellow church members. And when they saw what they were doing, they were tempted to sin against their consciences. They could not help but eat that same meat and feel like they were being unfaithful to God. The spiritual arrogance of their brothers and sisters in Christ was causing them to stumble in regard to their faith.
But there is a second view regarding what was going on in Corinth that carries an even more shocking indictment on those who were eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. It seems that this was more than just a case of buying meat at the market and serving it for dinner in your home. The problem involved a continuing practice of eating meat sacrificed to idols in the very temple dedicated to that idol. In verse 10, Paul writes, “For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?” It seems that there were those who had gone back to celebrating at the feasts as part of the worship of the false gods. These were common affairs in the Greek culture and were well-attended. They were social gatherings where the community came to worship their god and to share a celebratory meal together. Evidently, there were believers in the church in Corinth who were attending these meals and justifying their behavior based on their “knowledge” regarding the non-existence of idols. Their reasoning was that if idols do not exist and God is the one true god, then what difference does it make whether we eat meat in the temple of an idol or not. And while their logic made perfect sense, they were leaving out the Savior’s admonition that we love one another. They were disregarding the spiritual well-being of those within their fellowship who might be confused by their actions and caused to follow their lead.
For Paul, the issue had little to do with meat sacrificed to idols, eating in temples, or spiritual knowledge. In fact, he simply states, “this ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1b ESV). Their knowledge had led to pride and arrogance, rather than love. They cared more about their so-called rights than they did about the spiritual well-being of their fellow believers. They enjoyed eating meals in the temple. The food was good and the fellowship was great. They got to be with all their pagan friends and act as if nothing had changed in their lives. They may have even used the excuse that being in the temple with their lost friends and neighbors gave them the opportunity to share the gospel. But Paul knew that their actions were motivated by selfishness, not selflessness. They were doing what they did for themselves, not for the sake of others.
Paul makes it clear that the issue has nothing to do with meat. He writes, “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (1 Corinthians 8:8 ESV). But the issue is about rights. “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9 ESV). For Paul, it was simple. He would rather give up meat altogether if it was going to cause a brother to stumble. It wasn’t worth it. If our freedoms in Christ cause a brother or sister in Christ to become enslaved to their own sin, we have missed the whole point of the gospel. Not only that, Paul says that we have actually sinned against them and against Christ. We have become a stumbling block in their spiritual path. As Christians, we have certain rights based on our newfound freedom in Christ. But when we let those rights tempt our brothers and sisters in Christ to do wrong, we stand as guilty before God. My rights should never deter another believer in their pursuit of righteousness. It would be better to die to my rights than to die for them.