1 Corinthians 8:7-13
June 17, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 13:45 in the audio file.
Or, How to Eat Right
We eat food every day, multiple times a day. Food is one of the most mundane, as in earthly rather than heavenly, things we concern ourselves with, and yet God says that even our eating and drinking is supposed to be for His glory (1 Corinthians 10:31).
What are our responsibilities when it comes to food? How important are the ingredients? The source of those ingredients? The chemical make-up of those ingredients? The preparation/packaging of the food? Should you research and investigate the motives of anyone who had any part in getting the food to your table? What if the people who grow/make/sell you your food are idolators?
We come to the hinge point in 1 Corinthians 8. Last Lord’s Day we began to talk about food, especially food associated someway or another with idols. The Christians in Corinth were Kuyperian Calvinists, before that was even possible of course. They had the knowledge of God’s sovereignty over every thumb’s width of grain and vegetable and animal. They knew that idols couldn’t compare, let alone compete, with the one, true God of gods and Lord of lords.
Food eaten at a pagan temple couldn’t actually give power to a “so-called god,” even if people actually believed that they were praising that god. Meat bought from the butcher shop connected to the pagan temple couldn’t have effective idol cooties. Only one God gives food, and while some “gods” might have been real demons disguising themselves (see 1 Corinthians 10:20), even if those demons claimed to be givers of corn and wheat and cows and sheep, the Corinthian Christians knew the actual and ultimate source behind every bite: God Himself. “All things” are “from” the Father and “all things” were made “through” Jesus Christ.
The problem, as we began to see, is that some of the Christians held this knowledge in a way that magnified themselves rather than their brothers, which means they were not actually honoring God either, no matter how accurate their slogans about God’s sovereignty were crafted. What they knew was (mostly) true about God, except they showed that they didn’t truly know God because He is the God of love. We’re supposed to love like Him, not just know about Him.
Those who were conscious of God’s sovereignty were not conscious of (some of) their brothers’ consciences. Some brothers were loving their eating (and perhaps socializing) more than loving their brothers’ souls. What should have been building up the body was destroying it.
Paul calls the Corinthians to be conscientious consumers. But this is not being conscientious about the food as much as it is being conscientious about the God of food and their brothers in the Lord. There is a way to eat clean, to eat right, and it has more to do with how we consider the consciences of our fellow consumers and less to do with what we put in our mouths.
The Corinthians knew that all the Corinthians had the knowledge (8:1), but they didn’t know that they were also wrong. However, not all possess this knowledge. Paul isn’t referring to the nonbelievers in Corinth, but to some of the believers in the church. It’s not that some of them had received different teaching, it’s not as if some of them were Arminians, or evolutionists. The rest of verse 7 explains the problem: their head knowledge hadn’t fully informed their conscience.
But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Paul introduces us to a category of believer: the weak in conscience. Conscience is an important, but not infallible (meaning that it could be wrong) system. It observes and evaluates and urges reception or rejection. The mind and heart and will all interact with this internal judge. The judge could be loose or legalistic. The judge could be sure or uncertain. The man with a weak conscience isn’t quite sure what is right. The compass is broken, or he keeps it in his pocket.
Many of the Corinthians had a testimony that included previous idol worship, but some had a harder time leaving their practiced habits behind. Others, those who had strong consciences by contrast (though that word isn’t explicitly used to describe them), apparently could eat more food, and they could connect that food directly to the true God with thanks and freedom. Still some consumers didn’t experience that internal freedom, but ate anyway, and based on the force of habit couldn’t keep from connecting it to idols, and then felt guilty. “Certain actions trigger old memories and associations” (Garland). The food itself wasn’t unclean, but by going against their conscience, they defiled or made their conscience stained.
The problem was with the subject, the eater, not the object, the food. Food will not commend us to God. This could be translated as, “Food will not bring us closer to God or make Him be pleased with us.” That goes for both fasting and feasting. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. A man is not defiled by what goes into him but what comes out of him (Matthew 15:11, 17-20). This is one of the most important, and most brutal, truths. No food, of any kind, whether free-range or full of antibiotics or having a history with idols or a history with cruel (or idolatrous) farmers, in and of itself, can make God be happier or unhappier with us.
That doesn’t stop others from saying we “need” to eat for sake of building relationships in the community, nor does it stop others from saying we need to not eat for sake of a holy testimony in the community. Both sides can argue about what makes for a better witness, but you cannot be more “right” or right with God based on where you shop for food or whether the ingredients are “clean.”
We are to be conscientious consumers, but we are to be conscientious about how we’re eating more than about what we’re eating. We end up attributing godlike power to food when we treat it so fearfully.
There is more to say about being conscientious consumers, and that relates to being conscientious of our brothers, especially the weak ones. Paul does not address the weak directly, though he implies that the weak could become strong in the knowledge of God’s sovereignty and food’s impotency. But those who recognize their freedom to eat must be conscientious about how they consume in front of others.
Knowledge isn’t enough if it doesn’t result in love, and Paul urges the consumers to watch the exercise of their diet on others. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. “See to it, watch out, look out” so that your right doesn’t cause someone else’s ruin. Because God is over all things, you have authority; what will you do with it? A stumbling block sits in the middle of a path and causes a fall, and in the rest of the paragraph the brother is “destroyed” and wounded.
Verses 10 and 11 describe (at least) one way to be a stumbling block. 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? Imagine that one of the strong is at a social event in the fellowship hall of the pagan temple. Maybe a fellow Christian was walking by, on their way home, had received an invitation himself, but had resolved not to go. He sees you. You are someone he’s looked up to, and your example causes him to go against his conscience and he, temporarily, decides it’s good to eat. He sits down at the table, or he takes a to-go plate, or he RSVPs to the next event. He is encouraged…to eat, the same word as “built up.” But he is not edified.
What’s the big deal? And so by your knowledge this person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Destruction is a big deal. If Christ died for this man, and he is a genuine brother, then he cannot be finally destroyed in hell away from the presence of God. But it is a severe word, and going against one’s conscience is a much bigger deal then we tend to act like today.
The progression is as follows: 1) one Christian believes that all food comes from the one God. 2) He consumes in light of knowledge about the ultimate source of the food but without consideration of those with weaker consciences. 3) Another Christian is encouraged to eat food that their conscience, though not as informed as it could be, says belongs with idolatry. 4) Following the example of the first brother, the weaker brother commits an act of idolatry and hardens his heart against his conscience.
This is not a person who is destroyed by being offended or getting his/her feelings hurt. This is not a Christian with a more legalistic bent being bent out of shape by a brother who isn’t following the same standards. She isn’t posting her shock on FB that anyone could ever eat at that restaurant or feed that to her kids. That is another actual problem, two Christians with different judgments on acceptable discipleship practices, but it is not the problem in this passage.
“Those are foolish, who allow Christians scarcely any use of things indifferent, lest they should offend superstitious persons.” (Calvin)
A conscientious consumer considers not just his own conscience, and not just the conscience of his brother, but the crucifixion of Christ. Is there any other, more weighty reminder that could be given? Christ died for sake of this brother, to save this brother from destruction, and you will destroy him by your eating?
Paul summarizes his argument with a sharp point at the end. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. It’s not just a preference failure, it is sin. And it is not just sin against a part of the body, it is sin against the Head of the body, against Christ.
Of course this is true any and every time we sin in our church relationships. We are the body of Christ, and cannot be disconnected from Christ.
The conclusion to the paragraph is Paul’s own, exaggerated but serious commitment not to wound one of the weaker brothers. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
That’s how important our relationships are. It is worth giving up meat altogether forever if it keeps a brother from stumbling.
There are two ends to hold in tension. We must give up our personal tastes if those will cause a brother to sin. We may have knowledge, and our consciences may be strong, and we may really enjoy the meal. But the meat and the meal cannot be more important than those we love. And also, we must not give in to brothers or sisters who want to lay on us a law. “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink…” (Colossians 2:16).
Again, this is not about those with a weaker conscience who also act offended at decisions around them.
In chapter 9 Paul provides an example of giving up a personal right for sake of the benefit of others. It’s a different issue, but he’s still concerned about how we love our brothers. In chapter 10 Paul will return to the subject of food and worship and communion.
Are there principles in chapter 8 that apply directly to our context? Who are the strong and weak today? What are their convictions? How ought we to love one another with food?
We talk about food sensitivities, food allergies, real and “boutique” (the kind that are fashionable to the world). We are concerned with righteousness, real and mock. We deal with Monsanto, big companies, and lots of local idols. We hear the pulpits of (mostly fear-mongering, Mother Nature loving) documentaries. What are we being sold? What idols of the Earth are being worshipped?
We cannot live in the grid without complicity in someone’s idolatry.
What does God say is GOOD?
While we keep working through these questions, here is some additional recommended reading: Confessions of a Food Catholic, The Supper of the Lamb, The Things of Earth, Food for Thought, The Food Police.
Paul refers to brothers (and sisters) four times in verses 11-13. It is much easier to be conscientious of our food than our brothers. How to eat right is not about the history or natural-ness of your food per se, but about the way you treat others.
Cheap hot dogs (made from various meats, and sawdust, and possibly pink goo) cut up in Kraft Mac and Cheese and eaten with laughter and love is better than vegetables grown in your family garden with fear and self-righteousness. Of course those aren’t the only two options, but as consumers we must be more conscientious about our own hearts (driven by fear or gratefulness, resentment or love) and our brothers than we are about so-called unclean food.
It is simple to obey all of God’s law: love one another. Love as Jesus loved you, love as you love yourself. Together we have remembered that we don’t deserve God’s love and that He loves us at His own cost of sacrifice and service. This is His glory, and it is our pattern. Even with your preparation and consuming of food, be conscientious most of loving your neighbor, or you will devour your neighbor instead.
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:13–15, ESV)