January 15, 2010

What 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 Are Really About (Part 4)

I suggested in my last post that the problem Paul is addressing between the weak and the strong in Corinth is different than it is usually thought to be. Christians with a weak conscience are not feeling guilty about having eaten idol meat, and they certainly are not eating it and feeling guilty as they chew every mouthful. No, it seems more likely to me that Christians with a weak conscience are knowingly and happily worshiping idols. They are recent converts from paganism, and in their state of immaturity, they have not yet grasped the fact that Christians must not worship any other so-called god but only the one living and true God.

The weak are called weak because, according to 1 Corinthians 8:7, they have a weak conscience. The conscience doesn’t only judge past actions; it also recommends against or in favor of actions that are being contemplated. The weak do not really know that there is no God but one and that the pagan gods must not be worshiped, and so their Christian conscience is immature and uninformed. It is not strong enough to recommend against worshiping idols–hardly surprising since that was the cultural norm in their day.

The scenario I propose here explains what it means to have a weak conscience and also how their conscience then becomes defiled through the act of gladly participating in idolatry. An unformed, or weak, conscience is unable to guide them correctly. It is not fully developed and sensitive to danger. It is not sufficiently knowledgeable about essential Christian doctrine. And now, seeing their Christian leaders doing something that, to them, looks like participating in the worship of idols, they come to believe that idol worship is compatible with, or perhaps even complements, their Christian faith. They eat idol meat too and think of themselves as worshiping the pagan gods, and then later in the week they meet with the rest of the Christian church for fellowship and worship of the one true God, never giving it a second thought.

What was once a weak conscience has now become a broken conscience, a defiled conscience, a conscience that is not merely unformed but malformed. Worse than not informing them clearly or strongly enough, their conscience now misinforms them and allows them to walk blithely down an idolatrous path that will lead to their destruction (1 Cor 8:11-13). A study of the word to defile (μολύνω) will show that it doesn’t connote guilty feelings but moral pollution from actually doing what God has prohibited, including worshiping idols.

Christians with a weak conscience are sheep who need a shepherd; the strong should have been their shepherds. Christians with a defiled conscience are sheep who were eaten by wolves while the shepherds went back home to dine on filets mignons from the pagan temple butcher shop.

The strong are the more senior Christians. They are more mature than the weak in terms of their knowledge. They know some things correctly:

  • there is no God but one;
  • pagan gods don’t really exist;
  • Christians must not worship idols;
  • meat is just meat, acceptable as food for Christians even if it comes from an animal sacrificed to an idol.

Yet, they are just as immature as the weak in another important way. They don’t show brotherly or pastoral love for the weak. They are inconsiderate of the spiritual wellbeing of those around them, which is what God himself really cares about. On the question of meat sacrificed to idols, they stop thinking when they reach the conclusion that meat is just meat, and that it is OK for them to eat. They can still be right with God even if they eat idol meat. Paul wants them to be more thoughtful than that and to consider how their actions are being misinterpreted by the people around them, their junior Christian brothers and sisters and unconverted pagans or Jews, who assume that eating idol meat is tantamount to worshiping the idol, and that therefore it is acceptable for Christians to participate in idol worship in this limited way.

Paul says no! to the actions of the strong and to the idolatrous error in thought and action of the weak. That is what 1 Corinthians 8-10 is all about:

  • In chapter 8, he gives his understanding of the situation and chastises the strong for their general attitude of thoughtlessness.
  • In chapter 9, Paul offers himself as an example of pastoral concern for the strong to emulate. His priorities and actions are controlled by love and concern for all people, both believers and those who are lost. In this, Paul is aligned with God’s own priorities and will, and it is actually love for God that fosters in Paul this love and concern for other people.
  • In chapter 10, he sternly warns his readers about the dangers of idolatry. This has the effect of rebuking the strong for their indifference to the idolatry of the weak and also correcting the serious error of the weak.

The cohesion of these three chapters and their clear flow of thought is what makes this interpretation so compelling to me. Many other interpreters struggle to make sense of the three chapters in relation to each other, and it is not at all uncommon for people to claim that they are irreconcilable, being riddled with contradictions. For example, in 1 Cor 8:4, Paul says that an idol has no real existence and in verse 8 that eating idol meat is a matter of indifference. But, in 10:20-21, he says that pagans sacrifice their meat to demons and that eating it is idolatry. Which is it, Paul? Are idols nothing or are they demons? Is eating their sacrificial meat a matter of indifference or is it idolatry?

As I’ve tried to show, anyone who thinks these passages are contradictory simply hasn’t understood them adequately. In metaphysical or spiritual reality, idols are nothing and meat is just meat, a matter of indifference. The strong are correct about that. In social reality, however, some people think that pagan gods are real and that eating sacrificial meat is an act of worship. Christians are permitted by God to eat meat, but not if it will misrepresent Christian faith and practice to people who are not informed about it, such as immature Christians or unbelievers. The person who gladly worships an idol is committing a grave sin that leads to defilement and destruction in metaphysical reality. The strong are right in the abstract, about the metaphysics of idols and the ethical implications of eating meat; they now need to adapt and apply that understanding to the real world of personal relationships. Paul concludes the topic with an exhortation that summarizes everything he has said in 1 Corinthians 8-10:

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1 ESV)


2 comments to What 1 Corinthians 8-10 Is Really About (Part 4)

  • Chi Hang

    Dear Phillip,

    Thanks for this comprehensive analysis of 1 Corinthians 8-10! I was struggling to reconcile 1 Corinthians 8 with 10:14-22, and stumbled across this. It has made things much clearer now. Thanks again!

  • Robert

    If “weak” means “immature and uninformed”, how does Paul say in 1 Cor 9:22, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

    Did Paul allow his conscience to be “immature and uninformed,” did he allow himself to happily (and, as you suggest, ignorantly) eat food offered to idols as the weak did? In fact, Paul did the opposite.

    If you take “weak” to be “unable to participate in some activity because of a stricken conscience, even though there’s nothing wrong with the activity” I think this makes more sense. Paul also elects to limit his own freedom (to eat food sacrificed to idols) because he is willing to become “like the weak” and abstain, even though he knows idols are nothing.

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