Carnivores and Vegetarians—Can We Get Along? (1 Corinthians 8)

1 Corinthians Series, Bible study Lesson 8

by Reta Halteman Finger

Idol Meat for Lunch?
A picture of the author’s lunch at Nemea in the Corinthia, southern Greece. Is this Idol-Meat?

Food, they say, is the second most interesting topic in the world. (See Lessons 6 and 7 for the most interesting topic!)

In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul responds to a new issue that some of the Corinthians have raised in their letter to him: “food sacrificed to idols.”

If that first query in 7:1 about sex came from Hobby Lobby-style conservatives, this one originates from the “all-things-are-lawful” crowd. We can reconstruct their position from Paul’s quotes from their letter—it goes something like this: “‘All of us possess knowledge’ (8:1). Everyone in our church knows that ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ and ‘there is no god but One’” (8:4). Therefore we don’t see anything wrong with eating idol-meat bought in the marketplace. What’s the big deal with those who think we ought to stop eating it just because they are offended? We’re sure you agree with us, Paul, so tell the others to stop criticizing us.”

(Necessary aside on eating meat that’s already been burned on an altar.  Lucky for these Greco-Romans, they long ago figured out that their gods only liked the smoky smell from the burning fat and gristle of the animals slaughtered to honor them. The meat went straight to Corinth’s meat market to be sold to those who could afford to eat off the top of the food chain. Yes, kosher meat was sometimes available for Jews, but it had recently been taken off the market, perhaps because of the current food shortages hitting the working classes.)

To Eat or Not to Eat—Is that the Question?
Paul’s response is not what these liberal elites had hoped for. He knows they are pulling rank over their slaves and other lower-class believers in the church. Reread the section in Lesson 4 on patronage—that pyramid of inequality that kept 90 percent of the Empire’s people forever “in their place,” working from dawn to dusk, and subsisting on porridge and cabbage. The meat-munching patrons of these Corinthian house churches are expressing the same callousness toward those socially beneath them that one might hear today attending a $50,000-plate fundraiser for a political candidate (I mention no names…).

Paul does agree with the sophisticated theology of the elites. Yes, “food will not bring us close to God and we are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (8:8). But such knowledge without empathy only “puffs up.” Rather, “love builds up” (8:1). In fact, without the social contacts and educational opportunities the elite have, it is hard for poor people “who have become accustomed to idols until now” (8:7) to free themselves from the myths and superstitions they have grown up with. Their conscience is sensitive as a result.

For if others see you, who possess knowledge, [do I detect a note of sarcasm?] eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those “weak” believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. When you thus sin against brothers and sisters and wound their conscience, you sin against Christ (8:10-12).

Ancient engraving depicting Zeus.

The issue of conscience is not new, at least not in my experience. Were you ever part of a youth group wrestling with what to do about differing convictions regarding use of alcohol, watching certain movies, or any number of “worldly” practices that some think are okay and others reject? We may also remember reverse ego-traps in such conversations, when the “weak” would try to manipulate the “strong” into feeling guilty. This happens politically today when, on the basis of their own religious conscience, some conservative Christians want to deny access to free birth control in health insurance plans for their employees.

Why Can’t They Think Like Us?
When we place Paul’s words in their original context of house-churches being torn apart by huge socio-economic inequalities, the picture looks different. It is much more like higher class people who don’t understand the situations of those beneath them. “We worked hard to get where we are now—why can’t everyone do the same?” Why can’t those who grew up in poverty know how to manage and invest money? Why do the 47% act like victims and freeload off of the rest of us?
* * *
Hold these thoughts! Chapter 8 is not the end of this issue. It’s part of a three-chapter unit on privilege and inequality that involves food but goes far beyond it. In Chapter 9 Paul uses his own experience to illustrate how Jesus calls believers to renounce privileges if they do not serve the common good. Chapter 10 returns to the table again, with more advice about how to live and eat as Jesus-people in a competitive, hierarchical society.  We’ll get there next time!

Questions for reflection:

In this chapter, how does Paul strike you—nuanced or hard-nosed?

With which Corinthian party do you most identify?

What food-related ethical issues should concern us today?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.