Paul finishes his exhortation on how Christians are to deal with their society on the matter of idol worship with some specific instructions. Though we no longer bow down before images of wood and stone in most of our societies, there is a wealth of instruction here which applies to wide areas of our own modern lives. Click on 1 Corinthians 10:23-1 Corinthians 11:1 to read along as I give my commentary, and see what you think. I’d love to hear your insights on this passage. We all have something to contribute, and I’m always amazed to learn what other people see in a passage–usually things that I have completely missed.
“All things are lawful” may have been a saying of the Corinthians, possibly based on something Paul had said to them previously, but here rather taken out of context, or too far. It refers primarily to food and, in this instance, especially to meat, as that’s the subject currently under discussion. Paul does not dispute the statement. He has doubtless explained to the Corinthians previously that it was, indeed, lawful for them to eat any type of meat, and that they needn’t be concerned with Jewish or other dietary restrictions. Rather, he goes beyond the strictly legal and into the realm of love.
Is it lawful for my beautiful daughter to wear the sexy dress she just brought home from the mall? You could spend a lot of time going through scripture on that one, and though you would come up with some hints this way or that, you would not find a specific law regarding that specific fashion. It is not, strictly speaking, unlawful for her to wear it. But is it helpful? Is it a loving thing to do? Will it help the young men she may meet through the day, or at her youth group, to avoid sin? Is it a loving thing to do, to tempt members of the opposite sex? That doesn’t mean she has to go about in mid-calf dresses with long sleeves and necklines that go up to her chin. It means only that she should dress modestly for her society, in clothing meant to be attractive and fashionable, but not designed to be provocative, if not to protect her own honor, then for the sake of her susceptible brothers.
This scenario happened to pop into my head, but you could find all sorts of examples, and that is exactly my point. There could never be enough laws to cover every decision we have to make about the minutia of daily life. Paul’s admonition to seek not our own pleasure, but the benefit of the other person is a recourse to the law of love, which should, by nature, govern all who have the Kingdom of the Heavens within themselves.
Paul acknowledges that no real harm has been done to the meat offered to idols. It shouldn’t be eaten as food offered to idols, such as in the temple of the idol or in a private home on the occasion of a feast specifically designated to honor the idol, for that would constitute participation in idolatrous worship, but the food itself is not contaminated in any way. Imagine that I gave you the Golden Gate Bridge. Would that make the bridge yours? Um, no. I don’t own the Golden Gate Bridge, so I can’t give it away. The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. So we offer our cow to an idol. It’s not really our cow, you know. God said we could eat it, but it’s still His cow. We can flatter ourselves by thinking we’re giving it to an idol, but it doesn’t, by virtue of our will, become property of the demon represented by the idol.
Paul tells the Corinthians that they may buy any meat for sale in the market, and not to ask whether it had been offered to an idol. Actually, it probably had been. They’re not to bother about it. Just pick out a nice piece of meat that doesn’t smell too bad or have too many flies on it, and buy it. (I’ve been to third-world meat markets. They’re not like Safeway.) And so the money might be going to a pagan priest? Paul just kind of shrugs here–he doesn’t even mention it. You want the meat? Okay, buy it. That’s it.
I know lots of Christians who worry about shopping at this store because they promote a homosexual agenda, or that one because the parent company makes contributions to NOW, or a third because they advocate for Planned Parenthood. By the time you count up all the companies that you can’t do business with, you’d better buy some cows and chickens and move out to the country, because there’s no one in the city you can buy from. And be careful who you buy those cows and chickens from. If he shops at the wrong store, you’re indirectly supporting ungodliness. It can become a real burden.
As followers of Christ, we still live in a fallen world. God lays no burden on us to separate physically (or fiscally) from that world. Yes, we’re not to be of the world, but we’re definitely in the world until He calls us home. We’re to live here and be a light. It’s our business to judge those in the church, but we might as well accept that those in the world are going to sin. It’s not our business to try to make them obey righteousness–that’ s God’s job. We’re to invite them into the Kingdom by our differentness, our otherness, our lives lived by the law of love.
So, it’s okay to eat with unbelievers, even idol worshippers. I would say by extension that it’s also okay to eat with unbelievers who are homosexuals, living together out of wedlock, enslaved to drugs or alcohol, have had an abortion, etc., etc., etc. They’re not Christians, so why would we expect them to act like Christians? Now if they’re claiming to be Christ followers and still practicing sin (I’m not talking about falling into sin–if that were the case, we couldn’t even hang out with ourselves), we’re to have nothing to do with them except to lovingly confront them, plead with them to repent, and pray for them.
If we do decide to hang out at the house of that guy whom we suspect has some illicit dealings, do we ask, “Has this coffee been paid for with money you stole from your Mom?” Stealing money from your Mom is wrong, no question about it, but if you want to hang out with the guy and be a light to him, just don’t ask. Say thanks and drink the coffee. But let’s say someone else there whispers to you, “Hey, you know, Donny paid for this food with money he got selling drugs,” you should probably respectfully decline supper. To eat it would give occasion for evil to be spoken of you, though you would have done nothing strictly illegal in eating the food. You didn’t sell the drugs, and it’s just food. But to eat it in that circumstance would not bring glory to God.
Paul gives the bottom line here. If it doesn’t bring glory to God, don’t do it. I’ve explained this elsewhere, but I always cringe at the way the whole “glory” thing must look to unbelievers. “So what’s this God of yours so glory hungry for, anyway?” The word “glory” literally means (among other things) to present someone as he truly is. It is the obligation of the church to present God as He truly is. We’re to give the world an accurate picture of Him. Behaving in any way that violates the law of love shows the world a false picture of God. We don’t want to do that.
Verses 32-33 and 1 Corinthians 11:1
Paul reiterates here that the law of love requires that we consider others before ourselves. Leading others astray, giving them a false picture of God, offending their sensibilities unnecessarily, is unloving. When we say we can do this or that because it isn’t strictly listed in the Bible as a sin, even though we know it will look bad and bring reproach rather than glory to God, we’ve got the wrong attitude. We are, in fact, being legalistic. Looking out only for our own wishes is unloving and it doesn’t recommend the Kingdom of the Heavens to human hearts.
Paul advises us to follow his example in this. He’s not asking the Corinthians (or us) to do something he’s not doing. He won’t bring reproach to God by being caught doing the things he’s told others not to do. May we all be able to say with Paul, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”
So Paul ends his discourse on idolatry. In the next chapter, he’ll again be talking about the church’s relationship with its culture in a way pretty foreign to most of us. I do think there are significant applications to our lives today, though, so be sure to “stay tuned”.
Grace and Peace,