Problems in the Church: Duty
1 Corinthians 8–10
In previous studies we have looked at several problems which existed in the Corinthian church. Chapters 1 to 4 discuss the problem of division, while chapters 5 and 6 address the problem of discipline. Chapter 7 stands alone as Paul dealt with the area of domestic life in direct response to a communication he had received from someone in the church. The next section, chapters 8 to 10, speaks specifically to the area of duty in the church.
In the normal consideration of duty, one would think of a person’s faithfulness. If called upon to serve in the local church, it is our duty to fulfill our obligations, whether the position is that of elder, deacon, trustee, Sunday school teacher, or even custodian. But that is not what the writer had in mind. Here the issue is a believer’s duty before God to so live that his life in no way offends either a weaker believer or an unbeliever. We should never wound a saint or live in a way that would prohibit a person from coming to Christ.
Many years ago I had an unsaved neighbor who was the town trash collector. After a period of time, all of his family came to the Lord and were in fellowship in our church—with the exception of the head of the home. Upon freely discussing Christ with this fine gentleman, I finally got to the root of his problem. He had previously been a member of two different churches and had become turned off to the Lord and spiritual things because of inconsistencies he had observed in the lives of the other church members. He told me how pious the people in those churches had appeared on Sunday; but when he picked up their trash during the week, he found liquor bottles and pornographic literature. Needless to say, it took a long time and a very special effort on the part of the church to lead him to Christ.
This is the problem area the Apostle Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians 8—10. A child of God has a duty to live in such a way that neither believers nor unbelievers are offended.
At the conclusion of chapter 6, Paul related a sweeping principle for the church at Corinth. This became the foundation for the remaining chapters of this epistle.
What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price; therefore, glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s (1 Cor. 6:19–20).
In chapters 8—10 Paul built on this principle by giving important guidelines regarding the Christian life. The culmination of the teaching in these three chapters is given in 1 Corinthians 10:32: “Give no offense, neither to the Jews, nor to the Greeks, nor to the church of God.” To understand the beloved apostle’s statement, we must go back and study these chapters. They place a tremendous call to duty upon every child of God, even though the background situation seems to have drifted into the dust of time.
The Duty to the Lord (1 Cor. 8)
The subject of whether Christians could or should eat meat sacrificed to idols seems totally irrelevant to us today. We say, What difference does it make? Man must be foolish to bow down to idols of wood or stone made with his own hands. What power do idols have?
In the nation of Greece, and specifically in Corinth, there were two basic places at which people could purchase meat for home consumption. The first was “the shambles” (1 Cor. 10:25), which was the meat market or slaughter house. Meat purchased here was quite expensive, and often the quality was not the best.
The choicest meat, however, was that which was used for heathen sacrifices. In many cases, a substantial portion of the animal remained at the completion of the ritual and was available for purchase at the temple meat market at a much lower price than that sold at “the shambles.” Believers were, therefore, faced with the dilemma of where to purchase meat for their households. Should they go the inexpensive route and yet get the best, even though it had been offered to idols? Or, should they pay more but get lesser quality?
In 1 Corinthians 8, the word knowledge is used nine times. The Corinthian believers knew that there was only one true God. What difference, they reasoned, did it make if the meat on their tables had been offered as a sacrifice to a heathen god? It was good meat and had been purchased at a reasonable price. It didn’t matter to God what kind of meat they ate (v. 8). Or did it?
Paul discussed the eating of meat throughout this entire chapter. He made the point that although believers knew that meat sacrificed to idols did not have spiritual significance, eating it could create problems for other people. They had the liberty to eat this meat, but the question was, should they?
At this point Paul introduced a new principle, the principle of love for others. Paul stated that a believer’s liberty could become a stumbling block to others. When an unbeliever saw a believer partake of sacrificial meat, the unbeliever might not understand and could thereby be tempted to follow false gods. Paul expressed the fact that it is the believer’s duty and responsibility to so love others and live his life that the unsaved will not be driven away from Christ. First Corinthians 8:10–13 states:
For if any man see thee, who hast knowledge, sitting at the table in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols, And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if food make my brother to offend, I will eat no meat while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.
To cause others to perish because we want to take advantage of our liberty in Christ is clearly sin. Paul never would have exercised his liberty if it meant someone else would perish.
So, then, the principle from 1 Corinthians 8 for us today is very simple. In light of the fact that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit (6:19–20), we should never exercise our liberty if it hinders another person from coming to Christ (vv. 12–13). Love should overrule liberty, which is an attitude some do not consider today. Too often we hear, “I have my rights!”
The Practical Overworking of That Duty (1 Cor. 9)
The church at Corinth had a responsibility to financially support Paul. He was an apostle; he had founded the church; and he had pastored there for a rather lengthy period of time. As the farmer eats of his crops and flocks, Paul had a right to financial support from the flock he shepherded (vv. 7–8). As the law of Moses cared for the oxen that threshed, God’s people should have cared for God’s servant (v. 9). The Old Testament priests received tithes (v. 13), and in the New Testament economy “the Lord ordained that they who preach the gospel should live of the gospel” (v. 14). Paul had the right to receive support from the church, but he also had the liberty to refuse it, which he did.
By refusing remuneration from this church, Paul could not be accused of being a hindrance to the gospel message in Corinth. He was free to take their money, but he made himself a “servant … [to] gain the more” (v. 19). He offended neither Gentile nor Jew (vv. 20–21), and he did so for the sake of the gospel.
Paul lived his life like an athlete who runs a race—to win. He disciplined his life, giving up what was good, or even better, to gain the best. He gave up his rights, even his right to legitimate income, to win an incorruptible crown.
Liberty Brought Into Subjection (1 Cor. 10)
In chapter 10, Paul again used the Jewish people to illustrate a point. He told the church at Corinth that the Jewish fathers in the wilderness journey had become overconfident and thereby lost their right to enter the promised land.
They had been delivered from Egypt, just as the Corinthians had been redeemed from their sins. And, as the Jews on their journey had experienced God’s provision for them, so this church had been nourished on the spiritual food God had supplied. But in the wilderness, Israel had fallen prey to lust (v. 6), idolatry (v. 7), fornication (v. 8), and murmuring (v. 10). Because they yielded to these temptations, some died immediately as a result of God’s judgment, while the remainder, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, died during the journey, and their bones were left in the sands of the desert. They never entered the promised land.
From this Jewish background and perspective, the sacred writer of Scripture gave a most severe warning to the church at Corinth. First, he clearly established the principle that God recorded these events in the history of Israel as examples and for the admonition of the church. Second, he warned them against pride by stating, “Wherefore, let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (v. 12). Finally, he assured them that when temptations or testings came, God would not allow them to be tempted above what they could bear and would make possible a way of escape, an escape that the generation in the wilderness never used. He concluded that the Corinthians should flee these temptations, using the illustration of idolatry as he returned to the subject of eating meats sacrificed to idols.
What a powerful lesson for the church today. God’s dealings with Israel should be an example for daily living. Sadly, few Christians know the Old Testament well enough to apply these principles. We, too, must be careful of pride and rest in God’s provision to escape the temptations and testings that come our way.
Using the Lord’s supper as the background, Paul went on to speak of the believer’s communion with the body of Christ when he eats the bread. He emphasized that the meat sacrificed to idols had, in reality, been offered to devils and demons (v. 20), and he warned the Corinthians not to have fellowship with demons, for one cannot partake of the Lord’s table and that of demons as well (v. 21). In this sense, the meat was polluted.
William Barkley, in his commentary Letters to the Corinthians, tells that Thorwaldsen, who carved one of the great statues of Christ, was offered a commission to carve a statue of Venus for the Louvre in France. He responded, “The hand that carved the form of Christ can never carve the form of a heathen goddess.” Likewise, a believer cannot fellowship with the Lord and demons. This becomes a foundational principle, so important in combating the theology of the developing New Age movement of the last few years.
Paul went on to enumerate three basic principles for his day.
- A Christian can eat anything sold in the marketplace (“the shambles”) without question (v. 25).
- If a Christian accepts an invitation to dinner, he should eat what is set before him (v. 27).
- If he is told it is sacrificial meat, he should not eat it for conscience’ sake (v. 28).
The heart of these three chapters is found in 10:31: “Whether, therefore, ye eat, or drink or what ever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” Here Paul states that a Christian should never do anything that would offend a Jew or a Gentile. Unsaved people can be driven away from the Lord by our actions, although they may have been done innocently on our part. Neither is the child of God to do anything to offend the church, which, in this instance, specifically speaks of offending a weaker brother or sister in the Lord.
Finally, we must return to Paul’s opening premise. The body of the believer is the temple of the Holy Spirit; the believer belongs to God and is to glorify Him in every action of his life (6:19–20).
We should use these guiding principles to direct our lives day by day. Although the meat issue has long since passed into antiquity, the great spiritual principles remain to guide us so that we, as believers, will leave a mark for Christ on the unsaved world, as well as on our weaker brothers and sisters in the Lord. In this way we will truly glorify God in our lives.