Do this; don’t do that. As suggested in the previous post, it’s possible to reduce the ethics of the Christian life to a set of behavioral rules, drawing lines between the permissible and the impermissible in a way that misses what the gospel is all about.
Writing to the Corinthians on the matter of meat sacrificed to pagan idols, Paul gives the green light, citing the opening of Psalm 24:
Eat everything that is sold in the marketplace, without asking questions about it because of your conscience. The earth and all that is in it belong to the Lord. (1 Cor 10:25-26, CEB).
Meat that had been offered to idols in pagan temples often made its way to the Corinthian market, and Gentile converts were already accustomed to buying and eating it. Did they have to give this up? No, Paul says. Not only is it not a matter of Christian conscience, it can also be eaten with gratitude as a blessing from God, for everything belongs to him.Pragmatically, Paul envisions how that principle might apply in their social lives. What if a believer is invited over to an unbeliever’s home for idol-meat stir-fry? No problem, Paul says. If you want to go, then go — and feel free to eat whatever they set in front of you (vs. 27). But… Ah, yes. They should have expected a “but.” What if someone says, “You know, the meat in that plate of stir-fry was sacrificed in a pagan temple”? Now it is a matter of conscience, Paul says, and you shouldn’t eat it. The exact social situation Paul envisions isn’t clear. Some read him as referring to another Christian, someone with a “weaker” conscience (cf. 1 Cor 8:7-13) who is alarmed at the menu. But others believe that Paul is referring to the host, who may be saying, “I know you’re a Christian, and you might be squeamish about eating this.” Either way, the point remains. What makes the situation a matter of conscience is not simply what the rules say, but the social problem of how others will be affected. Even if there’s nothing wrong with eating the meat itself, it shouldn’t be done in a way that either compromises another believer’s faith or puts a barrier between an unbeliever and the gospel. That’s the “forest” the Corinthians have missed for the “trees” of insisting on their rights. Paul circles back to quoting and deconstructing their beloved slogan, “Everything is permitted,” just as he did when arguing against their “freedom” to engage in sexual immorality (1 Cor 6:12):
Everything is permitted, but everything isn’t beneficial. Everything is permitted, but everything doesn’t build others up. (1 Cor 10:23, CEB)Paul agrees that eating idol-meat is within a Christian’s rights. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. There’s more at steak — um, at stake — than just where you’re getting your protein. Eating, drinking, or abstaining: “whatever you do,” Paul says, “you should do it all for God’s glory” (vs. 31). And in case they need a moral example to follow, Paul offers himself, as we’ll see in the next post.