The ecclesia’s questions
1 Corinthians chapter 7 is the beginning of a new section of this first letter to the ecclesia in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians chapters 1 to 6, Paul deals with problems in the ecclesia, including divisions, an immoral brother, and taking a brother to law. For the remainder of the letter, Paul is apparently answering four questions that the Corinthian ecclesia asked in a letter they wrote to him. These appear to have been about:
• marriage and associated matters (1 Corinthians chapter 7)
• meat offered to idols (1 Corinthians chapters 8-10)
• behaviour at ecclesial meetings (1 Corinthians chapters 11-14)
• the resurrection of the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians chapter 15).
Of all these questions, we may think that the second one, about meat offered to idols, is the least relevant to us today. But Paul’s answer discusses a very important part of everyday discipleship: the believer’s relationship with the world.
In Bible times, society was dominated by idol worship. In fact, Acts 17:16 describes Athens as being “full of idols” and Corinth, about 48 miles (77 km) away, was no different. Even worse, worship in idol temples often involved the satisfying of fleshly desires, such as gluttonous eating and drunkenness, and particularly sexual immorality and even temple prostitution. In fact, the city of Corinth became widely known for its immorality. Perhaps we do not realise what a huge challenge it must have been for the brothers and sisters in Corinth, like those at Thessalonica, to turn “from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1v9).
Eating meat offered to idols
The real problem for the brothers and sisters in Corinth was that idol worship was not simply confined to religious services in the temple; it spread through almost every aspect of daily life in the city. This was particularly true of eating meals, since probably most of the meat sold in the city, even in the market, had first been offered as a sacrifice to the gods. So what were the brothers and sisters meant to do? Were they to stop buying meat altogether? Paul answers this question in 2 Corinthians chapter 8 by explaining that idols are “nothing in the world” (1 Corinthians 8:4) so meat offered to idols was not really tainted by anything, and so eating it did not amount to taking part in idol worship. With this knowledge, the brothers and sisters could continue to buy meat in the market and eat it with a clear conscience. (1 Corinthians 10:25-26).
A step too far
However, some of the brothers and sisters seem to have taken this idea too far. Because they knew that they were free to eat meat offered to idols, they assumed that they could continue to eat in idol temples (this is the clear implication of 1 Corinthians 8:10 and 1 Corinthians 10v16-21, particularly “the table of the Lord and the table of demons” in verse 21). In doing so, however, they would be mixing with idol worshippers and in danger of being drawn back into the immorality associated with idol worship.
Here is an important lesson for us: there are many things in life that are not wrong in themselves, but by being involved in them we can be drawn into things that are wrong. Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthian ecclesia was “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18) and “flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14). We too need to flee from temptation, and fleeing means running as fast as possible in the opposite direction! The Lord Jesus expressed it as cutting off the hand that offends – we should cut temptation right out of our lives (Mark 9:43-48). We should never knowingly put ourselves in a situation of temptation; and we must not be deceived into thinking that we are strong enough to resist: “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
Probably one of the attractions of continuing to eat in idol temples was the opportunity to enjoy the atmosphere of the activities that took place there without becoming directly involved or actually indulging in immoral behaviour. We can be guilty of the same; we may never dream of indulging in the wickedness of the world ourselves, but we can enjoy it in an indirect way, for example, through the books that we choose to read, or the programmes that we choose to watch on television. Matthew 5:28 warns us that just looking lustfully can be as wrong as committing the act. Our thoughts and motives are known to Our Maker!
The young man of Proverbs 7 wanted to be near the prostitute’s house, so it was not surprising that he became a victim. When we come across situations that may tempt us, an urgent and conscious action is required … flee from sin! Paul gives us words of comfort, though, and explains that with God’s help, and with determination on our part, we can overcome these temptations (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Our effect on others
There was another reason for avoiding idol temples. Eating there was associating oneself with the beliefs and immoral practices of idol worship and, even if some brothers and sisters did not see it in this way, other people would. This might well bring the ecclesia into disrepute in the eyes of the self-righteous Jews, putting a stumbling block in their way to accepting Christ; it would certainly not help the Greeks (the idol worshippers), who needed to learn that idols are “nothing in the world”; and it could destroy “the weak” believers by dragging them back into idolatry – and Christ died for them (1 Corinthians 8:9-11). This is why Paul writes, “Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:32).
These believers who thought they were ‘strong’ needed to consider the effect of what they were doing on their own spiritual lives, on the spiritual lives of others, and on their witness to unbelievers. It was a lesson that Paul sought to practise in his own life: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offence … I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:31-33). It is a lesson that we need to practise too.
But not all things build up
To summarise, Paul says, “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up” (1 Corinthians 10:23). There are things we can do which are not wrong in themselves but they are not helpful to us or to others spiritually, and they should be avoided. Perhaps we should ask ourselves some questions before participating in activities of the world:
Will it benefit me spiritually? Or will I be putting myself in a situation of temptation?
Would I feel comfortable sharing this with my brothers and sisters in Christ? Or might it cause them to stumble?
Will it be a good example to unbelievers? Or will it bring ‘the Truth’ into disrepute?
Would I feel comfortable inviting the Lord Jesus to participate with me?
Participation in Christ
“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). As we now partake of the bread and the wine in remembrance of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, let us remember too that we have been bought with a price and are not our own (1 Corinthians 6:19-20; 1 Corinthians 7:23), and let us strive to participate, not in the things of the world, but fully in the life of Christ, and thereby give glory to the Father in all we do.