For our 7th anniversary, my wife and I went to this hip restaurant in Lincoln Square called “Fork” – how can it not be hip with a name like that? We ordered bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with chorizo covered in a bleu cheese dressing as an appetizer. Bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with chorizo covered in bleu cheese dressing. To quote the famous Chicagoan philosopher Ferris Bueller: “It was so choice.”
If we were living in an ancient Greco-Roman city, such as Corinth, this restaurant would function as a temple and our meal would have likely involved some social and religious rituals connected to a god. Our bacon-wrapped date stuffed with chorizo (slathered in bleu cheese sauce) would have been burned as a sacrifice to that god. Some of those bacon dates filled with chorizo would have been placed on a table set aside for the god. To us, this sounds like an idea for the worst theme restaurant ever, but to Gentiles in the ancient Mediterranean, it was normal. So when Gentiles became Christians, some continued eating at the temples knowing that the god or lord of the temple was not real. They did not think they were really worshipping gods; they were hanging out with their friends and discreetly rolling their eyes.
For Paul, this was not acceptable. Eating at the temples was idolatrous. But what about the meat sold in the marketplace, much of which came from the temples? Paul was known to eat from the market meat that had likely been sacrificed to an idol. How is that different than eating at the temples? Some Christians (and Jews) investigated where the meat came from before buying it. Paul called those who ate the meat from the marketplace the strong. The ones who did not eat the meat from the marketplace or who were careful to purchase idol-free meat, he calls the weak. On this issue, the church was divided.
Shortly after Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the strong faction decided to plant another church in town called Freedom in Christ Community Church. The old church board voted to rename the original church First Church of the Holy Vegetarians. Okay, that is probably not what happened. That is what we would have done. That is what we do.
When the church is divided on an issue, we take the following steps:
(If the majority of the congregation falls into the weak camp)
- Go to the pastor and elders and tell them, “Did you know that Bob has been eating meat from the marketplace and he didn’t make sure it was idol-free?”
- Confront the sin in his life / Show how he is confusing and causing the young impressionable people to stumble.
- Write the issue into part of the church’s membership covenant.
- Bob is forced to stop or he leaves.
- Unity restored.
(If the majority of the congregation falls into the strong camp)
- Grumble to everyone you know in the church about how Marsha is just a theologically misguided, pain-in-the-neck biblical literalist.
- Confront Marsha’s legalism and judgmental attitude toward those who are eating the meat from the market.
- Hope she leaves when she realizes everyone else at the church is so liberal.
- Unity restored.
Of course, this is not the kind of unity that God desires. Unity achieved through division is like healing the body by amputation.
In the case of Paul and the church at Corinth, the libertines (eating meat in the marketplace and even in the temple) are in the majority. So what does Paul do?
- He spells out the behaviors and practices that are incompatible with being a Christian. Against the strong group who see eating meals at the temples as a non-essential issue, he prohibits Christians from going to the temples on the basis that they are worshipping idols and partnering with demons (1 Cor. 10:14-22).
- In regards to eating meat from the marketplace, he says it is permitted. Against the weak group who want to make eating meat at a marketplace an essential issue, he says there is freedom except on the one condition that a host emphasizes that the meat offered has been sacrificed to an idol (1 Cor. 10:28).
For Paul, that is not enough. If the church will be united under one God and one Lord, it must shift its focus from knowledge to love. The church is united, not through arriving at the same knowledge, but through loving one another. Divisions are not the result of a knowledge problem, but rather a heart problem.
If the church is acting in love, then “those who eat [will] not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain [will] not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them” (Romans 14:3). If the church is acting in love, then the strong will not be a stumbling block to the weak.
Paul’s ‘stumbling block’ principle is widely misunderstood and abused in the church. Too often it is used as a power play to enforce a lowest common denominator of convictions. If someone does something that offends us, we accuse her of being a stumbling block until she conforms to our convictions and practice. What makes someone a stumbling block is not that he is doing something that offends us, but he is enticing or pressuring us to follow his example to our own injury (Romans 14:15). Paul never tells the strong to adopt the weak’s practice. Paul himself does not cease eating marketplace meat and challenges those Corinthians who are judging him for it (1 Cor. 10:29b-30).
Paul calls both the weak and the strong to not judge each other and to discern their behavior on the basis of love for one another (not on the basis of knowledge and not on the basis of freedom). This is a complex, hard-fought unity that redirects us from following a rule to seeking the good of another person. It is a unity that invites sensitivity to the Spirit and to each other.
The way to true unity is to love like Christ, who did not live for himself, but endured the cross so that we might be saved (Rom. 15:3). It is a unity won through love, not knowledge.
While this controversy about meat sacrificed to idols may not correspond exactly to any controversy in the church today, the love of God for our family in Christ, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, is still the ethical basis and the means by which true unity in the church is possible.
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement (which is so needed in the hard work of reconciliation) grant us to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together we may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 15:5-6
—  Fee, Gordon. First Epistle to the Corinthians. NICNT: Eerdmans Publishing, 1987, pp. 391-2
Gordon Fee’s Commentary on 1 Corinthians is outstanding.