To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

But Love Builds Up

1 Corinthians 8
Preached Sunday morning, October 1, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

In our study of 1 Corinthians we now move from problems of human sexuality into another major section of the letter. A serious question facing the Corinthian Christians was whether or not it was permissible to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. That question may not seem relevant to Christians today, but I hope that we will come to see just how timely the issue really is. Once again, the trouble in Corinth comes from those who believe they have superior knowledge. Maybe they did. But as much as that group may have knowm about things, they still had a lot to learn about how to get along in the Kingdom of God. Paul’s answer to this group is more than simply a lesson in getting along: it is a vital reminder of how Christians ought to value God and one another.

Let’s begin with a little historical context. In first-century Corinth, all meat was probably tainted by the stain of idol worship. Corinth was a large, cosmopolitan city with its share of pagan temples. Animal sacrifices were made in these temples, and the leftover meat was then sold in markets and restaurants. If a Christian wanted to eat a good piece of meat, he was forced either to buy meat that had been sacrificed or actually to eat in a temple restaurant. More knowledgeable Christians understood that pagan gods were nothing, and that sacrifices to false gods were meaningless. As a consequence, they had no problem attending pagan temples to simply enjoy a good meal.

Other Christians, however, had trouble watching their brothers and sisters in Christ sit down to eat food sacrificed to idols. These Christians had grown up in a pagan environment hearing about the false gods as if they were real. For Gentile Christians, their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers had worshipped these false gods, and they were real in the minds of many young converts. So when they saw their fellow Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols, they naturally assumed that their brothers and sisters in Christ were worshipping those idols. And, their reasoning went, if other Christians worshipped idols, why shouldn’t they?

What was the Apostle to do? The knowledgeable Christians are right in their assessment, but their actions are causing their brothers and sisters in Christ to fall away from the faith. Paul begins by disarming the haughtiness of those who knew better. He begins by writing what “we all know,” that “All of us possess knowledge” [1]. Whatever the in-the-know Christians may have thought about their own private insights, knowledge for God’s people is public, for all to see. In Proverbs 8, Wisdom is represented as a woman proclaiming her truth on the street [2]. Paul goes on to say that “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Thus he is back once again to the theme that opens this epistle: the Kingdom of God is not about the wisdom of our minds, but about the foolishness of the cross. So from his opening words Paul is implicitly putting the emphasis where it belongs: on Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a sacrifice for the church. Already, at the beginning of his argument, the Apostle is setting the standard regarding what really matters. Yes, those eating this meat have knowlege, but if they had love they wouldn’t be eating pagan offerings. If eating such meat makes other Christians stumble away from serving the only God, then it would be better not to eat meat at all.

That’s because discipleship is not about exercising one’s rights; it’s about serving in a Kingdom. And in that Kingdom every servant matters, from the wisest, most mature to the weakest, most frail [3]. That principle is by no means limited to Corinth or to the idea of eating meat sacrificed to idols. Anything that makes a brother fall away from God is something we ought to sacrifice for the good of that brother.

Now, let’s be very clear about something. Paul is talking about not making a fellow Christian fall away from the faith. He didn’t say anything about simply giving offense or hurting other peoples’ feelings. Both the Apostle and the Savior made it clear that sometimes being a faithful Christian will give offense and hurt people’s feelings [4]. The very act of preaching the truth ought to hurt people’s feelings if they’ve been living a life of sin. That’s how Christians come to repent, by hearing the truth. Most people in the world--and some in the church itself--will hate us for telling the truth (Jn. 15). Living like a Christian will offend the lost. Jesus gave so much offense that sinners killed him. So let’s be clear that we aren’t called to stop doing something simply because it might hurt somebody’s feelings, either inside or outside the church. If we begin limiting ourselves in that way, pretty soon we find ourselves practicing a “lowest common denominator” discipleship in which we’re afraid to do much of anything for fear we’ll hurt someone’s feelings [5]. As we discussed this morning in our Bible study, Christians aren’t called to play it safe.

I speak from experience on this matter. When I was a very young Christian early in my college years, I somehow developed the notion that the little alligator on the front of those expensive, preppy golf shirts was somehow the very mark of Satan himself. I literally could not understand how a man could be a Christian and wear such a mark of worldly materialism. You can imagine, then, how I felt when one of our young minsters began wearing shirts—and even a belt—with that little alligator on them. Now even then I was not one to gossip behind someone’s back, so I went in person to Scott and asked him to stop dishonoring God by wearing those worldy alligators. He listened patiently to my case, and then explained to me why he would not stop wearing them. It seems that when he had just finished school and was preparing to come to work at our church, he had spent most of his money on his education and had very few nice clothes to wear. On the day he went back to his parents’ house before coming to his new congregation, he was surprised to find waiting for him a dozen full sets of clothes—shirts, pants, and belts. It seems a neighbor had wanted Scott to have them before he went to his new church and had made sure they were waiting for him. To that young minister, those clothes were not the mark of Satan—they were a bountiful gift from God. He hoped I wouldn’t continue to be offended, but he wasn’t about to despise God’s gift in an effort to please to one immature little brother.

No, Christians are not called to limit our behavior to please the whims of every immature brother or sister in Christ. But we are called to give up our own privileges before allowing another Christian to be lost. That’s the bigger message in the story of meat sacrificed to idols. Our knowledge of what we’re allowed to do is not as important as keeping our fellow Christians in mind for what we ought to do.

Discipleship is never a matter of entitlement or superiority. Even if we have a knowledge of God beyond that of our brothers and sisters, we need to remember that getting our doctrine right is only one wing of discipleship. Someone has said, "Where getting it right is foremost, people usually get relationships wrong" [5]. Relationships are the other wing of discipleship. Discipleship is not merely a matter of being right but doing right to God and our brothers and sisters [6]. We have duties not only to God but to each other. Remember Jesus' summary of the law in Mt. 22:37-40?
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. [7]
The law and the prophets, the will of God, is summed up in loving not only God but our fellow human beings. Putting faith into practice requires that we take into account our duties to each.

That's why Paul's emphasis in this letter is on love rather than shame. We love others because God first loved us. We give in to others because Christ gave up his place in heaven for us. Heart discipleship, as we're studying in the Sermon on the Mount, arises from gratitude for the bountious gifts of God's grace. Those who appreciate what they have received are the ones most willing to give. An appreciative discipleship is a giving discipleship. And at this point we've arrived at a bigger picture of this passage.

That bigger picture is that true discipleship recognizes the Savior. The Corinthians are faced with a very practical issue: is it permissible to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols? Now that sounds like a simple question that requires simple, practical answer of yes or no. But the Apostle doesn't look at this through the eyes of practicality; he looks at it through the eyes of Christ. He takes the opportunity to remind his brothers and sisters in Christ of the love of the only true God. Paul reminds the Corinthians that, as Jesus told his disciples (Jn. 17:21), the Savior and the Father are one [8]. The Apostle calls on the Corinthians to sacrifice for their brothers and sisters as Christ has sacrificed his very life for the church. That's denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus (Mt. 16:24). In chapt. 9 Paul will show how he puts these instructions in practice in his own life by not insisting on his own privileges.

That's the way for the Apostle, that's they way for us, as it was the way for Christ. Jesus of all men did not demand what he had coming to him. Rather,
though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phi. 2:6-8)
Even so-called practical issues are for Christians a reminder of Jesus Christ crucified. He gave up his glory in the presence of the Father to be born into the realm of darkness on the earth in order to suffer and die a death that we, not he, deserved. And in so doing he saved his church and began ushering in his pure and holy Kingdom.

In chapters 10 & 11 we'll begin to see what the feast of that Kingdom looks like. It's not a meal of food sacrificed to appease a false god. No, not at all. In the real Kingdom feast the only true God sacrificed himself to feed his people. Wow. Doesn't that make you want to serve him?


1. Chrysostom, John. "Homily XX." Sermon text available online at
2. Deffinbaugh, Bob. "The Great Divorce—Separating ‘Truth from Love' (1 Cor. 8:1-13). Online study at
3. Wright, N.T. "One God, One Lord, One People: Incarnational Christology for a Church in a Pagan Environment." Ex Auditu 7. Available online at
4. Loader, William. "First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary." Available online at
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Quotations here are from the English Standard Version.
8. Wright.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley


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