#BCCSundaySchool2019: “Ye Are the Body of Christ”

1 Corinthians 8-13

 

Many of the more quirky traits of Paul’s letters are evident in 1 Corinthians 8. The chapter is, first of all, a valuable illustration of the complicated nature of scripture. Paul’s letters are often dashed-off and wandering productions, dictated to scribes frantically scrambling to stay engaged with Paul’s meandering trains of thought (see, for instance, 1 Cor. 16:21; Romans 16:22), preoccupied with issues not fully explained (in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul tells us the letter we are reading—that is, 1 Corinthians itself—is Paul’s reaction to a letter from the Corinthians in which they are complaining to and querying the apostle. We know next to nothing about that letter), and intensely engaged with apparently mundane but today obscure and confusing beliefs and practices.

1 Corinthians 8 gathers all these points together. But it also illustrates Paul’s gift for taking seeming trivialities and drawing powerful themes from them.

The chapter is about whether or not Christians should feel uncomfortable eating meat offered to idols, to use Paul’s words (see verses 4, 7, etc). Already this requires clarification. By “idols” Paul mean deities sanctioned by the Roman state. It’s unclear what he means by “offered.” Like Jews Romans offered animal sacrifice to their gods, and often these things would happen in the context of state-sponsored worship. But it was equally common for Romans to make small offerings during dinners and to offer libations (that is, pouring of liquids) in events so mundane as a meal or as prominent as funerals. Romans might make such offerings alone or in groups.

It’s unclear, then, if Paul means the meats remaining from formal offerings, or if he means eating at meals in which such offerings were made, or if he means meat sold at a market but blessed first. Or a dozen other things.

Any such meat would be objectionable to Jews, strict monotheists for whom the rather laissez-faire theology of the Roman world (which functioned rather like this: We have lots of gods already; we’d be happy to acknowledge your god and even say she’s one of our gods by another name. So don’t cause trouble) was horrifyingly sloppy.

It’s also clear from the simple fact that Paul is talking about this at all that some such Jewish attitudes have bled over into the brand new Christian movement, because, of course, many Jewish Christians (Paul included) did not see the two as different religions, but rather thought that Christianity was simply what Judaism had become now that the Messiah had appeared.  Many of these early Christians were in the throes of trying to figure out how much Jewish law still applied. For some of those Christians, avoiding offered meat would mean exclusion from dinner invitations, marketplace gatherings, and family dinners or state celebrations. This would obviously become a significant handicap pretty quickly.

The chapter progresses in thirds. In each section (the first three verses, verses four through six, and verses seven through thirteen) Paul appears to be quoting from that letter he received and responding. He is dealing with a group of Christians who claim to “possess knowledge” (verse 1). These people (verse 4) “know” that “idols” (ie, pagan gods) don’t exist. They also claim that “food will not bring us closer to God.” (verse 8).  That these passages are quotations is mostly inferred from context; reading the passages straight through is a bit confusing if we don’t assume Paul isn’t quoting somebody.

As we tease these passages apart, Paul’s overall message becomes evident. In this case, there seem to be a certain group of Christians who don’t think eating “offered” food is that big of a deal.  The Epistle to the Romans give us a sense of what these folks might be like. In chapter 16 Paul greets specific people—and note that he includes such civic luminaries as the city treasurer, Erastus, and the wealthy man Gaius, who can afford to sponsor a whole church. For the sake of their careers these folks would balk at not eating Roman meat.

Paul calls them the knowledgeable, and his mixed reaction to them illustrates two of his deeper principles.

First, he warns that knowledge can often lead to pride. These people seem impatient that others are not so enlightened as they.

Second, Paul insists that the health of the community must trump the quest of any particular member of it for wealth or standing. “By your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed,” he states, flatly. (verse 11)  He does not want the knowledgeable to insist on eating offered meat, because that would shake the faith of the poor, the less educated, those who might believe that doing so is a sin.

Does Paul think eating offered meat is a sin? It does not appear so (though he may in verse 5 signal that he thinks these Roman deities might be real in some sense). Rather, Paul conceives of this dietary restriction as a act of social grace, a sacrifice of one’s own conveniences for the good of one’s siblings in Christ. He is here insisting that social elites should humble themselves and bow the knee to aid the uneducated and the poor.

And that, overall, is Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians. His famous passages in chapter 12 speak to it. “We were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit . . . The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” (verses 13, 21-22)

Paul proclaims a word that is already transformed by the life and death of Jesus; a world in which conventional measures of wealth, honor, power are overturned and replaced with, as he puts it, a world in which “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member,  that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.” (verses 24-25)

This is not about sinning or not sinning; the obsessions Christianity has cultivated over the past two millennia have trained us to think that religion is about God demanding we do things and punishing us if we don’t.

Rather, Christianity as Paul conceived it was a transformed social order. It was a way of thinking about our relations to each other and to God that would, by their simple fact of being, revise what we understand our obligations to each other to be.  Perhaps he offers us, from all those years and miles away, a new way of understanding what it might mean to be religious today.

 

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Interesting point about Paul’s use of quotations from the Corinthian letter. This actually plays a role in the JST of this book. There is one passage whether the JST (in my view) correctly and rather impressively identifies words as being a Corinthian quotation. But then there are a couple of other passages where Joseph completely misses the quotations and awkwardly tries to fix them as though the words all come from Paul.

  2. Although not the point, your post has started me thinking about the Restoration and how we view this as what Christianity has become now that the heavens are opened again, while we decide what older (“sectarian” we used to call them) practices and ideas to jettison. Any idea — and you have offered several — that makes a part of Paul’s teaching relatable is welcome. Thanks.

  3. “These people seem impatient that others are not so enlightened as they.”

    So he’s basically taking to the ancient version of BCC bloggers and commenters?

  4. I like that final thought, about the obsession over sin versus an acclimation toward positive social relationships. Enoch probably didn’t look down his nose at members of his beloved community who behaved outside of the norm, right? Building a good society seems like it has to start at the person to person relationships on the ground, and any other social structures that constrain a healthy development there ripples up. A great example is this ward in Maryland, I think the D.C. temple stake– that was bifurcated by those with wealth and those without. It became a huge problem for the ward, mainly centered around pride. I think food, or social conventions at large, when they become punishing or exclusionary, do exactly what Paul says–cutting off part of the body of the church.

  5. After attending a number of worship services with a friend and dutifully repeating the words spoken by the minister along with the congregation, I realized I was repeating doctrine the Restoration refuted. How should I join my friend’s worship service? I finally settled on silent respect. I was no longer comfortable participating fully in a service that required the participants to avow doctrine I know to be false. But I could accompany her and support her, something I would totally not do if she joined a religion that worshipped Satan.
    I believe Paul is offering guidance about negotiating a world whose beliefs and practices can be offensive to Christians, something we also grapple with. What I will and will not participate in shifts with the participants. Some see any willingness to accommodate their beliefs as a statement that mine mean little to me. Others take my willingness to accept them and remain friends as approval of egregious behavior such as one’s conscious decision to start an affair with another friend’s husband in order to break up the marriage so she could marry him. I was forced to terminate the friendship in order not to show approval for her actions.
    The meaning others assigns to my actions do matter. I believe Paul is addressing that.
    I am left to wonder how God dealt with Satan and those who followed him. Were they removed immediately following following the Council in Heaven with all debate before or was the debate continued after the Council until all had a chance to hear and discuss both sides knowing how God felt? When exactly does God require a complete show of loyalty and what matters enough to him for him to require it? Will I attend a party where alcohol is consumed but stand up to leave when the now legal marijuana is pulled out? Am I tolerating racism if someone makes a bad joke or being a self-righteous prig if I denounce them publicly? Do the actions I publicly denounce show more about the people I wish to impress than the beliefs I accept and personally live as part of my religion?

  6. Yes JB. Paul, like Mormon and Moroni, obviously saw our day.

  7. For me it’s some of these chapters that help me internalize Paul’s message. I don’t think that I would understand how Paul’s message in Romans is even coherent if it weren’t for 1 Cor 13. In a more vernacular wording it’s “You can do all of these great and righteous things, but if you’re a jerk, it won’t matter.” We need to become something better than what we are. Not just check off a check list.
    Which is why Paul was trying to help some people thread the needle on the eating of food which was offered up to idols. If you don’t know it was offered up, don’t bother asking, your fine because it’s not your intent to eat food offered to idol’s. Does your host make a big show about this food being offered up to idols? Don’t eat it. It’s not that eating it is bad, it’s showing that you’re participating in a belief system that you know is wrong, is what is bad.

  8. Jader3rd. You are right Jader, Chapter 13 lends perspective to how to see, interpret, operationalize the entire canon.

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