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1 Corinthians 8:1-13

“Rights and Responsibilities”

A year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic was in its infancy. We knew much less then about the virus than we know now. But there were several things we did know about the prevention of spreading the virus that still hold true today: the importance of washing hands thoroughly and of wearing facemasks. We could even suggest that the basic hygienic practice of handwashing went through an evolutionary phase during those first few months of the pandemic. As one official from the Center for Disease Control described it (and I paraphrase here), we may no longer view washing our hands as merely a practice of personal hygiene (that is, for the sake of individual, personal cleanliness). As this official put it, we may end up seeing this act of washing our hands as something we do for the sake of those around us … something we take seriously, not for our own selves but because others around us depend on us to maintain such practices so that we do not pass along viruses, bacteria, or other germs that lead to widespread sickness and disease.

The passage in 1 Corinthians 8 is part of Paul’s extended argument in that letter where he contends that the Corinthians’ behavior should correspond with their professed beliefs in Jesus as the crucified Christ (see 1 Cor 1:18-25). From the opening chapter, Paul contends that belief in the gospel message, which may seem to be foolishness from the perspective of “the world” or “those who are perishing” (1:18 NRSV), not only embraces the wisdom of God (1:21-25) but also focuses on the responsibility one has for others rather than on one’s own rights, the latter of which often lead to the kinds of divisions that the Corinthian church itself was struggling (see 1:1-18; 3:1-23). The various behavioral issues that Paul addresses within this church all relate to a basic theme: Christian discernment over rights and responsibilities.

We can see this general theme in the specific aspects of chapter 8. Paul is rather clear about some details of the situation, which has to do with “food sacrificed to idols” (1 Cor 8:1 NRSV) more generally and “eating in the temple of an idol” (8:10 NRSV). The former may refer to eating foods that had been dedicated to the gods worshiped at temples in Corinth. Such foods would have been sold to provide revenue for these worship centers, since only a small fraction of sacrificed foods and animals was burned and destroyed in sacrificial rituals. The latter likely refers to common civic and social practices within the city that included sacrificial rituals to the city’s patron gods and goddesses. Because of the intertwining of religious, political, and social structures in those ancient settings, such practices would have been as commonplace and part of the city’s normal routines as playing the National Anthem at sporting events in the U.S. And participation would have also been assumed for anyone who played any significant role in the city … or ever hoped to do so.

Given this context, we might expect Paul to argue against such practices due to the need for God’s people to be separate (that is, from the world and its practices). After all, persons often argue that the Greek term translated “church,” ekklêsia, refers to “the called-out ones” as in those called are to be separate. But this misunderstands the etymology of this word. The preposition that functions as the word’s prefix does not translate “from” in terms of separation but in terms of source. That is, this part of the word points to the source of calling. In 1 Corinthians 1:2, the term ekklêsia is followed by tou theou, “of God” or “by God”, so that the issue here becomes one of living as those who are called (and assembled together) by God rather than an issue of separation. Such practices were associated with idolatry, so the argument about the avoidance of such associations could easily be made, based simply on what these venerating practices did and suggested. Yet this is not how Paul argues against these practices.

Rather, Paul’s argument begins with basic aspects of the Christian faith. Going back to Israel’s covenant with God, Paul underscores the importance of our love of God, which not only receives God’s love and claim for us but also engages us in love toward others (1 Cor 8:3). By reaffirming the Shema’s declarations about God (see Deut 6:4-5) in contrast to the “so-called gods” (8:4-6), Paul offers the suggestion that such false gods or idols really do not exist (8:4), with the result that such practices would not harm or help anyone (8:8). Yet Paul makes it clear that love of God and others, not mere knowledge about God, is what defines that covenant with God and, therefore, the ekklêsia or “church” of God.

Although Paul offers sufficient rationale why some might not perceive any personal harm in their involvement with such practices, his point is that other “weak believers” might not see things similarly and could be adversely affected by such practices and behavior. Paul’s condemnation could not be clearer: he describes such behavior as destroying “those weak believers for whom Christ died” (1 Cor 8:11 NRSV), “sin against members of your family” (8:12 NRSV), and “sin against Christ” (8:12 NRSV). He ends the passage by reaffirming that he would always embrace his responsibility for others (which is based on covenant with God), rather than insisting on what is his “right” (which is based merely on what he knows to be true—that is, eating meat or food sacrificed to an idol). For Paul, this is the heart of the gospel.

To be sure, the specifics of Paul’s letters do not speak to most of our world. In my world, we do not deal with most of the issues that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians. But when we push back and see the principles behind the “words on target” in this letter, the contentious issue of “rights” and “responsibilities” is something that continues to arise among us.

Sometimes, there are practices that may not be “sinful” that we have the “right” to practice, but our responsibility may suggest that we put those practices aside for the sake of others because of potential harmful effects or maybe for the sake of discipling another.

During a pandemic, we would expect the church and believers to be leaders in modelling what it means to live out our responsibility for the sake of others. Yet in many instances, churches and believers have not only been vocal critics against proven practices that would help slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus and would help protect others but active opponents by refusing to do simple things like wearing masks in public (even when gathering in church). What might be the effect in our local communities if local churches would work together in living out their responsibility for others first, rather than insisting on personal rights and privileges first? What kinds of response would be consistent with Paul’s understanding of the gospel? (I think Paul gives us an idea as to how he would respond!)