If I’m a new believer in the church at Corinth, I appreciate that the Apostle Paul is looking out for me. I and my family were full participants in the dominant systems of idol worship. From childhood, I was taught to worship, fear and appease the multiple deities of our local temple. Now that I’ve heard and believed the Good News about Jesus of Nazareth, I want to cleanse my life completely of every residue of the old gods and superstitions. If meat sold in the marketplace has first been ritually offered to idols, I want nothing to do with it. I’ll become a vegetarian before I take the risk of eating anything over which the names of those false gods have been uttered. Paul gets this. He knows people like me need time to get free from our past. Even though I know those idols are nothing and have no spiritual power over me, I just feel dirty if I let anything from my old life come near me.
In 1 Corinthians, chapter 8, Paul confronts believers who are using their knowledge in a way that may be harmful to other members of the body. In addressing this potentially divisive issue, Paul helps us see the dangers of knowledge that is not accompanied by love.
What is knowledge? Why does it tempt its possessors to become arrogant, condescending or “puffed up,” as Paul says in verse 1b? Are there different kinds of knowledge? Can we really be certain about anything we know? What’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom?
Knowledge is slippery, isn’t it? Truth can seem like a moving target. Things we feel certain about at one point on the journey are later called into question. More life experience, more dialog with other seekers and deeper reflection all help to bring new perspectives on issues we thought were settled.
No wonder the Bible teaches us to be humble about knowledge. It teaches us that knowledge can be dangerous and divisive, especially when we take pride in our knowledge and look down on those who we believe are less enlightened than we are.
Knowledge and wisdom are not the same thing, are they? The Bible always praises wisdom. And an important part of wisdom is knowing that we don’t know much. That’s what Socrates finally concluded. He was known as a wise teacher in ancient Greece. But the interesting thing about Socrates was that he claimed to know nothing. His method of teaching was mostly to ask questions, questions designed to expose the gaps in other people’s knowledge.
A friend of Socrates went to the oracle at Delphi and inquired whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The oracle said, “No, there is none wiser.” When this was reported to Socrates, he was shocked and baffled. But as he debated the learned men of Athens, he discovered that they could not provide justification for what they thought they knew. So, here’s what Socrates decided:
“I’m wiser than that person. For it’s likely that neither of us knows anything fine and good, but he thinks he knows something he doesn’t know, whereas I, since I don’t in fact know, don’t think that I do either. At any rate, it seems that I’m wiser than he in just this one small way: that what I don’t know I don’t think I know.” (Plato, Apology)
Did you follow that? Socrates decided that wisdom must be knowing that you don’t really know much after all. Paul echoes this conclusion in 8:2, “Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.”
How does the distinction between knowledge, on the one hand, and wisdom & love, on the other hand, apply to the context in Corinth?
New believers trying to separate themselves from their former ways of life and their participation in Greek religion. Markets full of meat that has been sacrificed to idols. The animals would be presented to an idol in a temple, a portion given to the temple, then the rest sold in the market. New Christians who had come out of the worship of pagan idols were concerned about accidentally eating such meat.
But, some believers weren’t troubled in conscience by this. They knew that idols were nothing; so, they reasoned, they were free to eat or not eat. They could buy meat in the market without investigating whether or not it had been sacrificed by priests. This is the “knowledge” they possess. But, instead of being thankful that God had given them light on this, that they were free of fear, they were flaunting their knowledge in a way that was inconsiderate of their brothers and sisters who didn’t have this understanding.
Paul actually agrees with the perspective of the “enlightened” group. “We know that ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’ and that ‘There is no God but one.’ For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth, yet for us there is but one God, and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”
But, though he affirms the truth of these statements, Paul urges the believers not to use their knowledge in an unloving way. “Be careful that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. . . . If what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” (8:9, 13)
Paul’s admonition doesn’t sit well with our individualistic sensibilities. We’re not sure we should be constrained by the unsophisticated views of those who are struggling at an earlier stage of faith. But this passage makes clear that actions based on knowledge alone can be seriously detrimental to others. Unless our decisions are guided by love, our so-called knowledge can tear down the fellowship of believers rather than build it up.
If we’re guided by love, our first concern won’t be about how to apply the special knowledge we’ve gained. Rather, love would elevate our concern for the well-being of every family member and for the unity of the fellowship. Knowledge in the possession of an unloving person can be a dangerous thing. Knowledge without love is unhelpful, unedifying and unredemptive. “If I can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, . . . but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)
A concluding quote from John Wesley sums it up beautifully:
“It were well you should be thoroughly sensible of this, ‘the heaven of heavens is love.’ There is nothing higher in religion; there is, in effect, nothing else; if you look for anything but more love, you are looking wide of the mark, you are getting out of the royal way. And when you are asking others, ‘Have you received this or that blessing?’ if you mean anything but more love, you mean wrong; you are leading them out of the way, and putting them upon a false scent. Settle it then in your heart, that from the moment God has saved you from all sin, you are to aim at nothing more, but more of that love described in the thirteenth of the Corinthians. You can go no higher than this, till you are carried into Abraham's bosom.”
(A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, chapter 10)
District Superintendent; Hawaii-Pacific Church of the Nazarene