Thursday, January 26, 2012

Knowledge Serving Love

As Paul continues to respond to questions the Corinthians have written to him about, he addresses yet another issue in 1 Corinthians 8 that in itself is of virtually no relevance to us whatsoever - meat sacrificed to idols.  In the first century, it was common civic practice for Roman citizens to eat meat that had been sacrificed to some Roman god.  In fact, by many estimates it may have been nearly impossible in a thoroughly Greco-Roman city like Corinth to obtain any meat at the local market that hadn't been sacrificed to an idol.  This was simply the way meat was processed in much of the ancient world.  Additionally, participating in the ceremonies and festivals that produced this meat was an important civic duty.  Abstaining from these feasts would have been seen as unpatriotic.  For the wealthier Corinthians especially, the networking that occurred during these feasts was vital to their social standing.  If they attended the feast but refused the meat offered then they would be seen as not being gracious toward their host and would be dishonored among their peers.  If they avoided the feasts altogether then they would likely be branded as someone who was self-serving and didn't have the best interest of the city or the empire at heart.

But it seems that the congregation at Corinth was divided about whether or not eating meat sacrificed to an idol was acceptable Christian behavior .  Apparently some felt that it was not acceptable and that it was equivalent to participating in the worship of the idol itself.  Another group, probably the wealthier Corinthians who depended upon these feasts for their social standing, argued that this was non-sense.  "After all", we can infer them arguing from what Paul has written, "we all know that there is only one God.  These idols aren't real gods so they pose no real danger.  Therefore, we should all eat meat sacrificed to idols to demonstrate our knowledge about God.  Anyone who refuses to eat meat sacrificed to idols is simply weak in their faith and needs to mature so that they too can eat meat."

Its actually not a bad argument and Paul doesn't disagree with the logic itself.  Its very likely that Paul actually agrees with the Corinthians who say there is no real danger in eating meat that has been sacrificed to an idol.  But he does disagree with the foundation upon which they are basing their actions.  We see this in Paul's profound words in the opening verses of this chapter.
"We know that all of us posses knowledge.  This knowledge puffs up but love builds up.  If anyone imagines that he knows something he does not yet know as he ought to know.  But if anyone loves God, he is known by God."
Paul is agreeing with the meat-eating Corinthians in one sense, saying "Yes, you are right.  We all have the knowledge that there is only one God and that idols have no real power."   But then he immediately lets them know that they are using this knowledge incorrectly.  Instead of using this knowledge to serve others and build each other up they are using it to puff themselves up and tear down others they consider weak.  Paul essentially goes on to say that anyone who thinks they are "in the know" has actually missed the point entirely because the Christian life is not about being "in the know", it is about being known by God and loving as God loves.  In a few short sentences, Paul has completely turned the tables on the Corinthians' logic.  The meat eating Corinthians have built an ethic with knowledge as its supreme foundation.  Everything else is forced to serve this knowledge.  Paul says they've got it backwards because the Christian ethic is not built solely on knowledge (though its important) but has love as its ultimate foundation.  Christian wisdom is meant to be employed in the service of Christian love, not the other way around.  Furthermore, Paul reminds us that salvation does not consist in our knowledge of God but in God's knowing and loving us.  We have not saved ourselves by finding God.  It is God who has acted first and foremost to save us and the one who loves demonstrates this work of grace in their life.

As a result, even though Paul agrees with the meat-eating Corinthians in principle he tells them that they must stop eating meat sacrificed to idols because "by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died."  Paul's language could not be much stronger.  Paul is not talking about those who are "weak" merely "being offended" by those who eat meat.  Paul is concerned that if those who are less mature in their faith are coaxed back into the pagan temples as a show of spiritual maturity before they are ready then they may not become more spiritually mature but instead may slip right back into their old life.  (Paul's thinking is probably akin to what might happen if a group of Christians who were able to handle alcohol maturely were convincing a new Christian into going out for a drink with them not knowing that this new Christian was a recovering alcoholic.)  In such a case the meat-eating Corinthians would quite literally be using their knowledge to destroy the very salvation that Jesus' death has provided for their brother in Christ.

Obviously, the issue of meat sacrificed to idols is largely irrelevant to us today but the larger issue of the role of knowledge in the Christian community certainly is not.  Ever been in a Sunday School class that seemed to be little more than a contest to prove who had the most knowledge of the Bible?  Ever heard a preacher who seemed to be more concerned with showing off than making disciples?  Ever seen a "mature" Christian belittle the genuine questions of a younger/newer Christian?  I have.  A lot actually.  In fact, I've been that person more times than I would like to admit.  The truth is that this is yet another Corinthian issue that is still abundant in the Church today.  We still find it much easier and alluring to be "in the know" than to be a people of love.  Perhaps because knowledge can so easily give us a sense of self-importance and strength while love most often makes us feel vulnerable and even weak.  So we end up establishing a pecking order of status in the Church based on Christian knowledge just like the world outside the Church might establish a pecking order based on wealth or success.  But to truly be "in the know" in the Christian sense is to recognize that it is not about what we know but who knows us.  And anyone who truly knows and is known by God is a person who knows and is known by grace and extends that same grace to others.  Christian knowledge and wisdom are important but we have misused them if they ever serve any purpose other than building up our brothers and sisters in Christ.

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