23"Everything is permissible"—but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"—but not everything is constructive. 24Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.
25Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26for, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it."
27If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. 28But if anyone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience' sake— 29the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience? 30If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
31So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
1 Corinthians 11
1Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
There are two types of good preachers. One is the preacher who is able to grasp and communicate the large, sweeping principles and themes from the Bible. This type of preaching helps to inspire and enliven listeners but can often leave them searching for what to do when it comes to specific situations in their lives. The other type of good preacher is one who is able to concretely and understandably preach the small details of the Scriptures. These preachers are great at giving practical advice, but often miss the great themes of Scripture that tie all of the little things together. The great preachers are the ones who can communicate both the big-picture themes and the practical details. This is exactly what Paul does in this passage in finally bringing to a close his long discussion on eating meat sacrificed to pagan idols. In fact Paul deals with the big-picture view in verses 23-24. In verses 25-30, he narrows his focus into more practical, real-to-life, situations. Finally, he finishes the remainder of his thought by widening back out to an even broader view than in verses 23-24, one which gives a full perspective to the balancing act of freedom and concern for others.
Paul returns to his format that he began in 6:12 of quoting the Corinthian’s slogans and then answering them. He picks up the slogan, everything is permissible, with a double response that magnifies the importance of this principle. In one sense, Paul might agree that everything is permissible, but that would be missing the larger picture. Even if it is true that the types of things being discussed are permissible, they must meet the more important criterion of being beneficial and constructive. Paul now sums this up with a slogan of his own: Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. Real freedom is the realization that it doesn’t need to be exercised all of the time, otherwise one would be in the ironic position of being a slave to their freedom. The only one to whom the Christian should be enslaved is Christ because each Christian has entered into the life of Christ and has an obligation to live as He did. As Paul pointed out in chapter 6, our lives and bodies belong to Christ and he has reserved them for resurrection so what we do with them matters. How we live in community with other Christians and treat our brothers and sisters in Christ matters. Thus Paul is teaching a very Christlike attitude of “not my good, but yours be done.”
Paul now turns his attention to the particular situations in which the Corinthians find themselves. He quotes Psalm 24:1 in verifying that everything belongs to the Lord, and so, they should have no problem eating meat sold in the market place. This may seem confusing, because in v. 14-22, Paul has made it clear that they should not, under any circumstances, go into pagan temples and take part in the pagan rituals. A closer look, however, will show us, that this is not at all a contradiction, but rather a distinction between venue and menu. The temples are off-limits to the discerning Christian, but the food is not. The pagans may be sacrificing that meat to idols, but if a Christian eats and is not bothered by that history, knowing that they are not honoring the pagan god in any way then they should feel free to do so.
Beginning in verse 27, Paul narrows his focus even more, as he offers a specific example that could happen to any Corinthian Christian. In the first century, dinner parties were held in a much more open, less private manner than they are now, so anyone might walk by and see what was going on or make comment on the happenings. Paul would like for all Christians to get to the point where they did realize the full extent of their freedoms, but he realizes that the conscience is a tricky thing. It cannot be rushed or forced, but it can do great damage if it is violated. So, if another Christian were to walk by and take offense at the situation, then they should put the good of that person ahead of their own freedom and refuse the food. They do not have to refrain from eating any food for their own sake, so this is not a restriction on their freedom. When the good of a third party comes into play, Christians have a different set of responsibilities that trump their freedoms.
Verses 29b and 30 should be understood as Paul providing an imaginary dialogue between himself and any objectors in Corinth who might not agree with him. He asks two questions in this dialogue before answering them: Why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience and why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? The answer to these questions is the overriding principle of the entire section. Whatever a Christian does should be done for the glory of God. Because of this, Christians should be careful not to cause anyone to stumble. These two principles mirror the two great commandments given by Christ, himself: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind' ; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Luke 10:27). Paul’s underlying goal in all of this is to accomplish the the same goal for which Christ came, to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). For Paul, then this is what it looks like when the Christian truly clothes themselves with Christ (Galatians 3:27) and walks about in the ‘real world’. It is not, we should carefully note, that the practice of eating meat or anything similar becomes a sin because it violates another’s conscience. The action is still perfectly acceptable, but should be passed on for the benefit of the one who is genuinely bothered by it.
Let’s take this principle and put a modern face on it. One Christian is deeply bothered by Harry Potter movies and books, believing sincerely that they are dangerous and can pull someone into the occult, and at the very least, support and celebrate the dark arts. Another Christian believes that the books are simple fantasy and know that they in no way plan to participate in magic, talking to the dead, the occult, or anything else involved in the Harry Potter story. Applying Paul’s principles to this situation would mean that it is probably fine for a Christian to read a Harry Potter book so long as their conscience is not pricked by the Holy Spirit. Yet, for the Christian who is sincerely bothered by these things, it would be wrong, a sin in fact. The Christian who feels the freedom to engage in the books and movies should be careful to not flaunt their freedom so that it makes the Christian with the stricter conscience struggle, nor should they encourage the stricter Christian to ‘loosen up’ and try it anyway. They might come to that conclusion on their own but it shouldn’t be forced. At the same time, the Christian with the stricter conscience should seek to not bind the freer Christians to their belief or get up in arms and accuse their brothers and sisters of sin for cracking open the new Harry Potter book. Above all, love, unity, and concern for others should trump our own individual beliefs in disputable matters that don’t involve clear-cut biblical mandates or doctrines.
Paul’s final exhortation on this specific topic is for them to follow his example as he follows the example of Christ. This should not be taken out of context, as has sometimes been done. Paul’s call for imitation is limited to his example of living the life of Christ. Ultimately, the real imitation taking place is the act of imitating Christ. It is both the privilege and the obligation of each Christian to realize that they no longer live in the realm of sin but have taken up the life of Christ.
The primary principle that Paul wishes for the Corinthians to grasp is the need to glorify God in everything that they do. How have you been doing in living up to this standard? Is it your main aim to glorify God in every possible area of your life? If it hasn’t been, why not?