Why the Christian Right should stop ignoring I Corinthians 8

Posted: April 19, 2020 in Uncategorized

We all cherry pick from the larger Christian canon of scriptures. We choose our favorites, usually the ones that confirm something we already believe. When done extensively, we form a smaller “canon within the canon,” a Bible within the Bible. Entire Christian movements rest on one portion of scripture or another, which makes debate about what is central to the faith so difficult; we appeal to different authority sources.

Of course, I do it, too. And in fact, it is necessary. We actually need to establish a hierarchy of truth within and among the scriptures because they often come into conflict. One highest authority must be identified to curate all the rest. For one it might be the justice teachings of the prophets. For another the teachings from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Another may appeal to the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I know people, however, who define their entire theology with no more than three or four disparate scriptural verses.

What I would like to suggest today, in light of varied responses to COVID-19, is that the Religious Right actually read the apostle Paul. Of course, they narrowly quote him quite often, even as they ignore extensive sections of his letters that don’t settle well with what they already believe. It’s time for these Bible believing souls to stop avoiding the writing of their star apostle, Paul, and read all of him.

A good place to begin is with his first letter to the Corinthian community (which we discover is actually his second). This occasional letter is sent to a community ensconced in great conflict. They had divided into factions based on loyalties to particular leaders. Paul wisely counseled that they should seek a more excellent way and let go of their false alliances.

One of those factions was comprised of people who claimed a higher or superior spirituality. They claimed special knowledge or wisdom. And this position of spiritual superiority led to pride, which is always damaging to the community.

Temples to a pantheon of gods existed in this Roman outpost and a regular part of that worship included burnt animal sacrifices. This would have been taboo for Christians, of course, because it smacked of idolatry. The interesting thing is that they always burned just a portion of the animal, retaining the majority of it for the market. Call it a blue light special or a discount rack for meat already offered to idols. For some Christians eating this meat was tantamount to cavorting with false gods, a tainted meal that corrupted as much as it was corrupted.

But not for the superior knowledge people. They knew that those gods were figments of the imagination, a nothing among nothings. And so the meat offered to something unreal was not tainted at all. Their superior wisdom led them to a cavalier approach to eating this meat. But for their less enlightened brothers and sisters this represented something that threatened the foundations of their faith.

As far as theology goes, Paul was more aligned with the enlightened bunch. He didn’t believe in the real substance of those idols either. The meat offered to imaginary idols represented no ethical dilemma for him. But to his enlightened friends he offered some  shocking counsel.

Not everyone is where you are. For many of your brothers or sisters this is a deal-breaker. So hear this:

“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” (I Cor 8:9) Your actions, based in your supposedly superior philosophy or spirituality, may actually do harm. “So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.” (I Cor 8:11) And if you are harming them you are violating Christ’s way of love.

And what is the prescription?

“Therefore, 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.” (I Cor 8:13)

The transferable ethical principle is clear enough:  Even though the thing or practice represents no threat to me personally, I will, for the sake of love of brother and sister, voluntarily limit my freedom for the good of the many.

In the Christian way of love, my personal freedom is secondary to the law of love.

In the time of a pandemic a Christian soul should inquire after what is the most loving thing to do for the most people. One asks what behavior of mine might harm a brother or sister or cause them to stumble. One asks what personal freedoms should I voluntarily relinquish for the sake of the greater good. One asks how our behavior, though seemingly not a threat to us directly, might be a threat to others who are more vulnerable.

And that’s why the Christian Right should read all of Paul, especially I Corinthians 8.

The greatest Christian questions of our time do not revolve around the exercise of rights – whether my Christian college should be able to meet when social distancing is essential, whether I should limit my movement in social spaces, and even whether I should resist the very health practices that will restore our society and world to health because of personal hardship for me.

We all experience hardship and compassionate societies help those who are passing through those waters to make it through.

Rather, Christians should avoid exemplifying the worst of the “knowledge party” in the Corinthian community, the party that insisted that the exercise of their rights or freedom was more important than the well-being of the neighbor.

Christian young people should read I Corinthians 8 and conclude the obvious: “If my gathering in large groups on spring break or at the mega church or at the university or on the beach causes my neighbor to stumble, then I will not engage in that for their sake.”

Christian virtue is not demonstrated by converging on cities closed for the public good and shouting about their rights to go buy lawn fertilizer at the hardware store. Buying lawn fertilizer is not more important that your grandmother’s health and possible death. Real Christian love doesn’t do that. Real Christian love limits personal freedoms for the sake of the vulnerable, like the Paul’s Corinthians who could refuse to eat meat offered to idols even if they knew it didn’t mean a thing. All for the sake of the other.

Imagine the Christian teaching and influence that could take place on the part of Christian college presidents, high profile pastors of evangelical churches, and supposedly pro-life movements, if they took this ethical principle embedded in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian community seriously.

The world might even look on and conclude that there actually is something to this Christian thing, that it is not just one more group using its power to get what it wants.


  1. Susan hotard says:

    Wonderful!! Thank you

    Susan hotard

  2. Beth says:

    Brilliant, my friend.

    From my phone


  3. David Wallace says:

    Powerful truth!

  4. William O. Jessop says:

    Well, I attend church regularly and I’m a conservative, so I guess that makes me a member of the “religious right”. I guess I missed the boat…I didn’t realize there was a movement of the religious right to end the lockdowns. What I do know is that there are many conservatives who, after a month of being unemployed and effectively herded into their homes, are beginning to question when it will end. We’ve watched the projections for worst case fatalities from the virus drop from over 2 million to numbers less than 5% of that projection. It’s only natural that people are beginning to question the wisdom of shutting the country down. Now as for 1 Cor 8, I’m familiar with it. I understand it. I’ve lived a life that has demonstrated I’m willing to personally sacrifice for the good of the whole. But I’m also well acquainted with risk/benefit analysis. The risk from the virus is real. The risk from the impact of unemployment, hunger, and family strife is also real. The risk of bankruptcies, business failures, and layoffs on the fabric of our society is also real. The “religious right” seems to have a better intuitive sense of the risk/benefit calculation for the pandemic than the “religious left” which seems to prefer to shelter in their homes for the next year and watch the country grind to a halt. I won’t get into what I think is the political motivation for that, but suffice it to say that I’m suspicious of the left’s motivations at this point. Even the “religious left.” I’m a Christian, and I’m also an American. As an American, I value and cherish the rights given to me by the Constitution. By the way, as a veteran, I willingly gave up some of those rights while serving the country. That’s one reason why I value them so much now. I think it’s ironic that the people who have been calling the President a tyrant and would be dictator seem to be perfectly fine with governors who have actually demonstrated that they are in fact petty tyrants and dictators.

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