Sunday, December 06, 2009

1 Corinthians: Disagreement and Disorder 1

Previous posts in this series include:

1a. Born at a Time and Place 1; 1b. Born at a Time and Place 2
2a. A Change in Life Direction; 2b A Change in Life Direction 2; 2c A Change in Life Direction 3
3a. The Unknown Years 1; 3b. The Unknown Years 2; 3c. The Unknown Years 3
4a. Life Beyond Death; 4b. Life Beyond Death; 4c. Life Beyond Death; 4d Life Beyond Death
5a. Disunity at Corinth; 5b. Disunity at Corinth 2; 5c. Disunity at Corinth 3

Chapter 6 is entitled, "How Not to Have Sex," and deals with Corinthian issues like sleeping with one's step-mother, prostitutes, homosexual sex, and divorce. I submitted it as my sample chapter, not sure if I blogged any of it. May have to rewrite it now that I have adopted a certain style. In any case, it's on to chapter 7, "Disagreement and Disorder," which now looks at the remaining issues in 1 Corinthians, food sacrificed to idols and issues in Corinthian worship. 1 Corinthians 15 is mentioned in chapter 4.

I might also mention that my weekly post on the seminary Dean's blog is up as well.
We first met the Corinthian church in chapter 5, where we saw that disunity was the fundamental problem in the community. This disunity showed itself in various factions in the church that thought they were superior to the others. Then in the last chapter, we saw some of the problems the church had in relation to sexual matters. Some Gentile believers had apparently not changed their lifestyles in relation to visiting prostitutes, and one had gone so far as to sleep with his step-mother. Meanwhile, it is possible that some women in the congregation were trying to use Christianity as an excuse to stop having sex with their husbands, perhaps even to divorce them.

In this chapter we want to look at the specific issues the Corinthians were divided over. These largely fall into two categories: 1) questions over whether the Corinthians should eat meat that had been sacrificed at nearby temples to other gods and 2) matters of Corinthian worship. The second--problems in worship--seemed especially to bring out the divisions of the church, whether it be at the Lord's Supper, in how the wives dressed, or in their exercise of charismatic gifts.

Disputable Matters
At first glance, the question of whether you should eat meat sacrificed to a pagan god does not seem immediately relevant to us today. There aren't a lot of pagan temples around these days, and I for one have never even seen an animal sacrifice before. In that sense, we might be tempted to consign 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 to those sections of the Bible that do not seem to relate so directly to our world today.

But if we step back, we can actually see in these chapters, indeed all of 1 Corinthians 8-10, some of the most relevant material in the New Testament to today. The reason is that these chapters deal with what we might call "disputable matters," issues over which Christians disagree. Christians--at least those in continuity with other Christians who have lived throughout the last two thousand years--agree on a lot of things. We agree on who Christ is, on the basic nature and power of God. We agree that Jesus rose from the dead and will come again. We agree that there will be a day of justice yet to come for the living and the dead. We agree it is important to live a life befitting God, one that is based on love for one's enemy and neighbor, that murder, adultery, and all such actions are not acceptable to God.

But we have our own thoughts on countless additional issues, which some call "adiaphora," issues that are not part of the core Christian faith but that Christians disagree over. The problem is, of course, is that Christians have historically sequestered themselves into their own little corners and vastly expanded the core faith. This is especially the case in America, where our democratic and entrepeneurial spirit has led to a proliferation of denominations to the tune of tens of thousands. Inevitably, we come to see the ideas of our little group as those of God himself, which would not be too bad in itself if we didn't go on to think of other Christians in other groups as half-Christians and Samaritans.

And it is here that the debates at Corinth over food sacrificed at pagan temples is potentially some of the most important teaching in the New Testament on how to get along in the church when we disagree over things. As background, there were almost as many temples in the ancient world as there are churches in a typical American city. And all of them involved animal sacrifices. Indeed, ancient religion was not about how to live, how to treat one another. That was the kind of thing philosophers did. It wasn't even about having a happy afterlife, by and large. Most of the ancients probably didn't really believe in much of a personal afterlife. [1]Ancient religion was about keeping the gods happy so that they didn't spew volcanic ash all over you or cause your boat to capsize at sea.

So they sacrificed to the gods--lots and lots! Such sacrifices were not like the "whole burnt offerings" of the Jews where the entire animal was consumed. Even in the case of the Jews, it was only one kind of sacrifice. Sacrifices only burned off the fat to the god. The meat itself was then shared by the priests' families and the families of those who brought the sacrifice. Going to offer sacrifices could thus also be something like going out to eat at a restaurant, except that you provided the meat. Some of the temples at Corinth even had rooms attached where you could eat. [2]

Meat itself was the food of the rich. It would not have been hard in most ancient cities to be a vegetarian for most people, simply because the vast majority did not have meat except on special occasions. At the same time, a religious festival might involve so much sacrificing that a poor person might have an opportunity to eat meat. Yet even on a normal day, there might be enough animals sacrificed for some of the meat to end up in the marketplace.

It is here that the issue of conscience came into play. It was more than possible that any meat you might find in the public marketplace would have come from a nearby temple. This is food that had been dedicated to a pagan god. [3] A Jew in particular might immediately perceive a problem with the first commandment--"You shall have no other gods before me" (Exod. 20:3). Can a faithful Jew eat such meat and not thereby violate this central commandment?

As with so many issues of debate today, most Jews did not see this question as one that was debatable. Indeed, even the apostles of Jerusalem and James apparently did not see it as debatable. For them this was a core issue, central to Christian Jewish faith. [4] The Jerusalem letter of Acts 15:23-29 forbids Gentile believers in no uncertain terms from eating meat offered to idols. This issue may very well have been part of the argument between Peter and Paul at Antioch in Galatians 2:12, that Christian Jews could not eat with Gentile believers if they ate meat of uncertain origin. John the Revelator himself understood the risen Jesus to forbid blatant eating of meat that had been sacrificed to idols (Rev. 2:14).

However, it is possible that Apollos had not taken this approach in his teaching, although we have no way of knowing for sure. Most scholars believe that 1 Corinthians 8 gives us some of the slogans the Corinthians were using to justify not only eating meat sacrificed to idols but in fact to justify eating at those temples. They were saying things like, "no idol in the world really exists," "there is no God but one," and "all of us possess knowledge." They used that knowledge--that there really was no one home at the pagan temple--as a justification to eat at such temples boldly.

We can see their logic very clearly. I can eat boldly at a pagan temple because I know that its god does not really exist. Suffice it to say, this reasoning would not have gone over well in Jerusalem among the leaders of the Jerusalem church, nor among conservative Jews throughout the world. Indeed, it is probably this issue alone that stands behind Daniel and other Jews not eating meat in Daniel 1:8. And we can probably see in 1 Corinthians 8-10 a certain squeamishness even on Paul's part. It is one thing to eat meat in the marketplace, but actually to go and sit in a pagan temple?!

Paul thus, both tactfully and being consistent to basic principles, walks a fine line both here and in Romans 14-15 toward the issue, giving us a great model for how we can get along together today when we disagree but feel very strongly about certain issues. On the one hand, he does not deny any of the Corinthian slogans. Yes, it is true that idols are nothing. Certainly there is only one God... and for us who believe we might now add that there is only one Lord as well, Jesus Christ. [5]

And Paul does not wish to contradict the strength of their conviction, of their "knowledge." Scholars used to resonate a little too much with Paul's affirmation of the Corinthians' knowledge here and the "strong" conscience of the person in Romans 14-15. In the 1700s and 1800s, the move toward monotheism was understood as part of the evolution of civilization, thus it was all too easy to see this issue as one of "smart versus stupid," with Paul showing off his enlightenment.

So then when in 1 Corinthians 10:20 Paul indicates sacrifices at pagan temples are offered to demons, those same scholars accused Paul of inconsistency, of saying on the one hand that other gods do not exist in chapter 8, then affirming their existence in chapter 10. The problem of course is not with Paul, but with the biases of those interpreters. Paul is involved in a rhetorical enterprise here. He does not want to deny any of the fundamental principles of the Corinthians--or perhaps of Apollos. But he did associate pagan temples with evil spiritual powers.

His proposal is a compromise between the hard line position of Jerusalem and the "liberated" position of some Corinthians. First, it was simply a conflict of loyalties to go to a pagan temple. You are who you eat with and you cannot partake of both the table of demons and the table of Christ (1 Cor. 10:21). But meat in itself is neither clean nor unclean (Rom. 14:14; 1 Cor. 8:8)--a position with which the hard liners would almost certainly have disagreed. So what is important is not the meat itself, but what is going on in your head as you eat it.

Paul thus advocates a "don't ask; don't tell" policy. If you buy meat in the marketplace, if someone offers you food in a home, go ahead and eat it without asking where it came from. After all, everything belongs to God and so does that meat, regardless of where it came from. But if you find out it came from a nearby temple, do not eat it so that neither you nor those around you see your eating as a conflict of loyalty.

This incident potentially provides us with an incredibly helpful model for getting along with each other as Christians even though we disagree with one another. For one, we should accept the fact that we will disagree on various issues--even on issues we consider to be essential and core to Christian faith. That is to say, we will even disagree on which issues are actually disputable and which are not. The Jerusalem church did not likely agree with Paul's instructions to the Corinthians. For them, it was almost certainly essential to find out where meat had come from before eating it, leading some Jews scattered throughout the world to become vegetarians (Rom. 14:2).

When we look at issues like that today, it is not difficult to find similar issues. For some it is how you baptize. For others it is how you vote. Indeed, there are some who at least call themselves Christians who believe "monogamous" homosexual relationships are not incompatible with Christian faith. God of course knows what He requires despite our debates. Romans 14:22-23 give the final answer on Christian disagreements: "The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (NRSV). In other words, one may or may not be correct on their convictions, but at the very least it is essential that a person act with conviction that they are being faithful to God.

Here is an essential point. We are not wrong to have convictions on what is core faith and what is not. But God is the final judge. It is not up to us to decide who will be in the kingdom and who will not. That is God's business. Christ commands us to love our enemies, so we must certainly love those who claim to be our brothers and sisters, even if we are not certain ourselves. And certainly the burden of proof is surely on those who stand outside historic Christian beliefs and practices, even if it is not to us that they must prove themselves.

Interestingly, Paul does not associate evil with things themselves--the food itself is neither clean nor unclean. This is a remarkable position for a faithful Jew, since Leviticus clearly considers some foods unclean. Not just mainstream Jews, but no doubt many Christian Jews themselves would have disagreed with Mark's interpretation of Jesus words in Mark 7:19--that Jesus was implying that all foods were now clean. [6] And despite Peter's vision in Acts 10, we find him wrestling with such issues years later in Galatians 2.

Paul takes what we might call a "nominalist" position, one that fits well with current trends in sociology and philosophy. The meaning and significance of an act or of language itself is inextricably linked with the context. The food itself is morally neutral. It is the context of eating, or what eaters are thinking while they eat, that makes something good or evil.

We can no doubt debate this point. Although Paul takes this position on food, he might not have on some other issues. He was not, after all, presenting a systematic philosophy or theology. His thinking itself related intimately to the situations and contexts he was addressing. Many of the conflicts between Christian groups over doctrine and practice have in fact resulted from our systematizations of Paul's thought.

The key issue for the Corinthians and Romans for Paul was consideration of other brothers and sisters in Christ. When Paul calls some "strong" and some "weak," it is not entirely clear that he is doing anything but stroking the egos of those who are causing dissension and strife in these communities. He is very tactfully, as he does so often, beginning with where they are and leading them to the right course of action by way of skillful rhetoric. The fundamental principle is not to put any obstacle in the path of one's fellow believer that might lead them into sin or cause them to stumble. Here as elsewhere in Paul's writings, the principle is to think of others before thinking of your own self-seeking desires.

It is thus no coincidence that Paul sandwiches 1 Corinthians 9 in the middle of his discussion of meat. In this chapter, Paul reinforces what he is asking the Corinthians to do by reminding them of how he himself surrendered his rights to their support and instead supported himself. He did not accept their patronage, as other traveling teachers like Apollos no doubt did. [7] Instead, he surrendered his rights for the betterment of the community. In like manner, he urges the Corinthians not to think of themselves or what they have coming to them, but to be willing to surrender their freedoms when those freedoms might harm another member of the community.

To be sure, there are plenty of issues where we might potentially anger someone else, but on which we are not in any danger of harming their faith. Paul is not telling us to do or not to do something because we might anger or offend someone else. We are talking about really harming someone else's faith here. And on that point, Paul is quite clear. We should not exploit our "rights" in such a way that we hurt others.

In the end, Paul seems to suspect that some of the Corinthians are not really acting from faith in the first place. At the beginning of 1 Corinthians 10, he tells of how the Israelites who left Egypt went on to worship other gods in the wilderness. They didn't make it, he eerily announces. So also he indicates at the end of chapter 9 that his place in the kingdom is not assured if he does not remain faithful (9:24-27). And the issue he has been discussing is his willingness to put the gospel first over his own personal interests.

Our take away is thus that we are to love our fellow believer, even when they disagree with us. Love and unity is far more important than agreement on every issue of belief and practice. Even when we feel as strongly as the Jerusalem church did about meat sacrificed to idols, we need to let God, in the end, make the final decision. After all, He will anyway.

[1] If we have our R.I.P. ("Rest in Peace" or "Requiescat in pace"), a common ancient tombstone was "I was not. I was. I am not. I care not."

[2] E.g., the Temple of Asclepius, the god of healing.

[3] Scholars debate whether we should translate the Greek word Paul uses as "food offered to an idol," "food sacrificed to an idol," or "meat sacrificed to an idol." Although the debate surely would cover any food offered to a pagan god, it seems pretty clear that the fundamental point at issue is meat that had been sacrificed (e.g., 1 Cor. 8:12).

[4] Remembering that they would not have distinguished Christian faith from Jewish faith at this time.

[5] "Lord" was a term that could be used of pagan gods as well. In the late first century (AD90s), the Roman emperor Domitian put the phrase "Lord and God" on his coins.

[6] Interestingly, assuming that Matthew used Mark as we now have it (the majority position of scholars), Matthew chose not to keep this parenthetical comment, possibly implying that he and his audience at least had significant doubts whether all foods were clean for Jewish Christians (Matthew's audience). Mark's audience, on the other hand, was likely made up of Gentile Christians.

[7] He may have had other motivations for avoiding such patronage. Ancient patronage came with informal expectations, with "strings attached." Paul therefore may have avoided such patronage so that he could freely exercise authority over his churches. The classic work here, and one that we include in the fifty or so books one should read to master Paul, is Bengt Holmberg's Paul and Power: The Structure of Authority in the Primitive Church as Reflected in the Pauline Epistles (*: Wipf & Stock, 2004 [1980]).

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