The word of the day is “eating.” Our society assumes that morality is a personal matter. Thus, everyone has the right and duty to follow their conscience. However, in today’s reading of 1 Corinthians 7:35-8:7, Paul teaches the principle that believers should consider the conscience of their fellow members in matters of ethics. Regarding the issue of eating meat that had been offered to idols, Paul notes, “.… for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience being weak, is defiled” (OSB vs. 7). For the sake of these brothers and sisters, Paul directs that the Corinthians who have no scruples about eating such meat should refrain from doing so. Today we will explore this issue and learn why Paul puts regard for one’s fellow members before our freedom to follow our own conscience.
Meat Sacrificed to Idols Was a Persistent Issue
In today’s passage, we find an excellent example of an essential issue for St Paul’s readers but not for us. Sometime between 48 and 50 A.D., the Council of Jerusalem decreed that Gentiles might be admitted into the church but that they should abstain from “food polluted by idols” (Acts 15:20). But as we see in today’s reading, partaking of food offered to idols was still an issue among the Corinthians five years later. And as late as 80 to 110 A.D., one of the earliest Christian writing outside the New Testament, the Didache, gave instructions about such food.
The Jews hated anything having to do with pagan idols, and Jewish Christians would have found food offered to idols disgusting as well as sinful. However, such fare was an integral part of the background of the Gentile Christians. The meat that was left from sacrifices to idols was eaten in the temples of pagan gods, at dinner parties, and in pagan homes. And it was likely it was the only meat sold in the marketplace. If they were to eat meat and unless they avoided eating in the homes of their pagan friends, Gentile Christians were bound to have to face whether to eat the food that had been part of pagan worship.
Those Who Ate the Food Judged Those Who Didn’t
From our reading, it appears that some at Corinth saw no problem with dining on food that came from a pagan temple. After all, they had the superior spiritual “knowledge” that idols have no existence (1 Cor. 8:4). These prideful members were judging those who had scruples about the practice. But those who claimed higher understanding bragged that those who had misgivings about idol food had lesser knowledge and weaker faith (1 Cor. 8:7). Thus, the dividing line between the factions at Corinth ran right through this burning issue. One group favored such fare because there is but one God and idols amount to nothing. Another party rejected such food because of its association with idol worship.
The Ethical Principle To Heal the Division
St. Paul has more to say about this matter in 1 Cor. 10:14-22. But here, he lays out a principle intended to heal the rift in the congregation over the issue. The apostle directs that those who think they have “superior knowledge” should show it by considering their fellow members. They should keep in mind that for others eating idol meat is morally wrong. If these scrupulous believers would see a fellow member eating such meat, they might be tempted to go against their sense of right and wrong and partake of the pagan food (1 Cor. 8:10). But going against one’s conscience is a sin. Thus, for the sake of the “weaker” brother or sister who has “less knowledge,” one should neither go to the temple nor eat the food that had been sacrificed there (1 Cor. 8:12-13). To avoid upsetting the Jewish Christians, the Jerusalem Council ruled that the Gentiles should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols in the first place (Acts 15:29).
In cases like this, the ethical issue may no longer be relevant, but the principle still holds and can be applied to other matters. To follow Paul’s precept, we must look at matters from the point of view of others. For example, it may not bother our conscience to be habitually late to the Divine Liturgy. However, if one does not consider the Almighty God or one’s soul, at least one should think of newcomers to the faith. Those who are unacquainted with Orthodoxy would wonder about the reverence of Orthodox worship. Likewise, it may be that brothers in Christ care deeply for one another. But when they engage in heated arguments during church meetings, what are others who do not know them to think about their love and forbearance?
Fr. John Breck summarizes the ethics of regard for others in his article, “The Role of Conscience.” He writes, “We never make ethical decisions alone. Our moral judgments, and the actions consequent upon them, are always made within the living Body of the Church. Through our baptism, we are incorporated into one another; we become ‘members one of another.’ The decisions I make affect and influence the Body as a whole. Just as my own sinfulness has consequences not only for my family and friends but for the entire community, so my ethical decisions and their consequences involve and affect the entire ‘communion of saints’” (Breck 2000).
Breck, John. 2000. “The Role of Conscience.” The Orthodox Peace Fellowship: condensed from John Breck. The Sacred Gift of Life, St. Vladimir’s Press. 2010. https://incommunion.org/2004/12/12/the-role-of-conscience/.