22 May 2020

The Ethics of What We Eat

1 Corinthians 8-11

A significant portion of Paul's letter to the Corinthians is concerned with the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. In his day, sacrifices were sold after being offered. Sacrificed meat not only provided a source of cheap meat for those who would otherwise not even have access to meat, but it helped support the temple and pay the priests. That's just fine in Jerusalem, where the Temple is to God Most High, but Paul is writing to Corinth, where there is no Jewish temple. The meat he is referring to is meat sacrificed to idols.

At first glance, this passage seems pretty easy to write off. We don't have a bustling meat market tied to animal sacrifice and idolatry. So obviously, our values need not be compromised when we eat meat. Except that many of us do find that our values need to be checked when we go out to buy food, and not just meat. Whether we have concerns over a certain brand which supports slavery in Asia, use of pesticides, privatization of drinking water, the dairy industry's impact on climate change, the cruel treatment of farm animals, the ecological impact of over-fishing, or even concerns on the way a company treats its workers, we all have to consider how the food we eat matches with our ethics. This is further complicated with us having such a great disparity of ethical paradigms when it comes to food: some will eat anything, some are on medical diets, some eat only wild-caught fish, some eat only locally farmed meat, some are vegetarian, and some are vegan... to name just a few.

This is exactly what Paul is concerned with in writing to the Corinthians, the consciences of its different members pull them in all different directions until they cannot even eat together. He addresses first the position of those who may eat anything because "they possess knowledge" that "there is no God but one" (8:1-4). They know that there is no other god, and so they can eat anything with a free conscience. As Christ declared, food is for the stomach, not the heart (Mark 7:19). However, there are some who cannot eat without thinking of where their food came from. Paul warns that for them, they cannot eat in good conscience, and so eating meat drives a wedge between them and God (8:7-13). He concludes that, "If food causes my brother to stumble, I will eat no meat forever more, that I don’t cause my brother to stumble."

Note that Paul implies those who may eat anything are of "stronger" faith than those who cannot as he calls them "weaker." In fact, at the beginning of chapter 8, he confirms their belief. Those who conform to a legalistic view are of weaker faith than those who understand that they are not under law. Instead of calling all to a higher standard, Paul sets those who are stronger to protect those who are weaker. It is the relationship of the Church's members that is important, which he confirms in chapter 10.

Initially, he seems to confirm the beliefs of those he previously characterized as "weaker", advising that all "flee from idolatry" (10:14). He then reminds the reader that we are all of one body as we participate in the same Lord's Supper (15-17). He then confirms that participating in a sacrifice is to participate in idolatry (18-22). In other words, those "weaker" members are not wrong.

He then advises that while there is no need for us to be burdened with conscience in these matters (23-26), we should follow our conscience anyways while remaining gracious (27-30). The only thing of any importance is that "whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God" (31-32).

The purpose of a conscience is what we do with it, not only for our own sake. In chapter 11, Paul seeks to correct an abuse of the church in which he sees each acting on their individual conscience to the exclusion of their community. During the Lord's Supper, which is a meal, not just a wafer and a sip of grape juice, "some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk" (11:21). In acting on their own consciences, they separate, and some go hungry.

There is a balance to be found between individual conscience and the needs of the community. Some may have to live to a higher standard, others may need to protect their weaker brothers and sisters, and some may just need to learn to share. If we live from conscience, in fellowship, and share without hesitation, then and only then are we really the body of Christ.

Peace be with you.

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