The Politics of Food Sacrificed to Idols—1 Corinthians 8:1-13 (Richard Davis)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

Paul’s teaching about the manner in which love for weaker brethren should guide behavior when considering eating food sacrificed to idols provides principles that remain relevant, long after the issue that provoked their articulation. The role that politics and the state play in contemporary forms of idolatry suggests analogies that can be drawn between the responsibilities of first century Corinthians and our own.

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3 but anyone who loves God is known by him.

4 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

7 It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11 So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

This passage is usually interpreted as part of what most scholars identify as a longer discussion (1 Corinthians 8:1—11:1) about the eating of food sacrificed to idols. In this Sunday’s passage we read a small part of the discussion and just one side of it, as Paul seems to be writing in reply to some positions held by the church in Corinth about their freedom to eat such food. The church appears to boast of their faith that enables them to eat food sacrificed to idols without falling into the associated idolatry. They know that the idols are not real and that such food cannot harm a faithful Christian.

Paul suggests, in reply to the Corinthians, a new reason for caution about eating such food, and that is concern for the effect that doing so might have on others who lack the knowledge that the Corinthian church claims keeps them safe from harm. Paul cautions the Corinthians that they should be guided by love for their neighbor, rather than by their special knowledge. This is not simply caution against pride, but a genuine concern that proper Christian love for the neighbor will serve to protect them from misusing their freedom. Furthermore, and in a related passage (see Romans 14:13-21), Paul wrote that we should not use our freedom in such ways that may cause others to stumble. Romans 14:15 reads: “If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.”

From this we can take the following lesson—that we should not use things that are relatively neutral in themselves (such as food and drink) in such a way that may tempt our brothers and sisters to perceive these things as associated with idols, or even idols in themselves. One’s individual position on these objects might be sound enough, but Paul calls us to consider the fuller implications of what loving our brothers and sisters means. And that certainly excludes leading them into temptation or injury.

Such a lesson extends well beyond food and drink. If this passage is to have meaning for us today we need to be attuned to where sacrifice and idol exist in our world in the twenty-first century. We cannot simply relegate the notions of sacrifice and idolatry to the realm of golden calves and fetishes that are no longer with us. Idols and their required sacrifices remain features of our daily lives, albeit in new forms, including in the realm of politics.

Even without the benefit of hindsight, in the twentieth century theologians have identified numerous political leaders and ideologies who were worshiped and revered to the point of idolatry. Countless books and articles were published to show that Soviet communism, despite claiming to be atheist, was in fact a religion which idolized certain people and ideas. Other studies showed that Western capitalism was a religion. Certainly the illusion of trickle-down economics in the face of growing inequality is proof of misplaced faith at the heart of this mythology. But in this “post-ideological” twentieth-first century idols may be harder to find.

Part of the reason why idols are difficult to identify is that we imagine that idols take material form. We may not bow before a golden calf, but this hardly means that idolatry is no longer a threat to our faith. A common definition of idolatry is that an idol is something worshiped in the place of God. This is certainly an important part of idolatry, but it is not inclusive enough. I prefer to define an idol as something we put in the place of God. We can do this in worship, but also in other ways which are just as dangerous.

Martin Luther got it right when he wrote: “For not only the adoration of images is idolatry but also trust in one’s own righteousness, works, and merits, and putting confidence in riches and human power. As the latter is the commonest, so it also is the most noxious idolatry … How godless do you think it is to rely on these things and to reject confidence in the eternal and omnipotent God?”[1]

As Luther pointed out, in politics we have idols where we place confidence in human power in the place of God’s power. But can we be more specific than this? At what precise points do we idolize human power when we should be relying on God’s power? The answer is that the state and politicians can become idols when we attribute powers to them that rightly belong to God alone. If we believe that the state can create justice and peace, and save us from anything that threatens us, we are giving them the status of a god or an idol. As Proverbs 29:26 says: ‘Many seek the favor of a ruler, but it is from the LORD that one gets justice.’

The hyperactive political activism and lobbying for justice of many mainstream Christian churches would seem to suggest that justice can be found in politics alone. Any political action of a Christian that seeks justice from anything other than God is setting that object up as an idol in the place of God. The lobbying of governments for more just policies might in the eyes of stronger Christians be nothing more than a desire for more relatively just policies, without the hope for the building the Kingdom on Earth. But how is such a statist action viewed by weaker Christians?

Some Christians argue that the church should not lobby or engage with policy issues. Others might say that this is fine. But in times when so many people think that things other than God can bring about justice or peace, Christians should think carefully about putting any faith at all in politics. Or technology or money, for that matter. When the churches line up with the world in the lobbies of the halls of power, does that not suggest that we are placing our faith where the world is placing it—in technocratic political decision-making?

The lesson from Paul for today’s politics could be that in dealing with the state (as with food) it makes no difference if we engage with it or not. But should we see weak-willed Christians fall into the trap of thinking that the state can take the place of God in our human quest for justice and peace, we need to be careful that our political theology does not lead them to fall into such idolatry.


[1] Martin Luther, What Luther Says: An Anthology, Volume II: Glory — Prayer, comp. Ewald M. Plass (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), § 2110

2 thoughts on “The Politics of Food Sacrificed to Idols—1 Corinthians 8:1-13 (Richard Davis)

  1. I’m not sure how Christians calling the State to its legitimate role to protect the rights of the vulnerable and needy is to be equated with idolatry (or what could be perceived as idolatry).

    Some Christians (presumably weaker) have previously thought that slavery was a just, valid and economically necessary institution. Should the (presumably stronger) Christians of the 19th Century have avoided campaigning and legislating against slavery and the slave trade in deference to the tender consciences of these brothers and sisters?

    Should Christians involved in the Civil Rights era have restricted their activities to prayer, because they knew that any attempt to call on governments to amend laws, protect lives, and legislate for greater equality was an idolatrous violation of God’s exclusive prerogative to create justice and peace?

    In short, I don’t think “statism” is an actual thing, and I think this argument is a thinly disguised attempt to muzzle Christian voices speaking on public and political issues.

  2. By all means Churches should be at the forefront of advocacy for justice . Sometimes they leave too much to politicians who become ‘demi-gods’ over time. The Church in leading these campaigns, has an opportunity to show the true source of the justice we all seek- the Almighty God- Politicians and human beings are mere tools through which things get done. ( It is not by our strength but by the Spirit of God). Churches, especially those that attract half of the citizenry every Sunday have the opportunity to shift the 21st century over reliance on human ability back to the one true God. After all ‘ the heart of the King is in God’s hand’
    P.s. Golden calves and fetishes are still with us today .,

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