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food fightText of Pastor Ray’s message on February 9, 2014

“Food Fight!” 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Food, glorious food!  We love our food.  Years ago, Kimball Church had a reputation for enjoying their food and eating—a lot.  We had some amazing cooks and it always seemed that we were having potluck meals or special dinners to prepare and eat.  The eating tradition continues.  We still have great cooks and I look forward to potluck meals.

We all need to eat.  It is basic to human survival.  So one would think that food would be the last thing human beings would fight about.  Long before the current controversies about ‘organic’ vs. ‘non-organic’ or “GMOs” vs. “non-GMOs” or “farm raised” vs. “wild caught” or the foie gras debacle or the “transfat bans”, there have been food fights that usually center around the statement: “Here’s what you cannot eat.”   Every culture seems to have its delicacies that others find disgusting.  “How can you eat that?” is a question I’ve asked more than once—most recently at a restaurant that served raw quail eggs atop raw oysters.  I don’t like my eggs over easy, so I could not bring myself to try raw eggs.  It looked disgusting.  Religious traditions also have their rules and regulations around food.  Maybe it all goes back to that little situation involving a piece of fruit that Eve took from a banned tree and gave to Adam.  Though it is not recorded in Scripture, I’m sure the first couple had a “food fight” after being banished from Eden.

Food gets quite a bit of space in the Old Testament Law.  The dietary laws give strict guidelines about what God’s people can and cannot eat.  The list of dirty foods includes pork rinds and lobster tail.  And good observant Jewish boys and girls never eat bacon double cheeseburgers.

While God permitted the eating of meat after the flood, God seems to lean vegetarian.  Daniel and his friends—God’s good guys—were given the finest cuisine in Babylon, but they rejected it, choosing instead a vegetarian diet of vegetables and water.  Everyone expected them to wither away.  But after a few months, Daniel and his friends were found to be in better physical and mental shape then their carnivore peers.  Vegetarians love that story.

Because of the strict Old Testament dietary laws, it is not surprising that food caused a stir in the New Testament church.  I’m sure the Gentile converts were relieved when the gospel of Mark recorded Jesus’ statement that it is not what goes into one’s mouth that defiles a person.  Mark added the interpretative statement, “In saying this, Jesus declared all food clean.”  (Mark 7:19)  “Whew!  There.  Jesus has given us the definitive word.  I don’t have to change my diet.  I can still enjoy my blood sausage and bacon. ” You would think that Jesus’ words would end the food fights.  It didn’t.

Food continued to be an issue in the early church as evidenced by the Scriptures we read today from Romans 14:14ff and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.  Some Christians ate meat, others were vegetarian.  Some Christians maintained the OT dietary laws.  Others openly ate pork and shell fish.  Some Christians imbibed in alcoholic beverages.  Others abstained.  And each group looked at the other group suspiciously.  Those without any dietary restrictions were viewed with suspicion by those who observed some boundaries.  They were undisciplined and unspiritual.  Those with restrictions were viewed with the same suspicion.  They were weak brothers and sisters with overly sensitive consciences who needed to loosen up a little.

Nowhere was the fight over food more pronounced than in Corinth.  And the fight was over whether Christians should eat the meat that had been sacrificed in the pagan temple rituals or eat at the temple.  Now it is important to consider that in Corinth and other Roman cities, the temple was the main slaughterhouse.  Worship included making an animal sacrifice to the gods, barbecuing a portion of it for the gods and the priests (they got the prime cuts) and then enjoying the rest of it with other worshipers in a feast.  Going to temple was a little like us going out to a restaurant with our friends.  Purchasing meat was tricky too.  Large amounts of the temple sacrifices were not eaten and were sold in the meat markets located next door to the temples.  One never knew if the meat on sale had been a part of the temple sacrifices that day or not.  Some Gentile Christians who had come out of pagan religion had trouble eating meat because they couldn’t verify where it had come from.  They could not separate the act of eating from the act of pagan worship.  Their weak consciences did not allow them to enjoy a nice steak dinner with their friends because it was too much like returning to idolatry.  Other Gentile Christians didn’t have a problem and continued to eat meat and some may have continued to join their friends and relatives for a nice dinner out at the temple.  So there was a question:  Is it alright to eat the meat sacrificed to idols?  Food Fight!

Before Paul answered the question, he addressed a deeper attitudinal issue at the heart of the food fight–the Corinthian’s emphasis on gnosis (knowledge) and exousia (rights/freedom) to guide behavior rather than love.  Knowledge and freedom was being placed in higher importance than relationship and connection to one another within the body of Christ.

“We all possess knowledge,” they said.  Paul cautioned them: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”  The old adage is true: The more you think you know, the less you really know.  And Paul says, in essence, that their lack of love indicates that their knowledge is incomplete.  Knowledge is not the correct basis for the decision about food; love is.

So what about the food?  Those who had no trouble with eating the meat offered to idols based their decision on the knowledge that the idols are not really gods at all and there is only one true God.  So the food offered to idols is no different than any other food.  “We can eat the food because we know the sacrifice is meaningless.”  Logical.  True.  Theologically correct.  In one of the most powerful theological statements in Paul’s letters, he affirmed, “there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”  BUT….  “not everyone possesses this knowledge.”  There are still many people who have come out of paganism that still think of the idol as having a reality.  For them, eating the food offered to idols is a return to pagan religion.  And their faith in Christ is compromised as a result.

Knowledge may lead to freedom and the “right” to eat, but that does not make eating right.  Love supersedes that knowledge.  Love for the other person–demonstrated by concern for their spiritual well-being–should lead us to give up our “rights” and limiting our “freedom” in order to build them up and protect them in circumstances where they may feel vulnerable.   Knowledge does not give anyone the “right” to be destructive of others.   If continuing to demand the “right” to eat food offered to pagan gods because of their superior knowledge led to the faith of others being destroyed and leading them into sin against their conscience, then it is better not to eat.  Again, Love supersedes knowledge.  Love supersedes freedom.

Placing knowledge at the top of our values demeans those who do not share our knowledge and we live in denial of our unity in Christ.  The “weak” Christian is our brother or sister.  We are a community, and as a community we take care of one another and sacrifice for one another to ensure that everyone progresses in their walk with Christ.  And we recognize that not everyone is at the same place in the journey.  An “us” and “them” mentality ultimately destroys the body of Christ.   An attitude that says “I’ll do whatever I have the right to do,” is antithetical to Christian community.  Love is patient.  Love is not arrogant.  Love always protects.  Love sacrifices.  That is the model of Christ, who though he was in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be held on to.  No, Jesus took on the role of a servant, giving himself up for us all in death.  (Philippians 2:6) Jesus did not come to be served (demanding that his “rights” take priority) but to serve (giving up his “rights” for the sake of others).  

As Paul reminds the Philippians, “Have this attitude that was also in Christ Jesus.”  We are to humbly look out for the interest of others.  If my freedom leads another believer to compromise their walk with Christ, then it is good to limit my freedom for their sake.  True knowledge of Christ will lead us to the love that gives up.

The church God wants us to become is a church that places community and love for each person–no matter how “strong” or how “weak”–as its highest values.

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