Biblical Theology Briefings

For God and His Glory: The Theology of Christian Rights and Freedom in 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1

David Gibson


NB: this article first appeared in a Northern Irish journal seeking to provide evangelical perspectives on faith and society. As such, the theology of Christian rights and freedom is here applied specifically to the matter of Orangeism and subverts the traditional slogan of 'For God and Ulster'. However, the article attempts to unpack the argument of 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 in a way which can be applied to any number of problems where rights and freedom are controlling principles.

Sacrificial-meat, idols, pagan temples, obscure Old Testament references - these are the concepts and ideas embedded in the narrative structure of 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1. For many present-day readers of the Bible they are also the concepts and ideas which render the passage theologically marginal at best and at worst impossible to apply to faith and practice for today. But this is to stop short of grasping some of the apostle Paul's most skilful practical theology and his anguished personal involvement with a Church that seemed to struggle constantly with the totally counter-cultural values of the Christian gospel. This whole section of 1 Corinthians has as its central tenet the problem of rights and personal freedom. It contains, by way of Paul's personal example, clear instruction on how the believer should view his or her rights and the relation between these rights and personal freedom. Paul's subversive claim is that under the cross, valid rights and true freedom do not always go hand in hand.

We must begin by understanding two things: (i) how 8:1-11:1 fits into the whole of 1 Corinthians and (ii), most importantly, how these three function as a unit. 1 Corinthians as a letter exists in our Bibles as applied theology - it is, in effect, an illustrated sermon. This has been repeatedly highlighted over the past two decades by the growing number of sociological studies of the letter which have worked to elucidate the exact nature of the situation and problems in the Corinthian church. Raymond Pickett's recent work, for instance, has built on a number of previous studies to show how Paul's gospel of freedom was being applied by some in the church in divisive and self-centred ways. To preserve the freedom for which Christ died Paul had to show how the cross 'deconstructs those secular norms and values which are in conflict with his ideal of an egalitarian community' and also to show that 'Christ's death is a death for others ... which symbolises the other-regarding behaviour which he himself exemplifies and the Corinthians should imitate.' It is precisely these concerns which seem to be behind 8:1-11:1.

The three chapters revolve around a conflict between two groups in the Corinthian church - one group, the 'strong', had no doubts whatsoever about eating idol-meat because of their theological knowledge; the other group, the 'weak', had serious misgivings about this being an appropriate Christian action. These have always proved quite difficult chapters to interpret, not least because Paul himself does not deal with the problem in a straightforward way! 8:1-13 clearly tackles the problem head-on, but then 9:1-10:22 seems to be a lengthy digression before Paul again returns to the idol-meat problem in 10:23-11:1. On close inspection, however, it is chapter 9 which actually provides the key to unlocking the text. Before we come to chapter 9, however, the idol-meat problem itself deserves some attention.

The problem of idol-meat seems to have been raised by the Corinthians themselves in a letter to Paul (see 7:1). Paul cites the reasons why the 'strong' have no qualms about eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols as follows: 'we all possess knowledge' (8:1), 'we know that there is no idol in the world and that there is no God but one' (8:4). It is difficult to tell if this is Paul's summary or a quotation from the letter he had received, but either way, these are theological affirmations which Paul and the Corinthian 'strong' hold in common. Paul himself seems to press the matter further with an emphatic statement of practical monotheism in v6: 'For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we to him, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and we through him.'

The problem of the 'weak' Corinthians is introduced with a jolt in the little phrase in verse 7: 'But not everyone knows this'. Some Corinthians appear to be unaware of the fact that the implications of this Christian monotheism are that 'food will not commend us to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do' (v. 8). As David Horrell puts it, 'was there ever such a clear-cut example of the need for a programme of theological education?' Siding with the 'strong' so far, Paul is surely going to insist on a need for the 'weak' to change their theology and simply just start eating or at least let others eat in peace?

But in verse 9, the apostle Paul begins a carefully nuanced discussion of the whole problem of rights and personal freedom which challenged the deepest assumptions of some in the Corinthian church. It still cries out to be re-lived in our own churches for the sake of our unity and for the good of our land. Paul begins to turn conventional thinking on its head - if eating does not bring you closer to God then abstaining will also bring you no loss! His argument is that the 'strong' will suffer no spiritual lack by not eating the idol-meat but they may cause spiritual harm by insisting on what Paul seems to acknowledge as their legitimate right. The exercise of their right may become a stumbling block, even a means of destruction, for their weaker brother. In verses 11-13, the word 'brother' appears four times, and the emphasis on Christo-logically based relational concerns is in contrast to the theo-logically based legitimations for eating idol-meat expressed in verses 1-6. In other words, Paul remarkably does not urge the 'weak' to change to more correct theology but urges the 'strong' to realise that the status of each believer, as a brother or sister in Christ because Christ died for them, is the correct foundation for ethical action. Paul is pressing home the fact that under the Cross the correct use of freedom is judged not by what motivates its assertion, however legitimate, but by what effects its assertion has - will it build up or will it wound my brother or sister? Verses 9-13 develop the point he had made in passing in verse 3 - knowledge is inferior to love.

This same kind of surprising functional ethic can be found at the end of the section when Paul returns to the problem in 10:25 after the lengthy digression of 9:1-10:22. Again working on the principle that sacrificial meat may be eaten 'without raising questions of conscience,' Paul recognises that this will be problematic for some (v. 28). However, the remarkable feature of this section is that in verse 29 Paul argues that the way to prevent your freedom being judged is not to exercise it. Here is subversive theology for a world obsessed with rights and freedom - we actually control our freedom rather than it controlling us if we are able to discern when its assertion is going to cause more harm than good. This does not deny the freedom itself or deny that the right is valid - it simply asserts that the right itself is always subject to the greater concern of love.

From verse 23 onwards, Paul concludes his argument by making a number of general points. In verse 31, we are told to do 'everything for the glory of God', and in 11:1 to follow Paul's example as he follows Christ's. These comments, and indeed the whole problem of the idol-meat, mean that it is hard to work out the application for our contemporary situation. Hard, that is, without chapter 9. Without a focus on chapter 9, sermons or studies on the above sections will inevitably tend to force these passages to address modern cultural problems (e.g. attitudes to alcohol). If we recognise, however, that chapter 9 is the key to unlocking the whole section, it opens up much more fruitful lines of application.

In chapter 9 Paul puts himself forward as an example of someone who belonged to a certain group - the apostles - that possessed certain 'rights' (Gk. exousia - right, authority). In verses 1-12 he is clearly attempting to establish the validity of his apostolic rights. Some commentators feel that here Paul is defending his apostleship, but this is not very likely in view of the context in chapters 8 and 10. Reading the three chapters together, what emerges is that Paul wants his apostleship and apostolic rights to function as an analogy for the Christian and his right. Paul is simply trying to establish, by means of cumulative impact, the fact of his exousia so that his renunciation of his rights in verse 12b will be all the more striking. And striking it is: 'But we did not use this right. We put up with anything lest we should give anyone an obstacle to the gospel of Christ.' The same phrase occurs in verse 15: 'But I have not used one of these [rights]'. By this stage in the chapter, Paul's emphasis on the primacy of the gospel is beginning to emerge and it is clear that for some reason the exercise of his valid rights among the Corinthians would have hindered the gospel. So then, in verses 16-18, Paul's rights as an apostle are clearly subordinated to his calling to preach the gospel. His argument here needs to be laid out against the situation of the Corinthian 'strong': these Corinthians had 'knowledge' and wanted to exercise it freely, but Paul has urged them to subordinate the knowledge to the divine command to love. Paul offers his own example: he had apostolic rights but these were always subordinated to the divine command to preach the gospel.

The remaining verses in chapter 9 focus in on Paul's unswerving commitment to the gospel: 'For being free of all men, I enslaved myself to all men in order that I might win more' (v. 19). These were difficult ideas for many in the Corinthian church: Paul's example and model of Christian leadership here directly contradicted a concept of authority which regarded either freedom or high-status as the ultimate goal of leadership or the norm of Christian life. By depicting the leader as slave of all and by exercising authority in the form of a leadership from below, Paul exemplified abnormal structures of leadership and also indicated how the over-riding factor dictating his behaviour was not his apostolic status, nor his freedom - but the gospel.

It is perhaps somewhat ironic that the phrase of verse 22 ('being all things to all things to men'), is often used today as an excuse for greater freedom of behaviour among Christians. For Paul, it was used to illustrate how he often limited his freedom for the sake of the gospel. But if the phrase is not misused then it is largely ignored, for this chapter makes great demands of us as God's people. The apostle Paul's key statement in the whole of these three chapters, 'I do all this for the sake of the gospel' (v.23), is one which, following his desire that we should 'be imitators of me, as I am of Christ' (11:1), brings our lives under the searching spotlight of God's Word and forces us to examine the extent to which the glorious gospel of God's free grace controls our attitudes and behaviour.

The need for such an examination is not hard to see. This article is being penned at a time when, surrounding the controversy over the Orange Order's much desired and much disputed parade down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown, our televisions and radios have scarcely ever contained as much heated rhetoric about rights and personal freedom. Sashes, banners, marches, implicit theological claims - perhaps we don't have to look too hard after all to find particular cultural and socio-religious landmarks which forge links with a Corinthian church also wrestling with particular cultural issues and the correct Christian response to them. Just as in Corinth, N. Ireland has long lived with the ethical impact of theological and socio-political belief being fiercely played out in terms of rights and freedom. Yet all the while, this neglected passage in 1 Corinthians has been proclaiming abiding theological principles which we dearly need to permeate the fabric of Christian faith in Ulster.

Chris Wright, following C. S. Lewis, makes the observation that language of right and rights usually emerges in situations of conflict or breakdown of relationship. He also points out that behind such language there is a tacit acknowledgement of some external standard or norm which is used as the authority for claiming a particular right. This is certainly the case in Northern Ireland. A long history of conflict and mutual mistrust has heightened the intensity and emotion with which the separate sections of our divided community wish to maintain their 'rights'. Such rights are seen as vital to the well being and survival of a particular group as a coherent and recognisable voice in Ulster.

We appeal to the concept of 'authority' in a similar way. Orangeism, for instance, bases its right to march on the authority of civil law and the right to freedom of religious expression. Standing behind these appeals is the theological belief in the Bible and its authoritative revelation of justification by faith alone as the vital benchmark of Protestant faith, a scriptural truth which must be defended at all costs. Inability to exercise a right brings conflict; conflict revolves around the importance of the right and inspires rhetoric fired with appeals to the validity of a certain right because of a certain authority.

Paul's answer to the conflict and the nature of appeals to authority needs to be heard again today. The Corinthian 'strong's' appeal to their theological knowledge as the authority for their behaviour was viewed as in some sense valid by Paul - but if their theology was right, their ethics were wrong. Love has a greater authority than knowledge, just as for Paul the gospel had a greater authority than his apostleship. Paul shared with the 'strong' the validity of their freedom but the issue became not what rights does my freedom give me, nor what freedom do my rights give me, but what freedom, what rights, does love give me or what freedom, what rights, does the gospel give me? If our aim is always to win people for the Lord then the effect our actions will have on them will always be foremost in our ethical decisions - it is this consideration which helps to move the issue beyond simply that of 'my rights' and into the realm of responsibility.

Many theologians have commented on the fact that what essentially marks a person as human is the relation, the responsibility, to God. As Emil Brunner says 'One who has understood the nature of responsibility has understood the nature of man. Responsibility is not an attribute, it is the substance of human existence.' On one level, the Corinthian 'strong' seem to have grasped this - their theological knowledge enabled them to feel responsible before God to act in a certain way. Paul acknowledges their understanding of the vertical axis but adds a vital missing dimension which should also carry authority in ethical decisions - the horizontal axis of being responsible for fellow human beings. We should notice with Wright that Paul does not swing in the opposite direction: the Bible 'does not put our obligation primarily on a horizontal plane, but rather directs it upwards to God. It is not so much the case that I am under obligation to my fellow human beings, as that I am under obligation to God for my fellow human beings.' This merging of both the vertical and the horizontal directions of responsibility means that the appeal to authority for the validation of particular right must, in Christian terms, be to an authority which recognises both directions of responsibility. Paul's point in these chapters is that appealing to rights and their valid basis in a particular authority carries the danger of a one-dimensional understanding of responsibility - the supreme authority of the gospel means that one can never think purely in terms of 'me' or 'my rights.'

This is not to say that rights are unimportant and that proclaiming the gospel necessarily involves giving up rights; rather it is to say that we need to be so freshly immersed in Scripture and an understanding of the effect of our actions that we are able to flexibly relate our understanding of our rights to the furtherance of the gospel. In Acts 22:25 Paul claims his Roman citizen's right to avoid a flogging in Jerusalem, while in Acts 16 he submitted to flogging and imprisonment with the end result that the Philippian jailor and his family were saved! The fact is that you cannot have the primacy of the gospel as the controlling centre of your worldview and still regard your rights to be paramount - for the heart of the gospel is the message of One who, though fully equal with God did not cling to what was his by right as God, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant (Philippians 2:5-11). The word for 'servant' in Phil. 2:7 is the same word that Paul uses in 1 Cor. 9:19 to describe himself as a 'slave' for the sake of the gospel. Human nature is such that we will always seek to be enslaved to something and human selfishness is such that it will most likely be our rights and personal freedom. This remains one of the most poignant and yet saddest features of much contemporary focus on rights - in the midst of such fierce argument and all-consuming need to have a particular right validated it seems that many have become slaves to their rights, controlled by their need for freedom. Such a danger can beset the Christian too, and we must constantly return to Scripture, to the example of Paul and ultimately of Jesus, to discern whether our 'slavery' to the gospel is in danger of being usurped by self-centred concerns.

These three chapters in 1 Corinthians end with the general exhortation 'Do everything for the glory of God' (10:31) and the unit as a whole has illustrated how doing everything for the glory of God means doing everything for the sake of the gospel. This idea merges deeply with the general New Testament understanding that God's glory is seen most supremely in the gospel of the cross - John's Gospel, for instance, clearly portrays the cross as the climax of Jesus' revelation of his glory. God's glory, God's victory and triumph, are always the way of the cross and suffering, the way of humiliation and apparent defeat, so that God brings wisdom out of folly, strength out of weakness. The Christian's life should be marked by the behaviour-controlling maxim For God and His Glory, whereby we understand God's glory to involve our suffering, our weakness, our humble obedience to the Lord of the cross. The gospel is defended and furthered not in our triumphalism or a worldly understanding of power and authority but, like Christ, giving up our rights for the sake of the gospel and in so doing entrusting the victory, the final say, to the God who uses our weakness and sacrifice to bring others to him. What would be the effect of Christians being able to discern the situations when the surrender of valid rights is necessary to further the gospel? 2 Corinthians seems to suggest that Paul's approach didn't actually win him the support or admiration of many, his form of leadership most likely scorned as weak or defeatist. We too can expect mixed if not hostile or triumphalist responses to our laying down of our rights but, for all the apostle Paul's turmoil, we are left with a picture of man who's own experiences so mirrored the actions of Christ and hence brought the weakness and the folly of the cross more sharply into focus. May the Lord give us too the all-consuming desire to proclaim the cross as much in our lives as in our words and so to accept the surrender of self which comes with the surrender of rights.

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