Love over knowledge – not love of knowledge
Paul continues to work through issues that were posed to him by the Corinthians. They want to know how to handle food that was offered to idols. This could be either 1) private sacrifices where part of the offered meat is eaten in the god’s temple, or 2) public sacrifices whose excess meat is sold in the public marketplace. Paul’s response covers 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1. As with issues Paul addressed earlier in this letter, his primary concern is not about food but deeper issues where one of the symptoms happens to be conflict about appropriateness of eating food offered to idols.
True gnosis consists not in the accumulation of so much data,
nor even in the correctness of one's theology,
but in the fact that one has learned to live in love toward all.1
The reader of this passage may find curious Paul’s initial digression away from the topic of food. It is this digression that gets at the heart of what Paul identifies as the root issue: the arrogance of possessing “knowledge” and the insistence on its free use at the expense of all other brothers and sisters. Not only were some in the Corinthian church insisting on their own personal freedoms, but, as in earlier issues in the letter, they were likely insisting that to be a “true Christian” everyone had to behave in a singular manner – in the present case, to eat food offered to idols, because the idols are not real.
Real freedom is being freed from the necessity to assert only,
or primarily, one's own rights.2
Paul’s response is instructive for those of us in the modern West who place high value on knowledge and objective realities. Paul acknowledges the existence of objective realities, but he also writes that subjective realities are also very real, perhaps even more real, to people. Thus he writes in 8:5b, “as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords.’” When a Christian interacts with another brother or sister, s/he must take into account the subjective realities of the other party and adjust words and actions accordingly so as to not be the cause of someone turning away from God.
According to Paul, Christian ethics cannot be codified beyond “love one another.” And for Paul, “love” is the giving up of one’s own rights for the sake of others. Personal freedoms are subservient to “building up” the community of believers. For Christians, the priority is not “my rights” but “your well-being.” Paul brings his readers back to the cross of Christ as the prime example of Christian freedom in action.
The problem in the Corinthian church was not really about food offered to idols. It was placing knowledge above love, i.e., a love of knowledge rather than loving in order to know one another.
The real concern of the passage needs a regular hearing in the church. Personal behavior is dictated not by knowledge, freedom, or law, but by love for those within the community of faith. Everything one does that affects relationships within the body of Christ should have care for brothers and sisters as its primary motivation.3
1 Reading the New Testament Series, entry for 1 Cor. 8:1-13.
2 Understanding the Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians, introductory paragraph for section 1 Cor. 8:7-13.
3 New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle, concluding paragraph for section 1 Cor. 8:1-13.