Good morning! Today in 1 Corinthians 8-11 we read some of Paul’s “greatest hits” in terms of verses that have most impacted the church in the centuries since. While most of them have had positive effects, some of these verses have also been “hits” in the negative sense, causing great persecution and suffering when they’re enacted in a too-literal fashion.
As we start, Paul returns to the question of whether it is lawful for Christians to eat food offered to idols. Like we’ve seen before, Paul’s greatest concern is that Christians don’t cause offense to others in the faith. He considers it better to inconvenience the self than to cause another to fall away from the faith. Later in chapter 10, Paul comes back to this question a third time and suggests that it’s better not to eat food sacrificed to idols because it sends the wrong message. Though all things are permitted in Christ, not all things build up other members of the body of Christ.
Paul’s next focus is similar: forswearing what is rightful for the sake of the greater community’s success. Paul goes on at some length about his rights as an apostle, that he could be paid for his work, etc., justifying it with commentary on ancient legal codes. But then Paul declares that he’s not asking for any of that. In fact, he takes great pride in proclaiming the gospel for no price whatsoever. Nevertheless, he wants to be sure they understand that he could ask for more than he does (which might make them more inclined to regard him with gratitude). Paul describes himself as doing everything possible (blending in almost chameleon-like) to gain the trust of a community, then guiding it into Christian faith by whatever is needed for the sake of the gospel. Here he does call for them to imitate him—sounding for all the world like a coach energizing his team with a pep talk.
Paul in Chapter 10 largely reflects on Hebrew history, using the stories from the Torah as cautions and encouragements for faithful living. As with the previous section, we find here some good examples of what Jews would call “midrash”—reflecting on ancient texts in such a way as to bring them new meaning in new contexts. Here we also find that troubling but everywhere-present verse that God “will not let you be tested beyond your strength”. This sentiment has damaged faith and implies that people who suffer could just get out of it if they found the door or window that God had left open. Like much of the friends’ advice in Job, this sentiment works better if one adopts it as encouragement for oneself, rather than as advice for another.
In chapter 11, from what might as well be considered far left field, “Paul” lays out a rhetorical bombshell that has caused great trouble in the church, because he insists that women should be silent in worship and shouldn’t teach men. I put “Paul” in quotation marks because some scholarship suggests this has been inserted from decades later back into Paul’s letter, seeking to bolster a “hierarchizing” of the church that places men over women. It does indeed seem a little out of place and out of step with the rest of Paul’s thought in this part of the letter. Paul elsewhere praises women effusively, treats them as his equals and promotes their efforts to share the faith. Whether these are authentically Pauline thoughts or not, the sentiments flow from a supposition in Paul’s time that women were dangerously emotional and seductive (particularly with their hair exposed). Such words have bedeviled the church and its leaders in every century since, and only in the last century have we begun to appreciate again the fact that women are at the heart of church life and leadership, from the first announcement of Jesus’ resurrection even down to the present day.
We round out today’s passage with Paul’s famous words that describe and “institute” the Lord’s Supper as a practice of the church. Paul describes how the church’s communion echoes Jesus’ own offerings at his last meal—or at least it ought to. Corinthian abuses abound at the Lord’s Supper, because it’s become an occasion for conspicuous display of class differences. Some believers are treating it as a common meal table, and one where not everyone gets the same food. They barge ahead and eat whenever they please, without waiting for the church to assemble. However, Paul adamantly believes that the Lord’s Supper is different because it’s a sharing in Christ’s body and blood that proclaims his death and anticipates resurrection. For this reason, Paul wants the church to treat the meal as sacred, so much so that disciples examine and discipline themselves before partaking of communion. This is different from the “all are welcome no matter what” invitation in some churches today (including my own), but Paul’s desire for preparation emphasizes how important the Lord’s Supper could be in the life of believers. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is 1 Corinthians 12-14. Thanks for reading!