We have seen passages in which Paul is so blunt that his meaning is hard to miss, but from our perspective, this is not one of those. If we aren’t careful, we can quote verses from this passage and use them to ‘prove’ both sides of the argument, not to mention things that aren’t even being discussed. For me, the key to following this passage is to remember who Paul is writing to (the church in Corinth), and what he has said about them previously (that they favor the philosophies of men).
With this in mind, we can discern that in 10:23-30 there is a sort of conversation going on between Paul and his readers. At first, we can see slogans and responses, then questions and answers, and finally, beginning at 10:31 Paul’s clear teaching.
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. (10:23-24)
“I have the right to do anything”. There is a slogan we hear a lot in our day too, and Paul is using it to refer to an attitude held by many of his readers. Notice that each time it is used, it is followed by a reply from Paul: but not everything is beneficial; but not everything is constructive and then: No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. The slogan is not Paul’s teaching, it is being refuted here.
Then Paul includes some questions that he is anticipating his readers would ask him as they might try to assert a right to something, in this case, to eat food sacrificed to idols…
For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience?
If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
These questions do not represent Paul’s teaching, but rejoinders his readers might throw back at him. When you see this, the rest is clear enough; we shouldn’t go to the market, or go to someone’s home looking for trouble, but if we are informed that a food was sacrificed to an idol, we should abstain, both for our sake and for the sake of the other, as a testimony to our belief in Christ.
Then Paul concludes the entire section with a clear principle:
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (10:31-11:1)
The section ends here, with these words summing up the entire discussion that began with 8:1. We might look at this and be tempted to conclude that it doesn’t apply to us in the 21st century because we don’t usually encounter meat sacrificed to idols these days… “but if I do, I’ll keep it mind.”
This, however, is a principle that should apply to most any set of circumstances, or most any controversial subject, and the funny thing is, we might be tempted to offer the same kinds of objections that the Corinthians did so very long ago, we might even say something like, “Those church people just want to control me.”
Have you ever heard that one? Have you ever said it yourself?
I can honestly say “yes” to both questions… I have always found that such a statement is particularly effective when followed by a lengthy rant about how mature the speaker is, and how immature everyone else is. Maybe there’s a little bit of Corinth in all of us.