The city of Corinth was smothering in idols. Every pagan temple in the city was adorned with wooden, stone, or metallic images to false deities. Worshipers were expected to win the favor of these gods and goddesses by offering sacrifices of money, incense, or food to them. If an animal was brought as a sacrifice to be grilled on the fire of an idol’s altar, it may be eaten in a ceremonial feast at the pagan temple or sold in the marketplace for profit.
Many of the Corinthian believers had been saved out of idolatry. Before they met Jesus they had participated in the pagan rituals and worshiped in the temples of the idols. Imagine the joy of these men and women when they responded to the gospel and placed their faith in the one true God — a God who, unlike the idols of the Greek pantheon, could hear them, help them, and love them! For these new believers, following Jesus meant walking away from Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Poseidon, or Isis. They forsook their temples and everything associated with them, making a clean break from the life they had known as they embraced the Lord Jesus.
As former idol-worshipers, these new believers could not imagine sitting down to a thick, juicy steak that had been grilled in a ceremony of Apollo worship. To do so would feel like they were insulting Jesus and reverting to idolatry. Paul taught that “idols have no real existence” (v.4). Because Apollo was just an imaginary character in a made-up story, a steak offered to him was really a steak offered to nothing. There is only one God and no other.
Some of the more mature believers in Corinth had received that teaching and moved on. With a clear conscience they felt free to eat meat that had been sacrificed to Aphrodite, for instance, being thoroughly convinced that Jesus is Lord of all and Aphrodite is lord of nothing. But some of the newer believers, those who had recently renounced their idols, were deeply offended by this (v.7). They were still processing their freedom in Christ, and their former sins were still so fresh. To make matters worse, their more mature brothers and sisters in Christ were flaunting their maturity and being insensitive to the weaker members who were still learning. Paul’s counsel in verses 9-13 was meant to correct this threat to unity in the Corinthian church, and it teaches an important truth to every church.
The call to Christian discipleship is not only a call to believe in something, it is also a call to belong to something — the family of believers in the church. As members of Christ’s family we are to be supremely concerned about the spiritual well being of our brothers and sisters in the church. Once we join the family we are free in Jesus, but we are not free to make decisions independent of our brothers and sisters. We don’t exercise our “rights” if doing so will cause a Christian sibling to stumble and miss a step as they try to follow Jesus (v.9). When it comes to new believers (“baby Christians”) we must be careful to consider the tenderness of their conscience (v.7). Those who have only been saved a short time may still be assimilating truth we have already mastered, still feeling their way through situations we have already experienced.
Paul, who could have rightfully claimed more spiritual maturity and exercised more spiritual freedom than anyone in Corinth, modeled this loving attitude. He was more concerned with the welfare of his brothers and sisters in the church than with the exercise of his own freedom and the fulfillment of his own desires. He considered it a sin to wound the conscience of a brother (v.12). He was committed to enabling the spiritual progress of others, encouraging the faith of the weak, and enhancing the unity of the church. Lord, help me to follow that example.