Last week I spent three mornings on one short Bible chapter—about meat offered to idols, no less (1 Corinthians 8*). Waste of time? Not so fast. Let’s take a look.

In the evangelical circles of my youth, we referred to this and similar passages as “concern for the weaker brother.” To summarize:

  • Some church members—“the weak,” in Paul’s language—were having an ethical problem with Christians eating meat sacrificed to the Greek gods.
  • Other church members—those who, Paul says in his best ironic tone, “have knowledge”—felt free to eat the meat, on the premise that those gods didn’t exist anyway.
  • The knowledgeable looked down on the weak. Paul told them to knock it off: for the sake of love, they should constrain their freedom to eat temple meat so as not to injure the conscience of the weak.

The bottom line here, as many Christians can tell you, is in the first verse: “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Don’t flaunt what you know; love those to whom you’re bonded. Superb advice in any age or situation.

But Paul’s language sticks in my craw. Nowadays, at least, referring to people as “the weak” or “those who consciences are weak” carries a strong note of condescension, and condescension is hardly the stuff of love. The more I looked into this, though, the more I came to believe it’s got nothing to do with “weak” as in morally or emotionally weak. It’s got to do with the prevailing culture’s hold on us, and why it’s so hard to change.

First, where exactly are “the weak” encountering this ethical issue? According to the chapter, (1) they see fellow Christians eating in an idol’s temple, and (2) they’re eating the idol meat themselves. I can hear you thinking “WHAT?” because I thought the same thing. Sounds hypocritical, I know.

This summary of Greek worship practices might help. If I’m reading it (and others like it) correctly, the altar of sacrifice was typically located in front of the temple, so anyone could walk by and see who was in the crowd. This crowd would be eating meat from the sacrifice as part of the ritual (apparently this was the only time many Greeks ate meat). And “all of the members of the community [were] there, eating together and bonding socially.”

Bottom line: the culture of Corinth was immersed in temple ritual. Absolutely swimming in it.

Now think about those “weak” Corinthians. Many of them probably grew up in this animal-sacrifice eat-the-meat culture. It was second nature. All their lives they’d believed these gods/idols were real. Suddenly they converted to Christianity, and they saw a conflict—but could they turn on a dime and believe something different? As Paul himself wrote, “Some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol.” Of course they did. (Meanwhile, Paul was raised as a Jew, so I suspect it was a little easier for him to believe the idols didn’t exist.)

So these folks weren’t morally deficient or emotionally fragile. They were simply caught in a massive cultural and cognitive shift, which required them to unlearn core beliefs and practices they grew up with. That can take years to sort out. No wonder Paul upbraided the “knowledgeable” for their arrogance; this kind of shift can happen to anyone, and none of us are going to make it seamlessly.

In other words: change is hard, and that goes double when you have to change something you’ve done or believed all your life. Anyone who takes on such change deserves the love of those around them. That message is incredibly relevant today, when change happens so lightning fast, and many people fear that their long-beloved beliefs and practices are being left in the dust.

I’d love to hear if you see something similar in this passage, or if your perspective is different. Comment here or on Facebook.


 *Note: If you’re not familiar with the Christian scriptures, 1 Corinthians is a letter from Paul—the most influential Christian leader in the Western world of the mid-first century—to the church he founded in Corinth, a city in what’s now Greece. The church had a number of questions about proper practice, and eating food offered to idols was one of them.