There are at least two groups of members in the Corinth church. There is a group of intellectuals. There is another group from the working class. This second group had recent experience with pagan rituals. Much of the social life of the elite population of Corinth occurred in dining areas around temples. Typically they sacrificed an animal to a deity and some of the flesh burned on an altar. After the sacrifice there were feasts, celebrations, or public events. They sold the remaining meat to the public, usually to the well-to-do.
The educated elite Christians knew there was only one true God and the ritual food had no meaning. Other newer Christians, however, believed the food should not be eaten because it had been used in pagan rituals.
According to the intellectuals “all of us possess knowledge” (v. 1). We know the meat is not sacred. While Paul has used knowledge of God as essential, he disagrees with this particular argument. Here he counters with “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Paul insists it is not what one knows that is important. It is how one shows love and concern for all believers.
Paul connects knowledge and love. One understands God’s love best when one knows and models the love of Jesus Christ. Knowledge offers the freedom to choose. Paul contends the best choices are those made with love and for the benefit of the whole community. Some may know the sacrificial meat has no special significance and so is acceptable. However, others are vulnerable. They are not as spiritually aware and knowledgeable. “They still think of the food they eat as offered to an idol” (v. 7). If they see some of the members eating meat they may think it is acceptable to consume it. They may confuse their previous pagan rituals with newer insights about the one true God.
Paul’s message may seem to be about eating idol meat. Instead, it is about love—God’s love expressed through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. This love includes making responsible choices that support all members of the community of faith. Relationships among sisters and brothers in Christ are more important than one’s personal knowledge and wishes. When our actions cause other members of the community to be unfaithful, they are unethical and sinful (vv. 11–12). A faithful, loving relationship “builds up” (v. 1). We model faithfulness to God through love of God and others.
According to Paul, knowledge can be valuable when used with love in caring servant ministry. For example, it is a gift to understand the unlimited nature of God’s love, grace, and generosity. We can use this knowledge to bless others with love, grace, and generosity. “Knowledge [without love] puffs up, but love builds up” (v. 1). Unethical actions wound the entire community, the family of God. Ethical behavior reflects God’s loving nature and considers the needs of the entire faith community.
The imagery of food connects well with the Communion service. Participation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper reminds us of our commitment to oneness and equality in Jesus Christ (Words of Counsel, April 14, 2013). When we come to the table, we come as a community of believers. We remember Christ’s love for us and our love for one another. We have opportunity to seek forgiveness for the harm we have caused in our relationships and seek God’s grace and mercy in our lives.