Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies. If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him.

Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.

1 Corinthians 8:1–6

There has been sustained interest in the study of 1 Corinthians in research literature, suggesting that the modern church finds resonance with the Roman-Corinthian church in our modern churches. The issues that the Corinthians faced are strikingly similar to those facing the church today.1 Consequently, this letter will continue to generate scholarly interest, contributing to our understanding of Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians. Of interest in this article is the issue of knowledge that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 8.

The opening phrase concerning things or food sacrificed to idols has inspired discussions in commentaries regarding the so-called “Pauline interpolations.” Basically, some commentators claim that there is no logical connection from one subject to another as one moves through the study of 1 Corinthians. In our text, it would appear as if there is no connection between the preceding chapter (namely 1 Corinthians 7, which predominantly addresses marriage and sexuality) and 1 Corinthians 8, which largely deals with idolatry. The interest herein does not lie in responding to those who see a disconnection in the logical presentation of 1 Corinthians. Thus, the brief response offered is that the connection is seen in context, following Paul’s logic from 1 Corinthians 1.

Situating 1 Corinthians 8 in Context

One reason Paul addresses things concerning idols in 1 Corinthians 8, just after speaking about things concerning marriage and sexuality, is because of the overarching theme spanning 1 Corinthians 1–7, which we can categorise under the umbrella term “idolatry.” The Corinthian church was rent with problems, all sharing a common feature: they had a God-problem. Their focus shifted from God, “from whom are all things and for whom we exist,” to idolatry in various forms throughout chapters 1–7. In chapter 7, the God-problem manifests in various marriage related aspects, all pointing to idolatry.

The knowledge and Knowledge Problem

The mention of food or things sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8:1, 4 should not lead us to quickly conclude that Paul’s main issue is exclusively addressing the eating of such food. Certainly, Paul adequately addresses this in this chapter and in 1 Corinthians 10. The bigger picture emerging from a close reading of Paul’s logic is the issue of knowledge about life’s choices that are divorced from the knowledge of God, leading to the embrace of knowledge that puffs up (vv. 1–3) and knowledge that venerates idols (vv. 4–6). Paul’s purpose, therefore, is to restore and cultivate the right knowledge of God, helping to ensure that the knowledge one has is true Knowledge of the one true God.

The knowledge you have about God and the things of God, and how it manifests in living out the gospel of Christ says a lot about your Christian identity in this Christless society crippled by nominal Christianity embraced by those with one foot in the church and one foot in the world. As one pastor puts it, “at issue in the discussion is the matter of Christian identity in the midst of a syncretistic culture. What is at stake is ecclesial communion and authentic theology. At bottom, the theological issues are idol worship and religious syncretism, but there are also several social issues.” Do we syncretise Christianity with our manmade religions of idols we worship, and do we fellowship with the world as though it comprises another family God has given us to commune with?

Typical of the Corinthians, as is the case in the church today, is that they responded to these questions carelessly. The careless ones had something to say because, after all, they had knowledge concerning things sacrificed to idols. Yet, they were ignorant of their arrogance, lovelessness, and the big question mark casting doubt regarding their salvific knowledge of God (vv. 1–3). They are “the know it alls,” even though they do not know it all.

Fee2 highlights the bankruptcy of their knowledge. The Corinthians claimed to have all knowledge concerning idols. This should not make you wonder where they got this supposed knowledge from. It is plausible that they dined in idol temples and participated in activities where sacrifices to other gods took place, thereby reneging on their profession of faith in Christ to embrace practices of their pre-conversion lives that they should have repudiated. Their argument was that it did not bother them because all they were doing was socialising, and since there is only one God, the meat was sacrificed to nothing. In addition to their claim and to bolster the superiority of their knowledge, they said the eating of certain foods is a matter of legitimate differences, and nobody should care.

They were ignorant, and Paul will make this point very clear in 10:1–4, that religious liberty can lead to sin. They claimed to have some supernatural knowledge, secret knowledge that allowed them to eat as they pleased and that nothing would happen to them. Since they questioned Paul’s authority, they used that to refuse to take his counsel. As is typical of people with such strange knowledge, they accused him of being a hypocrite, saying that when he was with the Jews, he acted like a Jew, and when with the Gentiles, he became like a Gentile. Lastly, they claimed to have exclusive knowledge. Such people are right, they have some strange exclusive knowledge that does not come from God.

Towards the correct Knowledge of God

Paul writes in our text, 1 Corinthians 8:1–3, that there is knowledge and then there is Knowledge. There is knowledge that puffs up, the knowledge that is idolatrous. People who have such knowledge don’t see themselves, and they will insist on it adamantly, claiming biblical knowledge when they don’t truly know God or the Bible as they should. Don’t be quickly impressed by people claiming to have knowledge in evangelical circles. When someone speaks in the language of reformed-evangelicalism, we tend to assume they are healthy Christians. However, biblical knowledge goes deeper than linguistic and theological familiarity. There are many ways to evaluate whether the knowledge we have is truly biblical.

This concept is succinctly captured by one author who writes: “Real Christlikeness is seen in love—the full heart, not the full head—for only love builds up…. If a head full of knowledge is not governed by a heart full of love, all you have is a swollen head!” I would add that if one is filled only with knowledge, their posture is similarly swollen. What Paul emphasises and corrects in these opening verses is that the Christian walk is not based on knowledge alone, even though it is integral to Christianity. Your attitude and conduct reveal much about who you are, what you know, and what you believe. Your knowledge alone does not legitimise you.

If you claim that your knowledge permits you to flirt with idolatry, this passage should challenge your ethical choices. Participating in idol temples and eating meat sacrificed to idols supports such abhorrent practices. Consider relevant issues today, such as consuming meat sacrificed to ancestors or attending unbiblical marriages. It is not loving towards fellow believers who seek to live in ways that do not conform to worldly views and principles.

Regarding knowledge, we must recognise that we do not possess exclusive knowledge that others lack. We all have knowledge, but it must be characterised by love and edification, exalting God. There are criteria to evaluate whether engaging in questionable practices pleases God. It should not be about pleasing oneself or others; rather, it must align with God’s will, edify fellow Christians, and glorify God. If not, refrain from participating.

In part 2, I will address whether it is possible to participate in idolatrous and unbiblical events without legitimising them. While many Christians regard these issues as matters of “religious liberty” and view 1 Corinthians 8 as ambiguous, we will explore whether there truly are grey areas in God’s perspective.

Conclusion

If you are a member of the church and are trying to navigate the uncertainties of so called “grey areas,” don’t rely on your knowledge alone. You have pastors to seek guidance from and a family of believers to aid you with wisdom when faced with dilemmas and uncertainties. The church is not infallible, aligning with the majority view of believers can help avoid actions that might lead to God’s displeasure. Such actions may include participating in idol-ancestral veneration, initiation schools, attending unbiblical marriages, consulting mediums or relying on zodiac signs (also known as star signs), gambling in casinos, or elevating cultural-traditional practices above Scripture, then you will spare yourself God’s displeasure by refraining from participating. You will recognise that your choice is not yours alone; you want to show love to other Christians just as you want to be loved as well. That is the kind of Knowledge you should have—one that does not puff up.

In vv. 2–3, Paul gives us the correct understanding of Knowledge that goes beyond the mere intellectual grasp of evangelical theology. It begins by clearly indicating whether someone knows God and is known by God—meaning, are you saved, and does the knowledge of the gospel inform your behaviour, conduct, and choices? Notice in v. 1 that your knowledge leading to participation in certain practices must be loving, just as you are loved. It is reciprocal. This reciprocal Knowledge and relationship with God should inform our conduct and decisions, ensuring they reflect the love we have received from God. Therefore, our choices should not elevate personal preferences, cultural practices, and questionable ethical choices over biblical principles but should demonstrate love and consideration for others in the body of Christ. This is the kind of Knowledge that builds up and edifies, rather than merely puffing up with pride.

  1. Dutch, R., 2005. The Educated Elite in 1 Corinthians: Education and Community Conflict in Graeco-Roman context. Bloomsbury Publishing: London; Thiselton, A.C. 2006. The Significance of Recent Research on 1 Corinthians for Hermeneutical Appropriation of this Epistle Today. Neotestamentica, 40(2):320–352.
  2. Fee, G.D., 2014. The First Epistle to the Corinthians: New International Commentary on the New Testament. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: MI.