In a nutshell: Paul treads a delicate line between freedom and one’s obligation to God and others in response to questions about eating meat sacrificed to other gods.
Are you unaware of the fact that those who work in the temple service get their food from the temple, and that those who officiate at the altar of sacrifice receive a share of the sacrificial offerings? In the same way the lord commanded that those who proclaim the news about God’s Anointed should receive their living from their work of proclamation. But I have never made use of these legitimate claims, nor am I writing this so that they will be given to me.
—1 Corinthians 9:13–15a
30 Days of Paul around the Web
- Justin DaMetz on Running Dirt Roads tackles the tricky balance of unity amidst disagreements in 1 Cor 3–4: “We still have this problem today. I don’t mean this to be a screed against denominationalism; I think denominations can serve a good purpose, in that we all experience and find God in different ways, and diverse communities can help people find an authentic church home. But too often, we let our disagreements stand in the way of being One Church under One God.”
- At the Community of Saint Luke, Glynn Cardy draws upon the Maori practice of mana to give Paul’s concerns in 1 Corinthians 9–10 a sense of context: “In a dispute, the wise resolution is not just one that uses reason and argument, but one that builds honour. The ‘winners’ of an argument need to ask themselves the question: “How, in winning, can we build up the mana of the ‘losers’?” For if the ‘losers’ honour is not built up, then the good of the whole community will suffer.”
Creed and Conscience
Today’s reading is a continuation of a discussion Paul opened in 1 Corinthians 8. He began, interestingly enough, with what was likely an early creed of the Jesus movement. Compare 1 Cor 8:6 with other still-used Western creeds:
Jewish Shema (Deut 6:4)
Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.
There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God.
1 Cor 8:6
There is one God, our Creator and Benefactor
through whom all things are and for whom we live
and one lord, Jesus the Anointed
through whom all things are and through whom we live.
This short creed with strong parallels for easy memorization is certainly more manageable than the later-developed Nicene Creed, which reads as follows:
WE BELIEVE in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.
The Nicene Creed reflects its context: it ballooned into this large and flowy style in order to respond to other diverse attempts to understand who Jesus was and what it means to pledge allegiance to him. The pleasant way of saying this is that the composers of the Nicene Creed sought to give order to a growing movement; the unpleasant way is to say they were shutting out people who didn’t think like them.
I was first turned onto the parallel between 1 Cor 8:6 and the other Western creeds by a 2003 On Being interview with Jaroslav Pelikan, Sterling Professor of History at Yale University. Before he passed away in 2006, he collected and studied Christian creeds across both history and culture, a life’s work that is distilled in his book Credo (Yale, 2003). Pelikan’s perspective on Jesus is notably pious—he describes Jesus in terms of salvation, for instance—but his attitude strikes me as a natural outgrowth of being steeped in creeds, as it were. Creeds for Pelikan are a place of belonging. Consider his response to interviewer Krista Tippett’s question, “Tell me what you value when you say the Nicene Creed?”
I’m very wrapped up in the whole history of the Church and particularly in the history of its teaching, so that, I cannot come at any question as though it had never been approached before.
Partly because of that, the singing of the creed is a very important and cherished way of indicating a universality of the faith across not only space, but time. To know that in the Philippines this morning this was the creed that was recited at mass and to know that the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th, and my late father and grandfather all affirmed this.
It’s ‘we’ all of us together. And in a more profound sense, that also forms an answer to your — to your question. My faith and my faith life, like that of everyone else, fluctuates. There are ups and downs and hot spots and cold spots and boredom and ennui and all the rest can be there. And so I’m not asked of a Sunday morning as of 9:20, what do you believe? And then you sit down with a 3×5 index card and say, “Now, let’s see. What do I believe today?” No, that’s not what they’re asking me. They’re asking me, “Are you a member of a community which now for millennium and a half has said, “We believe in one God.”
Yesterday I complained a bit about Paul’s “loyalty loop,” and you can see here that the same thing risks being true of Pelikan. One may indeed be simply participating in Le Corbusier’s “detritus of dead epochs.” But I feel the need today to temper my complaint with an equal plea not undervalue participation in an ancient community and its traditions.
In today’s reading, 1 Corinthians 9–10, the creedal spirit is given concrete application. The Corinthians feel, and Paul agrees, that there is nothing inherently morally wrong with eating meat sacrificed to other “phony” gods. The one God (of Israel) provides the sustenance, and human beings of course may partake in it with gratitude. The problem, of course, is that other people believe in other gods, so misunderstanding can result from this behavior. It looks like disloyalty to others, so it’s not a good practice.
Paul wants to encourage a spirit of freedom tempered by conscience. He offers himself and Barnabas as extreme examples—envoys who have a right to claim support according to the instructions of the lord (that is, Jesus), but who don’t do so because they want to keep the barriers to their message as low as possible. This is the context of Paul’s famous declaration in 1 Cor 9:20–22:
To the Jews I behaved as a Jew so that I might win over Jews. To those who are subject to the Mosaic law I behaved as one not subject to it, not because I am not subject to the law of God, but because I am subject to the law of the Anointed, so that I might win over those who are not subject to the law. To the weak I behaved as if I were weak, so that I could win over the weak. I have accommodated myself in all sorts of ways to all sorts of people so that by all these means I might save some.
There’s no way around the salvation language here, so we shouldn’t try to domesticate Paul for our era by eradicating it. Paul thought people needed to be saved from a corrupt world, and he thought Jesus was the “knight in shining armor” who made that possible (the “how” of that process is more flexible).
Rather, I am interested in Paul’s care in guiding his community through deepening layers of commitment. I’d like to believe there are times when we can and should make commitments. Since we’re dealing with a loyalty loop anyway, it pays to ask whether we like Paul’s approach. If you’re going to ask somebody to be loyal to a cause, is Paul employing morally acceptable strategies to go about it?
Paul’s appeal to conscience to me is a bit of a saving grace after my frustration with him yesterday. He didn’t have to express concern about causing others to stumble. He could have urged communities to flaunt their willingness to eat whatever they like. He shied away from that, though. Okay, maybe this is a social acceptability issue, an issue of Paul not wanting his communities squashed by the authorities. That’s also possible. But it that, too, may come out of a place of conscience and caring.
To offer a modern parallel, I don’t think Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi, wanted people to be harmed in their nonviolent resistance. They took precautions to minimize risks, and participants came to the process voluntarily.
Or perhaps this is a better parallel: I don’t think new religious movements necessarily set out to have violent altercations with authorities. There’s a good reason that, early on, the Latter-day Saints (Mormons) pressed further and further West to establish their community—they were being harassed and killed for their beliefs. Does a sense of concern for one’s community somehow imply that a movement isn’t “radical” enough? I think not. Surely compassion, empathy, and loyalty are values that rightfully belong in any religious or spiritual system worth supporting.
I think the question I’m trying to pose here is this: Is it possible to belong to a tradition while retaining the level of flexibility Paul models here? Isn’t it ever acceptable to settle on a set of beliefs and stick to them? As Krista Tippett put it (I’m paraphrasing), how can we overcome the secular fear of proclaiming a truth that negates another person’s truth?
Questions for the Road
- Do you have a creed? To ask the question a different way, what are your non-negotiables in life? Is it important to be able to commit to a set of beliefs shared in common with others?
- Can you relate with Paul’s concern to protect his communities from harm? Have you ever urged members of your family or community to temper their activities in order to prevent harm?
Thanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.