Chapters 7 and 8 move us into the part of 1 Corinthians where Paul begins answering specific questions the Corinthians asked in a previous letter to Paul, mentioned in 7:1. Chapter 7 is concerned exclusively with marriage, and chapter 8 with meat offered to idols.
Paul has a very particular and, for the time he was writing, unique view on marriage. The first thing that shines through is Paul’s view of marriage as an equal partnership between husband and wife. Over and over, he makes sure that all the instructions he gives are understood as applying to both members of a marriage, going so far as to write the same sentence twice in a row in several places, with the words “wife” and “husband” simply switched the second time.
The other thing you get is that Paul really wasn’t a fan of marriage. Throughout the whole chapter, he keeps coming back to his instruction to not get married if you really don’t have to. He makes a point to say that marriage isn’t a sin, and people aren’t wrong to get married if they want to, but that he doesn’t encourage it. He says,
“Those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement for holy matrimony.
There is also a short section in this chapter where Paul tells his readers that they should stay in their station in life, because the grace of God doesn’t discriminate against social class, gender, or any other defining mark. You definitely get the point Paul is making, while also seeing how easy it was for slaveholders to justify the continuation of the practice by quoting him.
Finally, chapter 8 deals with a question about food offered sacrificially to idols. There seems to have been some question about whether it was right to eat this food, or if it was forbidden because of it’s link to false gods. Paul’s answer is rather simple and practical: it’s just food, because those idols are just wood and stone. He tells them not to make a habit of going to idolatrous feasts or anything, but if someone brings them food from one, it’s just food. His one caution: if the eating of the food causes backsliding amongst fellow Christians who think that idol worship has been endorsed because of this food, then put a stop to it.
So the question for us, after reading all these specific instructions to very specific questions is: how do we apply this pastoral guidance to our modern lives? And is it even appropriate to do so?
We are beginning to pick up on a general theme Paul carries from here on in his letters, showcased most obviously in Romans: the chief sin of idolatry. And I don’t just mean the bowing to golden calves and statues of Zeus, but the more pernicious kind of idolatry that makes an idol of whatever it is you are most attached to in the world.
Paul, in these two chapters, has a basic, universal message woven into the specifics he gets in to. It’s an message that springs from his essential eschatology of imminence, his ardent belief that Christ was coming back within his and his followers life times. You see that message here in his talk about social station, and marriage, and eating food offered to idols, and elsewhere, in his directions concerning sexual immorality, his calls to Christian unity, everywhere. It’s a message that weaves perfectly into his concern for idolatry.
That message? Don’t do things that compromise your commitment to God, your ability to follow Jesus, and your place in the Christian community. Don’t waver, don’t get distracted, don’t get bored, don’t find something else, don’t cut yourself off or fall out with your brothers and sisters. Be patient in waiting for that impending day when Jesus comes back and ushers in the Kingdom of God.
To Paul, idolatry is so bad because anything that distracts us from this attitude of eager watchfulness is potentially fatal. He wants his readers to be focused, to be aware and undistracted by this world, in anticipation of a new and better world. He wants them working to make the little changes that bring aspects of that coming world here and now, so that they might be prepared when Jesus brings all those changes at once. That is why he says, over and over, live your life, do the things you want to do, be happy and loving and joy-filled, but avoid getting distracted by all of it.
Obviously, Paul misread the coming of Jesus. There was no second coming in Paul’s life, or in anyone’s since. But these words can offer direction to us still. We are called to a life of bringing the Kingdom here on Earth. We are called to love one another, serve one another, and in so doing, to love and serve God. There are many great things here on earth, things that are so interesting and cool and are for us to enjoy.
But don’t get distracted. Don’t lose sight of your calling. Don’t forget why you are here, what you are a part of. Love and serve, seek justice, practice mercy. Enjoy life, do awesome stuff. But stay focused on the bigger picture. Don’t neglect the Kingdom that we are called to bring, on Earth as it is in heaven.
Next: 1 Corinthians 9-10