Paul introduces us to practicing the discipline of community in 1 Corinthians 8-11. As always, Paul sees the story of Jesus and those who follow Him as connected to and springing from the story of Israel. One other theme that is absolutely essential to Paul is this, stated by Richard B. Hays—“ethics is ecclesiology.” In Hays’ mind, Paul’s admonitions to the church on how to conduct themselves are rooted in his belief about the church. You act ethically because of what you believe the nature and mission of the church to be. This is a “culture-creation” idea. The culture of the church (ecclesiology—its nature and activity) is fleshed out through its conduct within its own and the rest of the world (ethics).
In 1 Cor. 8-11, Paul is dealing with the issue of idol meat. The issue boils down to the fact that community meals were held in Corinth and the meat from pagan worship centers that had been offered to false gods was being served. The church was struggling with its identity and interaction with the vastly pagan community around them, and Paul’s discussion here is rooted in the idea that idol meat in and of itself is nothing. Some of you know the idols don’t exist. Yet some of you used to worship those idols before you came to follow Jesus. For some it was walking back into the life of death, and for others it was a no-brainer.
The result was two-fold: those former pagans would be dispossessed of the uniqueness of Christianity on the one hand, and on the other if Christians were to move away from eating the meat entirely the lived message of the Gospel would be removed from the most highly visible Corinthian social event, the meals where idol meat was served.
Quite a theological/ethic pickle.
However, Paul does not advocate an individualized ethic (“I think its right for me, so you deal with it, bro”). This I think is where the deeper idea of the discipline of community comes into play. Paul frames it this way: Some of you can handle it, some of you can’t, so don’t damage community for the sake of your own level of acceptance. Do not eat idol meat if it’s going to destroy the community.
In essence, practice the discipline of denying yourself something that is totally “kosher” (snicker snicker) for you to have .You’re entitled to it. No harm in eating it.
Unless you will harm the community. Today, this means that Western-Enlightenment entitlement trumps community. It also means that there is no sense of “other” in our ethics or ecclesiology. “Rights” trump “righteousness”, which if rightly translated from diakonia really means “justice.” There is an ethic of loving one another and seeing justice done when we practice the discipline of community.
What this does is disarms the individualist urge in Christians. We’re already dealing with enough from the super-privatized spirituality that says, “You get right with Jesus and let everyone else do their thing.” Paul responds to this with a reminder about what happened to Israel—they began to take their own paths, and the nation lost its identity. Ethics is ecclesiology. How you deal with this issue says everything about what you think the church is meant to be. How you construct and live out the church as individuals in community will speak greatly about this Jesus and the New World message He is bringing to pass through your presence in Corinth.
In part 3, we’ll talk about the national identity under Jesus, chapters 10-11, and where the Joad’s encounter the discipline of community in The Grapes of Wrath.