Scripture Reading: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, John 10:14, 2 Timothy 2:14-19
I love the phrase “read the room.” I distinctly remember the first time it became a phrase our friend group started to use. We were hanging out, reacting to a situation that had not gone the way I’d hoped it would. Some folks in the room were making light-hearted remarks, and I started glowering at them. READ THE ROOM, I thought, not even bothering to veil my frustration. I was hurting, and they didn’t see it. The words might not have been directed at me, but I was intensely vulnerable.
Paul is helping the Corinthians navigate a similar sort of tension in this passage. Someone has asked Paul a question: Is it okay for Christians to eat meat that has been previously sacrificed to pagan idols? In Corinth at the time, most meat available had been used as part of temple sacrifices. So Corinthian Christians were wondering if it was okay to eat that meat, whether they purchased it in a market or were dining with non-Christian friends.
Paul’s answer is pretty straightforward. Basically, if you’re asking this question because you’re a Christian, then you know that idols are nothing, so it would be totally fine because “all things are from him, and we exist for him” (1 Corinthians 8:6). But it’s not really about you, Paul explains. “Not everyone has this knowledge,” he says, so “be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block for the weak” (vv. 7,9). The warning Paul gives here isn’t about eating meat; it’s about how knowledge leads to pride and a feeling of superiority over weaker brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s about reading the room.
For some new Christians, eating meat that had been sacrificed to an idol would have been difficult. Paul says it could “wound their weak conscience,” which is a sin against Christ (v.12). If Christians who were still a bit unsteady in their faith saw more mature Christians eating sacrificed meat, it could cause confusion. Those who had been tempted to pray to pagan idols in the past might be tempted to see the meat as something more than it was, while to more mature, discerning eyes, it was just meat.
Paul gives the Corinthians, and us, a basic template for answering this and similar questions: put others first. Let your conscience be guided by whatever is best for your brother or sister in Christ. Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul makes this point that we are to act in love, care for others, and live in the freedom of Christ that allows us to put others first.
“Read the room” is a sarcastic, modern phrase that reminds us that there are others present. Paul is much more winsome, but no less pointed, in reminding more mature Christians that there are new believers watching, learning from them. This reminder is poignant for me as well. I’m often tempted to be sarcastic, to push the boundaries of humor, or cross other lines that might be confusing for non-believers or new Christians.
But putting my witness to Christ first and caring for those around me requires that I live differently. It requires that I always read the room, and know that how I act, speak, and treat others reflects my identity in Jesus. Paul says that if meat were to cause a brother to stumble, he would never eat meat again. I pray for that sense of discernment in my own life. I long for a careful, caring heart like Paul’s and, even more so, for a heart like Christ’s.
Melanie Rainer is a bookworm from birth who makes her days writing, editing and reading in Nashville, where she also joyfully serves as the editor of Kids Read Truth. She has an M.A. in Theological Studies from Covenant Seminary, spends as much time as she can in the kitchen, and can’t wait until her two daughters are old enough to read Anne of Green Gables.