Do Not Be a Stumbling Block – 1 Corinthians 8:9-13

Paul concludes his discussion of eating food sacrificed to idols by warning his readers to be careful how they use their freedom in Christ. You may be free to eat food sacrificed to idols, Paul says, but be careful to not cause another believer to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:9-10). Most people understand the metaphor of a stumbling-block. The word refers to something which literally causes someone to stumble, a hidden rock in a path, etc. How is eating food sacrificed to idols a stumbling block?

stumbling block

The situation Paul has in mind is the wealthy or elite in the churches who attend a banquet at a temple. A private meal may not have attracted anyone’s attention, but someone who is invited to an important civic function at a temple would make that sort of thing known to others. It seems highly likely the elite in the church boasted in their participation in the civic banquets, and they may have encouraged others to participate as well.

Why would the Corinthians think that they had a right to eat at a banquet? Bruce Winter suggests this may be a right as a Corinthian elite (After Paul Left Corinth, 280).  The elite can eat rich meals at a temple because they were invited. A gentile Christian might consider eating the mean their right because they are free from the Law (they can eat food forbidden by the Law).

It is possible to have knowledge the idol-food is nothing, but not express that knowledge with love, therefore harming brother or sister in Christ (8:11-12). It is possible the Gentile believers in the church had no problem attending meals at a temple, while Jewish believers would find this highly sensitive. Gentile Christians may have been more socially higher class than Jewish Christians and felt more pressure to attend civic banquets. If the Gentile believers were encouraging Jews or others who believed that attending the temple meals with sin, then they would be “causing them to stumble.”

Paul therefore declares it is better to abstain then cause a brother to sin! (8:13) Earlier in the letter, Paul said it is better to be wronged than to bring a brother to a secular court. In 1 Corinthians 8 he applies this same principle to eating food sacrificed to idols. It is better never to eat meat again than to cause someone to stumble.

Setting aside one’s freedom runs contrary to modern (American) ideas of freedom. American freedom should never be confused with Christian Liberty in Christ. Because we have a right (as Americans) to some social behavior, we must evaluate the practice through the lens of the Gospel. As an American I might have a right to do something, but should I set aside that right, as a Christian, in order to not cause another Christian to sin? There are many examples of Christians abusing their rights as Americans which might cause others to sin 9Maybe you can give your own suggestion in the comments section!)

Paul is clear: we have freedom in Christ, but that freedom is an opportunity to serve others in love. For Paul, the Gospel always takes precedence to an individual’s freedom in matters of indifference. His over-riding concern is for the outsider who may be attracted or repelled from the Gospel based on how the church looks from the outside. This does not seem fair, but it is the way things work out in the real world!

Paul must balance Christian liberty in Christ with the need to present the Gospel to an entirely pagan world. He is clear that the Gospel is more important than personal liberty; you’re your freed in Christ interferes with the Gospel, then your freedom needs to be restrained. Like Paul and the Lord Jesus Christ, we ought quickly to set aside our insistence on our rights as free in Christ so we will be able to present the Gospel without hindrance.

Married to an Unbeliever?  1 Corinthians 7:10-16

The ideal marriage for Paul is two people who get married and stay that way until “Death do they part.” Paul views marriage the way most Jews in the first century would. Based on Genesis 2:18-24 or Ecclesiastes 9:9-10, people who marry should enjoy life with their spouse. This is what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, although there is provision in the Law for divorce in the case of unfaithfulness. But what happens if a believer is married to an unbeliever? Can the believer divorce the unbeliever, so they are not “unequally yoked”?

Married to an Unbeliever

As I have stated before, this passage is not a comprehensive theology of divorce and there are many situations in a modern marriage may end in divorce not anticipated in the teaching of Jesus or Paul. If a woman is being abused by her husband, she should get out of the relationship as soon as possible, protect herself and her children. There are more ways for a spouse to break their marriage vows than simply adultery.

What is remarkable is that Paul extends the command to both the husband and the wife. The divorce law from Deuteronomy 24 only allows a husband to divorce, Paul suggests a woman could divorce a husband. In addition, the grounds for the divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 is expanded to include abandonment. If an unbelieving spouse abandons a believer, the believer can “let them go.” So Paul is opening up the possibility for a divorce beyond marital unfaithfulness.

Roman law allowed people to divorce for any reason. Divorce was permitted for infertility or infidelity, but more common among wealthy. “The Romans had one of the most liberal regimes of divorce in human history; legally, divorce could be obtained unilaterally, without cause, by either party, without cumbersome procedural obstacles; the strict separation of spousal property, and the prohibition of gifts between the husband and the wife, abetted easy separation” (Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin, 163).

For most people, there was no official marriage with a marriage contract. Since there was no legal contract binding the two, a couple could split and simply start living somewhere else. The situation was more complicated for slaves since a master could transfer one partner to another part of his estate or even sell the partner. This makes direct application to modern (wester, American) marriage and divorce questions difficult because a marriage is as much a legal partnership as a romantic one.

What about people married to unbelievers (7:12-16). In this section, Paul deals with what was likely a common problem for the first generation of Christians. Some women may have converted to Christianity, but their husbands do not. In the Roman world, a wife would convert to her husband’s gods when she married. This would not be a problem in most cases since she would adopt the family gods of her new family.

“A wife’s conversion to Christianity undoubtedly would have created strife, if only as a slap at her husband’s authority over her…. a wife’s refusal to accept Christianity after her husband’s conversion also would have made things quite awkward since the Christian faith was highly intolerant of other religious beliefs and practices” (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 284).

The reason wives are addresses is a husband who converted to Christianity would simply force the whole family to “convert” to the new faith. A pagan wife might simply see worship of this “new God” as her natural duty, whether she really believed or not.

It is likely some in the Corinthian church were using their new relationship with Christ as a “ground for divorce.” After all, Paul has taught the church they need to separate from the world and to not be with immoral people. If a Christian woman took that seriously, she might have sought to divorce her idolatrous husband, who was most likely participating in all the immoral things most Roman men would.

I will treat verse 14 in another post, but for now it is important to hear what Paul has said (and what he has not said).  Paul does not declare all divorce sinful and anyone who divorces their spouse is damned to hell. He recognizes that marriages do end for good (and bad) reasons. People who find themselves in a marriage that breaks up need the support of their family, in the context, their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Widowers and Widows – 1 Corinthians 7:8-9

While some in the Corinthian church struggled with immorality, there were others who sought to set marriage aside as a hindrance to attaining deeper levels of spiritual life. Paul agrees there is some benefit remaining single, but only if the person is already single. He does not want believers to divorce their unbelieving spouses. Beginning with widowers and widows, Paul turns at this point to a few examples of marital statuses to emphasize the importance of marriage. What does Paul say about how the church should care for widows?

Widow Funeral

The “unmarried” (ἄγαμος) in verse 8 is paired with widows (χήρα), so it may be Paul has in mind both men and women who had been married but lost their spouse to death. Later in this chapter he will address people who have never been married, but in this first section his focus is on people who may want to remarry.

The best case, Paul says, is that they remain as Paul is. The word “single” is not in the Greek and “what Paul is” remains unstated. They knew, we are not quite sure. Possibly Paul had been married and was widowed or divorced, but at the present time he is not married. In 7:7 he expressed his wish that everyone could “be as I am,” but even there he does not explicitly say he is practicing celibacy. Give the context of the whole chapter, it is likely Paul means that he is able to practice self-control and live an unmarried life in order to devote himself to ministry.

Paul needs to address people who are unmarried because their spouse had died because women often married young, just after puberty. Since arranged marriages between older men and younger women were common, a woman might be quite young when her husband died. Since young women often died in childbirth, men were left without a wife. If there where Christians in the Corinthian church in these common situations, how does “I wish that all were as I myself am” apply to them? Should they remarry or stay single?

Unlike 1 Timothy 5:3-16, Paul does not make a distinction between younger and older widows, nor does he command the church to care for older widows (although 1 Timothy is clear the church ought to take care of them). Paul does not consider a widow any different than a person who has not yet married. Marriage is good, so they should remarry if they desire, or they can stay single if they prefer. But if they do not remarry, the church ought to take care of widows as a family should.

I realize I am including widowers (men who have lost their spouse) in this discussion although Paul does not directly address them as much as he does widows. I do this because in a modern context, churches need to care for older men who have lost their wives as much as they do women who have lost their husbands. Since modern marriages are between people of similar ages (unlike the Roman world), the church needs to care for all spouses who have lost their partners.

Verse 9 has two difficult phrases. First, Paul says if the widowers and widows “cannot exercise (or practice, NRSV) self-control” (ESV), or “if they cannot control themselves” (NIV 2011). The verb (ἐγκρατεύομαι) refers to controlling passion and desire. Later Christians used the word for abstinence (for example, Justin, Apology, 1.29). But in 1 Corinthians 9:25 Paul uses the same word for the self-discipline of an athlete.

Second, Paul says it is “Better to marry than to burn (πυρόω).” The word “passion” does not appear in the Greek. The ESV and other modern translations add the word to avoid the impression of “burning in hell.” Paul does not say, “you better get married, or you are doomed to hell!” The verb burn here refers to burning with passion.  Achilles Tatius (Leuc. Clit. 5.26.2) is an example of the verb “burn” used for sexual passion: “However angry you make me, I still burn with love for you…. Make a truce with me at least for now; pity me, a single consummation will be enough. It is a small remedy I ask for so great an illness. Quench a little of my fire” (cited by Garland, 1 Corinthians, 275).

Self-control is Paul’s overriding concern in this passage. Marriage is good, Paul says, and sex is part of God’s plan, but in all things believers ought to control their passions.

1 Timothy 5:11–15 – Problem Widows

There appears to have been some kid of problem in the Ephesian churches with younger women (5:11-15). This is one of many difficult passages in 1 Timothy because our modern world view balks at the idea of the church requiring a young widow to re-marry. But we need to read this text against the background of marriage in the Greco-Roman world as well as the context of the opponents who have been the subject of the whole letter.

The Merry Widow (1934)A younger widow ought to be encouraged to remarry and start a family. Presumably Paul has in mind here widows who do not have any children and would be considered young enough to start a family. If the age statistics mentioned above are accurate for Ephesus, there may have been a number of women widowed young. Rather than remaining unmarried for the rest of their lives, Paul says they ought to marry.

The motivation for this command is similar to 1 Corinthians 7. While it is ideal for a person to remain unmarried and wholly devoted to ministry, to remain unmarried is (for most people) a very difficult life. Better, Paul says, to marry than to struggle to maintain a pure celibate life.

In verse 11 Paul says these younger widows are drawn away (καταστρηνιάω) from Christ because of their desire to remarry. This is a very difficult line to translate because the verb only appears here in the New Testament. It is related to the verb στρηνιάω, to “live luxuriously,” only found in Rev 18:7 describing the city of Babylon.

This desire to remarry brings judgment because they “break their vow.” This is usually taken as a hint the younger widows have made some sort of commitment to not remarry, but later want to set their vow aside and remarry. This is anachronistic: Paul is not describing women who have run off to a nunnery and taken vows in a medieval, monastic sense!

Towner suggests the young widows desire to remarry and are choosing to marry outside the faith (The Pastoral Epistles, 352). The commitment they are setting aside is their commitment to Jesus Christ. Typically women in the Roman world would set aside their family gods and adopt the gods of their new husband. If this is the case, then the judgment they face is because they have recanted their faith in Jesus to marry a non-believing man.

It is possible the younger widows were encouraged not to marry by the opponents in Ephesus. Since they are not raising a family, these younger widows become “idlers and gossips.” An “idler” (ἀργός) refers to someone who is lazy, or unwilling to work. Whether male or female, Paul has little good to say for someone who refuses to work. 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 deals with this problem. In Thessalonica there were people who were people who attempted to “devote themselves to ministry” and lived off gifts from the church. Paul states quite clearly people ought to work in order to provide for their own needs rather than rely on the church.

To describe these young widows as “gossips” is adequate, but it may create the impression of a modern “gossipy housewife.” The noun (φλύαρος, only used here) and associated verb (φλυαρέω, only in 3 John 10) can have the connotation of worthless talk, or even disparaging talk (BDAG uses “prattle”). In one sense, this is similar to the “myths and genealogies” which Paul condemned in 1:4, but the word may indicate the younger widows have fallen under the influence of the opponents and are disparaging Paul and his gospel. There is ample evidence some false teachers often targeted women as potential patrons.

An important observation here is that the young widows who are choosing to not remarry have the financial means to live an idle life. They have some sort of financial support (their dowry or some sort of inheritance) which enables them to be idlers and gossips. People who are working hard to meet the needs of their family do not have time for these things!

While these verses are sometimes disparaged as reflecting a patriarchal, even misogynist view of the church,but Paul’s concern in 1 Timothy overall is the reputation of the church in the community. The Roman world did not respect idlers, or people who were “gossipy” whether they were men or women. it is not as though women have a monopoly on gossip, men are just as likely to engage in worthless chatter.  To be honest, the biggest gossips I have ever know have been older men!

Like his comments on modest dress, Paul’s strand condemnation of idlers and busybodies applies equally to men and women.

1 Timothy 5:9-14 – Caring for a Widow in Need

Old LadyIn order to clarify who is a “widow in need,” Paul provides a description of a widow who is worthy of support (5:9-14). To a very large extent Paul’s description of a “proper widow” is consistent with wisdom literature (Proverbs 31, Ruth, perhaps also Judith).

She is not less than sixty years of age. Unlike the modern world, the age of sixty is quite old in the first century. No one really knows why Paul chose this number, Roman law used fifty as the definition of a widow who should be supported by public funds. It is possible Paul has in mind Lev. 27:7 which makes a distinction for vows after age 60.

She was a faithful wife, “the wife of one husband.” The phrase here cannot mean, “only married once” since Paul is telling younger widows to remarry. Potentially they could be widowed a second time and find protection in the church.

She has a “reputation for good works.” The woman is “well known” in the Christian community for living the sort of life that reflects her faith. Perhaps an example of this might be Tabitha / Dorcas in Acts 9:36, she was “always doing good and helping the poor.” Paul expands “good works” with four brief statements on what these good works might include.

She has brought up children. On a practical level, this distinguishes the “proper widow” from the young widow in the next paragraph. This women was faithfully married and has already raised a family.

She has shown hospitality. Proper hospitality is considered a virtue in the ancient world and was one of the criteria for an elder in 1 Tim 3:2. In fact, the letter of 3 John concerns proper hospitality towards traveling teachers in Ephesus.

She has washed the feet of the saints. Of the four phrases, this is the most difficult, although it may be related to showing proper hospitality. Rather that participating in the ritual of foot washing in the church, Paul is thinking of one element of showing proper hospitality in her home.

She has cared for the afflicted. To care for the poor is part of being a virtuous person in Judaism, and there is ample evidence that Greco-Roman women often participated in charity work. It is possible that Paul has in mind people who are facing persecution, but helping the poor is likely the main point.

She has devoted herself to every good work. This last line of the description returns to the idea of good works. To be “devoted” (ἐπακολουθέω) means something like “model oneself after.” 1 Peter 1:21 uses the word for following in Jesus; footsteps; here the widow has followed after good works, modeling her life after the sorts of things demonstrate her faith in a tangible way.

Does this list mean that Paul would not support an older widow who did not have this kind of a reputation? I doubt that Paul intended for the church to let lazy widows die of starvation! Jesus did not demand that people become perfect before he would talk with them or heal them. This description is the ideal, like the Proverbs 31 woman. In describing the ideal, Paul may be encouraging women in the congregation to aspire to this sort of a reputation. Paul sets up a definition of a “widow who is in need.” She does not have a family to care for her or other means of support (a managed dowry), she has already raised a family and is unlikely to remarry.

In Paul’s view, the church ought to care for people who cannot care for themselves or have no other means of support. The problem with a section of scripture like this is that it is very difficult to apply since the cultural situation has changed radically over church history.

In general:

The church must care for genuine needs of the poor and needy. Caring for the widow, orphan, refugee, etc. has always been an important ministry of the church. This care for the needy is found throughout the Hebrew Bible, the teaching of Jesus and the ministry of Paul and the other apostles. The early church excelled in caring for people that society would not. There are many sad examples of abuse of the system in history, both from the church and from the poor, but these tragedies ought not deter the church from their responsibility to care for those in need.

The church must be wary of people who want to avoid responsibility. The reason Paul works at defining a “proper widow” is that the church resources are limited. If there is no standard, then the limited resources will be stretched thin and genuine needs will be overlooked.

To neglect this responsibility is a shame on the church in the community. One of the greatest condemnations of the church by the world is that we spend too much money on our beautiful buildings and nothing on “real ministry.”