Everything is permissible”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”–but not everything is constructive. 1 Corinthians 10.23
This is the last of the series on silly controversies in the church, sparked off by a discussion on someone’s Facebook on tattoos and piercings (along with smoking and drinking). As a matter of review, we’ve dealt with the following six silly objections thus far. First, someone would say, “I don’t like it. Therefore it’s wrong.” Second, “Maybe he’s doing it for the gospel. The problem is why someone is getting ink.” Third, “the body is the temple of God. By inking it, the owner shows disrespect towards God’s creation.” Fourth, “someone may stumble.” Fifth, “the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible says that getting tats is wrong.” Sixth, “It’s a cultural problem … you don’t understand what tattoos and piercings mean in our culture.” We have now come to our seventh objection, “Everything is permissible–but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible–but not everything is constructive.”
This is a common (mis)quotation of 1 Corinthians 10.23 that seems to be the magical key to cover all controversial issues, often by someone who wants to forbid a certain practice in church, no matter what that practice is.
This is yet one ore perfect sample text for a book on exegetical fallacies. Since I didn’t deal with it in my Right Texts, Wrong Meanings book, I will deal with it here to demonstrate the utter absurdity of using scripture in this way.
1 Corinthians 10.23a “Everything is permissible” is often viewed (correctly) by scholars to be the voice of the agitators in Corinth. Therefore, the NIV translation puts it in quotation marks. What is everything being permissible? Within context, Paul was talking about Old Testament food laws that might have caused confusion among his converts. Certainly, none of the food was sinful in itself, but the ones used in the pagan temple ceremony where participation in the ritual occurred (10.18-20). As a result, the situation causes further confusion in the table of the Lord’s Supper (10.21).
The vocabulary of the wider context deserves examination. 1 Corinthians 8.1, 4, 7, and 10.19 provide the context because the “food sacrificed to idols” literally translates “idol meat”. The same word occurs in 10.28 has a different word “offered in sacrifice” to describe the food eaten. The word can be translated “set apart thing” or “sacred thing”. Most likely, the meat here that was set apart was sold. On the one hand, just prior to the 10.23 quote, 10.19 talks of meat that was part of the temple meal. The same meat required participation in temple ceremony in order to eat. Would that be ideal? Paul said, “No.” On the other hand, the imaginary dialogue partner refuted Paul by saying, “Everything is permissible.”
So, Paul used a different vocabulary that follows 10.23 that shows not the stuff in the temple that required participation but stuff that was possibly sold from the temple for profit in the marketplace. In order to understand the issue, we must understand the background. In the marketplace, the top grade meat ought to have come out of the temple. Due to the excessive amount of meat, the temple would sell its meat to the market to make more money. Of course, the grade of meat sold out to the market was very good. Whenever someone wanted to throw a banquet, he would go to the market and pick out the meat. As a matter of courtesy, he would pick out good meat. The problem remains however that no one could tell whether the meat had been used in the temple or not. The safest bet of course was to take the extreme measure of being a vegetarian but no one threw a vegetarian banquet. This was the situation of 10.23ff. The whole situation created a realistic and awkward moment for Paul’s congregation. Within context, the congregation also had regular banquet fellowship where the Lord’s Supper was part of the procedures (cf. 11.17-22, 33). Now, the church could well get the meat without asking too many questions and she was certainly free to do so. A good piece of meat surely didn’t have the magical power to curse the eater.
Now, the issue becomes complicated when the believer got invited by an unbeliever to eat. That was the situation of 10.23-11.1. The freedom to eat would cause someone with a bad conscience to think that the church community meal was similar to that of the temple (10.27-29). In other words, the participant at the unbeliever’s banquet was so fixated in his mind that eating this meat was the same as worshipping false gods that no explanation would do other than total refrain from eating the meat. In other words, the central core teaching of monotheism was at stark due to misunderstanding. As a result, Paul advised restraint from eating the meat.
Three issues surface. First, the situation directly relates to worshipping false gods. Second, the situation directly relates to a problem of causing others to misunderstand the central belief of the faith. So, when Paul said to eat and drink to the glory of God in 10.31, he meant that the believer ought not to cause others to stumble in their understanding of what the true faith was. This was not a mere case of sacrificing for the gospel without understanding what the core belief of the gospel. This sacrifice directly related to the core belief.
As my last six blog posts in the series demonstrate, tattoos, piercings, smoking and drinking aren’t part of the core belief of Christian faith. No monotheistic belief was violated. No morality was compromised. Even if someone disagrees with me on the exact situation Paul was addressing, tattoos, piercings, smoking and drinking cant’ fit in there. By fitting them in there, we’re trivializing Paul’s gospel and his main concern. Some people may not like it, but my exact understanding of the context of 1 Corinthians 10.23 is what the church needs. People shouldn’t quote something out of context so that they can abuse the power of scripture as a weapon against others. This is not what the church should do. So, rather than being careful of WHAT you quote, be careful HOW you quote!
After the demonstration of the utter fallacy of misquoting 1 Corinthians 10.23, I will say that the problem is never scripture. The interpreter of scripture is often the problem. A quote to apply in any situation is also an interpretation because not every situation fits that quote. The frequent hijacking and raping of scripture should stop, especially in churches that assert that they respect the authority of the Bible. The ones who claim to have the most respect often show the least.