Why We Must Pay Attention to Culture

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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However, not all believers know this. Some are accustomed to thinking of idols as being real, so when they eat food that has been offered to idols, they think of it as the worship of real gods, and their weak consciences are violated.

1 Corinthians 8:7

In 1 Corinthians 8-10, the Apostle Paul takes on a particular problem within the Christian community in Corinth. Certain believers there were eating food (meat) that had been offered to idols. They claimed to be free to do this on the grounds that they knew the idols to be false gods. What difference did it make if meat had been offered to something that didn't exist?

Paul's response to this question can be difficult for us to understand, because we do not share the same culture. In first-century Corinth, eating meat had a far different meaning than it does in twenty-first century Cleveland . . . or in twenty-first century Corinth, for that matter. If we're to make sense of Paul's advice, we must first pay close attention to the cultural setting in which he and the recipients of his letter lived.

In the Roman world, most people did not eat meat regularly for a simple reason: It was too expensive. Only the upper classes were able to consume meat in common life. The vast majority of people in the Roman Empire, including Corinth, were of the lower classes. They ate meat only on special occasions, and these special occasions were always associated with some kind of pagan worship. Whether in religious celebrations or civic festivals, meat was eaten in honor of one or more gods. Some of the pagan temples were actually rather like the ancient version of the steakhouse. If you wanted to eat meat, that's where you went to get it.

With this understanding of the meaning of meat-eating in Corinth, it's not hard to see how a problem would emerge in a church that included members of all classes. Wealthy Christians would be accustomed to eating meat, both in public and in their homes. For them, meat was simply food, nothing more. Yet, for many others in the Corinthian church, eating meat was tantamount to worshiping pagan gods. So when they saw wealthy church members eating meat, the poorer members were scandalized, or even tempted to join in what they felt to be pagan worship.

Because you and I are called to live out our faith in the culture in which we live, we must pay close attention to that particular culture and its values. We must learn how to speak and act in ways that communicate and reflect the good news of Jesus Christ accurately and appropriately. We must watch carefully and listen attentively to our neighbors as well as our brothers and sisters in Christ, so that we might live out our faith in a way that honors our Lord and draws people to his grace.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: Have you ever experienced something like what was happening in Corinth, where certain behaviors had different meanings for different Christians, thus causing conflict or controversy? How can you learn to live out your faith in a way that is culturally sensitive and honoring to God?

PRAYER: Dear Lord, as we try to make sense of what was going on in Corinth, we're struck by how different their culture was from ours. And we're reminded of how words and actions can be interpreted so differently in different cultural settings. So help us, Lord, to understand the culture(s) in which we live. Give us sensitivity to our neighbors and to our fellow Christians. Help us see how our actions can communicate your truth and love in a way that is clear and compelling. Keep us from doing things that hurt others and keep them from knowing or growing in you.

All praise be to you, O God, because you have chosen to communicate to us within our cultural settings, so that we might understand you.

All praise be to you, O God, because you guide us by your Spirit so that we might speak and live the good news of your love in Jesus Christ. Amen.