In chapters 8 through 10 of 1 Corinthians, Paul is answering the Corinthian Christians’ questions concerning their freedom to consume food sacrificed to idols under various contexts. In chapter 8, after introducing the dispute by establishing a common ground in which both he and those writing him would agree, Paul went on to condemn the practice of eating idol-food in pagan temples on the basis of Christian love. He challenged those Christians who believed they were free to eat in idols’ temples to consider the potential detrimental effect that this practice might have been having on fellow believers. He admonished them that the act of Christ’s sacrificial death, which brings every Christian into God’s family, requires a response of love that puts others’ interests ahead of one’s own. Then in chapter 9, Paul supported this admonition by spotlighting the rights he relinquished at great cost to himself, rather than being a hindrance to the faith of weaker Christians or unbelievers. He ultimately does this so that the Corinthians would imitate his example by surrendering their presumed right to eat idol-food (see 11:1).
In the closing section of chapter 9 (vss. 24-27) Paul advances another example to undergird his admonition about idol-food – that of the athlete’s sacrificial self-restraint to win a prize. The Corinthians loved sports. In fact their Isthmian Games would likely have been a site where much of the public idolatrous eating practices were taking place. The familiar image of the athlete’s intense training program would serve to remind the Corinthians of the difficulty of their Christian commitment – that the Christian life involves limitation as well as the enjoyment of freedom. In essence he is telling the Christians that if they fail to exercise self-control by continuing in their wonton idolatrous practices, their faith would end up fruitless, inadequate and void. The illustration of the possibility of a disqualified athlete also serves as a transition to the warning in the example of Israel in the next section (chapter 10 vss. 1-13), which together with the verses at the end of chapter 9 lead to a call for a thorough abandonment of idolatry. If one assumes that Paul has condoned the consumption of idol-food in chapter 8 as an area of “Christian freedom,” then the arguments in chapter 10 make no sense. But if he did not condone it, then what follows in chapters 9 and 10 advance his arguments against the consumption of idol-food at idols’ tables, which he finally likens to the very presence of demons!
Finally, Paul ends his argument against the consumption of idol-food with an insistence on exclusive loyalty to the one true God. He tries to convince the Corinthians that their fellowship with Christ should restrict them from any association with other gods. A Christian parent who has ever had to explain why their teenage children could not participate in something that was fundamentally opposed to Christian values may have an inkling of an understanding of what Paul is dealing with in these chapters. How do you explain to a child why they are not allowed to participate in something that all of their friends are doing? This was Paul’s challenge in warning the Corinthians about partaking at the table of the Lord and the table of demons. To do so kindles the judgment of God, so let us consider what idols we ought to lay down rather than try to assimilate into our Christian life as a “freedom.”