on the popular misuse of 1 Cor 10.31

I have a rather long article on 1 Cor 10.31. I will post highlights here, with a link to the full article in pdf format here. Somehow it is possible to make long posts expand to a separate page, but I can’t seem to figure it out. I think it might have something to do with the new and ‘improved’ Blogger format. I shouldn’t be sarcastic! Some features are better. But I still can’t get sidebar comments to work at all, and I can’t figure out how to make long posts expand… one day I will get a real blog.

Here is the highly edited version of the article, the pdf is here. What follows is still rather long (sigh), but it gives my main points. The parts left out are marked by ***.

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In some recent discussions on the blogosphere, I have contended with individuals for what I think is a misapplication of 1 Cor 10.31 “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

1 Cor 10.31 is universally cited as support for the notion that we must glorify God in everything that we do. The commentaries and almost all the literature I have seen use the verse in this way. In favour of the interpretation, one must acknowledge the general truth of the principle that we should glorify God in everything. I agree! But I don’t agree that 1 Cor 10.31 teaches this.

As you read through my studies on this topic, you may come to the conclusion that I am straining at gnats. I hope that is not the case. I believe that it is important to interpret Scripture in its context and to let it say what it says. We have a tendency to reduce Scripture to slogans, to extract texts out of the framework of the argument the apostles are making with them and use them as spiritual pegs on which to hang our spiritual hats. They become home for us, and we live in a world that Lloyd-Jones described as a kind of cult like practice, treating the Scriptures as “a drug” for our spiritual security. (See his sermon on Eph 6.10, the first in his ‘Call to Battle’ series, available here from the Martyn Lloyd-Jones Recordings Trust, listen especially from minute 12 to 14). In handling Scripture, I am against spiritualizing, proof-texting, and misapplication. I believe it betrays at best a shallow understanding of the Word of God and may betray a cavalier irreverence for the God of the Word. We should endeavour always to examine the way we approach Scripture and make our arguments for Christian living in exactly the way Scripture makes them. Let us refrain from proof-texts! Let us eschew slogans!

As for 1 Cor 10.31, it is evident that many, many commentators take the passage to mean that Paul is here teaching a general principle that applies to every situation of life. For example, here is G. G. Findlay in The Expositor’s Greek Testament, a fine set edited by W. Robertson Nicol and published by Eerdmans. (My set has no publication date on it — I believe it is out of print.) Findlay comments on the verse by saying that “vv. 31, 32 conclude the matter with two solemn, comprehensible rules, introduced by the collective oun [see below] … relating to God’s glory and to man’s salvation. The supreme maxim of duty, [“all things into the glory of God be doing” – my translation of Findlay quoting the Greek] applies to all that Christians ‘eat or drink’ (including the idolothyta), — indeed, to whatever they ‘do’; cf. Rom 14.20ff., Col 3.17.” Findlay proceeds to talk about verse 32 as “A second general rule…” You can see that Findlay is taking 1 Cor 10.31 as a general rule superimposed into the argument of 1 Cor 10. This approach is imitated in one way or another by almost all the commentators. In my desperate search for someone who agrees with me (a true scholar!), I have found no one to ally myself with, including the venerable Charles Hodge and many others. In some of my correspondence, I have described myself as in the minority on this question. It increasingly appears that I am in a minority of one, thus, I may be a theological Don Quixote, tilting at windmills and offering a private interpretation. Nevertheless, I do think that my consideration of the text should at least be examined before it is simply dismissed by ‘majority rule’.

First Consideration

The first thing to consider in this verse is its relation to its context.

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The consideration of the context of the verses following 1 Cor 10.31 show that while Paul is using general language, he is not stating in verse 32 a general rule which applies to every possible action he might do. Rather, Paul is teaching a rule that applies to a limited set of circumstances. I would suggest that the limited set of circumstances is first of all the circumstances that involve meat offered to idols. This is the primary consideration of the context that follows 1 Cor 10.31.

Second Consideration

The second thing to consider is the kinds of things that are discussed in this sentence.

***

If I am right about the meaning of the eating and drinking, that is, eating and drinking as a class of things related to things offered to idols, what then is the meaning of ‘whatsoever ye do’? Is Paul just throwing in a general phrase meaning ‘any old thing you do regardless of the context about which I have been going on for three chapters now’? Or is Paul speaking about a choice in the same category or class as the eating and drinking? I suggest it is the latter. The choices before a believer in someone’s house at a meal first are these: ask or don’t ask. Paul says don’t ask. But he goes on to say, ‘If your host mentions that you are eating something offered to an idol, then don’t eat it.” So on the one hand you choose to eat and don’t ask questions. On the other hand, you choose not to eat. Applying the ‘drinking’ category, you on the one hand may drink and don’t ask questions, but once you have knowledge, you don’t drink. Now comes the principle: ‘Whether therefore you eat or drink [not having asked any questions] or whatsoever you do [having been informed, i.e., whatever = not eating and not drinking], do these things to the glory of God.” There are only really two options. Eat or don’t eat. Drink or don’t drink. The ‘whatsoever’ covers both the ‘don’t eat’ and ‘don’t drink’ category. The context of the passage and the grammatical structure indicate that each of the three actions in the list are all of a sort, all one category, and they are all related to the choice whether to eat meat offered to idols or not.

Third Consideration

The third thing to consider is the word ‘all’ in the phrase ‘do all to the glory of God’.

***

This leaves us with Thayer’s first possibility, “of a certain definite totality or sum of things, the context shewing what things are meant”. What is the definite totality or some of things to which Paul is referring here? What does the context tell us? Eating, drinking, or whatever you do [i.e., not eat or not drink, see discussion above] – the totality of things Paul is referring to is the list of options he has already provided.

The point of the passage is to teach that the choices you make with respect to meat offered to idols is to make those choices glorify God. You do this by having respect to a weaker brother whose conscience you might offend and who you may cause to stumble, or you do this by taking into consideration the importance of the gospel and eschew some things you have a right to since the gospel is more important than your rights, or you are very cautious because of the deceptiveness of your own heart and the examples of others who have gone before reveals that you yourself may easily stumble and be brought under the power of darkness. In every case, you shouldn’t so easily rationalize away your own scruples against doubtful things, but tend to abstain for a variety of reasons.

Conclusion:

***

Am I merely straining at a gnat on this one? I don’t think so. I think there is a widespread casual use of the Bible that fails to take the Bible seriously. This particular passage is only a small example. There are other examples where the consequences are much more serious. I plan to take up another of them in a new post to come in a few days. The failure to read and understand the Bible in context leads to some bizarre Pharisaisms being imposed on the people of God. Let us be faithful to the Word as it stands in context and as the Holy Spirit intended us to understand it

Comments

  1. sivert says:

    Don – nice paper. I’ve seen high school volleyball teams with, “Do all the the glory of God.” Playing to the “glory of God” then becomes the motivator for volleyball. “Hey – you’re not working hard enough – are you playing to the glory of God??!?!?” (I think you’ll join me in a nice “Aaarrrgh.”)

    I would offer one small edit that I think you might like:

    Near the end, you ask what Paul means by “do all…” You answer, “…the totality of things Paul is referring to is the list of options he has already provided.

    I think it would fit your position to say, “…the totality of the things which you selectively (in good conscience) take out of the list of options he has already provided and actually live out.

    My point is that eating, not eating, etc. are not a menu of things that we randomly choose from and then say, “Glory to God.” No – we apply Bible principles to things and then ONLY do the things that we think actually do (because of those principles) glorify God.

  2. Don Johnson says:

    I think I understand what you are saying on this point. If I understand it correctly, I don’t think that is where I am going with my view.

    The point I am making is that the list of options Paul is discussing is the only thing in view. That is, Paul is only talking about eating meat offered to idols or not.

    For us, the list of things we apply this to have to be parallel things, otherwise we are twisting the passage out of its context. Since we should glorify God in our lives (and we can amply demonstrate that with other passages), it is tempting to take this one out of context and misuse it. It is the practice of taking passages out of context that has me most exercised, not the particular subject matter.

    I hope that makes sense. As I read your quotation of my words from the article, I have to cringe. When something could be said clearly and concisely or obtusely, I quite often opt for the obtuse…

    I appreciate the comment. I am hoping shortly to move my blog to a better site so that I can display comments better. In the meantime we have to live with this.

    Regards,
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. sivert says:

    Actually, I was making no attempt to apply the passage to issues other than the passage-explicit ones.

    I believe that we must first understand how Paul treated the issues he did treat. Only then will we understand the principles he used. Of course, some day perhaps we will discuss how these principles apply to other things – but that’s a long way off and can only be reasonably done if we first agree on Paul’s treatment of eidolothuton, etc.

    So, no, I was not trying to apply it beyond idol-meat.

    I was merely pointing out that we can’t say that we may choose anything on the list at any time. At various times/situations each thing can be done. But, by applying principles, we will discern that only one option might be glorifying to God in one particular situation.

    So all In my view, 1 Corinthians 10:31 means: “Think it through and figure out which of the options on the list is glorifying to God in the situation you are in – then ONLY do that.”

  4. Don Johnson says:

    ok, I get what you are saying now.

    As for applying the passage, you are right, we have to get the true meaning of what Paul is saying in his context in order to understand how to apply it in our context.

    Tom Constable’s remarks on this passage opened a light for me. His citation of Fee makes me want to get Fee on this, so I can get the full understanding of where Constable is going. I think Fee is off on some of the other parts of 1 Cor (like 1 Cor 11 and the meaning of kephale) so I have been leary of him. But I would like to read his arguments in 1 Cor 8-10, so I think I will get the book.

    As for your paraphrase of 1 Cor 10.31 as it stands, I think that is a reasonable understanding.

    I am in the midst of commenting back to Matt on the suneidesis thread as your note came in! I’ve got to get to work after this!

    Regards,
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  5. sivert says:

    As far as Fee and Witherington on the meaning of eidolothuton (I believe they claim that it refers specifically to meat sacrificed to idols and eaten in the presence of the idols):

    Bill Combs has posted this on SI – lost in the crash, I believe. I have David Garland’s 1 Corinthians. I think he quotes Fee and Witherington on that – it’s at home – perhaps I’ll check tomorrow.

    Anyway – I think 1 Corinthians 10:28 means that such an assertion must be at least partially wrong. Eidolothuton in that verse is clearly outside the idol-temple context since the reader is in a situation where he doesn’t know what type of meat it is.

    But I agree that, based on context, the meat referred to in 8:1-10:24 is eaten in the idol temple.

    (Perhaps this post belongs on the other thread.)

  6. Jerry Bouey says:

    Bro. Don, I am slowly working my way through your old posts – as I am reading through your Sermon Outline series (I like to read the extra comments and intros as I am reading each outline).

    I notice that there were several times you linked to other articles you put together – but I can’t seem to find those articles anywhere else, but in that particular blog entry. Like this one, for example – I found it because I am reading that particular blog entry – but it is not listed on your Sermons Index page (or the other two main sections you have listed in your sidebar). Is that an oversight – or is there somewhere else these are available? The reason I am asking is because I have appreciated reading your various articles – but it is not always convenient to read a longer article at that point in time when I come across it. However, if it was listed with all your other sermons, etc. then I would see it and be reminded it was there to check out later. Thanks for considering my request.

  7. Don Johnson says:

    Hi Jerry

    Thanks for the comment. I put a link on my general sermons page at the very top for you.

    One of these days I will get more organized!!

    Regards,
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3