When Knowledge is Dangerous – 1 Corinthians 8
By Christie Purifoy
“Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.”
1 Corinthians 8: 1-3
I became a mother ten years ago. Since that day, I have been humbled in approximately ten million different ways. It happened most recently when I realized that my daughter’s least attractive personality trait is an exact copy of my own. Actually, it may not even be my least attractive quality, as there are likely far worse things in me that my daughter was fortunate not to inherit. However, like the proverbial speck and log, I had to see it in someone else before I became aware of it in myself.
Sorry, dear daughter. You are blessed with your father’s long eyelashes and his extroverted ease on a stage, but from your mother you received this: an unwavering, never-faltering need to be right.
I talk a good talk. Asking the right questions is so much more important than knowing the right answers! Life’s a journey of discovery! We are all in progress! Not one of us has arrived!
And I do mean those things. Mostly. But inside? On the inside, I am smug in the security of my own knowledge. I am convinced that I am right, that my opinion is the most valid, and that I have, in fact, arrived … at the right answer.
I’d like to think it’s the smugness that is the problem, being puffed up, as the Scripture says. But I’m beginning to think the problem is more extensive than that.
I’ve read I Corinthians 8 approximately ten million times. Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration but only slight. I was raised in the company of an older generation of Southern protestant Christians, and this passage of Scripture was a favorite of theirs when it came to debates about alcohol consumption.
I’m not here to say that those formative interpretations were wrong. Or even misguided. I am here to say that they established a framework through which I viewed this portion of Scripture, and I have never, until this week, veered away from it.
Let’s call this framework the “Analogy Framework.” It goes like this: because we no longer live in a culture that consecrates food to idols, we need to work a little harder to make these verses relevant. We need to figure out the most appropriate contemporary analogy for temple food.
Or, so I thought.
As it turns out, these verses are heart-piercingly relevant without resorting to any analogy at all.
1 Corinthians 8 is about knowledge. About knowing truth. About being right. It is also about the terrible places being right can lead us.
I enjoy knowing things. I deeply enjoy being right. And so, I am tempted to articulate a lukewarm interpretation of these verses. Something like, love matters more than knowledge. That sounds nice, yes? Knowledge puffs up but love builds up. We can all get behind that.
But I’m afraid it isn’t enough. It doesn’t go far enough.
Rather, the whole message, the message I most need to hear, sounds more like this: Christie, you know some things. You are right about quite a bit. But your knowledge is very, very dangerous. It is dangerous to you. It is dangerous to many around you (also, you never know as much as you think you know).
How dangerous? This dangerous:
“And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died” (1 Corinthians 8:11).
I think I have been unable to hear this message before because I hear criticism of knowledge as a charge against absolute truth. But if you read this chapter carefully, you will see that the truth is never in doubt. “We know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’” verse 4 says. Absolute truth is not under fire here. Our priorities are.
It matters very little what I know. What matters a great deal is that I am known.
To be known by Love is to be filled with love. Love for Christ. Love for others. Love for every person whether they have knowledge or not. Whether I think they are right or wrong. Whether they are right or wrong.
We are, each of us, the one “for whom Christ died.”
And that is the most humbling – and most beautiful – thing I know.
Christie Purifoy earned a PhD in English literature from the University of Chicago. She recently traded reading lists and classrooms for a vegetable garden and a henhouse in southeastern Pennsylvania. Now she writes stories at an old desk in the parlor of a Victorian farmhouse called Maplehurst. When the noise of her four young children makes writing impossible, she tends zucchini and tomatoes her children will later refuse to eat. The zucchini-loving chickens are perfectly happy with this arrangement.
The chickens move fast and the baby crawls faster, but Christie is always watching for the beauty, mystery and wonder that lie beneath it all. When she finds it, she shares it at ChristiePurifoy.com.