What does it say?
Chapter 5 deals with an issue of open incest between a son and his stepmother that the church refused to address. Corinth had a culture of excessive litigation and the Corinthian disciples are not hesitant to sue each other (1Cor 6). Paul admonishes them to have the wisdom and maturity to settle issues among themselves. The paganism of Corinth is radically different from Jewish Law, and the Corinthians have questions about single and married life as believers in Jesus Christ (1Cor 7). Paul responds to these questions with both scripture and personal advice that takes cultural issues into account.
In idolatrous Corinth, pagan temples are the center of life. They are hubs for everything from trade organizations to social functions, and most of the meat sold in the city has been offered first in sacrifice to the city gods. For many believers, putting one’s faith in Christ represents an immediate and complete break with false gods, while others fear that eating meat offered to idols is wrong no matter the circumstances (1 Cor 8). Paul’s instruction involves growth, compassion, understanding and compromise from both sides.
What does it mean?
Every culture has certain issues and predominant sins. We must be careful, however, to not be too rigid in our understanding and application of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. This passage presents various layers of understanding: New Testament commands that are universally applicable, apostolic traditions that result from the needs and cultural situations of the day, and issues of personal preference. A key to this passage is what Paul says in 6:12 about all things being lawful for believers, but not all things are expedient or promote personal or kingdom growth. The point is that we do not live by a proscribed set of rules, but rather by truth and principle. For example, most of us do not live in a culture that includes stores selling meat previously offered to idols. Yet the principle of not allowing our freedom to be stumbling block for others (8:9) is applicable to any issue in any culture at any time. Some of Paul’s advice about marriage or the single life is in response to culturally specific situations, such as a single woman remaining in submission to her father as long as she is single (7:36-38).
How will I respond?
Which of these chapters best addresses issues that have immediate application for my life or someone close to me? In that chapter, what is the overarching biblical principle that applies to all people everywhere and at any moment of history? How will I make specific application of this truth today?