Conversation Guide #7: Discerning the Body in 1 Corinthians 10 – by Peter Ben Smit

1 Corinthians 10 is a text clearly concerned with inclusion and exclusion. The key site of inclusion and exclusion in this text is the meal, especially the question as to whether those partaking of the meal of the Christian community, which Paul will call the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11, can also justifiably eat foodstuffs, especially meat, that has been offered to  deities other than the God of Israel and his Christ (i.e., ‘idols’ in Paul’s idiom).

In his discussion of this topic, Paul seeks to outline a course of action that is characterized by significant nuance. First, it is noticeable that Paul does not problematize ‘interreligious’ eating together as such, nor does he threaten  any sanctions. This creates space for those in the city of Corinth who are compelled to eat with non-Christians for reasons of general sociability, family ties, and interests in the sphere of business and politics. Second, Paul is also clear that as long as foodstuffs do not clearly signify allegiance with deities other than the Lord (and are therefore a form of apostasy), they can be freely consumed. Third, as soon as foodstuffs imply the association with another deity other than the Lord (to be sure, not so much from the perspective of the Christ devotee involved, but rather from the perspective of others), their consumption becomes deeply problematic.

Bodies and the physical in 1 Corinthians 10

The text can be regarded as a theological discussion, ordering and regulating ideas that one should (and shouldn’t) have about the divine; it can also be read as a text dealing with the regulation of social behavior – eating meals together is a key form of human sociability. However, when reading the text with these emphases, it can easily be overlooked that it is a text dealing primarily with bodies and their behaviour. The negotiation of the relationships between both the divine and the human and among humans  themselves is mediated through physical behaviour in the form of eating. Exclusion and inclusion, therefore, is also a physical, rather than a intellectual or a disembodied social practice (obviously, disembodied social practices are impossible: the social is always also physical, even if this can be easily overlooked). This can be spelled out in a little more detail.

First, this leads to the observation that, although the issues at stake can be seen to be primarily social (who can associate and eat with whom?) and metaphysical (what is the effect of certain foodstuffs?; do pagan gods really exist? etc.), physical behaviour is really what matters. Allegiance to Christ is performed physically by means of partaking of and abstaining from certain foodstuffs. In particular, it is the body of the Christ devotee as seen by others that is the focus of all negotiations of inclusion and exclusion in 1 Corinthians 10. Physical behaviour and all that is in Paul’s view attached to it is the starting point of Paul’s argument and of his attempt to find a middle way between apostasy (caused by idolatry) and anti-social behaviour in this text, which shows to what a large extent he is a theologian of the body.

Second, the negotiation of social relationships (and of inclusion and exclusion) that takes place throughout 1 Corinthians 10 – as meals are performances of social relationships, expressing and (re)constituting them – takes place through physical behaviour, and thus the body and its (disciplined) behaviour becomes the site where such relationships are negotiated. Certainly, the body is not the body in and of itself but the body as committed to Christ, and especially as it is seen and evaluated by outsiders (cf. v. 29!), who, it seems, must not get the impression that Christ devotees can enjoy multiple forms of κοινωνία (koinonia, communion) (just like ‘weak’ insiders must not get this idea, cf. 1 Corinthians 8:1-13), even if Paul’s own metaphysical position seems to be that, in the end,  all of this does not really matter, given the lack of reality and power that he ascribes to pagan deities. Yet, as Paul cannot control how others see the bodies of Christ devotees and interpret them, he is forced to suggest disciplining these bodies with regard to consumption as soon as such consumption is turned into an explicit performance of κοινωνία with another deity than Christ and may be perceived, both by those outside of the community and the ‘weak’ members of the community itself, as a form of apostasy.

Third, when further considering the physical negotiation of allegiance to and communion with Christ (a negotiation of inclusion and exclusion into this communion), it is of importance to note that Paul engages in a search and exploration rather than in the development of fixed rules and regulations. His argument is deeply contextual and depends on the ‘reading’ of physical behaviour by others, in particular by those outside of the ἐκκλησία, in contrast to the situation in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, where the perspective of those inside of the assembly matters. Presumably, in a context where eating meat associated with other deities would not have had the implication of being seen as compromising one’s fidelity to and communion with Christ (i.e., engaging in apostasy), such consumption would not have been as problematic as it appears to be in Corinth. A contemporary reception of Pauline ethical considerations in 1 Corinthians 10 would, therefore, be well-advised to take into account the contextuality of his approach and to continue his search for appropriate behaviour in new contexts, rather than to replicate Paul’s findings for the Corinthian Christ devotees in contexts that are rather different from Corinth.



  1. When thinking of inclusion and exclusion, have you ever felt excluded physically from any group or gathering? If so, how?
  2. When reflecting on the Eucharist or the Mass (or any other kind of holy meal) in your community, can you think of forms of physical inclusion and exclusion?
  3. Concerning foodstuffs, are there any foodstuffs that you wouldn’t want to eat because they would compromise your relationship with the church of Christ?
  4. Concerning people, can you imagine any kind of people that you wouldn’t want to eat with because this would compromise your relationship with the church of Christ?
  5. Can you imagine any kind of people who wouldn’t want to eat the food you serve or who wouldn’t want to eat with you because that would compromise their beliefs or values?



This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Peter Ben Smit, which can be found here: Discerning the Body in 1 Corinthians 10: The Physical Negotiation of Exclusion and Inclusion by Paul as a Theologian of the Body.

Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.