Henotheism can be summed up as someone who worships a single god while not denying the existence or possible existence of other deities. Polytheism can be summed up as the belief in or worship of more than one God. The Bible teaches that there is only one true and living God (Eph. 4:6). That God is Jehovah God (Deut. 4:35, 39; 2 Sam. 7:22; Isa. 43:10-11; etc.). However, when God delivered Israel from their Egyptian bondage in the book of Exodus, Israel was very polytheistic/henotheistic. One of Jehovah God’s Ten Commandments was to “have no other gods before Me” (Ex. 20:3). Shortly thereafter, we see Israel’s polytheism in action when they made a golden calf and attributed their deliverance from Israel to it instead of Jehovah God (Ex. 32:1-4).
POLYTHEISM IN ISRAEL
Even though Israel was taught that there is only one God, they often fell into various forms of polytheism and paganism (Deut. 29:26; Ezek. 20:5-8; 2 Kgs. 17:5-17; etc.). Even many of the kings of Israel allowed and/or participated in worship to pagan gods at “high places” (1 Kgs. 3:1-15; Deut. 12:4-5). Worshipping at these local shrines called “high places” often included making sacrifices, burning incense, and holding feasts or festivals that God had condemned (1 Kgs. 3:2–3; 12:32; 13:1–5; 14:23; 2 Kgs. 17:29; 18:4; 23:13–14; Lev. 26:30; etc.).
Furthermore, Kings such as Jehoshaphat (1 Kgs. 22:43), Jehoash (2 Kgs. 12:2-3), and Jotham (2 Kgs. 15:34–35) all worshipped/allowed worship on the high places, yet, they were accepted by God and considered to be righteous kings. Even though they violated the law and didn’t take down the idolatrous places of worship, God showed them mercy and patience instead of judgment. Interesting.
POLYTHEISM IN THE FIRST CENTURY
When we fast forward to the New Testament, we see how the Roman and Gentile world was saturated in polytheistic thinking. When Paul went to preach to the non-believers in Athens, he saw that they had a god for just about everything (Acts 17:16). When he saw this, Paul told them about the true and living Jehovah God (Acts 17:17-34).
I say all of this to emphasize the point that the Bible teaches there is but one true and living God. However, it had always been a struggle (as we will see) for even all of God’s people to accept this idea.
PATIENCE WITH HENOTHEISM CHRISTIANS
In writing to the Christians who lived in Corinth, Paul dealt with a lot of issues (see 1 & 2 Corinthians). One of the issues had to do with eating meats sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8). This idea is lost on many because we are so far removed from the context of what Paul is actually talking about. So, what exactly is Paul addressing in 1 Cor. 8 and what is the context?
Part of idol worship involved eating meats sacrificed to the idols as an act of worship to the pagan god(s). Although it wasn’t wrong to eat meats sacrificed to idols in and of itself, it would have been very confusing to Christians who had converted out of paganism or those who were still learning. Paul specifically addresses the henotheistic Christians who were still learning and didn’t yet have the knowledge that there is only one God.
Paul began 1 Cor. 8 by contrasting love with knowledge. While knowledge puffs up and makes us arrogant, love edifies and makes us humble (1 Cor. 8:1-3). We should always choose love over knowledge. Paul then applied this idea by addressing the henotheism that existed among the church in Corinth. He said:
“Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” (1 Cor 8:4-7).
There is no doubt that the lack of knowledge in which Paul is referring to is the knowledge that there is only one true and living God. But here is where things get interesting. What group of people is Paul speaking of? Christians or non-Christians?
We know that the letter of 1 Cor. was written to Christians (1 Cor. 1:2). In 1 Cor. 8, Paul references the “weak brother/brethren” (1 Cor. 8:9, 11-13). While it is true that sometimes the word “brother/brethren” can be in reference to Jewish brethren (and not Christians), the tenor of this chapter is on Christian liberty and fellowship. In fact, the word used for brother/brethren is always used to speak of Christians in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:1, 10, 11, 26; 2:1; 3:1; 4:6; 5:11; 6:5-6, 8; 7:12, 14-15, 24, 29; 8:11-13; 1 Cor. 9:5; 10:1; 11:33; 12:1; 14:6, 20, 26, 39; 15:1, 6, 31, 50, 58; 16:11, 12, 15, 20). This can be further demonstrated for how Paul even uses the word brethren/brother to differentiate between Christian and non-Christian in this letter (1 Cor. 5:11; 6:2, 5-6).
Therefore, it stands to reason that, when Paul is speaking of brethren who do not have the knowledge that there is only one true God in 1 Cor. 8., he must be speaking about fellow Christians. There is no contextual or lexical reason I am aware of to conclude otherwise.
While Paul established that there is only one true God, he also realized that not all Christians had this knowledge and conviction. This passage is amazing for a couple of reasons. First, this meant that some Christians at Corinth still believed in other gods. Yet, even with this false belief, they were still able to become Christians because they believed that Jehovah God was the supreme God and they believed in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (1 Cor. 1:1-3; 1 Cor. 15:1-4; etc.). Second, these henotheistic Christians were still to be fellowshipped – even to the point of having their conscience accommodated.
In other words, the Christians who had the proper knowledge and conviction that there is only one God (i.e., the stronger brethren) were not to condemn, judge, or withdraw fellowship from the Christians who had yet to come to this conviction and understanding (i.e., the weaker brethren). Instead, they were to have patience with them and work with them (1 Cor. 8:9-12). Even though they had the right to eat meats sacrificed to idols, not all Christians in Corinth were monotheistic yet and had the spiritual understanding that others did. Therefore, they were to choose love over knowledge by abstaining from meats and being patient with the henotheistic Christians (1 Cor. 8:13).
While the context of 1 Cor. 8 can be quite uncomfortable for many Christians living today, the clarity cannot be ignored. Paul taught the monotheistic Christians in Corinth to be patient with the polytheistic/henotheistic Christians to the point of forfeiting their freedom of eating meats sacrificed to idols as to not confuse the weaker polytheistic Christians as they were learning and growing (2 Pet. 3:18; Heb. 5:14).
APPLICATION & CONCLUSION
While there is much that can be gained from 1 Cor. 8, the main points I want to emphasize for this article include the following:
(1) Christian fellowship is much larger than many want to make it. Think about it. Paul taught that someone who is polytheistic/henotheistic can become a Christian while still being polytheistic/henotheistic. The knowledge a non-believer must have to become a Christian is the knowledge that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that Jesus died for their sins. They don’t have to have perfect knowledge or understanding of everything. In fact, Paul taught that they don’t even have to have the knowledge that there is one true God as long as they believe in the true God and Savior Jesus Christ.
(2) The love we give our fellow Christians is more important than the knowledge we give.
(3) We are to be extremely patient and understanding while working with and teaching other Christians. Even when we are dealing with matters of truth and matters of right and wrong, we should always strive to be aware of the conscience of others and the surrounding circumstances.
– Kevin Pendergrass
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