Explain this verse in your own words: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” If someone walked up to you right now and asked you how 1 Corinthians 10:31 worked — in eating, in drinking, in everything — how would you respond? Do you know what Paul really meant?
The verse is so familiar, we can easily assume we understand it, even if we don’t. By itself the verse’s meaning seems patently obvious: glorify God in everything you do. Well, of course that’s true at the highest level. But what does Paul specifically mean by glorify God, and what does he mean by everything?
If our primary application of this verse is thanking God for the tasty pizza we’re eating, we haven’t understood Paul — even though he certainly would want us to thank God for the tasty pizza we’re eating (1 Corinthians 10:30). Paul has something quite specific in mind — something quite relevant to us. When we look at the verse in its wider context, we see that Paul’s command to do all to the glory of God relates to cultural idols, the Christian conscience, and how we live before an unbelieving world.
A Wonderful, New Freedom
Paul begins his point in chapter 8. There we discover that food was a major issue of Christian liberty in the Corinthian church — specifically, “food offered to idols” (1 Corinthians 8:1). All the Corinthian Christians (except perhaps the Jewish ones) would have had backgrounds in pagan idol worship. When they became Christians, they renounced these idols and all the expressions of worship associated with them.
The problem was that idol worship was woven into the very fabric of Corinthian civic, trade, and social life — it was culturally pervasive. Idol temples were social centers, and could function similarly to public restaurants (1 Corinthians 8:10). And much of the meat sold in the markets and served in homes had been ritually offered to idols (1 Corinthians 10:25, 27). That meant eating meat could be interpreted as an act of idolatry, a betrayal of Christian beliefs (1 Corinthians 8:10).
Wonderfully, however, some Corinthian Christians were discovering that “an idol has no real existence, and that there is no God but one” (1 Corinthians 8:4). Since idols were no real things, they realized that meat sacrificed to idols was meat sacrificed to nothing (1 Corinthians 10:19–20). Therefore, eating meat sacrificed to idols could not be idolatry if the people eating knew that idols weren’t real. They were free to eat this meat with a clear conscience! Paul agreed with them (1 Corinthians 10:26, 29).
Freedom’s Power to Destroy
Paul did not agree, however, with how some of them were exercising this newfound Christian freedom. In effect, some of the Corinthians had placed a higher value on enjoying this freedom than on the spiritual good of other souls. First, not all the Corinthian Christians “possessed this knowledge” (1 Corinthians 8:7). Some of them, perhaps newer converts or those who, for whatever reason, had tender consciences, still felt like eating meat sacrificed to an idol was a form of idolatrous worship. For them, to eat sacrificial meat was to deny Christ.
Second, others, who may have even believed idols were nonentities, would face temptation to a different kind of idolatry by eating such meat. Many Corinthian converts likely paid a high price to become Christians. Renouncing the false pagan religion(s) meant renouncing social customs, family traditions, and friendship networks. Some, no doubt, lost their jobs. You can imagine the temptation some experienced to give at least an appearance of homage to the prevailing religion in order to avoid losing employment, social status, and family disapproval.
Third, there was the issue of gospel witness among non-Christians who were watching the Christians. What would pagans think of Christians who knowingly ate meat sacrificed to idols? They would likely assume that the Christians venerated the idols just like they did, and therefore there was no real reason to give heed to Christians’ odd claims. And what would Jews think of this behavior? That Christians were pagans and that Christianity was demonic.
So, Paul strongly reminded the Corinthians that far more was at stake than enjoying sacrificial steaks. If Christians whose consciences were free to eat meat sacrificed to idols weren’t very careful, the exercise of their freedom could destroy the faith of another Christian (1 Corinthians 8:9–11) or ruin Jesus’s reputation among non-Christians (1 Corinthians 10:27–29).
True Christian Freedom
This is why Paul said, “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13). And then he went on to describe throughout chapter 9 many ways he voluntarily abstained from things he was free to enjoy as a Christian — not to mention an apostle — like various kinds of food and drink, marriage, and a full-time ministry salary (1 Corinthians 9:4–7).
Paul’s whole orientation in life was to win as many people to the gospel as possible (1 Corinthians 9:22–23), so he sought to remove as many obstacles to the gospel as possible (1 Corinthians 9:12). For Paul, this was Christian freedom: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (1 Corinthians 9:19). So, when Paul heard that the Corinthian Christians were arguing over whether or not they were free to eat sacrificial meat, he essentially told them they were missing the point:
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. (1 Corinthians 10:23–24)
To Paul, this was true Christian freedom: to do whatever it takes to love one’s neighbor for the sake of Jesus.
Do All to the Glory of God
This is what Paul had in mind when he wrote, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). We glorify God when, out of love for him, we lay down our rights, our freedoms, in eating or drinking or whatever in order to do what is most loving toward others, either for the “progress and joy [of their] faith” (Philippians 1:25), or that they may be saved (1 Corinthians 9:22). Paul’s very next sentence says, “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:32).
Now, back to our tasty pizza. God is certainly glorified when we wholeheartedly enjoy the fullness of the earth he created for our enjoyment (1 Corinthians 10:26). Paul was a great advocate for our freedom from all false, legalistic abstinence from food or anything else (1 Timothy 4:1–3). He stated it clearly: “Food will not commend us to God” (1 Corinthians 8:8). And “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4–5). So, Paul would take no offense by our applying 1 Corinthians 10:31 to savoring our pizza — provided that we have not lost sight of the more excellent way of glorifying God: sacrificial love.
And this kind of sacrificial love is still needed, maybe especially needed, when it comes to Christian freedoms. For we, too, have our cultural idols, our saints with tender consciences, and our watching unbelievers. So, in “whatever you do,” do not pursue your freedom to do what you want to do, but use your freedom to pursue the ultimate spiritual good of your neighbor. Do all you do to the glory of God.