On Meat Offered to Idols

For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? (1 Corinthians 8:10 ESV)

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

This passage – along with its continuation in 10:14-33 – touches on Christian theology, ecclesiology, ethical freedom and responsibility as it discusses, of all things, steaks, roasts and barbecue. As is the case with so many issues in the real world, the ethical reasoning here requires a complicated, multifaceted balancing act. Corinth was filled with temples to idols. One segment of the Corinthian Church consisted of former idolaters. One aspect of worship in the temples was the sacrifice of animals. The meat from these sacrificed animals was available for consumption – in the temple itself, in the public markets or served at meals in private homes. If you were an urban dweller who ate meat, it didn’t come from your own flock. It may well have come from a pagan temple. (Were there, in fact, butcher shops with “secular” meat supplies?)

Some Corinthian Christians claimed that there was nothing wrong with eating idol-meat. Idols aren’t real and meat is just meat. The flesh of dead animals can’t be contaminated with the spiritual intent of the butcher. Other Christians took the opposite view. Christians should not participate in, benefit in any way from or indirectly encourage idolatrous practices.

This became a highly contentious issue in Corinth. The partisans called each other names. The meat-eaters considered themselves strong in the faith, while their opponents they called “weak.” One can imagine what the meat-abstainers called the meat eaters.

Should Christians eat this meat? Is eating this meat somehow an act of idolatry? If so, how scrupulous should Christians be in determining just where there meat came from? Does it matter where the meat is consumed, or what the intent or understanding of others present might be?

As Paul discusses this matter, several things become clear:

  • There is only one God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.
  • While idols are not real, many people worship what they believe to be gods. In 10:19-20, Paul states that real demons hide behind the unreal idols. Idolatrous practices, then are harmful to the participants and an affront to the true God.
  • Meat is just meat. The intent of the butcher is irrelevant and meat sacrificed to idols is not contaminated. All food is the good gift of God for which we can give thanks.
  • There is a social dimension to this question. The intent and understanding of those eating meat is relevant. Do they think they’re just eating meat, or do they think that they are involved in the worship of idols? Is the meal a part of pagan ritual? Is it held at the temple, in the home of another or in your own home?
  • Our influence and impact on others is a significant dimension of the ethical questions. Paul’s major concern seems to be that the “strong” might tempt the “weak” to take actions that they cannot in good conscience take in faith.
  • Living in peace within the church and within the wider community is a relevant concern.
  • Maintaining Christian liberty in those areas which don’t strike at the heart of the gospel is also a relevant concern. An overbearing preoccupation with one’s own rights is not.
  • Arrogance is wrong, even if you’ve got theology on your side. It is inconsistent with the law of love and it’s not the attitude of those who understand salvation by grace through faith.

Here, Paul strongly suggests that the Corinthian Christians abstain from meat sacrificed to idols for the sake of their brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul returns to the issue in 10:14-33. There he differentiates based on context: don’t participate in pagan worship even if there is a good roast involved – shop at the market without worrying – eat as a guest without raising questions, but if someone else raises the issue, abstain. In Romans 14, Paul’s position is more abstract and neutral: use your faith-informed judgment, do as you see best, always act in faith and don’t judge those who see things differently. Perhaps the context explains the difference between Corinthians and Romans. In Romans, Paul wrote more abstractly to Christians he didn’t personally know and with whom he did not have a pre-existing relationship. Here, Paul writes to a church he founded and to Christians with whom he has broken bread. 1 Corinthians is a more personal correspondence, so the directions are more specifically tailored to the situation and the people involved.

Our public arguments about ethical issues are different today, but just as contentious. While other biblical passages might more fully address the content of our theological and ethical disagreements, this passage directly addresses the manner in which we are to conduct our arguments.