By Sam E. Stone
Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth was prompted by a letter from them. They evidently asked Paul’s advice on several issues. Last week we considered one such topic, sexual laxity (chapter 6). Today’s text focuses on another question: Is it permissible for Christians to eat meat that has been sacrificed to an idol?
First-century Corinth was known for its worship of pagan deities. Their worship included immorality. When a pagan offered a sacrifice in the temple, not all of the meat was burned on the altar. The leftover meat could be eaten by a priest, sold in the neighborhood butcher shop, or served at a feast given by an idol worshipper. Should Christians eat any of that meat?
1 Corinthians 8:1-3
Moving to a new subject, Paul wrote, Now about food sacrificed to idols . . . Some felt it was OK to eat meat that had come from a heathen temple, since the idol meant nothing to them. Others felt that Christians might be led into idolatry if they ate it. Still others felt that to eat might give the impression that a person had no problem with pagan worship.
We all possess knowledge. Those who wrote seemed proud of their “superior knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up while love builds up. The apostle adds an important consideration to the equation—love.
People who have too high an opinion of what they know, in reality do not know all they should! The apostles and elders had met in Jerusalem and addressed some aspects of the issue (Acts 15:19-29). Here Paul went further. Knowledge can lead to pride, even though all our knowledge is incomplete, but a decision based on love edifies everyone.
1 Corinthians 8:4-8
The gods worshipped by the heathen are no gods (Isaiah 44:9-20). There is no God but one. Every Jew affirmed the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4). Christians agree with Jews completely on this. While there are many so-called gods, in reality there is only one true and living God. Those who worship these other “gods” are in reality worshipping Satan and his demons (1 Corinthians 10:19-21). There is but one Lord, Jesus Christ. The one God created the world working through his Son, who brought all things into existence (John 1:3; Hebrews 1:2).
Not everyone has this knowledge claimed by the Corinthians, however. Some people are so accustomed to idols that whenever they eat meat, they think of it as having been sacrificed to one of these gods. Here is the heart of the matter. Christians should watch out for their weaker brothers and sisters. Since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. Eating this “tainted” food makes them feel guilty.
The apostle summed it up, We are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. J. W. McGarvey explained, “There is no inherent virtue either in eating or fasting.” Only if one eats something against his conscience is it bad (Mark 7:18, 19).
1 Corinthians 8:9-13
Exercising your rights, however, may become a stumbling block to the weak. While there is no law to prevent a Christian from eating such food, there is another broader law that enters in. The Christian must not assert his rights if he harms other people by doing so.
Suppose one with a weak conscience sees you eating in an idol’s temple. The believer must consider the importance of his influence. By observing his behavior, a weak Christian may be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols. In such a case, this weak brother might fall back into idolatry. The result is clear: this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.
In such a case the knowledge on which the Corinthians prided themselves could induce a brother to sin, when he might not otherwise have done so. If you sin against a brother or sister, you sin against Christ. This warning echoes the words of Jesus himself (Matthew 18:6; 25:40, 45).
Paul’s “rule to live by” was this: If what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall. This far-reaching principle provides an excellent example of the spirit that should characterize all Christians. If my “harmless practice” could end up hurting someone, I choose not to do it. The strong must always help the weak by exercising consideration and Christian love (see also Romans 14).
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.