What Was the Problem with Food in 1 Corinthians 8:4–8?

Some people in the Corinthian church have no problem eating “food offered to idols” (εἰδωλόθυτος). This is the specific topic of chapter 8 and Paul will mention it again in 10:19. This word appears in Acts 15:29 in the list of things the Jewish Christians ask the Gentiles to avoid, and again in Rev 2:14, 20 as a description of behavior unacceptable for Christians. In all three cases, eating meat sacrificed to idols is mentioned along with sexual immorality

Image result for meat sacrificed to idolsThe church is not asking Paul a question about the food, but they are making a statement about the food-it is permissible to eat for sacrificed to idols since there are no other gods but God. They seem to think that any limit on their food (either what they eat or where they eat it) is foolish and a restriction of their rights (with as citizens of Corinth or as Christians). Perhaps Paul himself caused the problem with food based on his command not to associate with the immoral person. Like the misunderstanding over marriage (divorce the pagan spouse), Paul’s command may have been misunderstood to mean “do not eat with sinners.”

The word refers to meat sacrificed to a god. The leftover portion could be used in a shared meal in the god’s temple, or sold in the market. In the Jewish Temple, some meat from sacrifices was used as part of a family meal (the Passover Lamb, most significantly). There are three places where the Corinthians might have encountered meat sacrificed to idols (Ciampa and Rosner, 1 Corinthians, 368-8).

  • The believers may be eating this food in a temple during some kind of celebration. Most temples had banquet rooms used for religious and civic celebrations, but also for privately hosted meals. These meals would have naturally included meat from sacrifices.
  • The believers may have been offered meat sacrificed to idols if they were invited to an unsaved person’s home for a meal. In this case, there is no idolatry implied in the meal, but they would be offered the food since it was widely available in the markets every day.
  • The believers may have purchased the food for themselves in the market and served it in their own homes.

There were a variety of reasons someone might be invited to a meal that are not particularly sinful. For example, what should happen if a member of the congregation were invited to a wedding celebration for a family member who was not saved? It is quite likely someone would be invited to a funeral meal for a parent held at a temple. Imagine a person who was now a Christian who is invited to attend a funeral meal for a parent at the temple of some god. Socially it would be very difficult not to attend this kind of celebration, not simply awkward, but rude and shameful.

But most likely, people would be invited to these meals because they were socially significant events in the politics of the city of Corinth. By passing on an invitation from some well-place member of Roman society, a Christian was risking shame and perhaps a loss of status in the politics of Corinth. It may be the case someone would have to attend or lose their position in the government. It is likely participation in sacrifices and sacred meal was required to hold public office.  This is far more than a chance at a decent meal!

If this is the case, there was a social distinction between those in Corinth who ate the food and those who did not. People in higher social circles would be invited to a civic banquet at a Temple, only a person with some wealth would be purchase meat in the market to serve in their homes. The material in Gooch indicates some people may have gone to several cultic sites for food and entertainment, although the food itself may not be sacrificed.

As with the divisions in the church and some of the problems with immorality, the church at Corinth was divided along social lines, mirroring pagan Corinth.

This is one of those issues which seems obscure in a contemporary context. However, outside of Western Christianity, this eating food associated with idols may be a very serious issue. I would love to see a few comments from majority world Christians who have experienced this issue first hand. If there is a kind of “guilt by association” here, what principles can be drawn from this issue in 1 Corinthians which do have some resonance with modern Western Christianity? How does the western church avoid “mirroring the pagan culture” of America

9 thoughts on “What Was the Problem with Food in 1 Corinthians 8:4–8?

  1. I myself am not from the majority world, but when I taught 1 Corinthians last year a couple of people in my (SS) class had stories. 1. One guy’s family was from Taiwan. He remembers visiting grandparents there as a young boy, who at times would sacrifice food in the house to the ancestors – and his parent would make sure the kids did not eat it. 2. One woman was from Singapore and she remembers meals at her relatives house held in honor of ancestors, to the point it had a religious element. I believe she said her family would attend the meal, but stand in the back in a non-participatory way to both be with the family but not officially endorse the ancestor worship.

    Idolatry is so much more subtle in the modern West its difficult to compare. The food and especially the social act of eating it is really symbolic, it seems. In what ways to we socially participate in culture that at least implies a refusal to acknowledge God’s claim on us and the world?

    Or maybe another way to approach it is to ask in what ways do we participate in culture to save face, avoid embarrassment, and preserve position and honor, at the expense of the gospel?

    The modern West’s god is human autonomy, especially in the area of sexuality. What more establishes human freedom that to have full rights to determine your sexual life and even your gender opposed to your biological sex? Many evangelicals are beginning to comply with this god, I assume in part to avoid swimming upstream against the culture which is increasingly getting uncomfortable.

    Growing up I often associated 1 Cor 8 with being about freedom from weaker brethren, but looking closely at the whole argument in 8-10 I think Paul’s emphasis was much more of a warning against idolatry, especially public displays, even if “you didn’t mean it”. We need to be willing to sacrifice what rights we may have for the greater good. your rights to eat food don’t live in a bubble, how you go about doing it has greater implications for your family, social circles, and your church. Its not just about you.

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  2. Rachel Smith

    “How does the western church avoid “mirroring the pagan culture” of America?” (P. Long, blog – What Was the Problem with Food in 1 Corinthians 8:4–8?). The western church needs to be careful to not be divided along social lines. The ‘pagan culture’ of the USA, like most cultures, is divided into social sections. Specifically, there are dividing lines between the super poor people, the middle class people, and the rich people. There are often divisions between ‘normal’ people, and people with varying disabilities as well. To avoid ‘mirroring the pagan culture’ of the USA, the western church should be more focused on God than on social status. When we as a church are focused on God, we will be more inclined to think in a way that honours God. Showing God’s love to others by welcoming them into our place of worship regardless of their social status or lack thereof, is honoring to God and is also opposite of the ‘pagan culture’ of the USA. “But the man who loves God is known by God.” 1 Corinthians 8:3

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  3. “How does the western church avoid ‘mirroring the pagan culture’ of America?” (P. Long blog- What Was the Problem with Food in 1 Corinthians 8:4-8?) The western church may eat food associated with idols, but the western church definitely uses many other things as idols. An idol is anything placed higher than God. Many people in the western church turn to what may seem like little things, but may be a bigger deal if you were to give it more thought. For example, having the best stage lights, stage design, coffee, etc. The Bible says if two or more people gather in my name, there I will be also. (Matthew 18:20). Having the best things to represent a church then in a way raises the social status among other western churches.

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  4. In our TTP text, Longenecker discusses “the strong” Christians who understand there is nothing morally wrong with eating meat involved in sacrifices (because it does not compromise the identity of Jesus-followers), versus “the weak” Christians who do not yet understand there is nothing morally wrong with eating this meat. Even though “the strong” Christians know there is nothing wrong with eating this meat, they should still refrain from eating this meat with “the weak” Christians, because “the weak” Christians are struggling. “The strong” Christians should meet “the weak” Christians where they are at. Then build them up to be “strong” Christians before participating in controversial practices with them.
    Doctor Long asked about “guilt of association”. This reminded me a question a missionary from South Sudan asked me, “Is it wrong to sell someone livestock if you know that they going to use it for a sacrifice to another god?” It seems like it is supporting their practices to false idles to provide by selling to them the sacrifice. And also can create “guilt of association”. However, by not selling the livestock to them, you are not changing their beliefs or preventing their practices. So does it matter whether or not you sell to someone who you know is going to use the livestock as a sacrifice?
    -Chloé P

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  5. There are many manners in which we as Christian’s struggle with doing what is Godly over what is cultural in our American society. Often, we get stuck between the two and tend to give in to our surroundings. As Christian’s in Corinth struggled with eating of foods sacrificed to other gods, now people, more so, struggle with different morals and values. Especially within the youth and teen populations. The Bible tells us what to and what not to do but some find it hard to believe in a book in the way it should be believed in. Even the ten commandments, those are things that gave for all to follow yet so many of them are broken every day. Even within the church there are some who believe in God more than others and that division can cause many problems just as it did in Corinth “As with the division in the church and some of the problems with immorality the church at Corinth was divided along social lines mirroring pagan Corinth” (P. Long). With this some thought that eating of the pagan food was not issue as they did not believe in those other gods as there is only true God. Even now people use the dying and resurrection of Jesus and our eternal salvation to make the choices they want because those sins are then under the blood and are forgiven. Now people are so accustomed to sexual immortality that it does not phase most to have sex outside of marriage and to divorce when the relationship gets rough. All of this stems from the division of the church. If the church was more able to meet people where they are in their walk it would be easier for those who are stumbling to get help rather than feeling judged and falling deeper into the sin they are committing. Just as Longenecker talks of
    “the strong” Christians who understand there is nothing morally wrong with eating meat involved in sacrifices (because it does not compromise the identity of Jesus-followers), versus “the weak” Christians who do not yet understand there is nothing morally wrong with eating this meat. If those “strong” Christians were to help “the weak” understand they would be able to grow together, in learning and in teaching. 1 Corinthians 8:8 states, “But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (NIV).

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  6. “guilt by association” here, what principles can be drawn from this issue in 1 Corinthians which do have some resonance with modern Western Christianity? How does the western church avoid “mirroring the pagan culture” of America

    There is liberty in knowing God. For He does not give us more rules to abide in but Himself. I like that Paul said, Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies” (1 Corinth. 8:1). It didn’t really matter what the Jews or the Christians knew about idols, perhaps that is a matter of making knowledge your idol.

    I think that maybe our Christian culture tries so hard to not be like the world that it is like the controversy of food offered to idols. At a glance, the world is harmless, but Christians like to micro-manage themselves to affirm that what they are doing is right and holy. Although “holy” does mean set apart, it is not to distance yourself from the world. It means becoming more like Jesus Christ in the depths of the world. Thinking Through Paul mentions that, “Paul expects cruciform morality both in himself and in Christian communities–and all this flows from the pattern of Jesus Christ’ own self-giving.” (TTP 124)
    Thinking Through Paul gives a couple examples of how eating food sacrificed to idols can have a spiritual component to it, however, you must follow your conscience whether strong or weak in order to do what is right.

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  7. There is liberty in knowing God. For He does not give us more rules to abide in but Himself. I like that Paul said, Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies” (1 Corinth. 8:1). It didn’t really matter what the Jews or the Christians knew about idols, perhaps that is a matter of making knowledge your idol.

    I think that maybe our Christian culture tries so hard to not be like the world that it is like the controversy of food offered to idols. At a glance, the world is harmless, but Christians like to micro-manage themselves to affirm that what they are doing is right and holy. Although “holy” does mean set apart, it is not to distance yourself from the world. It means becoming more like Jesus Christ in the depths of the world. Thinking Through Paul mentions that, “Paul expects cruciform morality both in himself and in Christian communities–and all this flows from the pattern of Jesus Christ’ own self-giving.” (TTP 124)
    Thinking Through Paul gives a couple examples of how eating food sacrificed to idols can have a spiritual component to it, however, you must follow your conscience whether strong or weak in order to do what is right.

    Like

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