Food Sacrificed to Idols – 1 Corinthians 8

Of all the issues Paul covers in 1 Corinthians, the issue of food sacrificed to idols seems to be the most obscure in terms of application. In the west, people do not struggle with the problem of food sacrificed to idols, so we usually draw some principle about socially accepted behavior which may not be sinful, but better for a Christian to voluntarily abstain.

Paul’s main point throughout 1 Corinthians 8-10 is the proper use of our freedom in Christ. Freedom does not mean “free from all restraint.” Instead, Paul argues for a judicious use of their freedom in the service of others for the goal of presenting the gospel to a world desperately in need of a savior.

The issue in 1 Corinthians 8 concerns some members of the Corinthian church have no problem eating “food offered to idols” (εἰδωλόθυτος). 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.

The 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). 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). First, 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.

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.

Second, 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.

Third, it is more 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. This is far more than a chance at a free meal!

For Christians living in the majority of the world, eating for dedicated to idols is a very real problem. Christians in many countries need to worry about participating in festivals or communal meals with food which has been blessed by gods or ancestors. They take this part of 1 Corinthians very seriously and often suffer some level of persecution from friends and family when they choose to not participate in meals with this kind of food.

Many modern western Christians struggle with the possible application of this passage. For most American pastors, this is an opportunity to preach against some popular vice, smoking or drinking. Neither are not sins in moderation, but some Christians may be offended if a Christian exercises their freedom by smoking or drinking, so the gospel better served if we voluntarily refrain from these behaviors.

Having talked with Chinese Christians about the application of these verses to their living as believers in a pagan culture, the popular American applications seem watered down to the point of meaninglessness. How can those of us who do live in the west take Paul’s command to live differently than the world seriously?

Should the modern Christian de-paganize and reject some elements of our culture as incompatible with Christian faith and practice? Can we apply this passage to the consumerism and materialism of the West? Can we apply this passage to the Americanism of popular evangelicalism?

8 thoughts on “Food Sacrificed to Idols – 1 Corinthians 8

  1. Yes, No, No to questions.
    If I am not mistaken, the sin offering, guilt, and peace offerings were also eaten by the Jewish Temple worshipers. Only the burnt offering, indicating total sacrifice to God, was not eaten by the priests or worshiper. Afaik, wine had no restriction inherently (Kosher) but was not allowed if offered to idols. This was the issue for Daniel and his friends too (Dan. 1).
    Eating a sacrifice then indicated a friendship or peace with the deity. It seems invalid to cast a wide net with such a narrow injunction.

    • Sorry, perhaps I was unclear. In first Corinthian’s the problem is eating food sacrificed to pagan gods, not the sacrifices in the Jewish temple. Your reference to the book of Daniel is appropriate though.

      • Yes, I know, Phil. Forgive me being too implicit. Why would followers of Christ want to have peace with idols? Paul was wanting them to connect the dots with what they were doing seemingly without thought.

  2. I suspect a former-pagan gentile member of Corinthian culture would have considered an invitation to a banquet in a temple to be an honor and potentially a valuable connection in the client-patron system of the Roman world. Since they know the god is not real, what is the harm in eating the food and accepting the honor of the invitation? Paul’s point is a weaker brother or sister might take this as permission to continue worshiping the idols. In addition, the banquets were not simply a good meal, gluttony, drunkenness and prostitution were always a good possibility at these things. Paul’s concern is what outsiders might assume about Christians if they participate in these meals, that Christianity is not all that much different than the Greco-Roman world.

    So it is less about what the sharing of a meal in a temple might mean on the pagan-theological level, and more about what sharing that meal might mean for the preaching of the Gospel in Corinth. But you are right, Paul is letting the reader “connect the dots” between the behavior and why that behavior is problematic.

    By way of analogy (and it is a common, weak analogy), for some Christians, drinking alcohol is a taboo, but a pastor might accept an invitation to meet someone in a bar. Although that pastor might not drink themselves, another Christian might see them in the bar, and use that as a justification to drink, or an outsider might see that and assume the pastor was a hypocrite and reject his witness for the Gospel. (When I asked college students, would you respect me less if you saw me at a local pub, there seemed to be a majority who said they respected me more, depending on the pub….!)

  3. You seemed to have left the argument in Colossians 2:16, 20-23.
    Woodrow Nichols

  4. I was in Tokyo once on a 2 week business trip. On the weekend I went around town with another American who was staying there for a year, so he knew the sights to see. He showed me a Shinto temple and I declined to go in and there was also a way to contribute some money, which he did for “good luck” but which I declined to do. I think he was surprised but did not ask any questions, which was fine with me. So I think Paul’s concerns are still valid today in some forms.

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