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?

25 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.

  5. I think that modern Christians should reject some elements of culture as incompatible with living as Jesus followers. Although 1 Corinthians 8 primarily addresses the issue of food sacrificed to idols, it follows the theme that Paul is addressing about the proper use of freedom in Christ (Long). This freedom from the Law does not mean that Christians should just do whatever they want. Paul reasons with the Corinthians that although some people may be “strong” knowing that idols have no true power and feeling free to eat food that was sacrificed to them others who are “weak” may be disturbed by their decision to eat such food. Paul expected believers to sacrifice their own individual rights at times to benefit the community of believers (TTP, p. 124). Many Corinthian Christians would have opportunities to partake of food sacrificed to idols without seeking to participate in idol worship because of the invitations of unbelieving family and friends to meals in the temple or even in their homes because meat available in the market was excess from sacrifices to idols. Refusing to partake would not be natural or easy, yet is the right choice for the sake of other believers. Christians today must make decisions not only based on personal conviction but for the good of their communities much like the Corinthians.

  6. Paul’s explanation and description of freedom can seem a bit confusing. It does not look like freedom at all. I’m supposed to use my freedom to voluntarily serve others? That is like saying, “well, I got a day off of work, but you know, I think I would like to go in to work and help out and not get paid today.” No one would do that. Yet Paul urges Christians to use their freedom to choose to serve others. And we are to do this in ways to build other Christians up. Our way of serving them can be avoiding something that might cause them to stumble. The specific case Paul deals with in this section is eating food sacrificed to idols. The explanation of how Christians might be in a situation where they would be eating this food given in the blog is very helpful. It makes the passage easier to understand since we do not deal with this same issue today. Was it idolatry to eat this meat, and was it a hindrance to other’s faith if they did.? In my opinion, a Christian who understands there is only one God and chooses to eat this meat is not doing anything wrong. I do wonder though if “Christians” who get upset when other Christians exercise their freedoms don’t have some issue of the heart they need to examine as well. Christians should not goad these believers by continuing to do what it is that bothers them, that would be what Paul talks about as an abuse of their freedom. It is important to serve the gospel in the best way we can, and I wonder if getting upset with other Christians for using their freedoms is a good way to represent the gospel. We need to be conscious of the ways this issue applies today. Since we are not faced with eating meat sacrificed to idols, our issues are drinking, smoking, even social media. We need to be conscious of how participating in those activities impacts others’ faith, but we also need to be aware of what representation of the gospel we set when we berate other Christians for things like being active on social media. Our goal should be to serve the gospel the best we can, no matter which side we stand on.

  7. In 1st Corinthians, the issues of food sacrificed to idols are discussed heavily and find a diversity of opinions and practices. This issue is often seen as obscure to the modern reader since believers in the current day do not relate to the struggles of the Roman world and the church in Corinth. However, this does not mean the problem should be overlooked or seen as unimportant to the reader, since many Christians outside of America encounter this problem today. This is combined with the principle which is instilled throughout the passage, which is while some actions might not be sinful, not engaging in certain activities might better serve the gospel and present Jesus Christ in better light among non-believers.
    Beyond the application of the text to the modern reader, we must engage the passages in their original context and what the believers of the letter struggled with intensely. As Long notes, the church was not concerned with the food itself, but rather they desired to make a statement that it is permissible to eat food sacrificed to idols because there is no other God except for Jesus Christ.
    This stems from their contention that any restriction on their diet is infringing upon their rights as followers of Christ and citizens of Corinth. The difficulty of navigating this issue is found in the fact that many of these believers would have interacted with food meals sacrificed to idols. Whether by eating food in a temple during a time of celebration or when invited to a person’s household for a meal who is unsaved. While some may have engaged within these meals, others felt convicted and were unable to participate. Generally speaking, Paul maintains the position that one’s consciousness should help dictate whether to engage in the practice or not.

  8. I do think that some elements of Christianity could do well with some depaganizing. Sometimes I feel as though Christianity has tried to become more relevant to the world, and in turn becoming more like the world. It is hard to be a part of the culture without becoming more like the culture that is around us. I think that is what happened to the people of Corinth who were eating food that was sacrificed to idols. They wanted to be invited to the big parties that had many rich and wealthy people who would eat food that is sacrificed to idols. They compromised some of their own personal beliefs so that they could interact more with the culture that they were living in..This happens a lot of the time with the consumerism of the west because Christians find themselves loving to make money. There are so many people who claim to be christians that make money by stepping on other people and taking advantage of those who are less fortunate than they are. We sacrifice our morals so that we can make money, like sacrificing morals so we can sit with the powerful (Corinth). I think that this concept of sacrificing our morals so that we can look better to people is still very applicable to modern America and modern evangelicalism. The concept is still there that so many people do not want to see.

  9. Just as you said, our Western culture is not like other cultures that make it a regular practice to offer food to their ancestors or gods, like many Eastern cultures. With that being said though, there are other elements of our culture that this passage can be applied to. 1 Corinthians 8 can encourage us to look critically within our lives and help us decide if something is causing a stumbling block for others. Smoking and drinking are common ones to look at, but there are also others like listening to Pop music or watching R-rated movies. There aren’t specific verses in the Bible that prohibit such things (some may argue that certain Proverbs address what we listen to or watch, but for this argument, I won’t address that), but if other believers, with a stronger conviction against those things, sees you participating in them, then that may cause them to fall into sin. Romans 14:23 says that “If you do anything that you believe is not right, you are sinning.” So, even if you don’t have a problem with eating food sacrificed to idols, or watching an R-rated movie, if that causes another believer, who holds to one of those convictions, to participate in that, then they have fallen into sin. We may have to go through experiences in life that force us to be right in the middle of the sin and brokenness that our fallen world offers, but that doesn’t mean we need to “conform to the patterns of this world” (Rom. 12:2). Therefore, each of us must discern what is right and wrong in our culture through the lens of the Bible, and also adhere to others and their convictions.

  10. Oops! I got carried away and I apologize. Eating foods sacrificed to idols isn’t what makes you unclean, as Jesus said. I thought someone else wrote this. I like what you write, especially your work on Enoch.

  11. No worries, I know you are a friend. There does appear to be some in Corinth who think eating meat sacrificed to idols does make one unclean, regardless of what Jesus may have said. These are likely Jewish Christians who are practicing their food traditions as they always have.

  12. This is a sore spot for me. Suppressing your own pleasure to appease the weak can lead to them controlling the body, which leads to disaster. True love is tough love in my opinion. Sorry again for calling you a fool.

    • I understand that. I regularly suppress what I really want to say to avoid being offensive. A little different, I suppose, but same general idea.

  13. I tried buying your book on Enoch but Amazon wanted me to create an account. Can I send the money directly to you?

  14. Eating food sacrificed to idols was prohibited to Jews and gentiles in Israel in Lev 17 and by extension to all believing gentiles in Acts 15 to allow for table fellowship with believing Jews.

    What Jesus said is that eating with unwashed hands (according to the Pharisees’ hand washing ceremony) did not profane any (kosher) food eaten by Jews and therefore certainly did not profane the eater. What does profane the person are evil things that come out of them.

  15. Food sacrificed to idols was a bit different during the Greco-Roman world. During the time, there were three main reasons why the Corinthians would have encountered meat sacrification to idols: eating the food in a temple during a celebration, been invited to an unsaved person’s home for a meal, and for socially significant events. In today’s modern world, we don’t eat food sacrificed to idols, but there are a few examples of why we would eat while getting together. A few examples, or cultural factors, that would initiate food at gathering would be holidays, birthday gatherings, wedding gatherings, and special occasions like graduations. For the majority of the time, there is some sort of food involved with family and/or family and friend gatherings. However, in our modern world, we don’t have food sacrificed to idols.

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