What about Eating Food Sacrificed to Idols?

What about Eating Food Sacrificed to Idols?

In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul gives instructions about a subject which seems irrelevant today in many cultures – eating food sacrificed to idols. What was the problem faced by Paul’s readers at that time for him to consider it necessary to address this issue? More importantly, what principles in this passage can be applied today?

When Paul advised the believers in Corinth about meat or food sacrificed to idols, idolatry and sacrifices were as familiar to his readers as shopping centers are to modern audiences. On the other hand, people today are as bewildered about the practices of idolatry as a Corinthian would be in a supermarket.

The Problem Faced by the Church at Corinth

In the ancient world, there were 2 sources of meat: the regular market where the prices were higher and the local temples where meat from the sacrifices was always available. The Handbook of Life in Bible Times helps us understand the situation:

1 Corinthians 13:8 Bible Study

So Paul writes the 8th chapter of 1 Corinthians to help them see this problem from a Christian perspective. First, he tells them that in one sense he doesn’t really care whether they eat food sacrificed to idols because “an idol is nothing in the world and that there is no other God but one” (1 Corinthians 8:4-6).

Secondly, Paul realizes that food is spiritually neutral – meaning, food does not bring us near to God. In other words, we can’t win God’s approval by what we eat. We aren’t any better if we eat nor are we worse if we do not. However, Paul realizes that “not everyone possesses this knowledge” (1 Corinthians 8:7-8).

The “strong members” of the church knew that idols could not contaminate food, and so they saved money by purchasing the cheaper meat available from the temples. After all, who does not love a bargain? Not only that. They would also attend feasts held at the temple or in the home of their unconverted friends and eat sacrificial meat served to them.

The Christians who felt free to eat at the idol temple may have based their freedom on the correct knowledge that idols are nothing. But Paul is asking them to think about those who are not knowledgeable about this. He affirms what they know about an idol being nothing but he tells them that showing love to their fellow Christians is more important to God than being right (1 Corinthians 8:1).

It’s possible that the Corinthian Christians were reasoning like this: “Since idols are really nothing, it must mean nothing to eat meat sacrificed to them; it must also mean nothing to eat in the temples used to worship idols who are nothing.”

But all of this offended the weaker Christians, many of whom had been saved out of pagan idolatry. Paul was concerned that because they had been deeply involved in idol worship prior to their conversion, they might misunderstand if he and others ate food sacrificed to idols.

The Weaker Christians

When Paul speaks of a “weak brother” in 1 Corinthians 8:11, he does not necessarily mean someone who is easily tempted to sin. He is also not talking about being weak or strong in regard to self-control, but in regard to knowledge. Paul has in mind an over scrupulous Christian who is extremely careful to always do what is morally right and proper.

So Paul exhorts the strong Christians in the church – the believers who had spiritual knowledge and experience and who understood their authority and freedom in Christ – to care for the weak. And they are to do this by building them up and using their knowledge in love (1 Corinthians 8:1).

Some people have the false notion that the strong Christians are the ones who live by rules and regulations, and who get offended when others use their freedom in Christ, but such is not the case. It is the weak Christians who are afraid to use their freedom in Christ and must have the security of law.

In reality, it is the weak Christians who are prone to judge and criticize stronger believers and to stumble over what they do. As a result, it becomes more difficult for the strong “saints” to minister to their weaker brothers and sisters.

Becoming a Stumbling Block to Others

The real issue here isn’t idol meat, but rather that the exercise of your right does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” In other words, Paul does not want us to do anything that might cause other Christians to sin by violating their consciences, for this would wound or destroy them.

Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 8:9-12 (NIV):

Do not be a stumbling block to others“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.”

Why is their conscience weak? Their conscience is weak not because it isn’t working, but because it operates on the idea that an idol is really something. They have consciousness of an idol and when they eat meat sacrificed to idols, they eat it as something offered to an idol.

Rather than taking the risk of offending the weaker brethren, thus sinning against them and against God, Paul concludes: “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat again meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13).

Application for Christians Today

Perhaps the issues today where most stumble in that are relevant to Christian liberty include entertainment such as movies, music or television. Does the kind of movie or TV show we watch or the music we listen to have something to say about the level of our spirituality? What about drinking liquor and smoking?

The principle here is clear: Our actions should never be based on what we know to be right for ourselves; we also need to consider what is right in regard to our brothers and sisters in Christ. We should not cause a fellow believer in Christ to stumble over an issue that has direct relevance to the person in question.

It’s pretty easy for us to say, “I answer to no one but God and God alone.” But in doing so, we ignore a weaker brother or sister. It’s true that we will answer to God and God alone, but we will answer to Him for how we have treated our brother or sister.

At the Jerusalem Council, abstaining from food sacrificed to idols was one of the things discussed and commended for some churches (Acts 15:29). But Paul’s discussion of the issue with the Corinthian believers does not in any way contradict what has been agreed upon by the church leaders at the Jerusalem Council.

It must be made clear that the Council’s decision in regards to abstaining from meat sacrificed to idols was not intended to be normative for the churches all the time; it was only temporary as a means to advance the cause of the gospel among the Jews.

Conclusion

In summary, Paul is telling the Corinthians and the Christians today not to eat food sacrificed to idols if it causes those who are weak to follow their example. We are not to allow the freedom (in any area) we have in Christ to become a stumbling block to others. Rather, we should only do those things which build up others in love.

Freedom in Christ

Christians should not abuse their liberty and think that it is a small matter to offend their weak brethren. If what we do causes the weaker brethren to stumble and sin, then we should not do it. Christian behavior is founded not on knowledge but on love; and the goal of the Christian life is not knowledge but love.

10 Replies to “What about Eating Food Sacrificed to Idols?”

  1. Thanks Alice for the making clear on the topic. I found lots of information which will help me to decide whenever I am given food sacrificed to Idols. I found immense pleasure in going through the article.

    May God use you more to help people around the globe.

    1. Hi Mohan,

      Thank you for visiting and I’m glad this article was able to shed some light on the issue of eating foods sacrificed to idols and has given you clarity in your decision-making whenever you have to face this kind of situation in the future.

      May the Lord’s richest blessings be with you and your entire family, shalom!

  2. I am from India and live in a society with all kinds of religion. I sometimes eat prasad offered by them sometime not based on what people say but always wanting to know the truth. Though my understanding and faith about Christ is grown to a new level (all thanks to Jesus)for this.

    But this is one thing I was too concerned to know the truth according to the Bible. Because I only want to follow what the Bible says and nobody else due to being radical. But this site I found has given me a broader understanding according to the Bible.

    Thanks Alice. Jesus bless you.

    1. Hello Manisha,

      Thanks for stopping by and I’m really glad you found some clarity in regards to eating foods sacrificed to idols.

      The moment we placed our faith in Jesus Christ, we became a new creation and we desire only to follow God, obey His laws and commands that He revealed to us through the Bible.

      Admittedly, eating food sacrificed to idols is one of the issues Christians do not really see eye to eye on. Some believe it’s a NO-NO according to the Bible while others esay it’s okay because “idols really are nothing” and also, before we partake of them we always ask God to bless and cleanse them anyway.

      As I said, whether a Christian should eat or not boils down to his faith and conscience. And Paul explained very well that there’s nothing wrong with foods offered to idols. But if it will cause our brethren to stumble, we should by all means avoid it.

      God bless you more Manisha.

  3. Thank you sis. Alice, for expounding this text of 1 Corinthians. I’ve been searching the most reliable explanation about it. Find it so helpful.

    Blessings from the Lord to you!

    1. Always glad to be of help Claudine, thanks for visiting.

      Three important things we need to consider when interpreting biblical passages are the author, the intended readers and the reason why they were written. In other words, we need to have an idea what’s actually going on at that time that caused the author to write those letters. Because when we do not have the proper context, it’s pretty easy to come up with the wrong interpretation, which in effect will result to the wrong application. In the case of 1 Corinthians 8, it’s all about not causing other Christians to sin by violating their conscience and convictions.

      God bless you more.

  4. Alice, it is so refreshing to see a good, Bible based teaching website like yours.

    I enjoyed your teaching through one of my favorite epistles, First Corinthians. As you well know, it’s not easy to stand up for your Christian beliefs today. But you do it, and you do it well. I will be dropping in from time to time and reading through your posts. 

    Thank you for what you do for His Kingdom.

    1. Hello Clay,

      I really appreciate you dropping by and leaving your thoughts. Anyone who has read Paul’s 1st and 2nd letters to the church in Corinth gets the idea of the kind of problems that they had. And although some of those problems might sound strange to the believers in the 21st century, such as the issue of eating foods sacrificed to idols at the idol temples, there are certainly principles that are still applicable today.

      Thanks for your comment, may God’s abundant blessings be upon you.

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