This blog is a little different. My church recently had a sermon on 1 Corinthians 8. In this chapter Paul addresses the response of the Corinthian believer to the problem of food that has been sacrificed to idols (vs1).
The pastor who preached this sermon was really helpful in unpacking the cultural background Paul is writing in and this blog is my effort to put those thoughts down on screen for people to engage with.
Paul’s argument in this chapter is that this sacrificed food is as an issue of strong/weak believers. In a similar manner to his teaching in Romans 14 and 15, Paul encourages believers for whom this food is not an issue to be wary of the impact it may have on believers who may still see such food as defiled. If it could be a stumbling block for someone, Paul says he would never eat meat again, rather than defile a brother with sin!
But why is this an issue? Whether preaching this text in church or tackling it in a personal devotional, let me flesh out the cultural background to Paul’s instruction.
Roman religion was transactional. If one wanted to thank the gods for something, or ask the gods for something, or even to apologise to the gods, then they had to give something. Sacrifice. The worshipper parted with a sacrificial item in return for the good favour or grace of the god or goddess to whom their worship was aimed.
And food was a common sacrifice in the Roman world. The gods feasted on the action of giving and the aroma of the sacrifice. A portion of the food may have been burnt in order to send up to heaven this fragrance of sacrifice, but the food “sacrificed to idols” that Paul was concerned with would have been more than just what was consumed by the fire. The food would be a gift to the gods, left in the temple and consecrated as holy to a particular god or goddess. But the food could then go on to be part of a sacrificial feast which the people shared with the gods.
Food sacrifices could include bread, grains, wine, fruit, meat, cakes and much more. It could even include whole animals, which would be roasted over a fire, part consumed by the flames and part by the priest and the people.
So what was the problem facing Christians in this setting? Temples, idols and altars were everywhere. Think of Paul in Acts 17. In verses 22-23 Paul talks of how he walked round the city seeing their many “objects of worship”, so many in fact they even have an altar to an unknown god!
Because it was so widespread, the Christian couldn’t avoid the religion of the Roman world, and in the food sacrificed in the temples of the ancient world, they were faced with a moral dilemma. Could they eat it? The Christian knew such food, which was available all over the towns and cities they lived in, was sacrificed to gods that didn’t exist and thus had no power or meaning. But they also knew such food was defiled (1 Cor 8:7). It was offered to false gods and idols. It was food of pagan religion. Could the Christian eat it?
Paul says yes.
But should they?
Paul says maybe.
If it would cause the weaker brother, unable to move past the purpose of the food sacrifice, to stumble into the sin of eating food offered to a god who is not God, then it ought to be rejected. But if those involved recognised that food “does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (vs8), then they were free to eat, what difference does it make asks Paul?
Food was sacrificed to idols as part and parcel of pagan religion in the ancient world. Much of that food was then kept and distributed by the priests and temple workers, it was often free to take and eat.
Should the Christian get involved? Paul says this is a matter of freedom, but also of showing grace to the weaker brother.
We ought to read this passage as a challenge to our own freedoms. By God’s wonderful grace we are eternally free in Him. There is much we can do as we live for Him. This specific example, food sacrificed to idols, though an issue for the Corinthian church, is rarely an issue for the modern church. But Paul’s point translates directly. Are we to put exercising our freedoms above looking our for the moral purity of our brothers and sisters? By no means. Just because we are free to do something, might not mean it is right. If it were to cause our brother to sin, we ought to mirror Paul in his meat eating example of vs13. If doing ‘x’ might cause our weaker brother to sin? Then it would be better that we never do ‘x’ again!
In grace we are free. But in our freedom we can extend grace.