FOOD OFFERED TO IDOLS
A large portion of 1 Corinthians was written by the Apostle Paul in response to some queries that the Corinthian church had sent to him. Thus we read in 1 Corinthians 7:1, "Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me…." Among the issues which he addressed is an issue that many of us, who are first generation Christians in Singapore, have to face: the issue of food offered to idols. The question is simple: may a Christian eat food that has been offered to idols, or in the local context, to deceased ancestors? Some would give a blanket prohibition based on Acts 15:29 and Revelation 2:14, 20, and harshly renounce anyone who teaches otherwise. The issue is, however, not so straightforward, and a blanket prohibition may be as wrong as indiscriminate permission. Paul addresses the question, under inspiration, in 1 Corinthians 8:1–13 and 10:14–33.
Before examining what Paul has to say, it would be helpful for us to know a little of the background of the Corinthian situation that led to their question to Paul. In the Graeco-Roman world in which the Corinthian Christians lived, a system of sacrifices to pagan deities was central to the religious, social and domestic life of the people. This was because the best of the animals were often in the pagan temples then existing. The offerings were customarily divided into three portions. One portion was burned on the altar, another portion was placed on sacrificial table for the deity; and the third portion was allotted to the worshippers for their consumption in special rooms within the temple precincts (cf. 1 Cor 8:10). Sometimes notable citizens were invited to special feasts in the temple. One papyri invitation discovered by archaeologists had the words: "Nikephorus asks you to dine at a banquet of the Lord Sarapis in the Birth-House on the 23rd, from the 9th hour." Such invitations would have been common place in the social life of the city of Corinth, and it was particularly a problem for Christians. Sometimes their commercial and social standing or membership in trade guilds would demand them to attend. Other times, a Christian could be invited to participate in dinners hosted by their friends or relatives who had just offered some special sacrifice (cf. 1 Cor 10:27). To turn down such invitations might be considered rude. Moreover, sometimes the meat that remained from the sacrifices were sent to the market places to be sold (1 Cor 10:25). The question then arose: was the Christian housewife at liberty to purchase these meats, which might well had been the best meat in the market since only unblemished animals were sacrificed? To add to the difficulties, there were the poor in the church who would in the past have been beneficiaries of the gratuitous banquets in the temple precincts. Were these at liberty to continue to benefit from such banquets? Indeed, should a Christian eat meat that has been sacrificed at all?
Convictions in the church were sharply divided. There were those who would insist that such meat was tainted by idolatry and so should neither be eaten nor bought. There were others who countered by saying that since there is only one God, the idols which were sacrificed unto were simply blocks of wood or stone without any significance, and so the meat offered to them could not possibly be tainted. In fact, to have any scruples about these meats would be to give credence to the popular conception that the idols are indwelt by the spirits of the so-called "gods and lords" (1 Cor 8:5).
In the face of such varied arguments, how did Paul respond? It is interesting to note that Paul did not appeal nor allude to the prohibition reported in Acts 15:29 at all. The Corinthian Christians had been thinking about the issue and they needed a more theological and rational response.
An Idol is Nothing
Paul begins his answer by expressing agreement with the proposition that "an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one" (1 Cor 8:4). The heathens may have many gods and lords in heaven and on earth, for they had celestial deities, and some of their heroes have been made into terrestrial gods to mediate on behalf of men. But these were only so-called "gods and lords" (1 Cor 8:5). All their divinity and mediation were imaginary. Christians should be clear that there is only "one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him" (1 Cor 8:6). Eating or abstaining from food offered to idols is in itself inconsequential (1 Cor 8:8). Meat offered to idols indeed cannot be tainted. Considered by themselves, they can be eaten just as any ordinary food which God has provided (1 Cor 10:26). Paul expands on this fact in application in 1 Corinthians 10:25–27,
Whatsoever is sold in the shambles [market], that eat, asking no question for conscience sake [i.e., asking no question of conscience]: For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof. If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast [in his home], and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake.
The point is clear: as Christians, we must not allow pagan superstitions to prevail in our minds so that we actually believe that food offered to idols have indeed been consumed by the pagan gods represented by the idols, and so are tainted and not fit for consumption by Christians. Thus, a Christian in Singapore needs not feel constrained not to eat Halal chicken because it has been ritualistically slaughtered. So long as nothing poisonous is added, no religious ritual can taint food in any way. Similarly, those of us who are first generation Christians need not worry if any fruit left in the fridge of our parents’ home have been offered to idols or to deceased ancestors. If no one is in, we can simply pick it up to eat, asking no question as to whether it has been offered.
However, there are two other factors which we have to consider.
For Conscience Sake
Firstly, up to the time the letter was written ("unto this hour"—v. 8:7), not all the members of the Corinthian church were convinced of the fact that idols are nothing or that food cannot be tainted by religious exercises. As Christians they certainly believed that there is only one God, but perhaps they thought that the idols represent demons and that the demons somehow eat of the food sacrificed; and therefore they did not have freedom in their conscience even to eat of food purchased in the market, which might have been offered. If such a person were to knowingly eat of meat that have been sacrificed, their conscience, being weak, would be defiled (v. 7b), and they would sin against God "for whatsoever is not of faith is sin" (Rom 14:23).
Paul tells those with stronger conscience to remember their weaker brethren and to bear with them, lest, by their indiscreet actions, they stumble the weak by wounding their weak conscience and so sin against Christ (1 Cor 8:9–13). Paul applies this doctrine in two situations.
The first situation involves participating at an idol’s feast at the temple. Paul tells the ‘strong,’ who might be tempted to go, that they could stumble the ‘weak’ members in the church (1 Cor 8:10). In 1 Corinthians 10, he would give another reason why they should not participate in the idol’s feast. We will address the reason in our next section, but one good reason, given here in chapter 8, is that their action would embolden the ‘weaker’ brethren to put away their conscience (cf. 1 Tim 1:19).
The second situation is when a Christian is invited by a pagan friend to his home to have a feast. We have seen earlier that Paul tells them that they may go,—asking no question of conscience (1 Cor 10:27). They need not even inquire if the food had been sacrificed. However, the situation would be quite different if the host or any one else should make it known that the food had been offered in sacrifice unto idols. In such a situation, the Christian should "eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake…" (1 Cor 10:28), i.e. for the sake of the conscience of him that showed it (v. 29). Paul does not indicate if there should be a difference if the person who makes the disclosure is a Christian or an unbeliever. I believe he would say the same. If the informant were an unbeliever, the Christian’s participation in the feast could become occasion for evil speaking and scandal (1 Cor 10:30, 32). If he were a believer, he could be stumbled by your boldness.
Translated to the situation in modern Singapore, we would say that a Christian should have no qualms about going to a wedding banquet of a Hindu couple. However, if it is made known to you that the food that will be laid on your table have been blessed by a Hindu priest or sacrificed to a Hindu idol, then you should refrain from going.
Fellowship with Devils
The second factor that must be considered, in whether we may eat food sacrificed to idols, is that participating in an overtly religious feast associated with a pagan temple or an idol would involve fellowship with demons and become occasion of temptation and sin. This was the emphasis of Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:12–22. In regards to temptation, he tells the Corinthians: "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. … Wherefore my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry" (1 Cor 10:12, 14). A Christian standing in a idol’s temple can so easily be tempted with idolatry such as when the mind is tempted to think that there is any sacredness in the idols.
The point with regard to fellowship with demon is more difficult. Paul had said that idols are nothing so that food sacrificed to them are therefore not tainted in anyway, and he affirms this assertion (1 Cor 10:20). However, a religious feast in a temple would always identify the participants with the religion. A person who eats of the sacrifices in the temple then becomes partaker of what the religion stands for. Even unbelieving Jews—"Israel after the flesh" (1 Cor 10:18)—became partakers of the altar, or were identified with Judaism by eating of the sacrifices. The case with the idols’ feast is similar. Though the idols are nothing, all pagan religions are satanically inspired, and so to participate in an idol’s feast would be to fellowship with demons. Paul says it emphatically:
The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils (1 Cor 10:20–21).
No Christian should ever be found participating in a religious feast in a pagan temple. To do so would be to provoke the Lord to jealousy and wrath (1 Cor 10:22).
Translated to the local context: No Christian should ever participate in a dinner held in honour of some deity or, more commonly, the feast of the 7th month festival where the feast are dedicated to ‘ghosts.’
As a young boy, I was always looking forward to the religious days on the Chinese Lunar Calendar. On such days mum would be unusually kind and gentle to us. But more importantly, she would always prepare a sumptuous feast comprising many delicious dishes. These dishes were always first offered to either some deceased ancestors or to some gods. Only after that did we gather around the table to eat. The whole family would always enjoy the feast as we hardly got to eat that much or that well on normal days.
One day however, my sister told my mother that she had become a Christian and that she would not eat anything that had been offered to idols. This made mum very angry, and from that day on, there seemed to be no peace in the family. Mum refused to acknowledge sister as a Christian, and sister refused to compromise, choosing at times to fast rather than eat anything that had been offered. Being an unbeliever then, I had felt that my sister was disobedient and unreasonable, and had begun to harbour a rising resentment against her for spoiling the peace in the home. Nevertheless, sister continued to demonstrate exemplary Christian conduct in the family as far as she could, and soon mum relented. Soon, whenever we had a feast, mum would set aside some portion of the food, that would otherwise have been offered, for my sister. She would eat the ‘clean’ food, whereas the rest of us would eat the leftovers after the idols or ancestors have ‘eaten.’
The situation that we were in was not directly covered by Paul. But was sister right in taking her stand and refusing to eat of the food that had been offered? I believe so. Though the family feast was not quite a religious feast, we all knew that the food was sacrificed, and as unbelieving children we did have a notion that something did happen to the food when they were offered. If sister had not taken her stand when she did, we would not have even thought that Christianity was any different from other religions. But what she did provoked us to think and by the grace of God my brothers and I eventually believed.
May this article and short sharing encourage anyone of us who is in similar situation to do what is right according to the Word of God, and to stand firm as living epistles of Christ. Amen.