One of the struggles in the early church concerned meat which had been sacrificed to idols. Debates over what to eat might seem strange to most of us in modern society, but to the first-century believers, it was a subject of great consequence. As the apostles dealt with the issue, they gave instructions on several broader topics with application for today:
Unity within the church. In the early years of the church, as Gentile converts began joining Jewish believers in local fellowships, an issue arose concerning the eating of meat. Greco-Roman society was saturated with idol worship, and it was common for meat sold in the marketplace to have been consecrated as a sacrifice to false gods prior to its sale. The Jews would have nothing to do with such meat, wary of “unclean” food-handling practices and believing that to partake of consecrated meat was to give tacit approval of idol worship—kind of a “second-hand” idolatry. The Gentiles rejected the notion that such meat was tainted and held that they could eat meat sacrificed to idols without endorsing idolatry—they had not actually offered the sacrifice, after all. The matter was becoming a point of contention within the church.
The church in Syrian Antioch, comprised of both Jews and Gentiles, struggled with this issue (Acts 15). The Jerusalem Council settled the matter by urging Gentile converts to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:29). This decision was made not to promote legalism but to keep peace within the church. Since eating meat offered to idols was a divisive issue—carrying the possibility of scandalizing fellow believers—abstinence was expedient. Compliance with the council’s directive assured that, at the next church potluck, a Jewish believer could eat the brisket he was served with confidence, knowing it had never been part of a sacrificial cow. And the Gentile believer could not be accused of participating in idol worship.
With its ruling, the Jerusalem Council affirmed the need for deference, or consideration for the scruples of others. The principle is one of self-denial; we should be willing to lay down our personal rights for the sake of maintaining unity in the body of Christ. Spiritual growth takes priority over personal preferences.
Causing a weaker brother to sin. In 1 Corinthians 8:4-13, Paul clarifies the teaching on this subject. First, he says that eating meat offered to an idol is not immoral, because “an idol is nothing at all.” An idol is an inanimate object. “Food,” he says, “does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” The meat itself is amoral. However, there is more to consider, namely the brother with a weak conscience. Some believers, especially those with a background of idol worship, were still very sensitive concerning this issue and considered it morally wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Under no circumstances, Paul says, should a believer encourage another believer to violate his conscience. To the pure, all things are pure (Titus 1:15), but to one with a weak conscience, meat taken from pagan temples was spiritually defiled. It would be better never to eat meat again than to cause a believer to sin against his conscience.
The “weaker” brother is not someone who simply objects to a certain practice, but one who is in danger of falling into sin. To illustrate, let’s say there are two 1st-century Christians named Demetrius and Clement. Both are former idolaters, now saved by faith in Christ. Demetrius shuns everything to do with his old way of life, including the meat sold in the marketplace, because, for him, eating such meat would constitute a return to paganism. Clement avoids the temple and refuses to participate in the pagan festivals, but he has no problem eating the meat from the market. Clement understands (correctly) that an idol has no power to corrupt good meat, and, for him, eating such meat is a non-issue. Then one day, as both men are in the marketplace, Demetrius sees Clement eating meat that was sacrificed to idols. Demetrius is horrified, but Clement laughs it off and encourages Demetrius to eat some, too. When Demetrius hesitates, Clement cuts off a piece and hands it to him. Demetrius—emboldened by Clement’s confidence—eats the meat. Biblically, both believers have sinned. Clement sinned by violating the conscience of a fellow believer. Demetrius sinned in that he essentially returned to idolatry—at least, that’s what his conscience is telling him. More importantly, Demetrius is learning how to ignore his conscience—a very dangerous thing to learn.
The principle here is that the conscience of a weaker Christian is more important than individual freedom. Doing something “permitted” should never hinder the spiritual health of someone else.
Maintaining a pure testimony. In 1 Corinthians 10:25-32, Paul again emphasizes the believer’s liberty and what should limit that liberty. If you buy meat for your own use, don’t inquire where it came from; it doesn’t really matter whether it was sacrificed to an idol or not. “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). However, if you are invited to dinner and someone there says, “This meat was offered to idols,” then graciously refrain from eating. Since your associate obviously considers the meat to be “tainted” by the idols, do not eat it for his conscience’s sake—even though your own conscience is fine. The Christian glorifies God when he limits his freedom for the spiritual benefit of others.
Compromise with the world. In the letter to the church of Thyatira, Jesus rebukes them for tolerating a prophetess who “misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols” (Revelation 2:20). This is a different situation from what Paul was dealing with in Corinth. It seems that members of the church of Thyatira were partaking of the pagan “love feasts,” celebrated with gross immorality and feasting. These believers were not simply buying meat in the marketplace; they were actually attending idolatrous festivals and joining in the sin of the idolaters. (See verse 14 for a similar rebuke of the church of Pergamos.)
Here is a summary of the Bible’s teaching on eating meat sacrificed to idols:
Eating meat offered to an idol is not inherently wrong. Meat is not “defiled” because it was taken from a pagan sacrifice. God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). However, some Christians consider meat offered to an idol to be defiled, and for them it is, since they must follow their conscience. Their scruples should be respected by other Christians with a stronger conscience. Love dictates that all Christians make allowances for their weaker brothers.
There are certain cultures today where idolatry is still practiced and where the specifics of the Bible’s teaching about sacrificial meat are still timely. For the rest of us, here are the principles which should govern our participation in the “gray areas” of life:
1) Having the “right” to do something does not mean we are free to do it in every circumstance, regardless of its effects on others.
2) The believer’s liberty in Christ can and should be voluntarily limited in order not to cause a weaker brother to sin by violating his conscience. Liberty is limited in love.
3) Maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of love may require a believer to give up his personal “right” to a thing. “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1).
4) We should avoid anything that would make a weak Christian think less of his faith or that would make an unsaved person feel more at ease in his sin.