Eating meat that has previously been offered to idols. Big issue here in Warren these days, right? The other night, as my family and I made our way through the crowd into the Lions Club’s annual Turkey Dinner, we were greeted by the smiling visage of Dr. Larry Krespan. As I took my coat off, I asked, “Now, was any of this meat offered previously to idols?” When he regained consciousness, he said he was sure that none of it had. So, fine. We ate. As I say, big deal here in Warren these days. Duh!
To be honest, I do not know just WHEN this stopped being the big deal that the Corinthians were confronting. Probably not too long after Paul’s instruction. In fact, in Clarence Jordan’s wonderful Cotton Patch Version of Paul’s Epistles, the parallel to First Corinthians is First Atlanta, and the subject is not about what food Christians may or may not eat but rather whether it is permissible for Christians to work on Sunday,(1) an issue in 1968 when the Cotton Patch version was published, but now, not quite 40 years later, one we rarely hear discussed.
So saying, for First Church, Corinth, in the first century, this food offered to idols controversy was a sticky wicket. Sticky enough for the Apostle Paul to take up three chapters of this letter, chapters 8, 9, and 10.
By way of background, in the ancient Greek and Roman world, every town had one or more temples, dedicated to pagan gods. In the bustling city of Corinth, there were gracious plenty, a reflection of the heterogeneous population – ex-Roman soldiers, merchants, Jews, easterners from Phoenicia and Phrygia, slaves, freedmen, sailors, etc. By the middle of the first century, when this letter was written, the population was approaching three-quarters of a million people, two-thirds of whom were slaves.
The city had become a byword for loose living: to live “like a Corinthian” meant a life of immorality and debauchery. Corinth was home to the Temple of Aphrodite to which were attached 1,000 priestesses who were sacred prostitutes. There was an ancient saying: “It is not every man who can afford a journey to Corinth.”
Now, whether it be the temple of Aphrodite or any other, it was common practice for worshipers to offer sacrifices. If you were bringing a sacrifice, you would walk into the temple leading a goat or a sheep. One of the priests would ritually kill the animal, clean the carcass and place its body on the great stone slab of the altar. There it would be burned, until a plume of barbecue-smoke wafted its way to the heavens, a pleasing scent the people of that day believed influenced the gods. (2)
Only a small portion of the sacrificial meat was actually incinerated, often only a mere token part as small as some of the hairs cut from the forehead. The rest was nicely roasted, and was used in one of two ways (the scholars disagree among themselves as to which was most common). Some say the meat was carved up on the spot, and served to worshipers in the temple, as a great feast. Others say it was packaged and sent to the butcher-stalls in the town marketplace, where it was sold — the profits to benefit the temple. Some scholars even think the sale of meat in the marketplace was a priestly monopoly, that all meat had passed through a pagan temple, on the way to the butcher-shop. This meant that if you were a Christian and wanted to eat meat at all, you had to put aside any spiritual scruples about where it had been.
Either way, this practice poses a real dilemma for the early Christians. They have pledged to follow Jesus Christ, and to turn from the pagan deities. Yet what do you do when your next-door neighbor invites you to the Temple of Artemis, to celebrate his son’s coming-of-age with a sacrifice and a great feast? Or what do you do when you stroll down to the marketplace to buy food for supper, and you realize the meat in the butcher-stall spent the morning up on the high altar of Zeus?
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A raucous debate has broken out in the Corinthian church, over these issues. There is a conservative faction that loudly proclaims that no Christian should ever eat meat sacrificed to an idol. The liberal faction is more laid-back: “We know these pagan gods, so-called, are not gods at all; to us, meat is meat, and we are not worshiping as we eat it. So what is the big deal?”
Every time they called a congregational meeting in the Corinthian church, that tired old subject would come up. The conservatives would accuse the liberals, the liberals would snap back at the conservatives…the old, familiar charges and counter-charges would be raised. Nobody would ever win the argument, and, after the meeting, both sides would gather separately in the parking lot afterward and say, “Ain’t it awful?”
Finally, someone suggests they write to Paul about it, along with questions on other contentious subjects as well: questions about divisions in the church, moral issues, legal questions, ecclesiastical roles, worship practices, even theology. What the Apostle sends back, in reply, is this first letter to the Corinthians. By the time he gets around to dealing with this meat offered to idols issue, he is responding to them almost in the way they have couched their question – bumper sticker style. The Corinthians have been making their arguments with one-liners: “we all possess knowledge…an idol is nothing at all in the world…there is no God but one.” So Paul’s response is a bumper sticker of his own: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
Paul agrees with the liberals that the old pagan idols have no power over Christians; there is no spiritual harm caused by eating the sacrificial meat. But then he says to the liberals, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” Don’t you eat that meat, he says to the enlightened folks, if by doing so you might cause any of the conservatives to lose their way, and fall back into paganism.
Paul continues his argument in chapter 9 (and remember this chapter division in our Bibles is artificial – when Paul wrote it, this was not divided, just one long letter). In chapter 9 he deals with those who invoke the principle of Christian freedom. He points out that there are many things that he is free to do but which he abstains from doing for the sake of the Church. He is well aware of Christian freedom, but equally aware of Christian responsibility.
Then in chapter 10 he deals with those who declare that their Christian knowledge and privileged position make them quite safe from any infection. He cites the example of the Israelites who had all the privileges of God’s Chosen People and who yet fell into sin. He advises against over-fussiness; in other words, if you make your purchase in a local butcher, exercise the ancient principal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. If you go to someone’s home and they make a big point about serving you something that they inform you has been previously dedicated to a pagan deity as an in-your-face challenge to your Christian commitment, you should best politely decline. In other words, BE CAREFUL!!!
Paul’s point in all this is to say that none of us has the right to indulge in a pleasure or to demand some liberty which might be the ruination of someone else. You may have the strength of mind and will to keep that pleasure in its proper place, that course of action may be safe enough for you, but you have more than just yourself to think about – there is that weaker brother or sister. An indulgence which may be the ruin of someone else is not a pleasure but a sin.
Paul does not tell the Corinthians what they ought to do. Instead, he brings this section to a conclusion by saying what he would do, or, in this case, NOT do. “If what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.”
A bit later on in this letter, Paul lays out the appropriate standard for Christian behavior. We know the passage as I Corinthians 13. As you scholars know, it begins “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Many folks hear those words and think about marriage because the passage is so often read at weddings, but it is really not limited to that. This is simply Paul’s guide for Christian behavior – married, single, widowed, divorced, male, female, no matter. As to dealing with the issue at hand, this difference of opinion on food offered to idols, the standard is love: “love is patient, love is kind…it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered…It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (3) In the face of the overwhelming reality of Christian love, the chew-’em-up and spit-’em-out rules of debate are suddenly suspended; the negative bumper stickers are thrown away; the mudslinging is over.
Eating meat offered to idols. You know, in a way, this is a quintessentially Presbyterian issue. After all, Presbyterians, among all stripes of Christians, are probably the most cerebral, the most “knowledgeable.” We are the ones who have been so insistent upon an “educated clergy” that we would allow a split in the church 200 years ago in defense of the idea. I will confess that, as I hear some of the church-related social issues that are piously debated today – abortion, human sexuality, stem-cell research, intelligent design, and so on – I am tempted to scream. Yesterday, there was that article in the paper that had some Southern Baptists wanting to tell other Southern Baptists what was permissible and what was not in PRIVATE prayer. Geez, Louise! I honestly get the impression that the only reason some folks come to church is to have a place to fight. I want to yell SHUT UP!!! You want the answers? Be quiet for a minute and I will tell you!!! But then, I hear again, “Knowledge puffs up, David, but love builds up.” There are ways and there are ways. OK, Lord, I’ll be quiet. As I say, a quintessentially Presbyterian issue.
Years ago, when I was in seminary, there was a little Baptist church across the street from our campus. They had a marquee-type church sign similar to ours on which was displayed a message. But it was the same statement week after week after week after week. For at least two solid years it was up there, and I had no doubt it was meant particularly for us seminarians. It said, “The same Bible that says believe also says Behave.” Uh-huh. A good reminder for seminarians or anyone. “The same Bible that says believe also says Behave.”
Did we take it to heart? Well… Our students were invited to play a basketball game against the students of a nearby Bible college. Theologically and socially “conservative” would not begin to describe the world-view of these folks – they were somewhere far to the right of the Falwells and Robinsons and Dobsons. Their motto could easily have been “What part of ‘Thou shalt not’ don’t you understand?” And, of course, no smoking, no drinking, no dancing, no card playing, no fooling around in the back seat of the Chevy, etc., etc., etc.
Well, WE were the enlightened folks. We understood the gospel as something positive, not negative. Christian freedom allows us enormous liberty. And since this was a Lutheran seminary, and everyone knows that Luther’s favorite beverage was beer, our team brought not only basketballs and shoes, they brought a keg, and proceeded to demonstrate the Christian freedom to imbibe that “enlightened” believers enjoy.
As you can imagine, our opponents were apoplectic, and let our seminary administration know it. And soon, our seminary president was equally apoplectic. How dare we do such a thing? This sort of “in your face” taunting of peoples values, no matter whether we might consider them misguided or not, is never to be repeated. No more kegs, or no more ball games! Period! And he was right. Sounds like First Church, Corinth, all over again.
A truism in our society is “It’s not WHAT you know, it’s WHO you know,” and in the context of modern life that explains why some folks get ahead and some other do not. But in the context of the life of faith, it can be equally valid, not as an excuse for failure or an explanation for success, but as a wonderful way of living out our understanding of the gospel. What determines the way we live as Christians? WHAT we know? Or WHO? What do you think Jesus would do? Listen to Paul once more: “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.” Remember, it’s not WHAT you know…
1. Clarence Jordan, The Cotton Patch Version of Paul’s Epistles, (Piscataway, NJ : New Century Publishers, 1968), p. 58
2. Material on sacrificial practices comes from an unpublished sermon by Dr. Carlos Wilton, Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church, Point Pleasant, NJ entitled, “Love Builds,” 1/30/00 and from William Barclay, Daily Study Bible Series, CD-ROM, (Liquori, MO: Liquori Faithware, 1996, used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press)
3. I Corinthians 13:4-7
Copyright 2006, Dr. David E. Leininger. Used by permission.