First Corinthians 8 sounds as though Paul says it is all right to eat meat sacrificed to idols in the pagan temple. He made the point that the meat was all the same, whether offered to an idol or not, because the idol did not exist anyway, but wouldn’t it be wrong to dine in a pagan temple?
The verses in question read: “But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?” (1 Cor. 8:8-11 NASB and KJV).
When Paul said, “If any man see thee…sit at meat in the idol’s temple,” was he suggesting that it was all right to dine in a pagan temple? Let us look at several facts.
First, Paul used a grammatical construction called the subjunctive mood, which means he was making a hypothetical or conditional (“in case”) statement. If I should say to you, “If you see me get angry, do such and such,” I am not angry, I am only stating what your response should be in case you see me angry. This is the type of situation Paul pictured. He was not saying that some of the believers were eating in pagan temples but only what might happen if they were seen doing this. (The unspoken fact, however, is that Paul had a reason for making this hypothetical statement, and that reason was very likely that this was happening and needed correction.)
Second, Paul was addressing only one issue in this passage, and that issue was the effect of a weaker brother seeing a stronger one eating meat that had been offered to idols.
The word if in this passage is said to be “an emphatic marker of condition, with the implication of reduced probability” (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains).
Paul says, just suppose–worst case–that you ate meat in such a place, and one of the weaker Christians, a newly converted Gnostic who had been accustomed to eating meat offered to idols, saw you. Your poor example might cause the newly converted Christian to stumble, thinking you approve of idol worship.
Paul went on to say, “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble”(1 Cor. 8:13). It is said that some of the weaker Christians could not eat meat without thinking about it being offered to idols. Therefore they could not eat it with a clear conscience. To them, it was like falling back into the old pagan habit of offering meat to idols. This, said Paul, is sinful. It is sinful if one causes another to fall.
Paul said that there is no sin in eating meat that had been sacrificed to false gods because these gods are nothing more than idols made by the hands of men. However, the ones eating the meat that had been offered to idols must have a clear conscience to be innocent. They must be thoroughly convinced that the idols are nothing and that there is no difference in meat offered to idols and meat that is not offered to idols. “But not all people know this. Some people are still so used to idols that when they eat meat, they still think of it as being sacrificed to an idol. Because their conscience is weak, when they eat it, they feel guilty. But food will not bring us closer to God. Refusing to eat does not make us less pleasing to God, and eating does not make us better in God’s sight” (1 Cor. 8:7-8 NCV).
Would Paul consider that one who socialized with idolaters by eating in an idol’s temple took part in the idol worship? In chapter 10 he speaks directly to this issue, and clearly forbids it. He says:
“Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons” (1 Cor. 10:18-21 NIV). He says, “I do not want you to be participants with demons [idols].” If any of those attending the Church at Corinth were teaching that it was all right to eat meat in the idol’s temple, Paul corrected their thinking. To do such would be to eat from the “table of devils,” a practice that cannot be mixed with the table of the Lord.
In 2 Corinthians 6, Paul again spoke plainly about not associating with idolaters in their worship. “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? … Therefore ‘Come out from among them And be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, And you shall be My sons and daughters, Says the Lord Almighty.’ ” (2 Cor. 6:14, 17-18). A believer who would dine in an idol’s temple would be transgressing this command. Many of the believers had turned “from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9). They turned from idols to God. They could not serve both, it must be either idols or God. Again and again God showed his disgust with idol worship.
The issue of eating meat that had been offered to idols came up in the Jerusalem Church (Acts 15) as part of the complaints from Gentile believers who felt that some of the Jewish Christians were trying to impose Jewish customs on them. To resolve the issue a council of Christians met in Jerusalem. After discussing it, they came to a unanimous decision and sent official representatives, along with “our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ” to convey the decision to the Gentile believers. According to this decision, the Gentiles were required to observe only a few of the Jewish laws, one of which was to refrain from eating meat that had been offered to idols. The account of the decision is recorded in Acts 15:28-29.
“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these requirements: You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or eating the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell” (NLT).
Notice particularly that:
- It was a unanimous decision (v. 25).
- They had the benefit of the Holy Spirit (v. 28).
- Paul (with Barnabas) was highly recommended to tell them about their decision (v. 25-26).
- Paul was there at the meeting of the council and, since it was a unanimous decision, Paul was also in agreement (v. 25).
- At the head of the list of their message to the Gentiles was a message regarding eating meat offered to idols (v. 29). No way can we make these words say anything other than that they must abstain from eating food offered to idols.
The Christians were not to eat meat offered to idols, not because it was a sin; meat was meat whether offered to idols or not. Paul even told them that if they purchased meat at the market, not to even ask if it had been sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 10:25). What made it a sin was eating it might cause their weaker brothers to stumble. One could eat it in thankfulness to God without regard to it being offered to idols and not sin. But if they thought of it as having been offered to idols, or if by doing so they led their brother astray, then it was a sin. Thus the injunction, “You must abstain from eating food offered to idols.”
In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul is emphasizing the responsibility each believer has to fellow believers to show the right example. But he is not saying it is right to dine in an idol’s temple. Recall Paul’s words once again: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31 NIV).