Food Offered to Idols: A Contemporary Issue

Reposted from Rooted Thinking. This post originally appeared at GFA’s blog Commissioned, where you can find more missions-related content.

Billions of people in today’s world worship idols, angels, spirits of the dead/ancestors, and other spiritual powers.1 People have been worshiping demons and idols since the Fall. God’s people ever since have had to learn how to honor the One True and Living God in a pagan world.

Many believers in Christ today share a dilemma quite similar to that of Corinth in New Testament times. They are confused about how to live out their faith in relation to the pagan community around them. What are they to do about eating food offered to idols? How they answer this question will prove vital to their faith.

A Serious Matter

This issue is more important than many who are from a Christian-influenced, secularized, or monotheistic religious background readily understand.2 Cultures dedicated to this kind of pagan worship are dominated by public religious festivals and regular rituals. Community and family life revolve around these observances. Involvement in all this is the major expression of community, ethnic pride, unity, and even patriotism.

To not participate in pagan rituals is a public declaration that has consequences. Those who don’t participate will no longer be seen as true members of the community but as outcasts. Their families will be shamed by their perceived rejection of them and their ancestors. The decision will be interpreted as a rejection of their shared culture for foreign ideas. Persecution is guaranteed. What to do about food offered to idols is a very serious matter.

The Influence of Idolatry

Countries today with vast numbers of Hindus and Buddhists are dedicated to various levels of idolatry. Spirit worship is practiced today in these cultures (in no particular order): India, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and Vietnam. Animistic tribal religions throughout the world are still thriving as well.3 First Corinthians 8-10 is immediately relevant to believers among all these people groups.

One must also consider the idolatry and spirit worship among many Catholics and the animism rampant within Islam. Paul’s words about food offered to idols will assist God’s people in these contexts as well. The question of how Christians are to relate to idolatrous practices and food offered to idols is much more directly relevant to our world today than many Westerners realize.

Paul dedicated three whole chapters in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 8-10) to answering these questions. Disciples of Jesus who have repented of idolatry must know how to honor Christ in relationship to the paganism that exists around them. Those considering the claims of Christ need to know what turning to God through Jesus and away from idols looks like.

Corinthian Idolatry

The Corinthians worshipped many gods, each requiring different sacrifices. The gods required animal sacrifices, but different parts of the animals were offered, so not all the animal parts were burned up. Some of the leftover meat was given to the priests as payment for their services while the rest was resold in the market. Meat already offered to idols and resold in the market was often cheaper. If not cheaper, perhaps people wanted to buy it because they thought it would be spiritually blessed. Worship feasts and other feasts were commonly held at the temples, and the food served there was first offered to idols.

Idolatry in Corinth also involved sexual immorality, even in worship, as has often been the case throughout history. Paul does not address this side of idolatrous practices directly, though he deals with sexual immorality and the need for sexual purity throughout the letter.

The Questions

Corinthian believers were asking these questions:

  • Should Christians buy meat offered to idols to save money when they shopped in the market?
  • Could they buy meat offered to idols at all?
  • Could Christians feast at the temples if invited to a party there?
  • Could Christians go into a temple to eat if they did not participate in worship?
  • Is it ever appropriate to eat food that was originally offered to idols?

The Corinthians’ questions were like those being asked today by young believers from Buddhist or Hindu backgrounds. For example, Cambodian Buddhist-background believers seek answers to these areas of confusion:

  • At Chinese New Year can believers eat food offered to the ancestors with their family and friends? If they don’t participate in the worship part, may they still eat the offered food with family after the worship?
  • At Cambodia’s Festival of the Dead, when most Cambodians are at the temples having a great time and eating food blessed by the monks, what should/can Christians do? Is it acceptable for them to go to the temple just to have fun while avoiding the sacrifice and the eating of offered food?
  • When a family gathers during religious holidays to make cakes or special food for the festival, can believers join in and make food with them—even if they know that the food is ultimately going to be used in idol worship?

First Corinthians 8-10 provides an extended explanation of how to make daily decisions in pagan contexts in a manner that honors Jesus Christ. We will look at these chapters together in upcoming articles.

Notes

1 Approximately 2.5 billion people today adhere to Buddhism, Hinduism, and ethnic religions, faiths given to idolatry and spirit worship (https://joshuaproject.net/global/religions).

2 All false religions, philosophies of man, worldliness, and sins can be described as idolatry. However, our comments here will be restricted to literal idolatry since this is the immediate context of the passage.

3 Approximately 737 million adherents worldwide: https://joshuaproject.net/religions/4

Forrest McPhail Bio


Forrest has served as a missionary in Buddhist Cambodia in Southeast Asia since 2000. He presently serves as the Asia/Australia/Oceania regional director for Gospel Fellowship Association missions. He enjoys writing and teaching on missions and the Buddhist worldview. He and his wife, Jennifer, have 4 children.

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There are 5 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

Idolatry has always been an issue in America.  I hate it when people allegorize idolatry without first addressing its literal implications. Bowing down before an image is wrong.

Thank you, Mr. McPhail.

"The Midrash Detective"

Dan Miller's picture

Someone clicked "DISLIKE"? It's a bit early to dislike this when he has only introduced the topic.

Corinthian believers were asking these questions:

  • Should Christians buy meat offered to idols to save money when they shopped in the market?
  • Could they buy meat offered to idols at all?
  • Could Christians feast at the temples if invited to a party there?
  • Could Christians go into a temple to eat if they did not participate in worship?
  • Is it ever appropriate to eat food that was originally offered to idols?

It might be better to say, Corinthian believers were asking questions like those questions. Paul didn't give us their questions so clearly written as that. He said, "But concerning idol-foods..." 

Still, we can figure out some of what they asked (or at least what Paul understood them to be asking) by how he dealt with the issues.

Paul clearly spent (by far) the most time on one question: Can we eat in the pagan temple? 

  • The act that Paul used in 1Cor 8:9-10 as the example of what he thought the strong would do with their right, which was based on knowledge was to "recline in the temple."
  • The entire argument given in 1Cor 10:1-22 is against eating in the temple. It literally ends with "You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons."

What about the question, "Can we eat idol-meat from the market?" - There's no evidence in 1 Corinthians that Paul was even considering that question until 10:23-30.

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Finally, regarding the question, "Should Christians buy meat offered to idols to save money when they shopped in the market?" I don't think "to save money" is correct. Within the superstitious culture, idol-blessed meat was considered and even sold at a premium. So when the host in his home says, “This has been offered in sacrifice,”(10:28) he's speaking well of his offering. Like, "Good news; this meat carries the blessing of Ascelpius." Not, "Sorry, but I bought discount meat for dinner tonight!"

Bert Perry's picture

Never thought of offered food being offered at a premium, but it makes sense on one level. 

What I don't follow, then, is why any believer would need to be tempted to pay extra for such food.  "Hey, you can get hamburger for $20/lb when it's readily available without idol worship for $4/lb otherwise!"  So I'm leaning towards the other explanation, that it was at a discount, especially given the rather exorbitant expenditures history records of the rich trying to buy the good graces of the poor in Roman days. 

Offerings were (then as now) very often a show of how generous you could be, and that seems compatible with the notion that offering day generated a (possibly temporary) surplus of meat that had to be eaten quickly or else rot.

It also stands to reason that if believers were indeed paying extra for offered meat, Paul would have been quite savage in his response--something to the effect of "you're paying extra for the same food at the same time you're commending idols to your neighbors?  Seriously?"  It could be possible at times that Christians would do so to "cover their tracks" in times of persecution, but I don't believe that was generally the case when Paul was writing Romans and 1 Corinthians.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Dan Miller's picture

What I don't follow, then, is why any believer would need to be tempted to pay extra for such food.

I don't think Paul thought he would be. What Paul had in mind was a situation where the offerer of the food volunteered that it was offered to idols.

Salesmanship/Entertaining 

People tend to read this as an apology or warning. But that means the seller (or host) is volunteering negative aspects of his product (or meal). Is that consistent with what you know about salesmanship or entertaining?

Superstition

Whether it’s a never-been-washed Jersey of their football hero or a necklace with an eye that “wards off evil spirits,” its status as a blessed object adds value. 

In 1 Corinthians 10:24-31, (the lenient section), Paul describes two situations:

1. “sold in the meat market” 
2. “one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner”

At first, you don’t know the provenance of the meat and you “raise no questions.” Paul says go ahead and eat it. 

Then, the unbeliever tells you it’s idol-meat. A lot of commentators do think of this as a warning. They often presume the warning comes because the unbeliever knows the Christian would want one. That’s possible, but it’s also possible (and makes more sense) that it isn’t a warning at all. It’s a value. Paul would have expected the salesman and host to be superstitious about idol-meat. They name it as such to offer the blessing of the idol along with the meat.Now, a lot of commentators have come up with ways for this informer to be a believer.

Paul is not talking about whether Christians want to buy idol-meat, but what to do when an unbeliever displays their superstition. 

Larry's picture

Moderator

I don't think "to save money" is correct. Within the superstitious culture, idol-blessed meat was considered and even sold at a premium.

Do you have any source for this? The common view that I have seen is that it was cheaper because the market was flooded with meat after a festival because it could not all be eaten. 

The value was for those who believed in the gods and ate the meat in hopes of obtaining and extra blessing. I haven't seen anyone argue that for meat sold in the marketplace but perhaps I have just missed it.

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