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.
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.
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.
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.
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.