Many of us have read Paul’s teaching on meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8-10) with a certain level of confusion. It, for one, is one of those passages with a tremendous amount of common knowledge assumed between author and audience. These situations and practices are simply foreign to us. It, for two, is a long argument and takes some effort to follow. It, for three, seems to be broken up by a strange rabbit trail about his right earn a living, take a wife, and Israel’s wilderness wanderings (9:1-10:13) before returning to food sacrificed to idols.
Many interpreters understand Paul’s command on this subject to go something like this: eating meat sacrificed to idols is acceptable, just be careful not to cause others to stumble (or of course if it was a part of actual idolatrous worship). Enter a problem, in two other books of the Bible this practice is prohibited. First, when Paul met with James concerning his Gentile mission, James gave him a short list of things for the Gentiles to avoid, the first being meat sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:29; 21:25 NRSV). Second, in the letters to the seven churches, the practice of eating meat sacrificed to idols is one of the things Christ condemns in the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira (Rev 2:14, 20 NRSV). So, why should Paul think it is OK?
Enter another problem. The Didache also seems to prohibit the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. We have discussed how this manual opens with the doctrine of the two ways (chs 1-5). The second section (chs 6-15) is the “rulebook” and prescribes the specific practices in the church. The very first issue in this section has to do with food.
Now concerning food, bear what you are able, but because of meat sacrificed to idols be extremely careful, for it is worship of the gods of death. (Did 6:3 BAB)
The first part, bear what you are able is a little ambiguous, but echoes the verse before where the writer says that if you are able to bear the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be complete, but if you are not able, do what you can (6:2 BAB). Maybe this means that they should do everything they can to avoid meat sacrificed to idols, but acknowledges that culturally this would be very difficult? At any rate, to eat this stuff is to participate in the worship of the gods of death.
Back to Paul, is Paul saying that consciously eating meat sacrificed to idols is OK in certain circumstances? I used to think so, but now I think he might be doing something else. This post is already too long, so let me briefly explain what I think Paul is doing. Paul is doing what I think every father has to do with his children. When one son takes the toy from another who refuses to share, a father has to address two issues. First, the thief must understand that he must not steal, and he must not covet but learn contentment. Second, the hoarder must understand it is good and right to share and must learn to enjoy the joy of others.
I think this is what Paul is doing. He first grants the argument of those who think food is no big and demonstrates why even so they are wrong to eat it because they fail to love and consider their brothers. They have destroyed fellowship and unity and disregarded their brothers by their insistence on exercising their rights. This is where Paul’s apparent rabbit trail fits perfectly as he demonstrates how he has surrendered his legitimate rights for the sake of his love of God and the Corinthians. After that, he gives a warning in the example of Israel, who after being redeemed, sinned and failed to enter the Promised Land. “Therefore,” he says, “Flee from the worship of idols” (cf. Did 6:3). What is the big deal though? For Paul, just as the Christian eating of the bread and drinking of the cup is a mysterious participation in the sacrifice of Christ—and in addition to that, it is a symbol of unity with all the members of the church—so consciously eating meat sacrificed to idols is a participation in idolatry, which Paul says is demonic. Thus, the believers’ allegiance to Christ made it impossible for them to then divide their loyalty in unity with the idolatrous culture that surrounded them.
For those with a sensitive conscious, Paul then gives them instruction on how to practice this, which basically amounts to this: if you are ignorant of the meat’s origin, you are innocent, but when you become aware that the meat is sacrificed to idols then you must abstain. Because these idolatrous practices were so pervasive in the culture it would have been extremely difficult to avoid, and perhaps this is why The Didache in the same spirit says, “Do what you can.”
To summarize, for Paul there are (at least) two principles at work in this issue. (1) Our love and unity with our fellow-believers trumps our personal rights and desires. (2) Our love and loyalty to Christ means we must not divide loyalties with the idolatrous practices of the surrounding culture. Even our food provides an opportunity to embody this. The Didache, in profoundly fewer words, agrees by putting this first.