As to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as in fact there are many gods and many lords – yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. ‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall (1 Corinthians 8:4-13).
Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves (Romans 14:13-15:1).
These two parallel passages from Paul’s epistles have become known as the ‘weaker brethren’ argument. Put simply, they argue that Christians, unlike practising Jews, are free to eat whatever they want, even if it is sold in the marketplace where all the food has been dedicated to false gods. However, since not every Christian knows this yet, those whose conscience still baulks at eating something ‘unclean’, may be upset and offended by seeing their fellow Christians do so. If that is the case, the Christians who do know this, should refrain from eating ‘unclean’ food in front of their ‘weaker’ brothers and sisters.
Behind all decisions about food rules (as in the minimal requirements the Council of Jerusalem made for Gentile believers – Acts 15:19-21), is the idea that ‘food = fellowship’, a very Jewish, and indeed generally Middle Eastern, idea. In an inhospitable land with much desert, and among nomadic peoples, hospitality is a prime obligation, and what we serve up should not offend the feelings of those we host. But equally, if someone hosts us, we should not insult their hospitality by being picky about what we will eat: ‘If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience‘ (1 Corinthians 10:27). Only if we are specifically told by another guest that the food has been offered to idols, says Paul, and that this offends the other guest, should we abstain. In other words, act for the moral and emotional welfare of the other person: ‘Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God’ (v.32)
I am mostly vegetarian (though my son’s food preferences have eaten away at this commitment over the last 20+ years). Some years ago we were in the US, ‘Mennoniting our way’, and were taken to eat with an Amish family who host tourists for extra income and to make their way of life better understood. I saw immediately that the main dish on offer was a meat loaf. I could have just eaten the vegetables and explained. But I didn’t want to give offence or trouble, so I ate the meat loaf. I still think I did the right thing.
There are two things I particularly notice in this teaching. One is that those who need to conform to rules about behaviour, who need to know ‘the Christian way’ to do everything in their lives, are described as weaker. It is those who feel free to, in the words of St. Augustine, ‘love God and do as you like’ who are the stronger. How have we, historically, entirely reversed this order in the church? We regard those who keep all the ‘Christian rules’ as strong Christians, while those who take a more relaxed attitude are somehow weaker. The Bible says the exact opposite! I once heard a sermon that divided people, and Christians in particular, into ‘the let-ters’ and ‘the ought-ers’. And it is very clear here in Paul’s epistles that the ‘let-ters’ are those who have deeper knowledge of the Christian way. They live by the Spirit, not by the book – for unlike our fellow monotheists, the Jews and the Muslims, we are not in fact people of the book, but people of the Spirit.
The second thing is that those with a ‘weaker’ conscience, more afraid of moral harm, are to be deferred to and cared for, but by no means allowed to dominate the debate. ‘For why’, adds Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:29-30, ‘should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks?’. In other words, if the ‘weaker brethren’ insist that everyone should bow to their ethical sensitivities, they are hardly the weaker brethren any more, but have become the stronger. And this potentially cripples the whole people of God. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery‘ (Galatians 5:1).
Food offered to idols is hardly an issue for today’s church. But I am sure you can, without my help, immediately think of a number of other equivalent issues today, where some consider a certain practice, place or person ‘unclean’, and you do not. I think these passages say to us, stand firm in your freedom in Christ. But make sure you are not treading on someone else’s toes by doing so.