The Fourteenth in a Series of Sermons on First Corinthians
I’ve heard of churches squabbling over doctrine, over new programs, and even over whether or not the church’s new carpet should be red or blue. But I’ve never heard Christians squabble over whether or not the meat someone brought to the church potluck had originally been used in a pagan sacrifice. Yet this matter had become an issue in Corinth. How do we as Christians interact with the non-Christian religions around us? Can we go to their ceremonies and participate in their rituals? Can we dress like the pagans? Identify with pagan culture? And what about using their left-overs? Is that participating in paganism, and a violation of God’s prohibition of idolatry?
The following and lengthy section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (chapters 8-10) requires some background information to interpret properly, since the idea of sacrificing food to idols seems so foreign to us. It is easy for us to understand why Christians should have nothing to do with idolatry. It is clearly forbidden by the first three commandments, and idolatry is condemned in a number of Old Testament passages such as Deuteronomy 4:15-30 (our Old Testament lesson). But it is far more difficult to understand how food items can be so directly connected to pagan practices.
As we work our way though this section of 1 Corinthians, there are several things we need to keep in mind. For one thing, there was no refrigeration in Paul’s day, so once an animal had been butchered it had to be eaten soon thereafter, lest the meat spoil. It was also very common for people in Greco-Roman culture to eat meals in pagan temples or in trade guild dining halls dedicated to pagan deities. The latter are the forerunners of the modern restaurant. When people gathered together for such a meal, it was common to begin with a sacrifice to the deity to which the temple was dedicated, and then the diners would consume what was left of the sacrificial animal (or other foodstuffs offered to the “gods”). Part of the butchered animal was burned as a sacrifice. The rest was placed upon the altar (the “table of the gods”) where it was eaten by the priests and the participants in the festivities. If there was anything left over, it might be given to those in attendance, but more often was sold to local butchers for resale.
Those in upper levels of society would have a difficult time avoiding such meals and places, since this was where virtually all of the social activities and commerce took place. Therefore, given the connection between the contents of the meal, and the particular pagan deity to whom the meal was dedicated, the question arises, “can Christians participate in such activities?” It is the connection between the meal, the sacrifice and the pagan deities associated with them, which created ethical problems for Christians. How could Christians justify eating in a pagan temple, or eating something which was offered as a pagan sacrifice? Apparently, a number of the Corinthians saw nothing whatsoever wrong with this practice.
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