Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Meat offered to idols and the Jerusalem Council

Most Christians struggle with some uncertain things. Things that we wonder if we should eat, drink, do, avoid, or whatever.

Our forefathers in the faith dealt with these problems, too. Specifically, the early church struggled with the question of whether Christians could in good conscience eat meat that had been offered in sacrifice to an idol.

In Acts 15.29, the Jerusalem Council says to Gentile Christians: "That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication."

Later on, however, St. Paul directs the Corinthian church (I Cor. 10.25-28): "Whatsoever is sold in the shambles [meat market], that eat, asking no question for conscience sake: For the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof. If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake. But if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake: for the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof."

What seems to be a contradiction here really involves understanding what was going on.

In the world around the Mediterranean, meat was sacrificed to pagan idols. Afterward, the meat was sold in markets. It was likely cheaper than other meat, because it had already seen a use, and was more prone to spoilage. So some Christians -- especially the poorer ones (and I suspect, per I Cor. 1.26 that this might have been a strong factor in the Corinthian church) -- probably saw this as a chance to save money, and were buying -- and eating -- the meat that had already been sacrificed to an idol.

Trying to bring Gentiles into the church involved some juggling. Jews who had been instructed in the Mosaic law were scandalized by believers who saw no problem with eating what they saw to be ritually impure foods. There were Gentiles who were tempted to revert to paganism by contact with food offered to idols. And outsiders were sometimes prone to misunderstand the freedom Christians enjoyed.

The Jerusalem Council sought to mediate this: they directed Gentile Christians to avoid scandal to their Jewish Christian brethren by avoiding meat offered to idols, and not eating blood. The basis is given in Acts 15.21: "For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day."

In other words, since the Mosaic prohibitions are well-known, both to Jews, God-fearing Gentiles, and the Gentile world at large, the Gentile Christians should seek to avoid scandal when eating.

St. Paul explicates this in I Cor. 10. The meat offered to idols is still meat. Nothing has changed, because the idol is simply a product of man's false religious imagination. There is only one true God, to which all of Heaven and earth belong. But if someone will be scandalized by the steak you're eating, avoid it.

As with all such questions, the answer is love. Love to fellow Christians, love to weak fellow Christians, love to Jews, love to Gentiles, love to all, seeking to bring them all under that beautiful fellowship of God's love and mercy. Steaks are good, but they're not worth eating if by such eating we hurt others.

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