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Article 2019-03 Meat, Idols & Ancestors

Chapter 53: Meat, Idols & Ancestors


Eating meat, sacrificed to idols will not demonize believers per se. Such meat should not be eaten in pagan temples, because Christians should avoid table-fellowship with idol-worshipers. One’s conscience should either permit or forbid the eating of it. Conscience’s permission only comes by faith – that it does not harm. Conscience’s forbidding comes from fear that it will harm. Strong consciences should respect and honor the weaker ones.

Scripture reference

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling-block to the weak … When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ (1 Cor. 8:9,12)

You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons (1 Cor. 10:21)

The story

During his third missionary journey Paul spent about 2½ years in Ephesus. In this period he wrote to the church in Corinth. We look at some issues that played a role there, which he addressed in his first letter. One is about sacrificing meat to idols, which is sold in the market place, or offered for consumption in the eating establishments that were attached to idol temples. Could Christians eat such meat with a clean conscience or not? That was the big question, and Paul spends considerable space in his letter to address that issue.

Missionaries may encounter practices where meat, if not sacrificed to idols, may have been sacrificed to ancestors. Young Christians may then encounter similar problems to those the Corinthians had. The two issues Paul addresses are whether eating such meat is permissible or not and how this affects the believers’conscience. The first has less relevance outside the context of traditional religions, but the second is of relevance in the whole Christian world and applies more widely than the first, because our consciences monitor and judge our Christian walk.


When we look at the first, it seems as if there is a contradiction between Paul permitting it on one hand, and forbidding it on the other. On the one hand he seems to say that it doesn’t really matter, because food doesn’t change when it is offered to idols and that it can be eaten without asking questions. The origin of meat doesn’t have to be questioned. On the other hand he seems to forbid it when he says that, because the meat has been sacrificed to demons, it is not good for believers to have fellowship with demons. So, how are we to understand this seeming contradiction?

The solution is found in the term ‘the table of the demons’. Although we might not have expected this, it has everything to do with location. The table of the demons was found in pagan temples, where meat was eaten in idolatrous surroundings, in fellowship with idolatrous people. This is where the core of Paul’s warning lies: don’t go to those places and don’t mingle with those people. There is no such magical thing as spiritual contamination by demons, just through eating meat, sacrificed to them. That is, if you can eat it outside those places (e.g. at home) without being condemned by your conscience.

Scripture reference

But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin (Rom. 14:23)

Comment, continued

About the second point Paul explains that people with weak consciences cannot eat such meat without feeling guilty. If that is the case they shouldn’t do it, for what is not done by faith, with a guilty conscience, is sin. If on the other hand your conscience allows you to eat meat, offered to idols outside the place of those idols, there is nothing against it.
BUT if somebody with a weaker conscience than yours warns you, then you should not violate that person’s conscience by exercising your freedom. People with stronger consciences should honor those with weaker ones, whatever the issue is.

But that’s not all. Many things among Christians can present a bone of contention. Think about watching TV, going to the cinema, using make-up, wearing jewelry, ways of dressing, and use of alcohol or tobacco. Such stumbling blocks make God’s people fight and destroy each other. Most other issues depend on culture, habit and attitude.

Some things, acts or behavior of  Christians offend other Christians. Problems occurs when laws are made by some, to be kept by (all) others – and if they don’t, they don’t belong to ‘our’ faith. We then gossip about them, with regard to their presumed carnality or legalism.

A war for the salvation of nations has to be fought, while Christians fight each other. How will we stand in Christ’s judgment? The question whether you were right will not be asked. The question will be: ‘What did you do to finish the great commission? Did you bury your talents in the soil of discussion, or did exploit them in the toil for the Kingdom?’

Discussion & dialogue

  • Discuss what challenges there are in your church, denomination, or on the field you intend to serve – and how they can be addressed in a biblical, spiritually mature way
  • Which 4 themes of the 10 feature in this story? How? (Answer is in the Teacher’s Guide)

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