Eating meat that had previously been used in the worship of false gods was a major theological debate in the days of the early churches. The pagan priests would kill sacrificial animals, offer them as sacrifices upon the pagan altars of pagan temples, and then sell the leftovers to the local markets. Those markets would in turn sell the meat at discount prices. Because the pagan priests only sacrificed animals of the highest quality to appease their false gods, the leftover “barbecue” was also of the highest quality. And yet it was sold cheap because it was “used” meat that supposedly carried the spiritual taint of idolatry upon it. The big debate among ancient Christians was whether or not it was a sin to eat that type of meat.
Actually, though, this wasn’t the first doctrinal controversy that arose in the early churches. Some twenty years or so after the Day of Pentecost when the church age began (Acts 2:1-47), the churches found themselves trying to sort out what relationship the keeping of the Old Testament law had with Christianity. Some Jewish Christians who had grown up keeping that law contended that believing in Jesus did not alleviate the need for keeping the law. In particular, they felt that male believers should believe in Jesus AND submit to circumcision in order to get saved. Gentile Christians, by contrast, had never kept any part of the Old Testament law and saw no reason to begin doing so after believing in Jesus as Savior. To them, just believing in Jesus was plenty enough to experience salvation.
The debate was settled when a group of apostles and elders (pastors) met in Jerusalem to hear both sides of the argument (Acts 15:1-21). We now call that meeting “The Jerusalem Council” and it was presided over by James, who was Jesus’ oldest earthly half-brother, the writer of the book of James, and the leader of the church in Jerusalem. In the end, James concluded that keeping the Old Testament law, including its mandate of circumcision for males, should not be required for Christians. In other words, the equation for Christianity was “belief in Jesus + nothing = salvation.” That was different, of course, than “belief in Jesus + keeping the Old Testament law = salvation.”
In the wake of James’ decision, a letter was circulated throughout the churches of the day. That letter stated that the burden of keeping the Old Testament law would not be laid upon Christians. However, at the close of that letter, James added in that Christians should continue to abstain from certain things. The list included sexual immorality, the eating of blood, the eating of anything that had been strangled, and things that had been offered to idols (Acts 15:24-29; 21:25).
Okay, so per the official letter from James and the rest of The Jerusalem Council, Christians shouldn’t eat meat that had been offered to idols. Got it. But just a few years later Paul, who had been an outspoken participant at The Jerusalem Council, began to teach that under certain conditions Christians could eat meat that had been offered to idols. His take was that since a lifeless idol had no actual power, it couldn’t affect meat one way or the other (Romans 14:14; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6). Therefore, Christians weren’t in sin to buy and eat such meat.
To be clear, Paul did mention two exceptions to this general rule. First, if a Christian’s own conscience simply wouldn’t let him eat such meat in full confidence, that Christian would actually be in sin to eat the meat, not because eating the meat was sin for everybody but because that Christian would be sinning against his own conscience (Romans 14:14,23; 1 Corinthians 8:7). Second, if by eating such meat a mature Christian emboldened an immature one — one who still held to the erroneous belief that eating the meat was sin — to also eat the meat and in so doing violate his conscience, that mature Christian would be in sin for causing that weaker brother to stumble (Romans 14:15,21; 1 Corinthians 8:9-13).
So, did Paul’s teaching on this highly controversial topic go against James’ ruling? No, it didn’t. What it actually did was clarify that ruling by elaborating on why James had given the ruling in the first place. Let me explain.
The Jerusalem Council primarily dealt with the question of how keeping the Old Testament law, including all of its laws against anything having to do with idolatry, affected salvation. James settled that question once and for all by ruling that keeping the law had no bearing on salvation. As for why James said that Christians should abstain from things that had been offered to idols (including meat), that was his way of temporarily promoting peace between the Jewish Christians who were still affording the Old Testament a place of honor and the Gentile Christians who weren’t.
What Paul did a few years later was revisit the issue as a way of explaining how eating meat that had been offered to idols could adversely affect fellowship between Christians. Even though he wanted it known that idols have no power to spiritually taint meat, he also wanted it known that:
- Some Christians still didn’t understand that they had a Christian liberty to eat such meat and not be in sin.
- If those Christians felt guilty about eating the meat because their own ill-informed consciences wouldn’t let them eat it in confidence, they would actually be in sin if they went ahead and ate the meat.
- Christians who understood that the meat wasn’t spiritually tainted and could eat it in guiltlessness should nevertheless take their more undiscerning brethren into account in regards to eating the meat.
- If a discerning Christian used his liberty to eat the meat, and in so doing emboldened an undiscerning one to go against his conscience and eat the meat too, that discerning Christian was in sin for causing his brother to stumble.
In all of this, Paul is conveying a very important principle, one that Christians today should make an active part of our lives. He’s saying that being a Christian isn’t always about claiming your rights. Many times it’s about being loving enough to lay aside your rights if you evoking them will somehow harm others spiritually. How seriously did Paul take this? He took it seriously enough to say, “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13). That, you see, landed him right back at the same position that James had decreed in his ruling. So, again, Paul didn’t go against James. Instead, he took the time to explain why James’ ruling had real spiritual value in terms of how Christians should relate to one another.