Does it matter to a Christian where our food comes from? We’re not going to think tonight about questions of sustainability or caring for creation. We’re not going to talk about fishing for tuna with dolphin-friendly nets, or the ethics of vegetarianism where eating meat uses up proportionally vastly more of the possible food supply than eating only vegetables would. We aren’t going to consider the morality of eating veal or the importance of consuming locally produced food-stuffs rather than things that have travelled half way round the world. Those are all important issues. But for tonight we are going to come to a significant issue which has been in the news recently. And we are going to get there starting from what the apostle Paul had to say to the Corinthian church.
Does it matter to a Christian where our food comes from? To some of the Christians in the pagan city of Corinth in ancient Greece it mattered a great deal. Because when they went down to the local market everybody knew that most if not all of the meat on sale had come straight from one of the local temples from an animal which had just been offered in a sacrifice to one of the dozens of pagan gods worshipped in that city. And that gave some of those Christians problems. They thought that meat from an animal which had been killed as a sacrifice in pagan worship would be defiled or impure. The second of the Ten Commandments forbids worshipping idols and so some of the Corinthians thought that if they ate that meat as Christians they themselves would be defiled or corrupted as if they themselves had participated in that worship of false gods. Other Christians didn’t think that eating such meat was a problem for them and so the Corinthians had written to Paul asking him to sort out their confusion. Was eating meat which had been offered to idols right or wrong for Christians?
This may not seem an important question for us today, but it was sufficiently important for Paul to give it a chapter in 1 Corinthians and another chapter to the Christians in Rome where the same question was equally divisive.
So Paul begins with making clear the significance of idols and their place in the cosmic scheme of things. He says in a nutshell, that idols have no significance and they have no place in the universe at all!
1 Corinthians 8:4
4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
The Jews had stood out for 2000 years and more as the only people who believed that there is only one God, and the church continued in this conviction. There is only one God, the God and Father and only one Lord, Jesus Christ. This one God is the source and purpose of all life. And this is the undeniable truth whether anybody else chooses to accept it or not, whatever anybody else may choose to believe. There is only one God! All other so-called gods are nothing at all. Idols are nothing at all!
To be more precise, as we will see in a few minutes the Bible does teach us in other places that when people are worshipping idols and false gods they are sometimes worshipping evil spirits. The devil and his demons are behind some false gods, and that was particularly easy to see in some of the Eastern mystery religions which the people of Ancient Corinth worshipped, as it is in some of the tribal religions in Africa and India today. But Paul’s point is still entirely true. These false gods are not gods at all. Some may have evil spirits behind them, others are just empty. Nothing at all.
Some Christians miss this point. There are some Christians who credit the devil and his minions with much more power than they actually have. It is good that Christians recognize the existence and the activities of the devil. We should all be aware that we are in the middle of a spiritual war with cosmic dimensions. But we should never forget that the devil is not a god. The devil is only a created spiritual being, a fallen angel like his demons. And in comparison to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, even the devil is as nothing at all!
Some of the Corinthians had not grasped this truth. They had been saved from lives of idol worship and some of them still believed that idols could hold some kind of power over them. So Paul corrects them. There is only one God, he says,
7 But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
Idols are nothing, says Paul, and they have NO power over Christians. False gods are nothing, and eating meat from animals which have been sacrificed to false gods will never have any effects on Christians one way or the other. It makes no difference whether Christians eat such meat, or deliberately abstain from eating such meat. Neither action is more or less spiritual.
The problem, Paul explains, is that not all Christians realize this. And if somebody who thinks it would be wrong to eat meat which had been offered to idols sees another Christian doing so, they wouldn’t understand and their faith would be damaged.
9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.
So what Paul is saying is that there is nothing wrong with a Christian eating meat which has been offered to idols in pagan worship. That meat can’t hurt them in any way, physically or spiritually. But if eating that meat causes a problem for another Christian who has not fully discovered the glorious freedom we have in Christ, it would be better not to eat than to cause a brother to stumble.
Paul describes any Christian who would have a problem eating meat offered to idols as a “weak brother” who has a “weak conscience”. He uses the same language of the “stronger brother” and the “weaker brother” about the same topic in Romans 14.
Romans 14:1 Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2 One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. 4 …. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God …. 14 As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. ….
All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall …. 23 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.
Paul’s message for the Romans and the Corinthians is the same. When it comes to actually eating food offered to idols, there is no problem. What matters is that nobody does anything which creates a stumbling block for other Christians. There is no problem with eating meat offered to idols, because no food is unclean in itself. All food is clean, because idols are nothing. Nothing at all!
All of which sounds vaguely interesting but completely irrelevant to us in Chelmsford in the 21st Century. None of our meat comes from animals which have been sacrificed in temples where people are worshipping false gods. But then we think back to some front page headlines just a few weeks ago.
Newspapers broke the news that many supermarkets and high street restaurants and takeaways were selling meat which had been killed in ways prescribed by Islamic law without telling their customers that the meat was “halal”.
Colin Hart, Director of The Christian Institute, told The Sun: “It’s a major public scandal that people are being duped into buying halal food. Supermarkets and restaurants should declare what they’re selling.”
He told the Mail: “If Muslims want to eat halal, that’s absolutely fine. But it should be clearly labelled. … The problem is that, as with so many other things, the sensitivity only runs one way.”
He also said: “There are welfare concerns as animals are not always stunned before halal slaughter.
“And there are concerns of people who don’t want to buy into Sharia Law on their dinner plate.”
It is undisputed that a great deal of the meat people are eating has been killed according to Islamic Law. Halal means ‘permitted’, or ‘lawful’, and that involves Islamic prayers being spoken over the animal as it is killed. And for a few days there was an outcry that we were all being sold halal meat in supermarkets and restaurants without having the slightest idea that was happening.
There are several issues here. There is the question of labelling and whether everybody should have the right to know if the meat they are eating is halal or not. Then there is the separate question of the morality of the way in which animals are slaughtered as halal meat is prepared. Many would argue that it involves unnecessary suffering to the animals.
But perhaps the greatest issues is this. Some Christians are concerned that halal meat is actually “meat offered to idols.” If so, should it bother us if we are eating halal meat, and should it bother us whether we know the source of meat we eat or not?
One Christian website explains it this way. For meat to be ‘Halal’, the animal must be alive, intact and its heart beating, the slaughtering must be done in the presence of a Muslim, and a declaration, a ‘Shahada’, must be said over the meat at the point of slaughter. Shahada is an Arabic word meaning ‘a declaration’. The most commonly encountered shahada is the one said to become a Muslim: ‘There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet’, Christians profoundly disagree with that! The shahada said at the point of slaughter is: ‘In the name of Allah, who is the greatest’. But Allah is not the greatest! It is Jesus Christ who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords!
The Barnabas Trust works to help Christians who are persecuted all around the world. Their website points to the decision of the Council of the Early Church written to the Gentile churches as we read it in Acts.
Acts 21:25 As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded … that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication.
This command has to forbid the eating of halal meat because it would be included in the definition of that which is offered to an idol. Idolatry was rife in the societies out of which the early Christians were called, and they found themselves surrounded by idolatry and having to decide whether to eat meat dedicated to false gods.
Two of the letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation chapter 2 condemn Christians for eating such meat.
To Pergammon Rev. 2:14 But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.
To Thyatira Rev. 2:20 Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.
The important question is whether these verses about eating meat offered to idols are to do with where meat comes from or whether they are actually talking about participating in acts of idol worship in pagan temples.
Paul specifically warns the Corinthians against participating in pagan idol worship in 1 Corinthians 10.
18 Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? 19 Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 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.
But when it comes to eating meat bought in the market Paul goes on to say this.
25 Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26 for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
27 If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. 28 But if anyone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience’ sake— 29 the other man’s conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
So Christians should of course not participate in pagan worship of idols. That can even be worshipping demons! But we shouldn’t worry about where our meat comes from. From a spiritual point of view, we shouldn’t be worried if the meat we buy or are served in restaurants is halal or not.
But Paul does then raise one specific situation. What about when you go as a guest and your host who may be a Muslim specifically tells you that the meat is halal. Paul says, then it’s back to questions of conscience and it may be better to graciously decline to eat that meat as a witness to your hosts.
Let me sum up reading the words of Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, who was a Muslim, is now a Christian and is the founder of the Barnabas Fund.
“Paul affirms that idols are nothing, and that food that has been offered to them has no special significance as a result. The earth and its fullness are the Lord’s, which means that all food originates with Him; nothing is unclean in itself. But Paul also says that there are certain contexts where food that has been offered to idols should not be eaten. Joining in a feast in an idol’s temple is unacceptable, because the offerings made to the idols at such meals are in effect made to demons, which lie behind the idols; to eat the food in that setting is to become partners with the demons.”
And then as we said if you are guest and your host wants to make a point that the meat you are offered is halal, you may wish to decline to make a point of witnessing that you are a Christian. But otherwise, don’t worry if meat is halal. Because it can’t hurt you. Idols are nothing – God is everything!