One highlight of this semester has been Ridley’s new Corinthians course. It’s a collaborative class looking at 1 and 2 Corinthians in Greek. It’s more work than anything else I’ve done at Ridley but totally worth it.
This week I presented a paper on the application of 1 Cor 10:14-11:1. The chapter is about eating meat sacrificed to idols as part of a larger argument in 1 Cor 8-10 and my job was to work out what the relevance of that was for today. I asked how this passage applies to eating in restaurants with shrines to idols in them.
Exegeting the passage
I thought this passage had two main imperatives (commands):
10:14 Therefore, my dear friends, let us flee from idolatry
10:24 No one should seek his own good but the good of others
Paul’s concerns with eating meat sacrificed to idols are twofold: that it is participating in idolatry and that it may draw a weaker believer back into idol worship. These are played out in three scenarios:
Scenario 1: eating food sacrificed to an idol at the temple. This was common place in the ancient world. Religious and social life were so joined in the ancient world that you had parties at the temple. But whatever the function was, you acknowledged the god and ate food that had been in their honor. By doing that, you shared fellowship with them. So, off limits as far as Paul’s concerned – Christians don’t have fellowship with demons.
Scenario 2: eating food of unknown history bought at the market. The risk here is that the food might have been sacrificed to a god since the markets sourced a lot of their meat from the temple. You didn’t know. Here, Paul says not to worry. The meat itself has no power.
Scenario 3: eating food in the home of an unbeliever. This is basically the same as scenario 2 – you don’t know where the food has come from. So Paul’s not worried. Except if the person says that it’s been sacrificed to a god. Their words then have a performative function: what was non-descript meat becomes meat in honor of an idol. No Christian who confesses the one God can eat it – that would be expressing fellowship with a false God.
Applying it to Thaila Thai
My favourite Thai place on Lygon St has a shrine in it – a proper shrine too, not just a waving cat. So, what category does its food fit into? Some think it fits into category 2 – unknown food, because:
- There’s no evidence that the food has been sacrificed to the idols in the shrine.
- The food is not brought to your table (or handed to you for takeaway) in the name of the god.
But I was wondering whether the shrine itself means that the restaurant is kind of temple-y – scenario 1? How would a Thai friend who’d become a Christian feel about going there? Might my eating there draw them back into idolatry? This seems to be the problem in 1 Cor – that some who used to worship idols (8:7) were being drawn back into it because cavalier attitude of the ‘strong’ Corinthians that idols meant nothing.
And what does it mean to have fellowship with a god? Must the food be sacrificed to the god or are there other ways of fellowshipping with a god? Some would argue that the restaurant itself isn’t in honor of the god – it’s just a personal expression of the owner’s faith. But is this view just a symptom of our own hyper-individualism? I ask the question because I suspect we Western Christians are far too used to playing down the spirit world. Even if it’s not perceived by others as fellowshipping with a false god / demon, might it be anyway?
Some situations are clearer than others. Eating a meal in honor of ancestors is another one we could discuss. I suspect this one is a little more obscure but because I’m more like the ‘strong’ Corinthians than the one likely to be drawn back into idolatry, I’m keen to consider this passage more – it’s written to people like me! What do you think? Would you eat at Thaila Thai? On what grounds? Would this passage support or discourage that action?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.