Some choices before us are clear and others present a dilemma. The apostle Paul frequently addressed moral choices in his letters to former pagans who embraced a belief in a Jewish Christ. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes to his Gentile audience, “Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake; for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains. If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscience’ sake. But if anyone says to you, ‘This is meat sacrificed to idols,’ do not eat it” (1 Cor 10: 25-28 NASB).
Paul says, eat what is set before you, no questions asked! It always surprises me how many interpreters see this statement as some sort of apostolic waiver to literally eat anything in sight. But meal ingredients are not what concern Paul here, and he is not referring to Jewish food laws in this passage (cf. Lev 11; Deut 14). The self-proclaimed “apostle to the Gentiles” is not addressing Jews who discriminated between “clean” and “unclean” and there is no reason to think that the Gentile Corinthians were guided by Israelite food laws. Instead, Paul’s teaching focuses on the sinfulness of idolatry. He says, “Do not be idolaters… my beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Cor 10:7, 14). Christ-followers, Jews and non-Jews alike, were barred from knowingly eating food offered to pagan gods (cf. Lev 19:26; Deut 4:15; Isa 42:8; Acts 15:20; 17:29).
To be sure, Paul mentions food in First Corinthians, but he presents a much broader principle behind it: when a choice before you undermines your faith and commitment to the true God, don’t do it! It may be legal, but it would be wrong (1 Cor 10:23). For believers, freedom has limits. When one becomes aware that a choice before him or her is clearly unacceptable before God, it is no longer a choice. Ignoring this would show disloyalty and signal that one is willing to dismiss the ways of God. Such a problem arises frequently when one has chosen a path radically different from one’s upbringing – a path foreign to the majority – which is exactly what Paul’s Gentile Corinthians would have done by choosing to follow Jesus in a Roman world. Being in the world and not of the world (cf Rom 12:2) – whether that world is Roman or modern – can be a difficult calling!
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