What sounds, at first hearing, like obscure advice for solving a purely first-century church problem is in fact the great test case in the New Testament for mutual forbearance and tolerance of diversity. Two factions in the Corinthian church disagree over whether it is proper for Christians to eat food that has first been to the altar of a pagan temple as part of a sacrificial ritual. It was common practice in the Roman world for most meat to be brought to a pagan altar, where one portion would be incinerated as an offering to the gods, another portion would be roasted and either given or sold to people nearby and the remaining portion would be taken to the market for sale. Some commentators have suggested that, through the sacrificial system, the pagan priests in fact owned a de facto monopoly on the sale of meat. This is a sensitive subject for the Corinthian Christians, many of whom are rather close to their own pagan origins. Some still fear that pagan gods exercise power of some sort through the sacrificial meat, or that eating the meat renders the person who eats it unclean. Paul’s answer is a masterpiece of theological precision and pastoral sensitivity. He declares that, since the pagan gods are as nothing, the question of whether to eat or not to eat their sacrificial meat is matter of indifference for Christians. Yet, since this is a question that causes anguish in the hearts of some Christians, he suggests, it is a better course for all to abstain from eating pagan-sacrificed meat, out of sensitivity to the faith of one’s brothers and sisters.
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