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This article is adapted from a message on the AI-Renewal mailing list. The message I responded to included a look at 1 Cor 8:4-13 and 1 Cor 10:18-33.
An additional passage to consider is Romans 14 and 15 (even though it deals more with clean vs. unclean food.)   When you look at the three passages (1 Cor 8:4-13 Pop-up Window, 1 Cor 10:18-33 Pop-up Window, Romans 14-15 Pop-up Window), it's easy to get confused. Paul seems to give with one hand, and take away with the other. In the end, though, I think he is offering a balanced approach.

In philosophy, there is a principle called antinomy:

One of a pair of mutually conflicting laws, or sequences of thought (thesis and antithesis), each of which possesses, or appears to possess, equal validity.

Many Bible scholars prefer to use the term "parallelism" instead (in part to avoid confusion with "antinomianism," which is the erroneous belief that Christians are by grace set free from observing any moral law.)

Parallelism is a characteristic typical of Hebrew poetry. The writer states an idea, and then reinforces the idea by repetition, variation, or contrast.

The major types of parallelism are recognized as:

1) Synonymous. This is when the second line repeats the first in slightly different wording. (Example: Psalm 83:1).

2) Antithetic. The second lines contrasts - often sharply - with the first. (Example: Proverbs 26:4-5).

3) Synthetic. The second line completes the thought started in the first by supplementing it. (Example: Psalm 7:1).

Thus, rather than introducing contradiction, parallelism provides additional information.

Though not in poetic form, parallelism is also taking place in Pauls three passages on food. He is making various statements that, seen together, form a multifaceted approach to a complex issue:

He establishes the fact that idols are nothing.

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. (1 Corinthians 8:4 NIV)

Since idols are nothing, pagans offer food to them in vain. Therefore, it really doesn't matter whether or not we eat that food:

But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. (1 Corinthians 8:8 NIV)

In fact, we can eat anything:

Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it." If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. (1 Corinthians 10:25-27 NIV)

Addressing the issue of clean vs. unclean food, Paul says:

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. (Romans 14:14 NIV)

Thus Paul acknowledges that people differ in how they view these issues. In fact, he says:

One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. (Romans 14:2 NIV)

Why the reference to "weak faith"? Well, Paul makes it clear that not everyone knows or understand the above facts. Having shown that idols are nothing, he says:

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. (1 Corinthians 8:7 NIV)

Thing is, when we eat and drink we thank the One who provided the meal, and thus eat in His honor:

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31 NIV)

(See also 1 Tim. 4:4-5).

Those who have a "weak faith" (e.g. new Christians) may still in their minds connect meat with idols. When they do that, the meat is defiled since it would then be eaten in "honor" of the idols instead of in honor of God. Paul has strong words on this:

Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 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. (1 Corinthians 10:18-21 NIV)

Clearly, we can not worship both God and idols.

Still, earlier, we saw that Paul said we can eat whatever an unbeliever serves us. This does not militate against the above, because of the exception:

If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. 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--the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience? (1 Corinthians 10:27-29 NIV)

By telling his guest the meat has been offered to an idol, the host is expecting the guest to join him in eating to the idol's glory. In that case we should not eat it. After all, we know idols are nothing, but the host sees the idol as his god. We don't want to join him in worshipping his god, but instead make clear we only acknowledge the One, true God.

Thus we can eat whatever food there is, as long as we eat it to the glory of God, and not while even so much as acknowledging idols.

But Paul, mindful of the ones who are less mature in their faith, adds a warning:

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 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? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.

When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 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. (1 Corinthians 8:9-13

In other words: don't cause the 'clueless' brother to fall. In fact, make sure you offend no one:

Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God--even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. (1 Corinthians 10:32-33 NIV)

In addition, don't pass judgment on the weaker brother:

Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. (Romans 14:1 NIV)

This is important, for while Paul is mainly talking about food, there are Christians who habitually pass judgment on just about anything they well please. Their mantra is:

"Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? (Colossians 2:21 NIV)

Be a Christian long enough and you will be told to stay away from anything from television to tacos, from suntan lotion to sex, and from MTV to the NIV. Keep track of it all so you won't offend anybody, and in no time you can't leave the house for fear of doing something someone somewhere will claim leads him astray.

And thus Paul includes this:

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. (Romans 14:3 NIV)

We're not to judge each other on these issues, but instead should make sure we do not become a stumbling block to the weak:

So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way. (Romans 14:12-13 NIV)

(I believe this works both ways. Weaker brothers can be taught that not everything is, in fact, a stumbling stone, and that not everything that looks like a stumbling stone needs kicking...)

In the end, I believe these verses are the key:

It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.

So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.

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. (Romans 14:21-23 NIV)

In other words: be wise in what you do with regard to disputable matters ("eating meat," dancing, reading murder mysteries, drinking alcohol, listening to sixties oldies, using the Internet, etc.), so that you do not become a stumbling block to the weak. At the same time - as long as you stay within the clear rules of Scripture - don't condemn yourself by what you approve.

I think an understanding of these issues can prevent a lot of unfruitful arguments, and will at the same time help people take each other in consideration. As Paul told Timothy on what I believe is a related matter, the goal of these commandments is love. (1 Tim. 1:3-7)
- by Anton Hein, October 1999
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