Morality Ch. 29: Eating Animals

Paul advised some Christians to become vegetarians because meat might come from animals killed as a sacrifice. Are there different issues today that might give a similarly bad impression?


My father encouraged many people to take up a vegetarian diet for their health, but he was a hypocrite – he secretly continued eating sausages and chops. In retrospect, I can’t condemn him, because he may have helped those he advised. Anyway, in the end it was an herb that killed him – tobacco.

Eating a meat-free diet for health reasons is a recent innovation. The idea, and even the word “vegetarianism,” didn’t exist until the mid-1800s. Before that, a meat-free diet was known as “Pythagorean,” after the Greek philosopher who, six centuries before Christ, rejected meat out of kindness to animals. Three centuries later, the Indian emperor Ashoka outlawed the killing of many animals that were used for food when he suddenly converted to nonviolence after decades of establishing his rule by ruthless massacres. But meat-free diets for health reasons had to wait until dietary studies discovered that eating a sufficient variety of nuts and vegetables supplies all the essential amino acids found in meat, without some of the less healthy fats.

None of this explains why vegetarianism among early Christians helped to avert a split in the church, or how Paul’s response can help us avoid analogous problems today. But it does help to explain why Gentile converts at Corinth found the idea of vegetarianism so strange. Paul had to devote almost three chapters to this issue in his letters to Corinth and Rome (1 Cor 8; 10; Rom 14).

6-minute summary

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Source of meat

The problem was caused by Jewish Christians who said that you couldn’t eat meat sold in an ordinary market because these carcasses were most likely from the various temples in the city. Very many offerings were made, and the priests couldn’t possibly eat them all, so the majority were sold to butchers. Presumably, some meat came straight from farmers, but food labeling hadn’t been invented, and no one cared except Jews and Christians. So Christians ended up eating animals that had been offered to idols.

Blood was also a problem because Jewish law said that it should all be drained from the carcass, and this was not the case with the meat found in Gentile markets. Special Jewish butchering techniques were needed to ensure that no blood remained. This only affected Jews, but this caused a rift between Christian Jews and Gentiles, so they had problems sharing meals. As a result, Gentile Christians were urged to avoid eating blood for the sake of harmony, which meant that both early Jewish and Gentile Christians tended to avoid any meat killed by Gentiles (Acts 15:20). They presumably did this by buying from Jewish butchers, which was fine – until they were suddenly banned.

Paul wrote at a time of anti-Jewish policies in the city of Rome. According to Jewish historian Josephus, these were provoked by some Jewish con men (see chapter 15, “Female Leaders”), though according to Roman historian Suetonius it was due to riots “instigated by Chrestus” (which may refer to Christ or Christians).1 According to Acts, there had also been some Jewish-Christian riots in Corinth (Acts 18:12-17). So there were many reasons for anti-Jewish feelings, and an easy way for the authorities to punish Jews (and gain favor with the rest of the population) was by withdrawing licenses from all Jewish butchers in the city. This meant that Jews in Rome and Corinth couldn’t buy kosher meat – and this also affected Jewish converts to Christianity.

Suddenly, a potential church split appeared over something that looked like nothing. Jews were keen on the idea of avoiding nonkosher meat because it felt heroic. All Jews remembered how Daniel and his friends had refused meat in Babylon and had turned out to be healthier as a result (Dan 1:12-16). But Gentile Christians couldn’t see what the fuss was about, though they didn’t mind buying from Jewish butchers when they could. The whole issue was all too complicated, and anyway, meat tastes good however it is killed.

Paul stood in the middle. He understood the way that Jews felt, but he agreed with the Gentile believers. He recognized that Jesus made the food laws irrelevant and could see that an idol “is nothing” (1 Cor 8:4-6). So while Jews banned any food that they weren’t sure about,2 Paul only refused meat if he’d been specifically told that it had been offered to an idol. His attitude was don’t ask, just eat; because it all comes from God (1 Cor 10:25-26).

But what if you are at a meal with other Christians and someone says: “That meat has been offered to an idol, because it was bought from a butcher linked with the temple of Apollo; and that wine too – a drop of it was offered in the temple before the rest was sold in the same stall”? When someone tells you something like that, Paul says, you should act completely differently “for the sake of their conscience.” If you simply go ahead and eat the meat, they might think you don’t mind worshiping Apollo (1 Cor 10:19-20, 27-28).

Surely this is hypocrisy! Paul is playing the game of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He’s doing one thing when some people are present, and then another when others are present. Paul admits he is doing things differently when different people are present, but this isn’t hypocritical. He is limiting his freedom for the sake of his fellow believer who might stumble in his faith if he doesn’t (1 Cor 10:29-32). He even says that this is his attitude in other things too: “I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor 10:33).

Three moral tests

Was Paul suggesting we should simply be yes-men about everything so that people will like us and respond to the gospel? He gives three reasons for his change in behavior, which suggests the kinds of situations where he would bend in this way:
1. It might lead them into sin. He warns the Corinthians, “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” He reminds them that others who got too close to idolatry fell into sexual immorality (1 Cor 10:7-12), especially if they actually ate meat in a pagan temple, as some of them are doing (1 Cor 8:10).
2. It might bring the gospel into disrepute. If someone saw Christians eating idol offerings, they might think they were idol worshipers. Paul says that this might hinder others from being saved (1 Cor 10:32-33).
3. It might cause others to sin. If other believers saw them, they might think it was OK to worship idols and fall into that sin themselves (1 Cor 8:9-13).

Paul concluded that those who have scruples about it – those who feel that it is wrong in God’s eyes – should not eat meat because they would be disobeying what they feel God is telling them. But for those who don’t share these scruples, it is OK, though he still feels that dangers for other people (as listed above) make it inadvisable.

Clubbing and Halloween

There are many similar situations in the modern church where some believers have scruples about something that others don’t share. For example, many believers regard Sundays as a day for rest and recreation, so that shopping for pleasure is perfectly OK, because the Sabbath laws were completely supplanted when Jesus died (see Col 2:16). Others regard Sunday observance as a continuation of Old Testament Sabbath laws and see shopping as forcing someone else to work. Similarly, in some countries Christians have taken a stand against alcohol, especially where its abuse is endemic, whereas in other countries Christians feel free to drink with moderation.

What if a Christian who felt freedom with regard to Sundays and alcohol encouraged a Christian from an opposite culture to join them in a bar on a Sunday? In one sense, no sin is committed, but the Christian from the less permissive culture will feel guilty and will be going against her conscience.

The way to test whether something falls under this kind of problem is to ask the question: What false though harmful conclusion might someone come to if I do this? Here’s a couple of examples: clubbing and Halloween. If a believer goes clubbing, someone might wrongly conclude that he is also sleeping around. If a believer joins in with Halloween celebrations, someone might wrongly conclude that she supports witchcraft or Satanism. To test whether to do these things, we can ask the three questions that Paul highlighted:
1. Might it lead me into sin?
2. Might it bring the gospel into disrepute?
3. Might it cause others to sin?

Clubbing may be misunderstood if we are seen by someone who doesn’t know us well, especially if our mode of dress reinforces their conclusion. And, in some cases, it may lead us into sin. This is something we have to consider very carefully. Halloween is rather different, because it is difficult to imagine how it could be the slippery slope to Satan worship or how someone could imagine that wearing a witch’s hat means that we want to be one. However, it may imply that Christians don’t take the evil one seriously.

When we come back to the issue that is actually addressed by Paul, we find it has little relevance to us today. Few communities still practice religious sacrifice, and they don’t produce a surplus of meat so that it ends up in butcher shops. Eating meat has now become an issue for completely different reasons: personal health and animal welfare. Although these are both extremely serious issues, they are regarded as personal decisions, so there is no reason to change our behavior for the sake of other believers. I’m glad of this, because personally I agree with the gourmet Clement Freud, who reasoned: if you eat and drink sensibly all your life, you may not live longer – it just feels like it. However, Paul’s discussion of the meat-eating issue provides us with some really useful guidelines that work for a wide variety of issues that affect us today. If we skip over chapters 8-10 in 1 Corinthians because the issue is no longer relevant today, we miss some really valuable teaching that provides guidance in all kinds of situations.






1^ Suetonius, Life of Claudius 25.4 (TinyURL.com/Suet-Claudius-25).
2^ Mishnah Demai 4:1-2 (TinyURL.com/mDemai-4-1).



This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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