Luke vs. Paul: Abstaining from Meat Sacrificed to Idols

I have a list of difficult passages I've been working through and last Sabbath I added this topic after my Sabbath school class discussed Romans 14. Luke's conclusion on the issue of abstaining from meat sacrificed to idols seems to be the opposite of Pauls. In our society, these scriptures don't seem to have much relevance since our meat is usually factory farmed and not sacrificed to anyone. However, I think it's important to understand what we're reading so we can see how each passage fits in to the larger narrative. In addition, the underlying problem of bringing together people from different cultures is very real in our modern world. So, how do we harmonize these scriptures?

The Stances

Let's start by looking at each man's words on the topic. Luke, the author of Acts, mentions this issue in two places. Paul also mentions the issue twice.
28For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: 29that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from acts of sexual immorality; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell. Acts 15:28-29 NASB
But regarding the Gentiles who have believed, we sent a letter, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and what is strangled, and from sexual immorality. Acts 21:25 NASB
One person has faith that he may eat all things, but the one who is weak eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Romans 14:2-3 NASB
7However, not all people have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8Now food will not bring us [c]close to God; we are neither [d]the worse if we do not eat, nor [e]the better if we do eat. 9But take care that this [f]freedom of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For if someone sees you, the one who has knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will his conscience, if he is weak, not be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? 11For through your knowledge the one who is weak is ruined, the brother or sister for whose sake Christ died. 12And so, by sinning against the brothers and sisters and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if food causes my brother to sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to sin. 1 Corinthians 8:7-13 NASB
It seems as though Luke has a hardline stance that the act is wrong, whereas Paul is saying the act in and of itself is not wrong, but we should be mindful of those around us.

Background

Let's step back into the time period of Luke and Paul for a second; it's impossible to understand these passages otherwise. In recent years, meat consumption has become a standard practice, something everyone does for every meal, but this hasn't always been the case. Meat was a luxury (and still is in some places). On top of that, there were no grocery stores or factory farms. Animals were not raised and slaughtered for mass consumption. In Paul and Luke's day, animals were kept to be sacrificed to gods. Just as the Israelites sacrificed a lamb on Passover (and then ate it), others were sacrificing animals to Roman gods. This meat could end up in the market for sale, or it could be the meat being served at your neighbor's house when you accepted a dinner invitation. Being unsure of the origin of the meat, many believers abstained from meat altogether (hence Paul referencing those who only ate vegetables).

The major issue in the church that both men were addressing was how to deal with Gentiles in the Israelite religion. Israel was supposed to be a Theocracy, with God as their king. The laws of God and the laws of the land were to be one and the same. Since everyone was to be worshiping the same God, their was never worry that the meat brought from your fellow Israelite was sacrificed to a pagan god. Roman however, was diverse, like the United States. In the cities of the Gentiles, you had people from different religions and cultures; you could never be sure what had been done to the meat sold in markets or served in people's homes.

Similarly, the mindset of the Jews and the Gentiles was different. Jews were simply accepting a deeper understanding of the religion/scriptures they had been taught from birth. Gentiles were unlearning the religion of their birth and learning something new. This changes how you approach things...

Modern Examples

I have two examples from my own personal life to illustrate how background can change the way you see things.

A friend of mine sent me a song by Lecrae. When I clicked play, I instantly recognized the beat. Lecrae's song samples from a Hip Hop song that has been sampled by many other artists. Instead of focusing on the lyrics of this particular song, my brain went to the lyrics of the song where I had first heard this beat. There is already a connection in my mind between the original song and that music. Not only did the lyrics of that song (which is not Christian) pop into my head, but memories associated with that song as well. It is impossible for me to worship and focus on God when listening to this song because my brain associates it with other things. My friend however, had never listened to non-Christian Hip Hop. They have never heard any of the songs that Lecrae is sampling from. They have no memories associated with that beat. They are able to listen and hear Lecrae's lyrics in peace.

Another friend introduced me to Erin Condren planners. I used her planners for 3 years before switching to a bullet jounral. It was during that time that I began keeping Sabbath. When I started using the planners, I didn't notice that they started the week on Monday, but as I got deeper in to my studies it bothered me. Like most people in the U.S., my brain was wired for Sunday being the end of the week: you work Monday through Friday, chores on Saturday, and rest on Sunday. Observing the Sabbath took a massive shift in mindset to see the week as Sunday through Friday, with Saturday as the day of rest. Now I start my week with chores, meal prep, and planning, but it's strange having that at the end of the week in your planner. I needed the visual of Sunday at the end of the week and Sabbath at the end to help me adjust my mindset.

Now, because of my experience, I could argue that no one should be listening to Lecrae and that no one should be using planners that start on Monday. This is the issue Paul and Luke are addressing. In my modern scenarios there is nothing inherently wrong with Lecrae's song or the planner; it is my experiences, my mindset, that affects the situation. There are many people who can listen to that Lecrae song and be moved by the Holy Spirit. There are many people who can use planners that start on Monday and still keep Sabbath. Paul's argument is the same: it's in the individual's mind.

Abstaining From Meat Sacrificed to Idols

While I can see clearly what Paul is suggesting when I bring it into a modern lens and inspect my personal life, it still gets muddy when I try to put it back in context with his time period.

Some ministries teach that Paul is expanding on Luke's instructions in Acts, essentially telling why they should abstain from the meats.[1] I question this interpretation for two main reasons. In Acts, Luke said absolutely to abstain from meats sacrificed from idols. While Paul does say that he would abstain to keep his brother from stumbling in 1 Corinthians, in Romans 14 Paul tells the one who does not eat not to judge the one who eats and vice versa. Putting Paul's writings together, I would say his stance is that it's OK to eat meat sacrificed to idols as long as it doesn't cause fellow believers to stumble. Luke on the other hand doesn't leave any room for eating this meat if no one objects...

My second concern is that the topics surrounding this issue actually seem to matter. Neither author is solely talking about meats sacrificed to idols. Luke also mentions consumption of blood, consumption of strangled animals, and sexual immorality. The command to abstain from blood is given all the way back in Genesis 9, right after the flood, before the establishment of Israel. Strangled meat refers to meat that had not been killed according to the custom, which typically meant blood was still inside that animal, pointing us back to the first issue of abstaining from blood. Sexual immorality is also spoken against in Genesis before the establishment of Israel, and is spoken against by Jesus/Yeshua/Messiah. Yes, all of these were part of pagan practices in Roman, but they were also forbidden during Noah's time, when there were no other people on the planet and thus, no pagan practices to conflict with God's ways. In Revelation 2:14,20, John comes back to the point of abstaining from meat sacrificed to idols and once again, God is condemning it.

In contrast, if you look at the modern examples I gave, you will never find passages where God condemned a specific type of music or planner.

Harmonizing

Honestly, I don't know the answer. This is one of those passages I will have to keep studying. Comment below how you view this passage and how you harmonize them.

References

  1. "What does the Bible say about eating food/meat that has been sacrificed to idols?". GotQuestions.org; visited June 2021

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Author Image Author Image I love reading the Word of God. With prayer God's Word reveals so much: from comfort to temperance, from perspective to affirmation. Digging into the depths of the Word, cross-referencing history, language and time differences, is a passion of mine. In March of 2015 I decided to go back through the Bible doing an in depth study on each section I read. Eventually I decided to share my journal of notes as I partake in this journey. I hope you are blessed by God and inspired to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. I love reading and learning about God, nature, and science. I am interested in how it all connects. The Creator's fingerprints are all over his creation. We can learn so much about Him and how we came to be by exploring the world around us. Join me as I explore the world and draw closer to the One who created it all.
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