How often have you been faced with a “gray area” in your life? You know, an action, an activity or a situation where two people can reach very different conclusions about what’s right and wrong?
Well if you’re like most people, the chances are pretty good that you have to deal with “gray areas” in life all the time. After all, things like music, sports, entertainment, relationships and many other activities are often filled with lots of potential gray areas. Have you ever wondered where you could find some answers to those gray area questions in your life? Would you believe that the answer might be as close as the nearest grocery market?
Here’s the explanation: One of the grayest gray areas of life for many first-century Christians involved the question of “what to eat and what not to eat.” In fact, the New Testament devotes a lot of teaching that’s specifically directed towards those who chose to apply (or not apply) spiritual restrictions to the things that they ate. Looking at these teachings now can often be really helpful when making decisions regarding those gray areas that people often run into in life today.
Now this whole question of “what’s OK to eat” may not seem very important to many people of our day. After all, lots of people enjoy eating foods from different cultures and really don’t care very much about the religious beliefs of the people who prepare the food they eat. So a little background information might be useful in helping us understand why the question of what to eat and what not to eat troubled so many people in the early church and how this can help us with those questionable areas in our lives today.
You see, the meat markets of the first century often sold meat that was left over from the religious sacrifices of that day. During that time, priests from various pagan religions would sacrifice some animal – a lamb or a goat perhaps- to their “god.” Later on, anything that was left over from the sacrifice would find it’s way to the butcher shop to be sold to the public.
Now this might not sound like a big deal, but eating such food often presented a problem for a first century Christian. On the one hand, there were Christians who rightly believed that these “gods” were nothing, so what should it matter if someone ate something that had been sacrificed to nothing? On the other hand, there were other Christians who may well have said, “Hey, that food represents everything that is opposed to what I believe in as a Christian. I’m not touching it and no Christian should either.” Both views seemed to have strong arguments backing them up.
So what would you do in this situation? What advice would you give to these people if you they asked you what should be done? Well before we consider the answer, let’s drop in on one of Paul the Apostle’s letters where he talks about this question in greater detail. This letter (called an “epistle”) is known to us today as the book of 1 Corinthians.
Now this passage is pretty long but stay with it because Paul is about to give you some advice for dealing with those gray areas that you can use today.
“So now, what about it? Should we eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols? Well, we all know that an idol is not really a god, and that there is only one God, and no other. According to some people, there are a great many gods, both in heaven and on earth. But we know there is only one God, the Father, who created all things and made us to be his own; and one Lord Jesus Christ, who made everything and gives us life.
“However, some Christians don’t realize this. All their lives they have been used to thinking of idols as alive, and have believed that food offered to the idols is really being offered to actual gods. So when they eat such food, it bothers them and hurts their tender consciences. Just remember that God doesn’t care if we eat it or not. We are no worse off if we don’t eat it and no better off if we do. But be careful not to use your freedom to eat it, lest you cause some Christian brother to sin whose conscience [literally, “faith”] is weaker than yours.
“You see, this is what may happen: Someone who thinks it is wrong to eat this food will see you eating at a temple restaurant, for you know there is no harm in it. Then he will become bold enough to do it too, although all the time he still feels it is wrong. So because you ‘know it is all right to do it,’ you will be responsible for causing great spiritual damage to a brother with a tender conscience for whom Christ died. And it is a sin against Christ to sin against your brother by encouraging him to do something he thinks is wrong.
So if eating meat offered to idols is going to make my brother sin, I’ll not eat any of it as long as I live, because I don’t want to do this to him” (1 Corinthians 8:1-13).
In this passage, Paul tells us about one standard that we can use when dealing with those gray areas that we sometimes run into- those areas where an activity is not specifically forbidden but is still a little troublesome. Paul points out that the real issue here is really not meat sacrificed to idols. The real issue is what the effect of eating such food will have on other Christians. This basic standard is one that we can also use today when dealing with life’s gray areas. When deciding whether or not to do something, it’s always important to think about how our actions will be interpreted by others as well.
When confronted with a questionable area, it’s good to stop and consider whether or not a particular action will strengthen or weaken the faith of others. An honest answer to that question will go a long way in helping us to make good, God-honoring decisions in many different areas. This is why Paul also told the church at Rome, “The right thing to do is to quit eating meat or drinking wine or doing anything else that offends your brother or makes him sin” (Romans 14:20).
You see, our decisions should be guided in part by what’s good for others as well as ourselves. So the question is not only whether or not it’s OK to do something; the question should be expanded to include any effect that action may have on other Christians too.
So the next time you are unsure about getting involved in some activity, just remember the words of Romans 14:16-17…