I suppose it’s difficult for us to work up much passion when it comes to the subject of meats sacrificed to idols. After all, it hasn’t been an issue for a couple thousand years. Still, it would be a mistake to be casually dismissive of it. After all, the subject has a presence in Scripture for a reason.
And it’s definitely has a presence. We see it in the letter sent after the meeting at Jerusalem to the Gentile churches (Acts 15:19-21). Paul discusses the issue in Romans 14-15 as well as in 1 Corinthians 8-10. Jesus addresses it as He speaks to the churches in Asia in Revelation 2. In these last two texts, the issue is linked to Israel’s idolatrous behavior (1 Corinthians 10:1ff; Revelation 2:14ff)—stretching the biblical parameters of the subject matter into the Old Testament where there is often a feasting-idolatry-fornication connection.
The first thing to note is that the answer to the question of whether it is permissible to eat meat sacrificed to idols is contextual—it depends on the circumstances. It is forbidden in the general letter coming from Jerusalem because it would obviously hinder fellowship between Jewish and Gentile disciples (something the letter is aimed at promoting). It is also forbidden in Revelation 2 where it is linked with sexual immorality and idolatry. But it’s a different situation in Paul’s letter to the churches at Rome and Corinth. The instruction there is more nuanced—it is forbidden in some cases and allowed in others. Does it go against a brother or sister’s conscience so that it could lead to their destruction (1 Corinthians 8:10-11)? Forbidden. Have you been invited to eat at the home of an unbeliever (10:27)? Allowed. Or, are you gathering with idolaters (i.e., participating in their assemblies) as part of your meat eating (10:19ff)? Forbidden. Do you understand that meat cannot be contaminated by being sacrificed to a non-existent god (8:1-9)? Allowed. You get the idea. Like a lot of things in life, the answer isn’t a simple up or down. It depends upon the circumstances.
Another thing worth noting is the consequences involved in eating. Eating wasn’t just a simple matter of someone acting upon their understanding and that’s where the matter ended, it had life or death consequences. It cause the weak in conscience person to “fall into sin” (8:13) and be “destroyed” (v. 11). Or, joining with a group of idolaters in an assembly as part of your eating was participating with demons (10:22). What we should glean from all of this is how different this issue was then all our modern day issues in terms of consequences. There is no modern day parallel to the meat eating issue.
We should be equally quick to add though that doesn’t make the issue irrelevant to us. In fact, the opposite is true. Its relevance is in the principle that is represented by eating—possessing and exercising the “right” to do it (8:9). Suddenly we’re standing on soil that is remarkably familiar because nothing is more important in America than our rights. We are taught from day one that we have them and we must not relinquish them under any circumstances. Paul teaches that we have them and there are times when we need to give them up. In fact, it is a mark of maturity and Christ-likeness to do so. There is a time when standing up for our rights is wrong. Clearly, this represents a clash between our citizenship in America and the kingdom of Jesus and we have to decide which will be given priority. This is one reason why meats sacrificed to idols is such a relevant topic for today.