Monday, September 26, 2016

Does the New Testament do away with distinctions between clean and unclean meat?

If there is one thing that I dislike, it is the dishonest handling of the Scriptures. This is usually done when persons have a belief that they want to justify and employ finding a text in the Scriptures to support or justify their opinion with total disregard for the context surrounding the verse. Sometimes, this dishonesty happens accidentally due to persons not knowing better. But whether an honest error or deliberate intent, this is what happened last week when I attended a sermon about clean and unclean meats last Saturday (September 24, 2016).

While I admit that I am mostly vegan and have been raised to eschew shellfish and pork, I was disturbed when the preacher tried to reinterpret 1st Corinthians 10:27 in a way to support his position that the verse did not justify the position that the New Testament had done away with distinctions between clean and unclean meat. While the general principle is correct, the preacher's interpretation was not.

The verse in question reads thus:
If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. (New International Version [NIV])
The preacher's interpretation was to ignore the word "unbeliever" and explain that if he went to a church brother's house and meat is served, he will eat it and not ask questions because he expects that the church brother would have served clean meat. This drove me bananas, as my mind stated "but the verse just said unbelievers".

To be fair, my preacher guy, who is otherwise a nice gentleman, was not the only one to upset me with the abuse of the Scriptures in relation to clean and unclean meats. Earlier in the month, as I attended my university's mid-week chapel service, another preacher upset my spirit using the Roman 14:3
The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. (NIV)
Likewise, this scripture was applied to present day context with various religions in which different people from different cultures eat different types of meat. Despite the preacher's intentions, I was offended that Scripture was being used to support a position taken without the proper explanation of the context of the verse. As such, both of these experiences motivated me to dig a little, of which I present my findings.

Contextualizing 1st Century Christians and their meat eating dilemma

While we are far removed the context of early Christianity, there is sufficient historical information for us to reconstruct the context surrounding first century Christians and their meat eating dilemma. We know that the early church was conceived in the era of the Roman Empire. As such, we can pretty much determine the dietary customs of the time. Any encyclopedia article on this can give you an idea of what meats were available and the choices that Christians had if they wanted to purchase meat from the butchers.

As Price puts it, while first century Christians living in Palestine would be able to access kosher meats, those outside of predominantly Jewish territory had to face the problem of purchasing meats sacrificed to idols. Pagan worshipers, after offering meat sacrifices, would burn a portion and sell the leftovers or excess meat to local meat shops (Price 270). In Corinth, in particular, Price explains that  sometimes idol temples and meat market shops were sometimes joined together to facilitate this market transfer in a more efficient manner. (Also bear in mind that these were the days without refrigerators, with implications for meat storage and preservation.)

Also bear in mind that in Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council had decreed that all Christians, including non-Jewish Christians, were to abstain from eating meat with blood in it, meat sacrificed to idols and meat where the animals were strangled (Acts 15:20). Also bear in mind that Paul reiterated this point:

19Am I suggesting, then, that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God. And I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot partake in the table of the Lord and the table of demons too.…(1 Corinthians 10:19-21).
While Paul did not want his church members to eat meals in honor of pagan deities, he did permit them to eat meat sold in the market place without asking if it came from temple rituals. In 1 Corinthians 10: 25 he encourages them to "eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience,"(NIV). It appears that Paul interpreted the Jerusalem Council a bit liberally and encouraged the Corinth believers to obey the decree so as to not offend others.

31So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God. 32Do not become a stumbling block, whether to Jews or Greeks or the church of God, (1 Corinthians 10:31)
As such, from the context and Paul's instructions, it is implicit that the Corinthians would purchase meat that would not offend the Jews. In this regard, I would argue that the believers would know the meat standards of the Jews and as such would not purchase foods that knowingly violate the standards. In addition, Paul wanted the believers to also not offend the Greeks. As such, he wanted them not to ask divisive questions while purchasing their meat at the market. Crocker, in a commentary on this, states that to maintain good relations with non-Christians in the community, some members of the church might attend the banquets to socialize or as part of their work relations (137). Within this context, in a city like Corinth, the meat served at such banquets would likely come from "temple slaughter" since farms and countrysides for raising livestock would not be located within the city (Crocker 137).

Given that context, Paul declares that
If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience (1 Corinthians 10:27)
As such, while Paul suggests that eating in the market place is okay, there is kind of a discouraging tone suggested by a dubious "if" for going to an unbeliever to share a meal, followed by "and you want to go". As Staton describes it, Paul was attempting to help the Corinthians solve the meat sacrificed to idols problem (186). To do so, Paul suggested purchasing meat in the market without asking if it was sacrificed to idols or demons was okay (Staton 186). However, if the believer was not in the market place environment, then the situation called for careful evaluation (Staton 186). Paul explicitly warns the believers not to eat meat at a meal that is part of a pagan worship service, where the consumption of such meat is in recognition of a pagan deity (Staton 186).


As we can see from the evidence presented, there is more to the context than my two preachers acknowledged. In particular, the context of Paul's writings has nothing to do with whether or not Christians are permitted to eat pork or shellfish. As such, these Scriptures do not justify any position on whether or not modern Christians should or should not eat unclean meats. Rather, the discussion is about a particular problem that is unrelated to our present day dilemma about whether or not the New Testament does away with the obligation to distinguish between clean and unclean meats. In my estimation, the New Testament does not abolish this distinction, but deals instead with another problem completely foreign to most Western Christians.


Crocker, Cornelia C. Reading 1 Corinthians in the Twenty-First Century. New York: T & T Clark International, 2004. Print.

Price, Brad. First Corinthians Bible Commentary.. United States: Brad Price, 2010. Print.

Staton, Knofel. First Corinthians. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2000. Print.