St. Paul on Making Moral Choices


You and your family may visit a fast food restaurant once or twice a week. As you look at the menu on the wall above, you see a variety of meals to choose from. You may order the same thing every time, but if you are in the mood for something else, there are plenty of options. It’s easy to take all these choices for granted.

People who lived in New Testament times did not have these options. They had no refrigeration, so food spoiled quickly. When early Christians prayed for their daily bread, at times they did not even know if any food was available in the city. Since it was expensive and spoiled so fast, meat was scarce. One of the best sources for meat was at one of the local temples.

Like all Greek cities, Corinth had many temples dedicated to a variety of pagan gods. Each temple had a staff of priests for that particular cult. When a person wanted to offer a sacrifice to a particular god, he or she would bring an animal for the priests to kill. After the sacrifice, the slaughtered animal would remain at the temple as partial payment for the offering. The priests would clean the animal and use the meat as food. When they had too much meat for their own needs, the temple priests would sell the extra meat at the local meat market. If you went to a dinner where meat was served, it was likely that it came from an animal that had been offered in sacrifice earlier that day.

This raised an issue that St. Paul needed to address with the church in Corinth. Some church members were upset that other members were eating meat that had been offered to pagan gods. Paul addressed this issue in 1 Corinthians 8.

Eating the Meat of Idols

Paul recognizes that some of the Christians in Corinth would have no problems eating meat from the temples. Nor should they do so.

So about the eating of meat sacrificed to idols: we know that "there is no idol in the world," and that "there is no God but one." Indeed, even though there are so-called gods in heaven and on earth (there are, to be sure, many "gods" and many "lords"), yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom all things are and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things are and through whom we exist. (1 Corinthians 8: 4–6)

The Christians in Corinth who realized that there is one God and that Jesus was the Son of God were not troubled by eating the meat that had once been offered to idols. Some Christians would even have meals in the temples with the temple priests. Meat was meat, and those gods did not exist.

There were other members of the church, however, whose understanding of Christian teaching was not as clear. They were unsure of the relationship between pagan gods and the one God. These Christians were uncomfortable being served meat that had been used in temple sacrifices. As Paul notes:

But not all have this knowledge. There are some who have been so used to idolatry up until now that, when they eat meat sacrificed to idols, their conscience, which is weak, is defiled. (1 Corinthians 8:7)

The problem for Paul is that those Christians who rightly did not have problems eating the meat from idols would too many times criticize those who were having problems. The Christians who ate the meat thought that they had greater insight into the freedom won by Jesus Christ because they were not worried about pagan gods.

Paul was critical of those Christians who thought they knew better than their fellow Christians. He agreed with them in principle that meat was meat, and so they were technically correct in eating it. However these Christians had to make sure that their sense of being right did not become a stumbling block for their weaker fellow Christians.

Thus through your knowledge, the weak person is brought to destruction, the brother for whom Christ died. When you sin in this way against your brothers and wound their consciences, weak as they are, you are sinning against Christ. (1 Corinthians 8: 11–12)

Making a Moral Choice

We can look at the situation Paul was addressing in terms of the process of making a moral decision. Moral decisions are made by people who are free and take responsibility for their actions. The morality of any act has three dimensions—the act chosen, the intention behind the act, and the circumstances that surround the act.

In this case the act chosen is the good of feeding oneself and others. We need to eat to live, and offering hospitality to others is a Christian obligation. So those Christians who served the meat or who were dining with friends in the temple were acting in a morally good way. The meat helped fulfill their need for food.

The second issue is the intention behind their act. Here things get a little more complicated. If the intention of the Christians who were serving meat offered to idols was to give themselves and their guests a good meal, this was a morally good thing to do. But suppose they knew that serving meat that had been part of a pagan sacrifice would make their guests uncomfortable. But they served it anyway because they wanted to watch their guests squirm or they wanted to show off their own “superior” understanding of Christian teaching. In either case, the act would be morally wrong because their intent was to embarrass their fellow Christians.

When you sin in this way against your brothers and wound their consciences, weak as they are, you are sinning against Christ. (1 Corinthians 8:12)

The third issue is the circumstances surrounding the act. As we have seen, in ancient times food was scarce and people had to eat what they received or what they could find. The food supply for the next day was uncertain. A Christian might serve meat from a pagan temple to his or her guests because that was the only food available to serve. There might not have been fruits, vegetables, or fish in the market that day. If meat from a pagan temple was all there was to eat, it would lessen the moral issue of whether the host was offending the conscience of his guest. In the same way today, a person’s responsibility is lessened if he or she is forced or tricked into committing an immoral act. It is important to recognize that it is never a good moral choice to do an immoral act for the sake of some imagined positive result.

Paul wrote that his own choice in the situation he described was to act in such a way that he would not be the source of scandal against his fellow Christians.

Therefore, if food causes my brother to sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I may not cause my brother to sin. (1 Corinthians 8:13)

Paul emphasized throughout his writings the need for Christians to support one another and love one another. This is especially true because

Now you are Christ's body, and individually parts of it. (1 Corinthians 12: 27)

Paul is urged his fellow Christians to understand that with the freedom won through Jesus Christ is the responsibility that the individual has towards the community. Decisions that we make that we might think are our own private business in fact have social consequences. There is no such thing as a sin that hurts no one. Paul emphasizes that rather than think of our choices as simply our own business we have to recognize our responsibility to others as well.