On Enjoying Meat Sacrificed to Idols (and Alcohol)

Posted by in Baptist Life, Church & Missions

Well I’ve been known to cause a few breakups

and I’ve been known to cause a few births

I can make you new friends

Or get you fired from work.

Anyone who listens to country radio knows this isn’t a riddle, but the chorus of a song by Brad Paisley—Alcohol. Though the song itself is a light-hearted tribute to booze, these few words are a testament to the seriousness behind the subject. Relationships broken. Lowered inhibitions. Expressions of community. Loss of control.

For all the fun that songs, beer commercials, and barbeques promise, an icy-cold one can lead to grief and loss. It’s no small wonder that the Bible contains so many warnings about wine and “strong drink.” Any article on the subject would do well to recite Proverbs 20:1—Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.

With so many Biblical warnings, it’s no small wonder that many within Baptistdom consider drinking alcohol to be somewhere in the top three of the seven deadly sins. Whole books are written on it and blog debates rage fiercely.

As embarrassing as it is to admit that some church members occasionally (or frequently) drink, it is downright scandalous for a church minister to admit to the practice. In fact, many churches have members sign a covenant with a specific clause about abstaining from alcohol. In our church both deacons and pastors have to agree to avoid the stuff. And every semester I have to sign code of conduct prior to taking classes at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Sinful?

While institutions can do what they want, I’m afraid we’ve created an environment where we have knowingly and willingly allowed those who are “weak in faith” to bind the consciences of those who are not.

I believe the question of whether one chooses to enjoy alcoholic beverages or not is a matter of Christian liberty. Here’s why, and I’ll summarize the argument as best as I can: Romans 14:21.

“It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.”

The meat here could be meat in general, or specifically meat sacrificed to idols. As you may recall from your Bible reading, the question of whether it was a sin or not to partake of meat that had been sacrificed to idols was a big one in the early Church. Paul addressed it extensively in 1 Corinthians and here in Romans.

Paul emphatically states that eating meat that has been sacrificed to an idol is not sinful in and of itself. He says in Romans 14:14, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”

Yet having recognized that there is nothing wrong with eating it, Paul still says it is perfectly fine to abstain from eating it for the sake of a “weak” Christian brother whose conscience won’t allow him to eat it. In 1 Corinthians Paul mentions that this is because the Christian brother lacks knowledge (see 1 Cor. 8:7).

So Paul encourages other believers to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols not because it is sinful to do so, but because of the conscience of another believer. And either way, Paul doesn’t mind if a believer eats meat sacrificed to idols or abstains, so long as each is “fully convinced in his own mind” because, “The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Rom. 14:5-6). Paul’s call here, then, is not a call for total abstention, but to be considerate of the conscience of others.

THEREFORE, what we see here is that Paul places alcoholic beverages in the same category as meat sacrificed to idols. (I have yet to hear of someone who believes the wine [oinos] in this verse is anything other than an alcoholic beverage, such as unfermented grape juice that was sacrificed to an idol and then sold at market.)

“It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.”

A Bound Conscience

As I’ve mentioned before, I memorized the book of Titus. It is fascinating that nowhere in Titus or anywhere else in the New Testament does Paul prohibit people from joining the church or from serving as leaders because they ate meat sacrificed to an idol.

Given that this was such a hot issue back in Paul’s day, what does that say about alcohol in ours?

By forcing people to sign covenants with an alcohol clause in order to join the church or serve as leadership, we are essentially binding the consciences of other believers. If Joe enjoys a beer on Sunday afternoon, which he drinks in the privacy of his home, should we take away his Christian liberty by making him give that up in order to enjoy the benefits of church membership?

The situation is delicate, and this is not a perfect solution, but I think we should employ a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy concerning alcohol use and church membership/leadership. It is one thing to encourage a brother to willingly not exercise his liberty (or to practice it discretely). It is something else entirely to force him to give it up to enjoy the privileges of membership.

By “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I mean that if a person chooses to drink alcohol he attempt to do so without drawing attention to himself. This doesn’t mean other believers shouldn’t get involved if there is suspicion of the abuse of alcohol, and there is nothing wrong with asking a pastoral candidate if he believes drinking alcohol is a sin, and if not, if he can either abstain from it or practice it discretely. But we should leave each Christian to act according to the dictates of his or her conscience and the Spirit’s leading.

I also mean that a person who chooses to drink should not advertise or flaunt that decision. That was one of Paul’s big concerns here concerning meat sacrificed to idols. Doing so could potentially damage another’s conscience and thus become a stumbling block both to believers and to unbelievers (see 1 Cor. 9:22). An individual who flaunts his freedom would not be a good candidate for leadership in ministry and should receive some counseling along the same lines that Paul presents in his letters.

Yet, even if it is suspected or discovered that a person moderately drinks alcohol, we should not deny him or her the privileges of church membership or ministry leadership, especially if the discovery is made known through gossip. In truth, the one who chooses to enjoy alcohol and the one who chooses to abstain are both welcomed into fellowship with God. Let’s welcome them into our fellowship as well:

“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. (2) One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. (3) Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.”

Romans 14:1-3

**Disclaimer** I fully recognize that in certain contexts Christians must put aside their liberty to be able to reach the local populace (e.g. eating beef in India, pork in Saudi Arabia, or drinking alcohol in Dearborne (a high-density Muslim population in Michigan).