Questions From Readers
No, for the evidence proves that Paul was in full agreement with the decree of the apostles and elders.
In the year 49, Paul and Barnabas brought to the Jerusalem body of elders and apostles the question of whether Gentile converts must get circumcised. Based on the Scriptures and God’s dealings, and guided by the holy spirit, the council determined that converts did not need to keep the Law. But, among other things, they did have to “keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols.”—Acts 15:1-29.
About 55, Paul wrote to the Corinthians about eating food that had been sacrificed to idols. He said that an idol is really nothing. So a Christian could eat meat that had been sacrificed to an idol, and that later as surplus was taken out and sold in a meat market or in a public restaurant connected with the temple. If, however, someone who previously worshiped the idol would stumble at the Christian’s eating such meat, Paul advised that it would be best to avoid doing so in order that the other person’s faith would not be damaged.—1 Cor. 8:7-13; 10:25-33; Rom. 14:1-4, 19-23.
In view of this, some Bible commentators have contended that Paul was refusing to go along with the council’s decree or that there was a continuing division on the matter. For example, Professor E. Blaiklock says: “In 1 Cor. viii. 4 Paul himself publicly adopts a more liberal attitude than that which the decree lays down.” Heinrich A. Meyer writes about Paul’s supposed “self-subsistent position—wholly independent of the authority of all the other apostles.” And Dr. Meyer comments that in First Corinthians chapter 8 Paul “makes no reference to the decree of the apostles either here or elsewhere, which is in keeping with his consciousness of his own direct and independent apostolic dignity. . . . Moreover, this very chapter 8, along with chap. x., shows plainly that, in virtue of his independent position as an apostle, he had early enough shaken himself clear of all applications of the temporary agreement come to at Jerusalem.”
Such reasoning is insidious, dangerous and contrary to God’s inspired Word. It reflects the idea that Bible books present personal and contradictory human opinions and are not all inspired and beneficial. (2 Tim. 3:16, 17) And, at least in some cases, it reflects a desire to label the decree of Acts 15:28, 29 as temporary and now unnecessary. This, though, conflicts with the Bible and with the historical evidence that Christians in the second century and beyond recognized the decree as binding.
What actually was Paul’s position on the matter of “abstaining from things sacrificed to idols”?
Far from taking exception to that decree, Paul and Barnabas participated in the council that reached that decision. Then they publicized the decision, as Acts 16:4 reports: “Now as they traveled on through the cities they would deliver to those there for observance the decrees that had been decided upon by the apostles and older men who were in Jerusalem.” This built up the congregations.
Did Paul change his stand by the time he wrote First Corinthians (c. 55) or Romans (c. 56)? Not at all. In fact, it was after writing both of those letters that he went to Jerusalem the last time. (1 Cor. 16:8; Acts 19:1; Rom. 15:25) While there, he met with James and the older men, who referred back to the decree of Acts 15:28, 29 as still valid and binding on Christians. Paul did not disagree.—Acts 21:17-26.
Hence, we have good reason to expect that any seeming conflict between the council’s decree and what Paul wrote can be resolved. And that certainly is so.
What the decree in Acts 15:28, 29 forbade was a Christian’s being part of a formal, religious ceremony or his committing an act of idolatry. Those who sacrificed an animal to an idol got some of the meat to eat. Their doing so was clearly a religious act; it was considered sharing in a meal with the pagan god. (Ex. 34:15; Deut. 32:17; 1 Cor. 10:18-21) Christians absolutely could not do that. The decree of the Christian governing body had forbidden it, and Paul was in full agreement. He wrote: “Therefore, my beloved ones, flee from idolatry.”—1 Cor. 10:14; 1 Thess. 1:9.
So, in writing what he did in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 and Romans 14, Paul was not granting permission to share in an idolatrous act or feast in honor of an idol, as the Israelites had done and incurred God’s wrath. (Num. 25:1-4; Rev. 2:14) Rather, he was dealing with simply eating, as a customary meal, meat from an idol temple that had been sold to the public in general. Such meat was not unclean or defiled simply because of its background.
● How should a Christian view attending a religious ceremony, such as a Jewish Bar Mitzvah or the feast that follows it?
Christians desirous of pleasing Jehovah would want to avoid such religious events.
Various religions have special rites to mark a person’s becoming a member. It may be a baptismal ceremony, ritual circumcision or, with Jewish boys, the Bar Mitzvah.
An encyclopedia of the Jewish religion says that Bar Mitzvah means “an adult male Jew obligated to perform the commandments.” By extension the term also applies to “the ceremony at which a 13-year-old boy becomes an adult member of the [Jewish] community for ceremonial purposes.”
Often such religious events have two phases, the rite itself, usually held in a religious building, and then an associated feast or party. For instance, this encyclopedia says about Bar Mitzvah that there is “the religious ceremony in the synagogue and the subsequent social celebration.” Relatives and friends of the family may be invited to both of these, or even just to the celebration or feast.
In thinking about such events, the Christian may be helped by considering what is the point of the entire affair. Is it merely an acknowledgment that someone has become an adult? Or is it, rather, a special religious ceremony? And is the feast or party just a normal gathering of family and friends, or is it a celebration over someone’s having gone through the ritual by which he has become a member of that religion?
With these questions in mind, consider what Jesus told a Samaritan woman: “God is a Spirit, and those worshiping him must worship with spirit and truth.” (John 4:24) Hence, can you imagine that Jesus would voluntarily go into a Roman temple because some relative or acquaintance was there to be initiated into that religion? Also, would Jesus have chosen to join in the celebrating of such initiation at a party afterward? Hardly, for that would be in conflict with the inspired view: “What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what portion does a faithful person have with an unbeliever? And what agreement does God’s temple have with idols? . . . ‘“Therefore get out from among them, and separate yourselves,” says Jehovah, “and quit touching the unclean thing.”’”—2 Cor. 6:15-17.
Some relatives might be offended if a Christian declined their well-meant invitation. Being aware of that possibility, the Christian who chose not to attend would want to explain his decision kindly, mildly. (Prov. 15:23; Eccl. 12:10) He could explain that his not being there should in no way be mistaken as a lack of family affection. He might mention that just as he respects the relative’s conscience, he hopes that the relative will understand and respect his sincere, conscientious feelings.
Sometimes an unbelieving husband or father may insist that his Christian wife or child accompany him to such a feast. This may present a problem. The Christian desires to keep separate from other religions, and yet the Bible urges respect for the husband’s or father’s headship in the family. (Eph. 5:22, 23; 6:1-3) Each Christian thus has to resolve personally what course to follow. One wife, for example, might conclude that as long as she herself would not have to engage in any religious rites, she could comply with her husband’s request to be present; that, in effect, is where he is providing the family meal. But another wife might discern in this a determined effort to get her to compromise her religious principles. So she might decide not to attend, though continuing to respect her husband as head of the family.—Col. 3:18.
While recognizing that such situations often involve deep feelings on the part of relatives and acquaintances, the Christian needs to keep uppermost in mind the importance of faithfulness to Jehovah God. This will make it easier to decide properly when invited to celebrate someone’s becoming a member of another religion.