In 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, the apostle Paul urges the Corinthian Christians not to eat food sacrificed to idols at pagan feasts in religious temples.
His argument has two components. First, he reminds the Corinthians that those who celebrate the Lord’s Supper participate in the blood and body of Christ (verses 14-17). Then, he argues that those who eat idol-food at pagan temples become “participants with demons” (verses 18-22).
Here’s what he writes:
Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
At this point, the Corinthians might wonder whether Paul is contradicting himself. Doesn’t he believe that “an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one” (8:4, cf. 10:19)? Doesn’t he believe that “food does not bring us near to God” and that “we are no worse if we do not eat and no better if we do” (8:8, cf. 10:25-30). Indeed, doesn’t he allow believers to eat idol-food at dinner parties in private homes on a case-by-case basis (10:25-30)? How, then, can “nothing” become “something” and “it’s sometimes okay” become “it’s never okay”?
The resolution to this apparent contradiction lies first and foremost in context and intentionality. Pagan temples and private homes are very different contexts. Eating idol-food at the former is an inherently religious act. Since the religion does not center on Jesus Christ, eating food in that context is absolutely prohibited. Eating idol-food at a private home may or may not be a religious act, depending on the intentions of the eaters. Since intention–or “conscience,” as Paul puts it–determines the manner in which idol-food is eaten at private homes, it may be consumed, as long as no one has a “weak conscience” about it.
Second, Paul argues that idols–while “nothing” in themselves–implicate the idolater in demonic activity. Paul doesn’t explain why this is so, but here’s my best guess: In the Bible, Jesus Christ is the source of truth and and leads to liberation (John 8;32). By contrast, the demonic starts with deception and ends with oppression (8:44). From a biblical perspective, then, the choice of which religion you practice is critical. Do you side with the truth or a lie? Do you choose liberation or oppression?