Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.
Moving to the New Testament, we have another example of how circumstances alter cases. The council of Acts 15 reached a decision that Gentiles should not be troubled by practices like circumcision (Acts 15:19) but should refrain from eating food that had been “ceremonially polluted” (alisgêma) in relation to idols (15:20). This was one of several regulations that would allow Gentiles and Jews to more comfortably fellowship together. In disseminating the decision of the council, the leaders clarified their meaning with a different word; Gentiles should not eat food “sacrificed” or offered (eidôlothutos) to idols (Acts 15:29).
Paul addresses the same issue in 1 Corinthians 8-10, but does so in greater depth (he mentions food offered to idols [eidôlothutos] six times: 8:1, 4, 7, 10; 10:19, 28). He asserts that “no idol in the world really exists” (1 Cor 8:4, NRSV), “an idol is nothing” (KJV), therefore offering or sacrificing food to idols does not in any way change the food or affect our relation to it (1 Cor 8:8). So eating such food is not an issue for intelligent Christians, in spite of the decree of the council in Acts 15. But not all Christians have this knowledge (8:7), so one must be sensitive to the impact one’s own practice will have on the faith experience of another (8:9-13).
In addition, while idols have no real existence, temple practices should generally be avoided by Christians as they may involve the presence of demons, which would make the temple a dangerous place to go (10:16-21). On the other hand, if an unbeliever invites you to dinner (10:27) or you are shopping in the marketplace (10:25), don’t worry about whether the food was offered to idols or not, go ahead and eat without asking questions. But if someone, likely a fellow believer, objects that the food was offered to an idol, then don’t eat it (10:28), not because an idol is anything but because of the conscience of the one who said it (10:29-33). You don’t want to damage that person’s conscience or walk with God (8:10-13). In matters like this, council or no council, it is important to use common sense (10:15). Paul was not opposed to the earlier action of the council, but was using common sense to clarify the council’s intention in various situations. In a different place, the policy should be applied differently. Circumstances alter cases.
In Romans (written in the 50s AD) Paul speaks very positively about the role of civil government. Christians should be subject to civil authority because such authorities have been instituted by God (Rom 13:1). To resist such authorities is to resist the same God who appointed them (13:2). In fact the civil authorities act as servants (diakonos or “deacons”) of God to keep order in society (13:3-4, 6). Christians should treat civil authorities with honor and respect, for the sake of conscience (13:5, 7).
But forty years later, the situation seems to have changed. In the book of Revelation (probably written in the 90s AD), civil authorities enmeshed with false religion can be described as vicious, persecuting beasts (Rev 13:1-2, 11) who are hurting and will hurt God’s people (Rev 13:7, 10, 15-17). They also blaspheme God Himself (13:1, 6). Since Romans was probably written from Corinth, in the same general region of the Empire as Asia Minor, we see a very different attitude toward civil authority in the same region, but at a different time (forty years later). Different times and different places call for a fresh application of biblical principles. Circumstances alter cases.
To be continued. . .