Are Christians Allowed To Participate In Pagan Economy?

Posted: Nov 15, 2018 10:26 AM
Are Christians Allowed To Participate In Pagan Economy?

I wrote several months ago about New Testament scholar (read here and here), Ben Witherington III, and his book, A Week in the Life of Corinth. What I find most fascinating about the book is the degree to which Christians were integrated into the economic life of the city.

For instance, there is Erastus, the city manager of Corinth (in Greek, oikonomos, or 'economist'; in Latin, aedile). St. Paul refers to him in Romans 16:23 as well as in 2 Timothy 4:20. According to Cicero (On the Law, Book iii) this office had wide authority including the role of treasurer, and public works and public festivals. Cicero explicitly mentions upkeep of temples as well as other public works. Erastus is mentioned in the Pauline epistles without hint of reproach or disapproval for his role as chief economic official in a city in which paganism was thoroughly interlaced with economic life.

Interestingly, one of the early controversies in the Corinthian church was over the matter of eating meat sacrificed to idols. Pagan temples frequently involved animal sacrifice, and the by-produce of such sacrifice is (if the animal is not completely immolated) meat. Such meat could be consumed as part of the ritual, or could be sold later for consumption in restaurants or in homes. Some of the Christian community in Corinth considered such meat to be off limits for consumption. Others were convinced that consuming the meat was not forbidden. Paul agrees with the latter holding that consumption is permitted, but urges those who correctly see themselves at liberty to eat, not do so in a way that hurts the faith of their 'weaker brothers'. Paul puts liberty above any principle of purity via separation, but puts love above liberty.  One wonders how Christians might respond to this controversy if these passages were not in the Bible. Imagine how Christians who ate meat which was butchered during pagan rituals would be treated by their more conservative separationist brethren. The direction of Paul's ruling in the matter is towards wide latitude when it comes to Christians dealing with a wide array of types of people and business enterprises. But the fact that the enterprise in which those animals were sacrificed to pagan gods was overseen financially and to some degree operationally by a manager who drew a salary from them, who was also a Christian who was on good terms with the Apostle Paul, gives some indication how much liberty of conscience was permitted in economic dealings.

I asked Dr. Witherington about this issue and he pointed out that Christians in Corinth were not isolated financially and economically from their community. Even Judaism (which, for good reason, was more separationist in its tendencies) was integrated into that community. They "did not live as the Amish do, Qumran was an exception. Christianity was maybe the 1st genuinely evangelistic religion in world history. They had to have an open face to the world."

When I asked him about the meat sacrificed to idols controversy and suggested that this gave wide latitude for economic dealing he said, "That's right. Where the line was drawn was in regard to worship. It was not okay to go the pagan meals in the pagan temples." Paul does mention one other restriction which is if someone puts food in front of you, and says "This was sacrificed to idols." You are not to eat so that you "do not cause them to stumble". Who is the they/them who might stumble? According to Witherington, this refers to the separationist who is offered the food. They would not want to shame their host by turning down food offered in hospitality, but would also be conscience stricken at the idea of eating meat sacrificed to idols. This creates a social no-win situation where they have to humiliate their hosts or violate their conscience. According to Witherington, for the more mature Christian to use his or her liberty to eat at such a time puts the less mature Christian in an awkward situation, in which they might give in to social pressure and do something they believe is wrong. Interestingly, says Witherington, "The weak are those who have too many scruples, not too few."

I asked Witherington if this principle applied to 'sin screen' investing in which money managers urge people to use their services in order to avoid participating in evil by investing in companies whose businesses might include distribution of pornography or tobacco. In other words, are such investments analogous to meat sacrificed to idols? Witherington said that they were. That these were matters of individual choice, but that if someone believed it was wrong to invest in these things, than that belief means that it is genuinely wrong for them to do it: "Paul says whatever YOU do that is not in faith is wrong for you." But that there was no universal moral obligation to refrain from such investing: "It's going to differ for people." He pointed out that as a United Methodist minister, he's called up to make selections as to what he might object to including in his pension plan. Some choose certain restrictions -- say, no investing in companies that deal with nuclear waste, but, "Some just throw up their hands and say: We live in a fallen world, virtually everything I invest in is going to be tainted in some ways."

I already thought of Christianity as a religion which allows a rather wide zone of freedom, but I think Witherington's research helped me to see how very wide that zone was. It is a strange paradox that a religion which allows such high degrees of freedom has such a strong reputation for lack of freedom.

You can listen to the full interview here.