Back in the Biblical day (which was, of course, a Wednesday), the Jewish followers of the Way had to wrestle with what becoming a follower meant for a Gentile. Must a Gentile first become Jewish? What did being Jewish look like in the wake of Christ’s resurrection? Should there continue to be boundaries between Jew and Gentile, even if both looked to Jesus?
The Apostle Paul devotes quite a bit of space in his letters to mapping this out. He sharply rejected any notion that someone who was not already Jewish should have to submit to the whole canon of Jewish law. (This is important. Paul never rejected his Jewishness. While he did wholeheartedly teach that it was Christ alone, and not the law, that saved, he followed Jesus within the context of Judaism). Essentially, if one was not born into ethnic and national Israel, then one was not bound by the strictures of the Sinai covenant – the letter.
One was, however, bound by the spirit of the law. This is best shown in the Jerusalem Council’s letter to the Gentile believers in Antioch (and elsewhere):
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. – Acts 15:28-29 (NKJV)
That the first three commands deal with food might seem strange to us, but rules about eating and how to eat were (and continue to be) part of the Jewish identity. This is why Peter’s vision in Acts 10 is significant:
About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. – vs. 9-16 (NKJV)
The context of Peter’s vision has to do with the Gentile mission; he was about to be called into life of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. So we are presented with layers. Concerned with ritual purity, a Jewish person in this era would not normally associate with or go into the house of a Gentile, which Peter was about to do. God was telling Peter to let go of a lifetime of prejudices. Sharing the Gospel with a Gentile would not be wrong and it would not make Peter unclean.
I find it fascinating that the Lord used food in this vision, especially since the Jerusalem Council occurred not many years later. Here we see a clear sign that God was not asking new Gentile believers to commit to Judaism. This does not mean that following Christ within Judaism ceased to be a valid way of living. In many ways, Jesus reaffirmed the “first” covenant in His life and teachings. (Unfortunately, I do not have time to devote to that. Another time). Gentile Christians did not somehow “replace” Jewish Christians. There was, and continues to be, two beautiful ways of living, all based in God.
Sadly, the debate over food has never ended. The participants shifted from Jewish and Gentile to Gentile and Gentile. Christian and Christian. It went from “what does God command?” to “what will make me a ‘better’ Christian?” (This is, of course, my opinion).
Some groups, like the Seventh-Day Adventists, maintain that a believer should be vegetarian or vegan. Others hold that on certain days or times certain foods must be avoided, like the Catholic teaching on Friday abstinence (not as straightforward as you might think). Many groups encourage some form of fasting during the Lenten season, including my own Church of the Nazarene. And yet this is not really where the battle rages. I’ve been friends with enough Seventh-Day Adventists to know that they aren’t going to beat me up for eating a hamburger. I’ve also known enough Catholics to know that they do not believe that Protestants are bound by the Magisterium’s teaching. And the fasting that goes on in my church during Lent is highly personal and individualized.
No, unfortunately the fight goes on at a deeper, person-to-person level.
I’m all for eating healthy. My husband and I just had a good discussion about this. We spent yesterday afternoon stuffing baggies full of fresh vegetables for snacks and try to plan our meals in advance. We both have things like hypertension and diabetes in our family histories and we know that it’s important to do what we can to take care of the bodies we’ve been given.
But I’m not talking about that kind of thing.
I don’t know if it’s the American culture or what, but suddenly what one eats is a VERY BIG DEAL. And not only is it what one eats, but where one purchased the food. And if it’s organic and GMO-free. And if it supports local farmers. And…and…and…
Meanwhile, there’s a kid who dies because he didn’t have anything to eat, period.
But we’d rather snipe at each other than address real hunger.
There’s a snarky, judgmental attitude about food, and it’s infected Christians. Big time. Of course we’re all going to have our opinions, our likes and dislikes. There’s nothing wrong with that. What bothers me is the condescension I see around the interwebs. My favorite? Well, if you would just do your research.
Okay. I did:
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. – Romans 14:1-4 (NKJV)
In other words, get off the high horse.
What you eat (or don’t) doesn’t make you a better person or a better Christian than another.
But Paul doesn’t end there:
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. – Romans 14:19-21 (NKJV)
Be sensitive to each other! Don’t force your opinions about food down another person’s throat. If you have a vegan friend who absolutely cannot stand the sight of meat, be nice to her. Eat a salad and some pasta when you’re having lunch together. This doesn’t mean that you have to become vegan. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a steak for dinner. You don’t have to change your opinion about anything. But you can be kind.
The Apostle ends with this fabulous statement:
So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. – Romans 14:22a (NKJV)
I love that! We would do well to follow this advice in every area of our lives. So much, including food, is not worth fighting about!
For all the posts in the Not the Fundamentals series, go here.