Biblical principles for food in the context of worship and church

Sermon delivered Sunday Morning, July 20, 2014

Scripture Readings

Psalm 104:1, 10-24

Acts 15.1-5; 22-29

Mark 7:14–23:

Romans 14:1–23:


In late 2012, Cathy asked me asked me to put some carriage lights up on our garage. In the evenings after doing this work, my feet were in pain which seemed disproportionate to the level of exertion. Not only so, but I fell off the ladder twice and also stumbled on the last step leading down to the garage. Now, I wondered if this lack of co-ordination could have anything to do with diabetes—a disease that runs in my family which I had been worried about getting. So I did some internet research and soon found that I had a problem called peripheral neuropathy, which is degenerative damage to peripheral nerves esp. in the hands and feet. It is a common diabetic symptom associated with uncontrolled blood sugars. Peripheral neuropathy causes loss of proprioception—and for years I stumbled going up steps because neuropathy makes you unable to sense where your feet are. Eventually peripheral neuropathy leads to amputation. So once I figured out where my diabetes was leading me, to loss of limb, I freaked out, and decided to stop eating carbohydrate laden foods—because I figured that carbs were the basis of the problem, and I found Dr. Bernsteins Diabetes Solution very early on confirming my decision to restrict carbohydrate.

Immediately, my feet and hands started getting better. As did my other diabetic symptoms—and as you may have noticed, I lost a dramatic amount of weight.

It is an interesting phenomenon to eat low carbohydrate high fat in a society which fears fat and in which the majority of “foods” are highly processed. When shopping, I spend nearly all my time in the outside aisles (meat, vegetables, high fat dairy, eggs) and only get coconut oil and coffee from the middle aisles of the grocery store. My food culture has a name: “Paleo”.

One of the chief arguments for the Paleo movement is that of Weston Price, a dentist who travelled around the world in circa 1930 to study native peoples. He noticed that the world’s aboriginal people were very healthy until they added processed flour and sugar to their diet. Thus, the Paleo movement focuses on real food, unprocessed and usually available without a food label. In addition, Paleo recommends eating good fats: butter, coconut oil, and animal fat. So while I eat all the fat from my meats, most people discard the fat—in the dread that saturated fat causes artery clogging. But the Inuit had no degenerative diseases (no cancer, no heart disease) before flour and sugar, despite eating diet very high in animal fat.

This alternate culture that I practice might cause problems for me when I travel or go out to eat at a friend’s place. Once eating at the house of an MP, the honorable Parliamentarian importuned me to eat an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie, but I strayed not from my menu. I don’t see such things as food any more. This clash of culture has been even more difficult for others: I know of one diabetic lady whose mother-in-law makes a fuss whenever she comes over and refuses to eat her high carbohydrate fare: She makes a remark like, “I guess she thinks our food isn’t good enough for her.” One of my African colleagues says that while he agrees with low-carb culture it clashes with his African culture—he says that his fellow African Christians become offended if you refuse to eat their high carbohydrate offerings. It does no good to explain that carbohydrate restriction is necessary for health. They will not accept refusal, says my friend. But wheat and sugar are causing new epidemics of diabetes in African countries today.

Clash of Two food cultures in our readings

Now it is interesting in three of the Bible passages that we read today that there is clearly a clash of two cultures going on: Gentile and Jewish culture. Jewish people ate a pretty strict Kosher diet then as they do today. Not only did the meat have to be of specific kind (from animals with cloven hooves and that chews their cud), but it had to be killed in a specific way, so as to drain the blood from the animal. Consequently strict Jews would refuse to eat in the houses of Gentiles. Furthermore, Gentiles would eat meat sacrificed to idols, for in antiquity, most of the meat sold in the market was sacrificed to idols. Furthermore, they often associated eating and drinking with licentious sexual practices: the Romans and Greeks, especially the noble classes, regularly took advantage of their slaves, both male and female, after having a nice evening meal with wine. This painting in Pompeii probably depicts the level of decadence of the Roman society:


Clearly, Roman dining presented a cultural clash with the Jewish standards of the day. Both food and the behaviour of the diners presented a problem.

In this context, gentiles had come to faith in Jesus Christ, and their teachers, Paul and Barnabas, did not think it was necessary to impose upon them the Jewish law. But when Jews from Jerusalem came to the church in Antioch, they began to insist that these people follow Jewish laws. So Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to discuss this with the powers that be. The result was that the council of Jerusalem in Acts ch. 15 only imposed four requirements, to abstain from:

(1) what has been sacrificed to idols
(2) blood
(3) what is strangled
(4) unchastity/fornication

These instructions would have been the minimum requirements making of it possible for Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians to dine together. Why was that necessary? Because in the early church, the Lord’s Supper (i.e., Holy Communion) wasn’t just going up to take a wafer and a sip of wine, but a sacred meal that Christians ate together under one roof. The Jerusalem apostles and Paul were trying to create a single unified church which worshiped together, not a fragmented movement, which had separate Gentile and Jewish factions. The Jerusalem Council made it possible for people of two cultures to worship and dine under one roof. Both groups would have to make compromises so that neither would be overlooked or offended.

This compromise resulted in a certain tension for Paul. Paul had internalized the view that the whole of creation was the Lord’s and therefore nothing in it is evil in and of itself. So also Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark that uncleanness, sin isn’t a matter of what one eats but what comes out of the heart. So, Mark explains that Jesus thereby declared all foods clean. But this freedom to eat any food remained a problem for Jewish Christians. Paul, in his attempt to be all things to all men, would eat with Gentiles but not ask whether the food was sacrificed to an idol (1 Cor 10.23-32). All things were created by God—as the Psalmist also declares in our reading, “O LORD, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy creatures.” But knowing that food wasn’t intrinsically harmful wasn’t good enough. What if two people were eating together and one took offense or would stumble because of what was on his dinner plate? Paul says that the stronger brother must out of love cede his freedom and make concessions for the weaker brother—this is what love requires. In Romans 14, then, the weaker brother who could not partake of certain foods and for whom some days were more important than others was undoubtedly the Jewish Christians, who had very strong scruples about days (e.g., the Sabbath) and about foods. So Paul says to the Gentile Christians, make sure that you don’t offend your Jewish brothers by what you eat. So compromise was the course of the day: the Jew would compromise by eating with Gentiles, and the Gentiles would compromise by not putting anything on the menu that would offend Jews. Nor would the Gentiles continue their typical loose morals of having sex with slave woman or young slave boy—rather they would practice monogamy (a man would have one wife, a woman one husband). Through these restrictions, one church and one faith was possible. The ruling principle was one of loving one another, not putting out stumbling blocks, because that is more important than food.

Now let’s bring these readings to the 21st century and try to figure out some principles and applications that might help us to think about food in a biblical manner, particularly as it affects us as a church. Today, we have one dominant culture of food, let’s call it the Standard Western Diet, consisting largely of highly process foods with a few meats, fruits and vegetables thrown in. But there are many subcultures in our Canadian context. For example, we have many Iranians in our area, and as most are Muslims, they would typically eat no pork or alcohol; we are bordering on Thornhill with a large Jewish population, many of whom eat strictly Kosher meat; we also have a large number of vegetarians and vegans in our culture. And also now as I mentioned, I belong to a growing Paleo movement. There is also a growing number of people with severe food intolerances, such as people who go into anaphylactic shock around peanuts; but there are other food intolerances: diabetics are intolerant of carbs; many others are intolerant of gluten; alcoholics are intolerant of alcohol. So in light of these Scriptures readings, how should we think about food in this multi-cultural context?

Principles of Food in the Church

1. All foods are clean because they are part of God’s creation. No one sins only because they eat a certain food. If I eat only saturated fat, and you eat wheat, and vegan abstains from every sort of animal product, no one of us sins for that that reason alone.

2. The church should be focused on unity and compromise when it comes to food. If today some Muslims and some Jews walked into church and were baptised, we wouldn’t start a separate Halal service and a separate Kosher service, but I’m sure we could find a way in which all of the Christians of differing cultures could worship together so that we could remain in fellowship and Holy Communion together. I will therefore never be the founder of Paleo church. And for that matter, our church is not a Standard Canadian Diet church, as the little sandwiches and pork sausage rolls after a funeral would suggest. We are Christ’s church and we all belong to him.

3. Love should be the guiding principle around food. So we should do nothing that would injure someone: Paul says, “If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.”

Applications specifically at our church

1. Holy Communion: (a) I am pretty sure no one here is offended by the small amount of wine in the cup. But if we had Christians of Muslim background come to our church, we would perhaps have to discuss this with him or her. (b) The bread that we use, however, may a present a problem for those who are eating gluten free. It may seem like a small amount, but let me talk about Dr. Terry Wahls: she has secondary progressive MS and she has reversed her symptoms through eating a strict Paleo and gluten free diet. The Youtube video of her TedX talk, “Minding your mitochondria”, has gone viral with over 1.8 million hits.

Terry Wahls says that if she eats even the tiniest amount of gluten, for example in a sauce at a restaurant, her MS pain comes back in her face. We have gluten intolerant people in this congregation. So if we out of love want to make sure that we do not injure people, we would do well to have gluten free alternative. Of course, I am not picking on our church alone here—that’s not my intention. But I think that love requires that the knowledge of the negative effects of modern wheat (cf. Wheat Belly). Love would require that we rethink what communion bread should consist of.

2. Coffee Time and other occasions where we serve or consume food as a church: This is a mixed problem to me because I see our coffee time as especially important for conviviality and fellowship. I remember my first few Sundays at here and how people here were so welcoming. I am also thankful for the great and consistent effort of the people who provide the coffee and accompaniment; for I know that your hearts are in the right place.

A good effort is made to try to welcome those who have food intolerances: (1) Often I see gluten free items on the table; (2) Cheese and vegies are also often available for those who do not like or can’t tolerate sweets. I can see an attempt to provide alternatives and that is definitely within the spirit of compromise that our Scriptures mention.

However, I wonder if we put several selections of hard liquor:

What impression would we have of that. I wonder why we don’t do that? We have a lot of alcoholics in our society, so this may actually injure someone who has a problem with alcohol. Also, it may impair us on our drive home, and make it impossible for us to have a very good afternoon except to sleep off the alcohol. But what about a coffee-time table that looks like this:

Gluten to a celiac is like peanuts to a person allergic to peanuts. Carbohydrate and sugar are to a diabetic like alcohol to an alcoholic. Well, I think we all know that such food is fattening, and most of us have some weight to lose. Also it is commonly accepted that sugar often alters the behaviour of children for the worse. With such offerings, do churches put a stumbling block before weaker brothers and thus injure them? I leave you only with my own testimony: I love the coffee time, and the opportunity for fellowship. But I used also to love the sweets and I would go home often with a bag full of Tim Hortons, you know the one that someone used to bring. Well, this is what happened to me after church on Sunday: I would fix dinner, Cathy and I would eat, then I would have an afternoon nap and wake up at around 6:00 pm. Yes, the carbs regularly knocked me out—without them today, I nap most of the time only about 10-30 minutes. Furthermore, I reached a top weight of about 260 and 44 inch waist, and the hospitality of our church made its contribution, to be sure.

Well, this story isn’t about me. It isn’t about our church alone either. It is really about asking ourselves what hospitality could possibly require in our culture. The early Christians literally forbade certain cultural foods in the context of church, even though both Jesus and Paul said that they were not intrinsically sinful to eat—they did so because some people were weak, and could handle neither eating them nor being in the presence of those who did.

I don’t want to prescribe a certain action. But I believe God would have us open up a dialogue. Are we able to think through the issue of food so that our love and our concern for everyone at church, both regulars and visitors, shines out? How can we benefit as a church from dialogue: Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church has lost a collective 250,000 lbs on diet similar to mine: low carb low fat (I do low carb high fat). I am told on good authority that our church also did 3D years ago—a church weight loss program. I am hoping that we can do something here again to help folks lose weight. If Rick Warren can lose 65 lbs, and his church 250,000 lbs, that encourages us to try something as a church.

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