In modern day Australia we are confronted everyday by the growing multiculturalism of our community. While this brings a healthy diversity and even vibrancy to life in Australia, it also brings with it many challenges. Amongst these challenges is that of the growing diversity of religion.
One of the very public signs of religious diversity has been in the labelling of foods in our supermarkets, butchers, grocers and even restaurants as suitable for consumption by adherents of various religions most notably people of the Islamic faith with Halal labelling and people of the Jewish faith with Kosher labelling.
This has raised the question of conscience for many Christians in our community about whether or not food labelled in such a way is either permissible or advisable to eat from a religious standpoint. However, from a biblical perspective there is not a particularly straightforward solution to the problem. This is because there are at least three different principles that need to be considered and often different denominations have emphasized one of more of these over the others in searching for an answer. The three main principles which bear on this issue are
1) the food laws of the Old Testament.
2) the teaching of Jesus and the apostles about the ‘cleanness’ of food, and
3) the constant struggle of the church to know how to relate to their religious neighbor’s of other faiths as Christianity spread into pluralistic Europe which is the subject of much of the New Testament.
The Old Testament Food Laws.
The first principle of concern is the reality of the Old Testament food laws. For the nation of Israel, there were certain foods they were to restrict themselves from eating in order to distinguish themselves as ‘the LORD’S people’. The most well know restriction is a complete ban on all pork products. However, the food laws of the Old Testament are far more extensive, including prohibition on foods relating to shellfish, birds of prey and more. (Leviticus 11). There were restrictions on combinations of food and on the cooking of food: for example, no meat with blood left in it was to be eaten (Genesis 9:4-5) and no goat was to be cooked in its mother’s milk (Exodus 34:26). These laws constitute what is Kosher or non-Kosher for Jews and the reason they avoid dairy products and meat being consumed together.
However, the question of to what extent the Old Testament law is to be complied with by Bible believing Christians has been debated over the years. And so, for example, the Seventh Day Adventist church continues to see these laws as binding on Christians though they generally present these Old Testament laws as God’s health food plan for humanity. (www.seventhdayadventistdiet.com).
A Jesus declaration is that all food is clean.
The second principle comes in relation to New Testament teaching about clean and unclean foods. First of all there is an incident involving Jesus personally which is repeated in two different gospel narratives where the Jewish authorities call him to account over their failure to indulge in ritual washings (Mark 7:1-23 and Matthew 15:1-20). The Jewish authorities claim Jesus has ignored the traditions of the elders, but the whole discussion turns into a theological debate on whether religious ceremonies can or cannot make a person ritually clean before God. At the conclusion of the discussion, Jesus addresses his disciples and sums up what is now to become Christian teaching. 18 . . . Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, 19 because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) 20 And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21 “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23 “All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”
The comment in verse 19 is telling for Christians in regard to food – all food according to Jesus is clean. That is, here is the declaration that from now on all food is given by God and is perfectly suitable for consumption by his followers. This does not mean for the Jews who followed him that they should start breaking the Kosher laws, but he is simply saying that being his follower, especially from a non-Jewish background, will not require a commitment to Jewish food restrictions. In other words, a person does not need to become a Jew in order to become a Christian.
This same lesson is taught to the Apostle Peter in Acts 10:9-11:18 where he is instructed by Jesus to eat all kinds of ‘unclean’ animals, that is foods which break the kosher laws. Through this event Peter and the other apostles are to learn not only that food does not make someone a true follower of God, or not but also that God will accept people from all over the world who will accept and follow Jesus.
Jesus ruling on the cleanness of all foods is not the end of the matter however, there is a third principle at stake in the Bible’s teaching on food.
The challenge as Christianity spreads through pluralistic Europe and beyond.
As Christianity spread throughout the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Africa it was not long before questions had to be answered as to how Christians could and should relate to their neighbours who worshipped the idols of various gods and goddesses. One of the main bones of contention was over the eating of foods offered in sacrifice to these idols.
Could a Christian in good conscience as part of their worship of Jesus Christ, participate in the fellowship meals at the shrines?
Could they buy meat sold in the marketplaces that had been offered to a foreign god?
Was the food tainted by its associations with other religions or was it just as ‘clean’ for them to eat. And the reason this issue proved challenging was that it was not just a question of which types of food to eat – pork or beef etc.… But a question of what happened to the food once it had been prayed over, blessed or otherwise been offered to another god. The young church struggled with all these issues and more.
After the Apostle Paul’s initial missionary journey through Cypress and into Asia Minor these issues became very apparent and the Council of Jerusalem was the first Ecumenical Council held to decide on matters of church law. The findings of this council are laid out in Acts 15. On the question of whether Gentile (non-Jew) who becomes a Christian would be required to adopt the Jewish Kosher laws the answer came back a resounding, ‘no’ – upholding Jesus’s teaching and the teaching of the Apostle Peter as discussed above.
However, on the question of whether that meant that all food was therefore legitimate to eat – the council concluded “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well.” (Acts 15: 19-20 / 28-29).
Both the kinds of food described are tied up with non-Christian religious practices. And while this is not an outright ban, it is a very strong recommendation to which if the Christian adheres they ‘will do well.’
It is not until the Apostle Paul writes a reply to the church in Corinth, which he founded, who have again raised these matters, that we discover why the Christian ‘does well’ not to eat this kind of food. The issue the Christians in Corinth have raised is regards participating in the feasts at the local temples to the gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome. The initial answer Paul gives runs along the following lines.
a) Food is food and all food is from God and is OK to eat (1 Corinthians 8:8)
also see (Romans 14:6)
b) However there are all kinds of Christians who don’t understand that fully and who will be tempted to sin against their conscience if they see another Christian feasting down at these temples. They will be tempted to join in with what they consider to be wrong behaviour for which they will be judged.
(1 Corinthians 8:9-10) also see (Romans 14:2-3)
c) Therefore for the sake of the weaker believer never eat food down at the pagan temples and by extension any food that causes other Christians to stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:11- 12) also see (Romans 14:13)
However, Paul returns to the discussion two chapters later in looking into other cases, notably buying meat bought in pagan markets which has been sacrificed to other gods, and dining at the houses of people from other faiths whose food likewise has been offered to other gods.
d) Paul then draws a strong implication from this: “What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partakers 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.” (1 Corinthians 10:19-21)
Paul concludes by giving a guiding principle that all Christians should adhere to in these circumstances. This principle is that Christians must not raise any questions of conscience about foods if the vendor or the host says nothing about it, but as soon as they do, then the Christian must abstain from the food for the sake of the other person. In the Apostle’s own words:
“23 All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but that of his [aa]neighbor. 25 Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake; 26 for the earth is the Lord’s, and [ab]all it contains. 27 If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscience’ sake. 28 But if anyone says to you, “This is meat sacrificed to idols,” do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; 29 I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks? (1 Corinthians 10:23-29).
This is a broad reaching principle which complements the others. All foods are clean and may be eaten by Christians and they should not raise too many issues about it. But if people of other religions start to create issues about food being particularly devoted to, blessed by or sacrificed to the gods of other religions then the Christian is forced to take issue and do something about it.
Some Conclusions for 21st Century Australia.
In 21st Century multi-cultural and multi-religious Australia Christians find ourselves in much the same situation as the Christians in Corinth in the early centuries of the Christian faith. While this has been the situation in this country for some time now, these issues of food and religion have only recently been forced into a position of prominence by the broad expansion of Halal and Kosher labelling.
Previous generations of Christians have not found it necessary to create an issue around food and religion. In this they have not only followed the words of Jesus and the Apostle Peter that ‘all foods are clean’ but they have also acted in keeping with the principles of Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians of not creating an issue if no issue has been created.
However, now the issue has been created by proponents of these other religions. Christians again following the principles of Jesus in John 6, Acts 15 and 1 Corinthians 8-10, we must respond in some way.
Should Christians therefore avoid all foods labelled as Kosher or Halal?
Shall we come up with their own labelling scheme to show they have thought through what is and is not appropriate to eat in reverence for Jesus?
Or should we protest against any such labelling altogether?
These are very real questions which must be addressed by each Christian and each denomination within the Christian church. All are valid responses from a Christian perspective and yet all will pose different challenges in implementation.
But these are important issues of obedience to the Bible for the Christian to work through. An issue has been created therefore Christians need to say or do something in response.
John 6:27 “Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you: for on him has God the Father set his seal.”
Revelations 2:14 “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teachings of Balaam, who tought Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israil, that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality.” :15 In the same way, some of you also hold to the teaching of Nicolaitans. :16 Therefore repent! Otherwise I will come to you shortly and wage war against them with the sword of my mouth.“
Above document is the combined works of Joe.W and Damon.O
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