For Conscience Sake

Christian liberty is God encouraging us to determine for ourselves how best to follow Him: we each stand or fall before our own Master. (Ro 14:4-5) He isn’t encouraging us to sin (Ro 6:15), to break His law (1Jn 3:4), but to apply His precepts in extra-biblical matters in ways we believe most pleases Him. It’s something He calls us to do from the heart as we follow Him, rather than blindly conforming to man-made tradition.

A very challenging scenario for early Christians was whether to eat food that might have been sacrificed to idols. (1Co 10:28-29) It wasn’t technically sinful, but many weaker souls didn’t understand, so extra-biblical discernment was required in each particular situation. When one was offered food in a public context, either in the open markets or at a particular feast, one couldn’t be sure if it had been sacrificed to an idol or not, and how others might view this.

For mature believers, knowing rituals can’t contaminate our food (1Co 8:4), Paul resolves this with a don’t ask policy (25); it isn’t actually a matter of sin since no food belongs to an idol. (26) But if someone points out that some food’s been dedicated to an idol, then abstain to avoid causing others with a weak conscience to stumble. (28) Love limits freedom for conscience sake, not for ourselves but for others.

Taken out of context, this principle might be abused to claim that God doesn’t care what we eat now; no matter what kind of food’s available – don’t worry about whether it’s God’s design for food, biblically clean, or not. After all, Paul does say in the same context, “All things are lawful for me.” (1Co 10:23)

Yet taking such principles literally in isolation produces absurdity. If “all things are lawful for me,” then murder, sodomy and blasphemy are fine now? Of course not! And even if we limit this to food, is cannibalism OK now? Or poisonous frogs, cockroaches and flies? Not at all.  Contextually, it’s clear that Paul is saying every creature God has sanctified as food for us in His Word is lawful and good (1Ti 4:4-5), regardless what ritual has been performed over it.

When wrestling with passages like this, trying to understand the relevance of Torah in our lives, particularly dietary law, we must divide the word honestly, rightly harmonizing each text with the whole of scripture. It’s true that Paul doesn’t explicitly delineate how every single law in Torah is still relevant for both Jew and gentile, yet he shouldn’t have to: Jesus does, as clearly as it can be done – it’s all relevant for everyone for all time. (Mt 5:17-18) Saints are classified by our mind towards it (19), and all who break it as a manner of life are guilty without excuse. (Ro 3:19)

Paul never says Gentiles don’t have to obey certain parts of Torah, breaking God’s Law up into pieces, some of which are irrelevant. This can’t rightly be done (Ja 2:10); we get this mindset from those who’ve corrupted the Word. (2Co 2:17) Instead, Paul asserts that faith establishes Torah (Ro 3:31), and that it’s all good when used as God intended (1Ti 1:8), pointing out that our old man hates it (Ro 8:7) and our new man delights in it. (Ro 7:22) Once we’re aligned with Paul, serving Torah (Ro 7:25), we won’t be asking which laws we must obey, but which ones we’re allowed to.

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Food for You

As Noah departs the Ark after the Great Flood, God extends the general dietary principle, what He’s classified as food. In the Garden, He had revealed his provision of plants for nourishment (Ge 1:30), and now He’s allowing anything that moves to be eaten. (Ge 9:3)

What’s interesting to observe about God’s dietary revelation is that it’s very general; important, critical details are omitted. For example, we shouldn’t eat certain kinds of plants because they’re poisonous, yet God never explicitly tells us which plants to avoid and why.

As a general principle, plants are food, but each particular animal species should only eat certain kinds of plants. God gives each species instincts about what’s good to eat, and places Adam in a special garden stocked with a wide variety of edible herbs and fruit trees as a start. He also gives Man intelligence to figure out the rest, so with a bit of trial and error, we do just fine in the antediluvian world. The key point being this: just because something appears to be in the general category of food, doesn’t mean that we humans should be eating it. We need wisdom and discernment to be healthy.

The same appears to be true for eating animals; this dietary extension to eat flesh applies to certain animals as well as to humans, according to God’s design in each of His creatures. By nature, some creatures are merely herbivores and some are capable of being carnivores or omnivores. So, as Noah considers God’s extension of the dietary principle to include meat, as there’s a design apparent in certain animals that enables them to eat it, there’s also an obvious guideline for Man about which animals are good to eat, which Noah understands to be clean.

This concept of clean animals wasn’t new, it was well-known in the antediluvian world, even though we’ve no record of any direct revelation from God about it. Perhaps Adam discerned that certain kinds of animals were distinctly different from others in a way that made them suitable for humans to domesticate, even though we weren’t eating them. For example, Adam might have discovered that milk and wool from sheep were especially good, and taught his sons about it. Perhaps this is why Abel chose shepherding as his profession. (Ge 4:2)

In other words, Adam had not merely named all of the animals (Ge 2:19), but he may have observed enough about each species to classify it as clean or unclean, and taught the rest of us how to distinguish between them. Perhaps this is why, when God told Noah to take into the Ark seven of each of the clean species of animals, and only two of each unclean species, He didn’t need to explain; Noah appears to have already known exactly how to do this. (Ge 7:2)

And as Noah is leaving the Ark, contemplating the spare of each of the clean animals, he perceives that God will be pleased with an enormous sacrifice (Ge 8:20), an expression of God’s ownership of all things, rejoicing in His pleasure in sparing life on the earth.

After the sacrifice, noting the remaining three pair of each clean animal species, and only one pair of all of the other animal species, as Noah was considering God’s expanded dietary principle, recognizing that eating any of the unclean animals in the near future would cause that species to become extinct, it was immediately clear which animals God intended for human consumption: the clean ones, especially those which we were already in the habit of directly managing.

But over time, this knowledge about which kinds of animals were good for us to eat seems to have deteriorated to the point that it was appropriate for God formally define it for us; as men began to rebel against God in every conceivable manner, the dietary principle was evidently no exception. So, in formalizing His perfect ways for Israel, God reminds them to not eat abominable things (De 14:3), animals which He has not designed for humans to eat, clearly explaining exactly how to distinguish between clean and unclean animals (6) and giving us a number of specific examples of clean beasts (4) and unclean ones (7), edible fish (9-10) and unclean birds. (11-18) This wasn’t a change in the dietary revelation, or even a new concept, just a formalization of what He had already informally revealed in us to establish clarity and accountability.

It is true that there is some nutritional value in unclean foods, but this should not be our preference when we have any kind of choice. Choosing to eat unclean meat is to disrespect and harm ourselves. As God has progressively revealed His eternal ways over time, He hasn’t ever changed His mind about what’s good for us, nor has He been arbitrary in His commands: they’re righteous and very faithful, each and every one of them. (Ps 119:138)

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