This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.
“For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church,” (Ephesians 5:29)
The Chuck Colson Center has a page called Worldview Spheres in which we have identified eight categories of reality to which the Biblical worldview applies. One of the spheres is, “Culture/Institutions: the artifacts, institutions, and conventions by which people define, sustain and enrich themselves.”
There’s a lot that falls under that heading, to be sure. However, in worldview thinking one of the most neglected artifacts by which humans both sustain and enrich themselves is food. The neglect of intellectual engagement with food should surprise us. While I don’t have any official figures, I reckon that humans probably spend at least 35% of their waking moments either eating, drinking or preparing food – a percentage which would obviously be higher in pre-industrial societies where all of life centers around agriculture.
Given the amount of time we spend either directly or indirectly on the activity of eating, it makes sense that Christians ought to apply their minds, and not merely their mouths, to this critical area of life. We need to think through the worldview implications of diet.
At least, that is what I recently argued in my Worldview column ‘Chewing at God’s Blessings.’ Certain objections have been raised to the ideas I put forward in that article, and these objections require some critical reflection. This article will seek to engage with these objections by considering issues of personal wisdom and responsibility. In a follow-up article I will engage with these objections by considering larger issues of cultural reformation.
Food and Faith
Does the Biblical worldview have any relevance to what we eat? Yes it does. When writing to the Corinthians the apostle Paul said, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31) In gathering, preparing and eating meals, we have a God-given obligation to glorify Him. This is true of food just as it is true of “whatever you do.”
There are many ways that we can fail to glorify God with our food. Food prepared in anger, food eaten with a grumbling heart instead of a spirit of gratefulness, or food eaten to excess, are just some of the many ways it is possible to sin (and therefore fail to glorify the Lord) while eating.
But can we go further than this? Sure, God cares about attitude issues in how we eat, but does He actually care what we eat? God cares about the attitude in which we receive the soup, but is He really interested in what goes in the pot?”
A Thing Indifferent?
One popular Christian has stated emphatically and repeatedly in numerous articles, blog posts and online videos that God does not care what you eat. In one article discussing 1 Cor. 8:7-13, this teacher wrote,
“Food is adiaphora, a thing indifferent. God doesn’t care what we eat. We are no better off if we eat certain things, and we are no worse off if we refrain. God doesn’t care what we order off the menu, just so long as we are grateful for it.”
Elsewhere this same teacher comments, “The starting point is that God doesn’t care what you eat.” Provided we do not sin while eating, the menu for a spiritually mature Christian is open-ended.
Or is it?
Putting aside for the moment that in 1 Corinthians 8 Paul was addressing the question of food sacrificed to idols and was not making a blanket statement about food being adiaphora (indifferent) in any absolute sense, we may question the scientific accuracy of the assertion that “We are no better off if we eat certain things.”
Most of us can appreciate from personal experience that our bodies generally function better on a nutritionally responsible diet. If this be doubted, the history books are full of examples which illustrate that people can, in fact, be better off for what they eat. One thinks of the accounts of sailors with scurvy, or families having to endure siege conditions, or even Laura and Mary in The Long Winter when they could eat nothing but grain until the snow melted and the train could get through with new supplies. Few people in such conditions would agree with the statement cited above “we are no better off if we eat certain things, and we are no worse off if we refrain.” It is only because the modern West is (by God’s grace) so comfortably insulated against these types of deprivations that we have the luxury to entertain the false notion that food doesn’t make us better or worse off.
But are we better off spiritually for what we eat? Granted that our bodies may be better or worse off because of what we eat, can the same be said of our spirits or souls?
To even pose the question in these terms assumes a stance towards the body that was probably alien to the Biblical writers. This is because scripture does not draw the type of hard and fast distinctions we are accustomed to between the spirit and the body. As Peter Leithart reminds us in Against Christianity,
“…Scripture makes no hard or absolute demarcation between inner and outer. When people eat and drink, Scripture says their ‘souls’ are refreshed (e.g. , 1 Sam. 30:12), and exterior discipline of our children purges foolishness from their hearts (Prov. 22:15). So, outer events invade the inner life. And inner things come to outer expression, for out of the thoughts of the heart come murders, adulteries, and other evils (Mk. 7:20-23). The mere fact that the Bible often names the ‘inner’ man by reference to bodily organs (heart, kidneys, liver) is a hint that Scripture does not sharply distinguish inner spiritual from outer physical realities; even the ‘inner’ man is conceived physically, not as an unbodied, ghostly self. Scripture thus teaches a complex interplay of inner/outer in human existence, a duality within unified human being.”
Our physical bodies are spiritual because they are part of what it involves to be God’s image-bearers (Gen 1:26), to be the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19) and to be living sacrifices unto the Lord (Rom. 12:1-2). It follows that we should reject the narrative, often put forward by Christian teachers who wish to defend junk food or smoking, that God is only concerned with our attitudes and not with our bodies.
Christian Freedom vs. Wisdom
Still, to acknowledge that God is concerned about our physical bodies is not necessarily to say that He cares what goes in the pot. After all, isn’t the content of our dinner a legitimate area of Christian freedom? Well, it is and it isn’t. Let’s start with the sense in which the content of our diet is an area of legitimate Christian freedom.
There is nothing in the Bible that tells us what to have for breakfast in the morning just as there is nothing that tells you what clothes to put on when you get up. These are matters that can be legitimately regulated by our desires, as well as more mundane concerns such as practicality, economics and cultural considerations.
However, like many areas of Christian freedom, there are limits. While Christians are no longer bound by the Old Testament food laws, we are bound by wisdom. If my eating habits, like my dressing habits, lack wisdom, then Christian freedom ceases to apply.
Before going any further, let me assure the readers of my column that this is not a plea for dieting or obsessive fussiness with health food (putting aside, for the moment that most diet food is actually unhealthy.) To continue the analogy with dress, just as there is nothing wrong with someone occasionally staying all day in their pajamas (assuming modesty issues are not violated), so there is nothing wrong with someone occasionally eating food that is unhealthy. However, if someone regularly remains all day in their pyjamas, and habitually leaves the house looking sloppy, then it is probably time for wisdom to start kicking in. Similarly, if a person eats a regular diet of junk food or is never concerned to even know the ingredients he is putting in his mouth, then it might be time for that person to stop thinking about Christian freedom and begin thinking about wisdom.
Putting it like this, however, is to beg the question, for if it is true that “God doesn’t care what you eat”, as some have argued, then we know a priori that the content of our food is an area not regulated by wisdom. However, such a position can easily be refuted by a simple reductio ad absurdum argument. After all, consider what it would mean in practice if wisdom only applied to how we eat our food, and not what we put in the pot. If God really is indifferent to the content of our food, then it logically follows that He cannot care what I feed my children. But is it wrong for me to feed my children food that I know will impair aspects of their growth? Would it then be ok to serve my children food that will contribute to weakness rather than strength? Is it legitimate to feed my children food that significantly increases the likelihood of diabetes or other diseases later in life? Would it be ok to serve my children food that inadvertently trains them to have an appetite for a diet that, over many decades, may shorten their life-span?
These are the very questions that health-conscious parents wrestle with, and there are a growing number of resources to help parents make informed judgments. However, if it is true that God does not care about the content of our food as long as we do not sin while eating, then it would follow that this aspect of parental nurture are not regulated by the considerations of wisdom, for to say that these are matters of wisdom is to acknowledge, almost by definition, that these are matters about which God does in fact care. But if that were the case, then to be consistent we would have to also maintain that God is unconcerned with other aspects of our children’s bodily health, such as making sure they generally get sufficient sleep, that they have plenty of fresh air and exercise, or they get into a habit of brushing their teeth after dinner and that they receive basic hygiene. I think few parents would say that that the obligations of wisdom do not apply here. However, to say that God is concerned with these other aspects of our children’s physical nurture but that He suddenly ceases to care when diet is concerned, is to draw an arbitrary distinction since all these considerations fall equally under the umbrella of physical health.
If, therefore, God is concerned that we make nutritionally responsible choices for those who are entrusted to our care, then it is a short step to also acknowledging that He is concerned that we make nutritionally responsible choices for ourselves, since our own bodies are also entrusted to our care.
Responsible stewardship of our bodies is part of the more general stewardship of nature that God required of man when he put him in the garden and told him to tend and keep it (Gen 2:15).
It is here that Biblical anthropology runs directly counter to the evolutionary concept of man. If human beings are the random products of time plus chance, then we are under no obligation to take care of our bodies any more than we are obligated to care for the natural world, since both are void of any ultimate significance.
Martin Luther once compared the human race to a drunk who falls off his horse on the right side and then, just to make sure everything evens out, the next time he tries to fall off his horse on the left side. This is an apt metaphor of the human condition. In trying to correct a tendency in one direction, we often error by going to an extreme in the opposite direction. In the area of health we see this tendency in those Christians who, being convinced that God does actually care about the content of our diet, become worried and fussy calorie-counters, or are afraid to enjoy a good ice-cream after dinner. Such a person finds it difficult to be grateful if provided with a less than healthy meal, or to know when considerations of health must be subordinated to more important concerns. We are called to be wise and nutritionally responsible, not legalistic, pessimistic worry-warts.
Similarly, to say that God cares what goes in the pot is not to say that attitude issues are subordinate to issues of ingredients. It is still better to eat a milk-shake from McDonald’s with a thankful heart than to eat a healthy soup with grumbling. However, this does not mean that God is unconcerned with what we eat. Merely because there are weightier matters of the law does not negate the existence, nor the importance, of lighter matters.
Gnosticism in the Kitchen
In the end, the notion that God doesn’t care what we eat colludes with the Gnostic idea that the physical body is unimportant to God, that what really matters is the things of the spirit.
Throughout Christian history a Gnostic dualism between spirit and matter has propelled Christians to neglect taking proper care of their physical bodies, and to do this on spiritual-sounding grounds. One thinks of some of the medieval ascetics who almost killed themselves through bodily neglect. Similarly, many Christians today will dismiss the health food movement on the equally spiritual sounding ground of Christian freedom. In both cases a subtle Gnosticism may be at root, leading to a mentality which fails to reckon with Paul’s statement, “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.” (Ephesians 5:29)