the idolatry of food

“Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.”— 1 Corinthians 8:8

I’ve been writing about food lately, thinking through a food ethic that makes sense from my perspective as a Christian.

Certainly the questions are challenging. Would Jesus begrudge the global poor a little genetically modified grain? Would he drink coffee that was not fair trade? Would he drink coffee at all?

I’ve argued He would eat Jello if it was offered in the right spirit. After all, He says it’s not what goes into a man, but what comes out of a man that defiles him.

peter vision food bwAnd in the context of the new covenant, New Testament writers largely take dietary laws off the table. Peter, a Jewish believer, is told in a vision to eat things his heritage forbids. Absolutely not, he says. But he is told “”What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” In other texts certain kinds of food practices—insisting on fasting, for example— are condemned as legalism.

Clearly food is not a path to God, even if it does remind us to be grateful or brings us together around a table. But there was a food issue in the early church—food sacrificed to idols. Does this early debate help us understand how we might navigate the moral issues behind the production, distribution and consumption of food today?

ask no questions

To some degree, yes. Paul says, “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.’”

This seems like a good rule. It’s the original “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But he places it only in the context of not asking your host where the food came from. If someone has me over for dinner, I’m not likely to ask if the coffee is fair trade.

I’m unlikely to ask this question under any circumstances, although I am likely to buy coffee on this basis if it’s available. Unfortunately this rule oversimplifies what was a complex issue for believers in the first century.

No thoughtful reading of his instructions to the Corinthians could conclude that Paul wanted or encouraged his readers to eat food sacrificed to idols, although they had the freedom to do so. He is mostly concerned about the idols, not the food. He is concerned about how our freedom affects those who had worshiped idols but no longer did. He is concerned about how it affected those who worshiped idols but knew you did not. If it would offend a brother, Paul says, he would eat no meat at all.

offend no brother

Does that mean I shouldn’t eat anything that offends anyone? Of course not. Given the complexities of our modern food ecosystem I wouldn’t get to eat at all. Does it mean I should not eat meat because I have friends who are vegetarian? I don’t think so.

Because the issue here is idolatry, not food.

Is modern agribusiness with its abuses of labor, animals, and health a form of idolatry? Perhaps. Not only is the industry driven by avarice, you can crave a Big Mac more than you crave God.

But pride in our food sources or esthetic can be idolatry too. This ranges from the most obsessive foodies to the most healthy zealots. It has to do with those who think we can save the world to those who think we can save ourselves. Gluttony can be a kind of worship, but so can knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It’s the awe of God that leads to wisdom.

Paul begins his instruction saying, “knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.” So here is the basic of my food ethic: The choice that most cares for the most people, beginning with the ones across the table—that seems like the right choice.

Eating healthy, organic, or local can be the best choice if you have means and opportunity. But motives matter. Pride is a form of self-worship, the easiest idolatry of all. Considering broader social implications can also reflect creation care—but what if it means poor people go without jobs or food at all?

There is no biblical warrant I can imagine that justifies spiritual pride because we can afford organic food, or because we avoid food with a carbon footprint.

Or because we can’t or don’t, either.

[Next installment—the ones across the table.]

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