The Theology of Eating

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.  –1 Corinthians 10:31 

“I’m hungry, but I probably shouldn’t eat that.” I have no doubt that all of us have uttered that phrase at some point in our life. Whether it’s because we weren’t feeling well and the food may make us sick or we have some sort of weight-loss goal and that second slice of wedding cake would for sure derail our diet. There seems to be an intrinsic “ought” behind our decisions to eat or abstain from certain foods but are these “oughts” merely pragmatic in nature or is there an underlying theological impetus driving these decisions? My goal in this article is to develop a theological framework that undergirds how we approach food and how and what we choose to eat on a regular basis.

In Act chapter 10:9-16 Peter received a direct vision from God in regards to food and eating:  

The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray.  And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth.  In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.  And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”  And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.”  This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.

Well, I guess this closes the case. Kill and eat. If God has made it then we can go ahead and indulge. But, can the theology of food really be summarized as simply indulgence?” Remember that we must first establish the context of these verses. Throughout the book of Acts, God is systematically and lovingly removing, renewing or redeeming the leftover vestiges of Old Covenant Judaism as he establishes the foundation of the New Covenant Christian church; including the dietary restrictions. In Acts 10, God is telling Peter that there are no longer clean and unclean dietary restrictions but that all food is fair game. But, even though there are no longer rigid guidelines stipulated by the Old Testament, there is something far greater that God had instituted to serve as our guide: the Holy Spirit and the Christian conscience.

In 1 Corinthians chapter 10 Paul outlines a phenomenal argument for the Christian conscience and being guided by the Holy Spirit. He starts off by warning against idolatry in our eating and drinking practices and then shifts the focus to evaluating the situation via the consciences that have been set free and cleansed through Christ. A few key verses here are 23-33 where Paul essentially states that you should strive not to offend the consciences of anyone (unbelievers included) so as to create a better Gospel witness. I would add here that this would also include your own conscience. The chapter culminates in verses 31-33 which states: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” As Dr. John Macarthur has pointed out 1, there are 4 principles for Christian liberty outlined in this chapter:

  1. Edification over gratification
  2. Others over self
  3. Liberty over legalism
  4. Condescension over condemnation

So based upon these verses we now have an initial guide for evaluating how we should examine our diets through the lens of Christian liberty. However, it is at this point we now need to add in another element to the mix: self-discipline.

I believe that God has included the multitude of verses regarding self-discipline in the New Testament to serve as a curb to the Christian liberty that we have been shown in 1 Corinthians 10. In regards to eating, especially, I believe this is evident on the face. If you were to say to yourself “Self, I am going to eat 3 dozen donuts and consume 10 liters of Coke every day to the glory of God” would this be a wise practice of Christian liberty and discipline? In my clinical judgment, God has designed us with pragmatic guidelines built into our normal anatomy and physiology that help us decide what decisions about our bodies are wise and unwise. Daily consuming 10,000+ calories of refined sugar would not be considered wise because it eventually (rather quickly actually) leads to complete destruction of our bodies via diseases like obesity, diabetes, heart and peripheral vascular disease ( I always tell my patients: sugar is like teenagers, if you don’t give them something to do, they will always get into trouble). If you continuously make decisions that erode your health, over time you will physically be unable to walk or take care of yourself, which diminishes your capacity to glorify God and serve your neighbor as yourself, while also putting an unnecessary burden on those around you. Being undisciplined in your eating would fall into the category of the sluggard or glutton talked about in Proverbs:

  • The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied. Proverbs 13:4
  • Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man. Proverbs 6:6-11
  • Hear, my son, and be wise, and direct your heart in the way. Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags. Proverbs 23:19-21

Dr. Steven J. Lawson outlines what it is to have self-discipline and how it impacts our orthopraxy. Fundamentally, he shows how the physical practice of self-discipline impacts our spiritual practice of self-discipline to promote God’s glory and this includes both eating and exercise.  I recall hearing a sermon from Dr. John MacArthur on how to improve spiritual self-discipline.  Dr. MacArthur spoke about how he would “discipline his body” [taken from 1 Cor 9:27] when it came to eating. Periodically, when he wants to have dessert, when his flesh craves it, he would purposely deny himself to show his body that it does not have mastery of him.

Figuring out how to mortify your flesh through dietary practices is sage advice and it is in no way legalistic. Arbitrarily restricting caffeine or chocolate from your diet does not make you more conformed into the image of Christ. However, denying your flesh to improve your health so you can glorify God and better serve your neighbor DOES make you more conformed to the image of Christ. Not eating foods that your body is allergic to or causes “brain fog” is basically wise. But how much greater is the motivation when you abstain from these foods so you can better memorize scripture or put yourself in a better mood to joyfully serve your spouse and children.

My closing question is this: What is your motivation when you are choosing what you eat? Is it to gratify your flesh or to follow some legalistic method in an attempt to gain godliness? Maybe you don’t even consider it at all and you are being derelict in the stewardship of your body. I pray that through this article something has stirred inside of you to consider both your Christian liberty and self-discipline and how you can better glorify God through your eating, drinking and dietary choices you get to make every single day.

Dr. Joshua Trock is a doctor of physical therapy with a home-based practice that focuses on geriatric disease management. Dr. Trock lives in San Antonio, TX with his wife and one daughter. He attends Wayside Chapel and enjoys reading theology, outdoor activities and discovering how to get the most out of the amazing bodies God has blessed us with.

Notes:

  1. John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, NKJV (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 1744.
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