Food, Sex, and the Changing Rules for Both in Christianity

Since this has come up a couple times already, and in response to the apparent use of 1 Corinthians 8 to support discrimination against LGBTQ people…

Sex and Food

So I want to say something about how American Christianity addresses non-normative sexualities, but in order to do that I am going to say something about food.

This may seem like taking the long way around the barn, but it is at least a small barn. After all if your inner eighth grader is anything like mine, he will point out that both discussions are to an extent about what is proper to put in your mouth. But the association goes back to the Bible. Paul discusses marriage, chastity, and prostitution (1 Cor. 6-7) just before he turns to the etiquette of eating food that had been previously sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8-10). John of Patmos also associates eating “idol meat” with porneia (Rev 2:14, 20, i.e. sexual immorality, not necessarily fornication), as does the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15).

Food is necessary to continue our own lives and sex is necessary to continue human life, but both have the capacity to make us impure, unclean, unholy, depending not only on what we put in our mouths, but when, where, and with whom we do it. Food etiquette gets extensive treatment in the New Testament, and this is in part because some followers of Jesus decided not to care about many of the restrictions on food that they had inherited from their Jewish founders and their Gentile cultures. They attempted to leave these restrictions behind in favor of unity among the assembly of believers and a focus on what they considered more important matters like God, Christ, living with the Spirit, and the well-being of the community.

This is not to say that Jews or pagan Gentiles did not already care about God or the well-being of their communities – indeed eating the right things with the right people was a way that both maintained the well-being of their communities. But whereas Gentile cultures fostered social or civic cohesion by eating certain meals in honor of certain gods at certain times, and Jews fostered social cohesion by maintaining certain dietary practices, some Christ-following groups seem to have formed social cohesion by avoiding meals in honor of other gods while also ignoring both Jewish dietary rules and Gentile social etiquette. Christ-followers could be disruptive and weird because they were a community that ate together in one house, and they apparently ate whatever was served.

This is not a minor step. It is important to realize how much the followers of Jesus were asking of their congregants – especially their Jewish ones – when they casually “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). Jesus’ brother, James, seems to have had some trouble giving up those rules (Gal 2:11-14). This is not to say that all Jews everywhere were uniformly disgusted by non-kosher food. One certainly gets the impression, when the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (a contemporary of Jesus) discusses pig’s flesh as the “most succulent of meats” which must be avoided only to build self-control (Spec. 4.100-1), that this dude’s had a pork chop and liked it.

But people have their taboos. Many Americans would get physically ill at the thought of eating a dog or a horse, and that’s without violating a contract with the Creator or betraying an idea of national identity.

Jews weren’t the only ones with food issues, though. Take this problem of meat from an animal that had previously been sacrificed to a god other than the Jewish one. The reasoning of some early Christians seems clear: the other gods don’t exist, so a priest ritually killing an animal in a temple has no impact on the meat itself. If devotees of Aphrodite or whoever have a big festival, sacrifice more animals than they can eat, and suddenly there’s a lot of cheap beef on the market, dig in! After a feast, there might be literally tons of meat on the market that needed to go quickly – no refrigeration and a warm environment are a bad combination. The price suddenly plummets. If you’re hosting a big meal, say, on Sunday, it makes sense to take advantage of the low prices.

But almost all Christians (when Paul was writing) were converts. Some Jews among them might be uncomfortable with eating the idol meat because of taboos in Jewish culture. But some of the people who had been the ones sacrificing those same animals up until recently might also be a bit squeamish about eating it. Imagine a Roman Catholic converting and then having people casually drink sacramental wine at the new communal meal because they found it cheap. Sure, he no longer believes that this is the blood of Christ, but wouldn’t he be a bit uncomfortable? Would he miss the experience of Holy Communion? What if he had had a traumatic separation from the Church as he joined the new sect – would he be a bit more likely to view the wine as evil, unclean, defiling in some way?

In this context, it is interesting to note how Paul addresses the situation. Keep in mind that Paul is himself a diaspora Jew who had apparently trained as a Pharisee. We would expect him to take a hard line on this issue, just as the Jerusalem Christians do and as John of Patmos does when writing to nearby churches. Yet Paul takes a remarkably nuanced approach, one that appeals to relationships at every level.


What if you are at a dinner hosted by a friend and your friend serves meat? Should you ask where it came from and risk causing offense? No, don’t bother asking. The meat is still meat. The gods it was sacrificed to aren’t real anyway, and you risk alienating the Christian community from outsiders. But this is to look outward. What if there is a Christian in attendance who warns you that you are eating idol food? Then you should refrain from eating it – not because the meat itself can harm you but because eating it can harm your relationship with a fellow Christian. You refrain for the sake of the relationship until the other person’s understanding is strengthened, developed, matured, and he or she at least won’t raise a stink over a “non-issue” anymore.

What if someone invites you to dinner at a temple? A wealthy investor comes to town and needs to hire some skilled labor; he may well host a dinner at the temple – he sacrifices a lamb, the priests take a leg and serve the rest to his guests. You didn’t sacrifice the lamb, but there you are in a temple eating the sacrificed food. Not attending the dinner may mean losing a great deal of work. But what if someone sees you eating in the temple? What if that someone spent her life attending services at that temple, sacrificing to that god? If it’s ok that you are doing it, wouldn’t it be ok if she does it too? Worship is a lifelong practice, a habit that can be difficult to break. Once she stops going to a temple, she might miss the smells, the feel, the space and the sense of veneration it inspires. What would it hurt to go back now and then?

Exclusive Relationships

To answer this, Paul takes one hard line: you may absolutely not sacrifice to other gods! But note why this is so, because it comes back to this issue of relationships. After all, other gods don’t exist. At most there is a demon posing as a god. Sacrificing to the demon accomplishes nothing in itself other than to establish a relationship of worship with the demon, a relationship you are only supposed to have with God and Christ. To enter into another relationship with a demon outside of your relationship with Christ – or to enter into one with the, say, Artemis-worshiping community outside of your relationship with the Christ-worshiping community – is to violate the relationships you should be maintaining, with Christ and with other Christians. You can have your family and business relationships with anyone you want, but the relationship of worship is exclusive. That is why it is so often described as a marriage in the Bible: you are being unfaithful in both senses. If eating a dinner in a temple, a dinner you might know has nothing to do with the god, tempts others into breaking their relationship with Christ and with the community then you have done real harm. Harm beyond missing out on some work. If this is the case (and perhaps there are times when it might not be), then you should avoid eating the idol meat in the temple.

In each case the substance itself is not the issue. The act of eating it is not the issue. Rather Paul concentrates on relationships within the community and with Christ as greater than concerns over purity. Idol meat poses no direct threat, no matter how filthy, unclean, defiled, and satanic some members of the community think it is. What you put in your mouth is not the point; relationships are.

A New Controversy over “Meat”

Paul’s position in the debate over idol meat is instructive, I think, in the current debate over non-normative sexual relationships. For some Christians it is not that a loving sexual relationship between two adults is in itself wrong, except when those adults happen to be of the “wrong” gender configuration. As with meat that is no different from any other meat save some words spoken over it by a priest, the same relationships that would be celebrated in most circumstances (boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands and wives) are here viewed as filthy, unclean, defiled, even satanic.

The people who think this way are bound by the ethics and social attitudes they’ve inherited and that predate their Christianity, historically and personally: Paul likely inherited his negative views of homosexual behavior from Palestinian Judaism and from the pagan philosophy of Stoicism, and most children learn it from their surroundings well before they can read or understand the Bible. All over we hear the gagging sound of some Christians as they think about what others might be putting in their mouths. This leads them to kick their recently outed (Christian) children out of their homes or to create such a hostile environment that the children run away. How many of these families are torn apart because “I was raised to think that’s icky”? How many young men and women leave a church that sides with those who would shun them, spit on them, assault them, or legislate against them? How many find statements like “God is love” empty when all this hate is credited to God?

A daughter’s sexual relationship with another woman is not in competition with the (presumably non-sexual) relationship she has with a mom or dad. Nor does it compete with a relationship of worship that she has with God. Should our children’s particular taste in meat sever or strengthen the relationships we have with them? If Christ’s death allows us to value our relationships with each other over and above the foods we eat, if in Christ there really is neither Jew nor Gentile (so pass the ham and cheese?), no male and female, then what is important would seem not to be our naughty bits but the kinds of loving relationships we build with each other. If Paul’s discussion of food laws is instructive at all in a contemporary Western context, then it may urge us to consider the importance of our relationships with each other even before considering whether a certain behavior is in line with the taboos we’ve inherited.

There are Christian parents who have completely disowned their children for admitting that they will only find romantic love with a person their parents wouldn’t happen to choose. Perhaps if those parents considered their – yes, Christian – responsibility to maintain a loving relationship with them, they might still come to the same conclusion, that disowning their children was the right thing to do. But as more churches lose young congregants because they just can’t understand why the pastor gets so upset over the dating habits of people he’s never met, and as adolescent Christians are made homeless and prostituted when they are shoved out of their homes, communities, and churches because their parents and religious leaders can’t imagine enjoying sex with the partners they’ve chosen, it is perhaps worth considering which is more important: maintaining relationships within families and church communities, or maintaining a culturally inherited distaste for certain flavors of meat.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s