Lent, food rules, and liberty

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By Elizabeth Prata

Romans 14:13-23, about food may seem archaic, because Christians have been released from Hebrew food rules for 2000 years. But food rules have been going strong in the Catholic faith for equally as long. For Catholics who come to saving faith and become Christian, their lifetime of food rules, especially during Lent, may still have a hold on them. So let’s explore how we can help the brethren who may be struggling with the food issue, as Paul advised.

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We are in the height of the Catholic 40-day 2023 Lenten season, which began February 22 and will extend through April 6. Catholics are obligated to perform fasting and abstinence (as well as acts of piety and charity) as acts of penance during Lent. And not just during Lent, but “Even outside of Lent, the bishops in the U.S. still exhort the faithful to observe all Fridays as days of penance in recognition of Friday as the day of our Lord’s death and in preparation for the heavenly banquet at Sunday Masssays this page from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops about Lenten Regulations.

The exact rules for a Catholic about fasting and abstinence vary from continent to continent.

The US Catholic Bishops explain the reason for explicit rules about food. It is because,

Humanity’s “Fall” away from God and into sin began with eating.  God had proclaimed a fast from the fruit of only one tree, the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17), and Adam and Eve broke it.  Fasting is here connected with the very mystery of life and death, of salvation and damnation.” (Source)

So, food rules figure prominently for the Catholic. in the United States. Rule #1 in the US is that during Lent, everyone age 18 and older is to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday, all Fridays of Lent and Good Friday. Hence, many Roman Catholics eat fish on Fridays.

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Everyone age 18 and up to their 59th birthday is obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On these days, the Catholic is allowed to eat only 1 full meal. When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal. The norms concerning abstinence from meat are binding upon members of the Latin Catholic Church from age 14 onwards“, says the USCCB.

There are similar rules for a person who had been of the Eastern Orthodox persuasion, as well.

Therefore when a Roman Catholic or an Eastern Orthodox person converts to Christianity, they may well have impressed on their conscience for many years the fasting and abstinence rules. When they come to the verses that all foods are clean, it may be hard to overcome their bound conscience and accept these verses-

However, not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But food will not commend us to God. We neither lack if we do not eat, nor abound if we do eat. (Romans 8:7-8).

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There are no rules for the Catholic person requiring them to “give up” something for Lent, but the people are encouraged to do so, in order to be ‘mourning their sins by denying themselves something they enjoy’ and ‘to train themselves to resist temptation’.

Therefore, Christian,

For if because of food your brother is grieved, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. (Romans 14:15)

The paragraphs in 1 Corinthians 8 about food sacrificed to idols Romans 14 are explained by Warren Wiersbe:

Christians affect each other (vv. 13–15). Note the possible ways we can affect each other. We can cause others to stumble, grieve others, or even destroy others. Paul was speaking of the way the strong Christian affected the weak Christian. Paul dealt with a similar problem in 1 Corinthians 8–9, where the question was, “Should Christians eat meat that has been offered to idols in heathen temples?” There he pointed out that knowledge and love must work together. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1, NIV). The strong Christian has spiritual knowledge, but if he does not practice love, his knowledge will hurt the weak Christian. Knowledge must be balanced by love.”

Source- Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 560). Victor Books.

So, dear reader, knowledge combined with flaunted liberty might actually hurt the weaker sister. Many false religions have food rules. Hindus may not eat beef according to their religion. Seventh Day Adventists follow a strict lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. Meat, fish, poultry, alcohol, tobacco, or caffeine are prohibited. Islam has halal, which means certain foods must be prepared a certain way before they are considered acceptable to eat. If you are in a sphere with a former Catholic or any other recent convert where their life was dominated by food rules, please be the stronger sister and resist flaunting our liberty in Christ where it comes to food.

Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles. (Romans 14:20-21).