Idols in the Church, part 1: when food displaces God

cheeseburgerIdolatry is not a new problem for the people of God. It’s as old as the impatient Israelities – restless when Moses was delayed on Mt Sinai – forging a golden calf and bowing down in worship before it (see Exodus 32). Repeatedly in the Old Testament, the prophets called upon Israel and Judah to return to Yahweh. Righteous kings like Hezekiah broke down the “high places” dedicated to Baal and the poles erected to the worship of his partner, Asherah (2 Kings 18:1-4). The willingness to confront idolatry – no matter how ingrained it had become – was the hallmark of the righteous leader.

The times have changed, but our tendency as the people of God to set up idols has not. One idol that the Church needs to topple in its midst is not Baal or Asherah, but it is an idol nonetheless. I’m talking about the false god of food.

Paul described those who lived as “enemies of the cross” (Phil. 3:19). Among the characteristics of such individuals whose minds were “set on earthly things” was that they made of their stomach a god:

Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven (3:19-20a, NIV).

The apostle was calling the church to be radically different than the world in which she lived. In Eating to Excess: The Meaning of Gluttony and the Fat Body in the Ancient World (Praeger, 2011; available here on Google books), Susan Hill (p. 103) includes a warning from Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-211/215):

There is no limit to the gluttony these men practice. Truly, in inventing a multitude of new sweets and ever seeking recipes of every description, they are shipwrecked on honey-cakes and desserts.

Likewise, John Chrysostom (AD 347-407) compared a gluttonous person to a wild animal. He or she is “a wild beast rather than a human being; for to devour much food is proper to panther, and lion, and bear.  No wonder (that they do so) for those creatures have not a reasonable soul. Yet even they, if they be gorged with food more than they need, and beyond the measure appointed them by nature, get their whole body ruined by it; how much more we?” (Hill, p. 117).

Paul, Clement, and Chrysostom echoed cautions sounded in the Old Testament. Proverbs 23:1-3 (CEB) advises:

When you sit down to dine with a ruler, carefully consider what is in front of you. Place a knife at your throat to control your appetite. Don’t long for the ruler’s delicacies; the food misleads.

So inadvisable was gluttony to the Jew that to befriend a glutton was to shame one’s parents (Proverbs 28:7). Gluttony (along with drunkenness) led to impoverishment (Prov. 23:21).

From sustenance to idolatry?

To keep food in proper perspective, the Church needs a “theology of food.” Food is the gracious provision of God, sustenance for the human body. God is not against food as such. After all, he fed the children of Israel for 40 years in the desert, giving them manna and quail. The feeding of the five thousand by Jesus with five loaves of bread and two fishes is recorded in all four Gospels. Yet it is possible for food to subtly mutate from the God-given fuel that powers our service to Him to become an alternative “god” in which we seek comfort. When that happens, food becomes an idol.

During a difficult time in my life, I lived near a fast-food hamburger restaurant. A pattern emerged that rather than dealing with my problems, I would swing by the drive-thru and order a large cheeseburger, fries, and a soft-drink. Rather than making God my refuge (Psalm 46:1), fattening fare had become my “comfort food,” like an idol usurping the place that rightfully belonged to the Lord. Gently, the Holy Spirit spoke to me about what I was doing. With time, I learned to seek God in prayer, finding peace of mind that before I vainly sought in food.

Yet the issue is larger than individual choices. Have we as a Church been an enabler of those who struggle with overeating?

When I was pastoring, one of our church board members recommended that we have more potluck dinners. He was a PK (preacher’s kid) and testified that his father had built all of his local churches through potlucks. There’s something about sharing food that creates bonds between people. I wonder if in some Christians’ minds, the word “fellowship” has almost come to be equated with eating? Yet the potluck dinner can seem like the church’s stamp-of-approval upon gluttony. With every contributor having made their best main dish and dessert, it’s a veritable feast! Add to that the tricky factor of not wanting to slight anyone’s cooking and it can almost seem a Christian duty to sample every offering. Result? The Body of Christ grows…in more ways than one. Wise is the church that jettisons the potluck in favor of simple meals like soup, sandwiches, and salad. Moderation is a Christlike virtue that we can model together. In so doing, we will also not put a stumbling block in front of those who for whom weight loss is not a luxury but a medical necessity.

Conclusion

For some reason, it seems easier for followers of Christ to speak against certain sexual sins (that affect only a few) but remain silent about the trap of overeating that affects so many among us. Yet idolatry comes in many forms, of which gluttony is one. In view of our silence on the topic, it’s no wonder that some look at the Church and charge us with “cherry-picking” the sins from Scripture that we denounce, removing the splinter in our brother’s eye and overlooking the log in our own (Matthew 7:3). The answer is not to stop preaching about sin, for to do so would be to leave us in our predicament, to cast aside God’s promise of forgiveness and grace to overcome. Instead, let us acknowledge the various forms that idolatry can take, and together topple the idols among us.

Question: Besides gluttony, what other idols in the Church do you think need to be toppled? Respond in the comment section to guide me on future blog topics.

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Image credit: Flickr hellochris 202508906, via Wikkimedia Commons

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5 thoughts on “Idols in the Church, part 1: when food displaces God

  1. Let me add a strong note of caution here. We must be careful not to confuse “fat” with “gluttony.” There are people in our churches who are on medications or suffer from legitimate diseases that leave them heavy. If we are not careful, we could throw a rock at gluttony, and hit the heavy person who legitimately suffers. On the other end of the spectrum is my brother. He eats whatever and whenever he wants, and weighs 135 points dripping wet. I eat less than him, and exercise far more, but if I walk past a Pizza Hut, I gain 2 pounds.

    Yet we need to speak to this issue, especially in a culture where the vast majority of those who are overweight, are in that condition due to consumption. It is funny there are no people in SOmalia with a “glandular condition.” It seems we need to be careful to keep consumption as our issue. We over consume food, money, resources, etc. There is a call to simplicity that we miss. A realization that our money, our food, our talent, our resources are gifts from God that are not to be used selfishly, but as a means to bless others.

    I think this spills over to our churches. Every district is filled with churches that need a new furnace, windows, parking lot, etc. but cannot afford it. The church suffers from a lack of resources. While there are also a few churches that buy the new, latest, sound board, lucite pulpit, banners, etc whether it is a need or not. I think our churches should also heed a call to simplicity, and generosity as well.

    • Thanks so much, Doug, for pointing out some potential pitfalls. Your point about those who have genetic dispositions to heaviness is well-taken.

      You are not the first to point out that gluttony is a sub-set of a larger mindset of conspicuous consumption. I’ll give that some more thought as I plan future posts.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Thanks for another good post, Greg! I would agree that we need to be balanced in addressing sin, but we need to be careful not to allow the plethora of sins (in and out of the church) to cause us to just ignore them all so we don’t have to deal with them all!

    I know you’re not, but It seems “activists” in some areas always bring up other sins to get us to be quiet about the sins they’re trying to get us to accept. Sometimes discussion of certain sins which may be the hot topic of the day or prevalent in society need to be more actively addressed than others.

    But overall I agree with your post, thanks!

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