Acts 11: 1-18 illuminates ruinous religious rules. The issue are the ancient Jewish dietary regulations and whether Jesus’ followers were bound by them.
First, it’s good to provide some historical background. Christianity started as a reform movement within Judaism and Jesus was Jewish as were all of his Apostles (and most if not all of his earliest followers). Gradually, Jesus’ teachings appealed to primarily non-Jews and over time this ethnic divide separated Christianity from Judaism. This meant that many people embracing Jesus’ teachings faced problems of how to reconcile the complicated Jewish law with Jesus’ streamlined, redemptive message.
Enter Saint Peter, the central character in today’s narrative. He had a dream-like vision about diverse animals that had been previously forbidden for Jews to eat. But all that was to change–thankfully. A heavenly voice told Peter that he was now permitted to eat almost anything because God no longer supported the Jewish kosher diet.
Peter’s vision raises an interesting point, namely the question about God changing. If God originally ordered ancient Jews to follow a kosher diet then that also means that God changed by revoking the earlier rule with new instructions. We may not always know why God changes but change is not necessarily bad and in fact everything in the universe both experiences and causes change. We might even consider God as the primary change agent. So if change isn’t bad then why can’t God also experience change? But this is a point for another day.
To appreciate Peter’s progressive new dietary view, just look through a contrasting Bible book as Exodus, where the weird religious diet began with the Passover celebration. The dietary laws became even more complicated, with some of the key passages also described in Leviticus chapter 11.
The Old Testament’s strict dietary laws have neither relevancy to Christianity nor food science. Researchers have studied kosher diets and found no reliable, positive correlation between the Old Testament teachings and superior nutrition. Ancient Jews had no consciousness of modern dietary research so it’s not surprising that they didn’t know what they were doing; their ignorance can be understood and forgiven.
Aside from food restrictions, the ritual washings of food vessels such as pots & pans did not necessarily make people healthier. Surface washing is potentially better than not washing at all but it doesn’t do much because disease-causing pathogens are not visible to the unaided eye. The food-based microorganisms that make you sick and that can kill are invisible and mere surface washing does not sanitize food or make it safe. The only way washing can kill germs is if the water is sufficiently hot or even boiling.
Consider one example of a bad food law: the Old Testament ban on pork (Deuteronomy 14:8). Muslims and Jews are not supposed to eat pork. In their favor, science reveals that undercooked pork can result in an illness known as trichinosis. However, sickness can arise from all sorts of foods depending on how they are prepared and stored and there’s no enduring reason to single-out pork for exclusion. Indeed, pork has been wrongly handled by religion. The ban should not be against pork but rather on uncooked or undercooked pork. Pork is higher in protein and lower in bad fat than beef products, which are widely promoted in the Old Testament.
Trying to argue with folks who embrace unsupported diets doesn’t appeal to their spiritual appetite because they’re intent on following tradition over truth. You might think that such nonsense would cause spiritual indigestion. Our role as truth-bearers is to remain vigilant and not allow superstition or “alternative facts” to undermine decency. It is astonishing that even in the twenty-first-century there are people who’ve been deluded into thinking that some ancient rule means they can’t enjoy their own preferences for a safe, healthy meal.
In Peter’s time of first-century Judaism many of the traditional Jews, even those who had decided to follow Jesus, didn’t accept the freedom to expand their menu. The stubborn resistors of God’s Way embraced traditional nonsense because they felt that something familiar was being lost by lifting the kosher regulations. So ingrained had the distasteful food preferences become that many people refused to digest truth.
Religions often impose harsh diets and other arbitrary limitations upon their followers, and seldom for legitimate reasons. The manipulators of religion use coercion and “God said this!” justifications to enforce their authoritarian impulses. Bureaucrats, priests and other officials perceive themselves as privileged, institutional enforcers of “God’s truth.” Once emboldened with a false sense of righteousness, religious elites become drunk with power and force their poison upon gullible masses. Worse, ruinous religious rules encourage a destructive pride among a tiny minority who feel that they can obey whatever is thrown their way.
The dysfunctional psychology of militant rule followers arises from strangulating religion, which promotes indecency and insanity. A twisted logic leads religious extremists to believe that by creating and living by contrived commands they will earn a place in heaven. Their calculation about strict living is seductive but not true; rules don’t get people into heaven.
Successive generations of religious extremists think that by stacking high their hallowed traditions they will create a stairway to heaven. Sadly, what really happens is that their lies lead in the opposite direction, toward a living hell, one which imprisons souls while sucking people into a life-crushing abyss.
If rules are an inferior way of demonstrating integrity then what is a better course? Jesus’ Golden Rule of doing unto others as you’d have them do to you underscores the power of love, which is Jesus’ core message (Matthew 7:12). True love is sacrificial and done for the life-enhancing benefit of other people. Religious standards and boundaries are defensible only insofar as they promote clear, demonstrable benefits.
Religious rules can help keep people in their place, often through fear of social exclusion, imprisonment, or divine damnation. Both Judaism and Christianity have contributed to the regrettable practice of burdening believers with “Don’t do this!” commands. But to be fair, the remedy to harsh religion isn’t necessarily the opposite. That is, caution is warranted lest we throw out the spiritual baby with the religious bath water. Freedom pushed to an extreme creates chaos rather than compassion. So, rejecting ruinous religious rules does not mean that everyone should be free to do whatever they want; anarchy isn’t healthy and with great freedom comes great responsibility.
Rather than seek status as an ardent rule-follower Jesus wanted his disciples to be known for something greater: love. Jesus realized that we should ‘ “. . . love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” ‘(John 13:34b-35). Jesus set us free, but bad religion seeks to imprison. It’s no longer about rules, but about love. As with Saint Peter, do you hear God’s voice inviting you to live a new way for a new day?