Are O.T. Food Laws Binding on Christians?

QUESTION: Does God want us, even today, to obey his laws about which food we may and may not eat?  Deuteronomy 14:3-21 (NLT) states clearly what those are.  Please direct me to verses in the New Testament that acknowledges that law and/or what He says about that for these times.

ANSWER: Thanks for the question.  The short answer is no.  We can say so with authority because Jesus himself gave us clear direction on this very issue.   Jesus said in Mk 7:18-19 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” [Then, Mark adds this editorial comment so we don’t miss the implication of Jesus’ words:]  (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods “clean.”)

The early church took a while to follow the implication of Jesus words, because it’s first members were all Jewish.  But it became an issue when the gospel needed to go to the Gentiles.  Would the church make all new believers follow Mosaic law, including Jewish dietary codes, or would they just be required simply to believe in Christ and follow him?  The answer from God himself was the latter.  Here’s how it happened:

Jesus’ lead disciple Peter, who had a really hard time accepting Gentiles as Christian brothers (Gal. 2:11-12), got a vision from God.  In that one vision, God taught him two things:  one, that all foods were clean, that the old Jewish dietary code was now obsolete, and two, that God was freely accepting “unclean” Gentiles into the Kingdom of Christ – WITHOUT requiring them to become Jews first.  This vision was of unclean foods which God tells Peter to kill and eat!  and “do not declare unclean, what God has made clean.”  This is a key moment in church history, where the first Gentiles are welcomed into the Church – Acts 10.

Now, the implications of that vision vision for ceremonial law observance in the Church was confirmed by Peter at the Council of Jerusalem a few years later.  In Acts 15:10-11 we read him standing up to say to his Jewish brothers, “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke [the Mosaic law] that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?  No!  We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” NIV

So they did not require Gentiles coming into the church to observe Jewish ceremonial law, specifically circumcision, but all Mosaic law including the food laws.

Now, at the end of that discussion, the Gentile churches were asked to not eat meat with blood left in it, which is a ceremonial food law (15:29).  But most scholars agree this was not about making those laws binding again on Christians.  Rather, they retained just those few (out of the hundreds!) in order to facilitate fellowship between the Jewish and Gentile believers.  They could hardly eat together if the Gentiles were violating a key food law in front of their Jewish brothers.  And eating together was necessary to express Church unity, in their many shared meals, and especially the love feast.

So Romans 14:14 states the principle again very clearly – “no food is unclean” for a believer.  But again, the principle that follows is that we should not seek to put a stumbling block in anyone’s path.  If certain foods violate a person’s scruples and he feels he cannot eat them, then we should abstain in front of that person to not upset them or violate their conscience.

So in Christ, in the New Covenant period, all ceremonial laws of the O.T. are non-binding on Christians, including the dietary code of Deut 14:3ff.  They were shadows highlighting the holiness of God, the sinfulness (uncleanness) of men, and our need for grace and purity.  But Jesus is the reality toward which these shadows pointed.

Now, we can ask, was there ANY value in those food laws other than a spiritual principle teaching the Jews to value what is clean over what is unclean?  Actually yes there was, especially for an ancient, pre-scientific, agrarian tribe.

If you look at the forbidden foods, the unclean animals are usually omnivores, and scavengers.  Pigs, shellfish, vultures etc.  These animals eat most anything, often the decaying flesh of animals or other material, and therefore, could often transmit illness if not cooked properly.  Pork and shellfish still carry this risk today, but modern cooking minimizes it.  God is always concerned with his people in the law – even the ceremonial parts of it.

The same could be said of the hundreds of times God calls for regular ceremonial washing, 3500 years before the discovery of bacteria!