In Paul’s first epistle to Timothy he issues a salutary warning about an apostasy “in the latter times”. Among a number of items about which “the Spirit speaketh expressly” there are some relating to negative teachings which go beyond the will of God: there would be those who “speak lies in hypocrisy … forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth” (4:1–5). This article is about the latter.

 I am sitting down at my lap top commencing this article and its lunchtime, 12:23 to be precise. Although I’ve enjoyed a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs, with butter melted into warm toast washed down with a flat white coffee, I am ready for lunch.

From my office I can walk one hundred metres and pass a bakery, two sushi restaurants, six coffee shops, a yiros bar, four cafés, a pub and three excellent restaurants, but as the walk takes an effort I might just order in a pizza.

As it’s a Friday, I recall that if I were a Catholic I could only eat fish. That would be a pain as I would have to cancel the pizza and walk an additional two hundred metres and buy myself fish and chips.

Since the very early years of Catholicism, the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) has insisted that their devotees abstain from eating meat on Fridays in memory of Christ’s death. In addition, eating meat on Wednesdays during Lent is forbidden as well.

Lent is the period from Ash Wednesday to Easter and its purpose as a festival is to prepare the individual to commemorate the death of Jesus and celebrate his resurrection. The festival and associated food practices are common to many religions including the RCC, Mormons, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Anglicans, although the Reformists like to dish out smoked sausages.

In the modern context Protestants often decide to give up a favourite food, drink or activity for Lent or volunteer for charity work for the forty days of Lent rather than avoiding meat.

This forty day period commences on the 6th Sunday before Easter. The Lenten fast originally required individuals to eat a single daily meal in the evening and abstinence from meat and wine was added later on, as was abstinence from dairy products and eggs.

I’d like to spend some time looking at the subject of meat abstinence and note that it is not peculiarly Christian; Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Vegetarians, Vegans and Fruitarians (those who only eat food that falls off the trees!!) all choose to abstain from certain foods.

It does sound a little odd that the RCC put a prohibition on meat, but eating fish is acceptable. Initially, the objective was to limit consumption to only eating vegetables and grains. In many respects this was a rule for the rich as it was only the very rich who could afford to eat meat. The fish loophole enabled believers to comply with the letter but not the spirit, so the ban was watered down to warm-blooded animals only, and thus the Friday fish fashion flourished.

This tradition still exists today, although the Second Vatican Council in1965 encouraged the adaption of the ‘no meat’ rule to local conditions. As far as the media and much of the laity were concerned this meant the meat rule was past its ‘use by’ date. In reality, though, the ‘abstaining from meats’ law was never removed.

So why is this tradition wrong and what is the warning for our Community?

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6) encouraged his followers to reflect on the benefits of three activities; the giving of alms, prayer and fasting (Matt 6:16–18). Jesus encouraged all those listening to the Sermon on the Mount to fast (“… when ye fast …” Matt 6:16), and greater success in certain activities is achieved by fasting (cp Mark 2:18).

So then, the practice of self denial is scriptural, beneficial and encouraged by Jesus and the apostles. I feel confident that many Christadelphians have looked at Christ’s words and considered fasting. Some may well have fasted, or be discreetly practicing fasting and quietly enjoying the benefits. This is the point. Jesus specifically discourages an overt display of self-denial but stresses that this service has One Witness.

The legislated public fast went unnoticed by God in Zechariah’s time: “For seventy years you have gone without eating during the fifth and seventh months of the year. But did you really do it for me?” (Zech 7:5 CV)

Fast forward to Luke 18:12 and Jesus tells the parable of the fanatical fasting Pharisee who put his fast on show for no less than 104 times in a calendar year.

In the Old Testament God instructed His people that the Day of Atonement was a day for them to ‘afflict their souls’ and as far as I can determine it is the only divinely prescribed fast (cp Acts 27:33), although there was a fast associated with the Nazarite vow (wines, grapes, sultanas etc).

So, we can only wonder at God’s feelings about the RCC’s food traditions where the institution required almost 60 days of meat abstinence.

The warning for our community against creating conventions, edicts and by-laws is apparent. Legislation creates citizens of law and mankind has a history of watering down even the most appropriate laws to suit themselves. In Matthew 16:24 Jesus quietly appealed to those who would serve to deny themselves, take up the cross (daily) and follow him. It is not easy but let that be our morning mantra and we stand a great prospect of success.

Paul uses quite strong language in Colossians 2:16: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink …” In other words we are warned not to feel pressured by others in regards to dietary matters, meat or otherwise.

Returning to the opening reference in 1 Timothy 4:1–5, Paul counsels those living in the latter days to be vigilant against this precise thing. The NIV describes those who demand such institutions as “hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron”. The Spirit’s position is clearly expressed.