With Thanksgiving two days away, for the sake of family unity, I think we should contemplate deeply the Apostle Paul’s advice to the Corinthians: “Eat whatever is offered to you.”
In Paul’s context this was not a matter of passing on saccharine-sweet candied yams, or appropriating to your plate as few slices of overly dry turkey breast as possible, or debating whether the cranberries should have been stewed or if the ones from the can really are the best.
Paul wasn’t talking about that. Paul was talking about idolatry.
First Corinthians 10 finds Paul giving detailed and sometimes contradictory advice to early Christians on how to behave as dinner guests when the holiday feast was baked on the altar of a pagan god.
“Feasting” in the ancient world– Old Testament, New Testament, Hebrew, or Greek– was always about worship. It was part of the sacrificial worship of Yahweh as detailed in Leviticus 6:18; 29 and Numbers 18:8-11– the meat from the sacrifice was eaten by the priestly families.
The Old Testament Passover lamb, emblematic of Jesus, was roasted– as would happen on an altar– and then shared by native born Israelites as a feast; and left overs were forbidden to the dismay of college students everywhere! (Exodus 12:6-10.)
Sacrificial consumption explains why Jesus would instruct his followers to “feed on me” in John 6:22-63.
Well before He inaugurates the first Holy Communion at the Last Supper, He is preaching about eating his flesh and drinking His blood. Why? Because He is the sacrifice.
Consuming the sacrifice was for priests; it was for the common family at Passover; it was an act of participation in worship and a rite of membership.
So, eating “whatever you’re served” has major implications to the Corinthian Christians. If they go to a pagan holiday dinner, and they are served meat that had been sacrificed to idols, are people going to think that they are still pagans– that they belong in the Pantheon not the Upper Room?
The interweaving of holidays and identity is a concern that pops up periodically throughout church history. Only a handful of Christians today are deeply concerned about pagan pageantry in major Christian holidays.
However, pagan intrusion into Christianity was of concern to the Pilgrims.
We owe our “Thanksgiving” to the Puritans who obviously really liked the idea of a feast commemorating the fall with a spirit of generosity and neighborliness, but couldn’t abide celebrating Martinmas, or St. Martin’s Day.
Puritans derided Catholics, above all, for the kind of idolatry that gives Martin of Tours not only a “sainthood” but a feast day. So, Martin had to go, even if the turkey dinner stayed.
The themes of St. Martin’s Day are generosity to others and gratitude for the harvest. It takes place every year on the 11th of November. And it is celebrated with a feast of roast goose, duck, or hen…or perhaps wild turkey.
If you’ve ever wondered why only Americans celebrate a Thanksgiving in November; it’s because literally all of Europe is celebrating St. Martin’s Day this time of year. Which also happens to be essentially the same exact holiday.*
The Puritans might have tried to bury the worship component of St. Martin’s Day by taking the idol’s name out of it, renaming it Thanksgiving, and de-spiritualizing it to mere “generosity,” “gratitude,” and “neighborliness,” but the spirituality of feasting is not something any person has the authority to undo– even if their intention is to ferret out idolatrous heresies in the church. In fact, de-spiritualizing feasting has a historical track record of fomenting heresy as we are introduced to in the book of Acts.
In Acts 6:5, we meet a man named Nicolas. He is appointed as a deacon to the church in Jerusalem.
Nicolas appears to have been a lover of ideas. A bit of a spiritual sojourner, he was a pagan Greek who converted to Judaism first and then to Christianity.
He is strongly believed to be the namesake, if not the leader, of the Nicolaitans of Revelation 2.
The Nicolaitans were a group of Christians that held to the heresy that the body mattered so little that what you ate, drank, or engaged in physically had no bearing on your holiness– only what you believed with your mind mattered.
This heresy happens to be the heresy that Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians chapters 5 through 9 before he directly addresses the question: “Can Christians eat at a holiday party where the meal was sacrificed to idols” in chapter 10.
Before Paul can broach the lawfulness of eating food sacrificed to idols, he has to dismantle this heresy of de-spiritualization. You cannot de-spiritualize physical actions to the point of living out a disembodied faith.
If you think that “only what you believe” matters, and your physical actions don’t, you become easy prey for a special satanic trap known as “the Doctrine of Balaam,” which the Nicolaitans employed as we are told in Revelation 2:14-16.
The Doctrine of Balaam is a New Testament phrase named for an Old Testament character. The Apostle Peter and the Apostle Jude equate Balaam to the false teachers that plagued the early church by polluting the gospel in various ways.
Balaam was a prophet that was asked to place a curse on the Israelites before they entered into the Promised Land. Balak, the Moabite king who asked for the curse to be placed, was very frustrated by Balaam’s inability to curse Israel. Because God was determined to bless them, (Numbers 22-24) Balaam was entirely unable to curse them.
But Balaam was a crafty man. Though he couldn’t curse Israel while they were under God’s blessing, he instructed Balak to entice the Israelites into sexual immorality and idolatry says Numbers 31:16.
Revelation 2:14 condemns Balaam of “[showing] Balak how to trip up the people of Israel. He taught them to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by commiting sexual sin.”
Balaam knew about a covenant loophole– once the Israelites had engaged in sexual immorality and idolatry, God’s chosen and protected people would be punished by Him for ungodliness.
And they were. They were punished by a plague and the offending Israelites were killed.
What we do in the physical is spiritual. The Israelites partook with their bodies and worshipped with their inner being. And both body and spirit were punished…Jesus has a lot to say about this (see Matthew 10:28; Matthew 5:29).
The Nicolaitans were accused of the same folly as Balaam. They tripped Christians up by teaching them to eat and act in their bodies however they wanted; because after all, only the mind mattered.
Old Testament and New, our faith has never been simply cerebral.
By changing its name, the Puritans must have believed they had elevated St. Martin’s Day from an idolatrous feast day to a cerebral holiday that glorifies, not a man, but, ideas– the ideas of gratitude and community.
But you can’t just change a name, or the verbiage and think that that sanitizes the worship out of a holiday or food or drink or sex or feasting.
In talking about liturgical holidays, and which ones have pagan accoutrements, and which and what the kids can participate in, and where and when and how much…stop with the splitting of hairs over the meat sacrificed to idols! This is what Paul would say.
There is a whole other axe to grind:
That is, are you aware of just how spiritual this time of year is?
Are you aware that from a spiritual perspective a meal is just a meal; and from a spiritual perspective a meal is way more than a meal?
From a spiritual perspective the holidays are just a collection of days a year; and from a spiritual perspective the holidays are a hot-bed of spiritual warfare.
Are you aware that this is a sacred season for people who do quite literally sacrifice to idols? Do they pray to no one or nothing?
The worst thing we could do this time of year is to ignore the very present spiritual atmosphere while we worry about the past origins of these traditions. The traditions are a technicality.
They are the kind of technicality that Balaam exploited to distract and sabotage the Israelites.
Whenever we can be convinced to focus on only the physical or only the spiritual, rather than considering them and weighing them together, we fall prey to the Doctrine of Balaam and the heresy of the Nicolaitans.
We will be exploring these final four questions regarding spiritual warfare, the “distract to destroy” tactic of the Doctrine of Balaam, and how these concepts have everything to do with the holidays, in my Christmas post due out right around the Winter Solstice.
*Side Note: Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving in October closer to Halloween, which is ironic because Martinmas is also called Old Hallowmas Eve or Old Halloween. In some European countries, children trick or treat and carry jack-o-lanterns during St. Martin’s Day festivities.