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In Matthew 15, we read:

[Jesus] called the people to him and said to them, "Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person ... Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone."

We see in Mark's account that "thus He declared all foods clean."

Now, when we move to James and the church elders in Acts 15, we find them writing a letter in which, among other things, they impose food requirements on the Gentile churches:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell."

Do these statements contradict, or can they be correlated? If they contradict, then who gave James and the elders the authority to overrule the teachings of Jesus?

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5 Answers 5

There seem to be two different questions addressed by the New Testament relevant to this issue:

  • Does eating certain foods defile a man?
  • Should certain people abstain from certain foods?

I don’t think the New Testament teachings contradict. Jesus’ teaching in Mark 7 declares that the first question is answered ‘no’: there is nothing inherent in certain foods that makes them defiling.

However, the answer to the second question is a tentative ‘yes’. Certainly Jews before the time of Christ were expected to keep the kosher laws. In the period directly following Jesus’ death, Jewish Christians were not about to give up their customs in an instant; they would continue to observe the kosher laws. As long as they didn’t fall prey to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees condemned by Jesus, there would be nothing very wrong with that.

The question then was: what about the Gentile Christians? Were they to keep the same laws as the Jewish Christians?

This more general question was brought up at the Apostolic Council at Jerusalem (see Acts 15). (The particular case addressed at that council had to do with circumcision, but their rulings had a broader impact than that. This is the decision they reached (Acts 15:19–20 NRSV)

[James speaking:] “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.”

These restrictions placed on the Gentiles in no way encompassed all the precepts of the Torah; they are there to address the few violations which were particularly abominable to the Jews. The council did not declare that certain foods can defile a man; they only declared that at this place and time, it is better for the Gentiles not to offend the Jews by observing the things mentioned.

The issue is brought up again, once more with respect to food, in Romans 14. In this passage, Paul acknowledges the right of each Christian to act according to his own conscience. At the same time, he recognizes that the food itself is not what defiles a man (this agrees with Jesus’ teaching); he also says that those who do eat must not look down on those who don’t, and even that they should abstain if it becomes a point of contention.

The takeaway from both the Acts and the Romans passages is that extra restrictions may be placed upon certain people at certain times. However these reasons are pastoral and in no way nullify Jesus’ basic claim that no food, in and of itself, can be considered ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’.

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No, they don’t contradict.

The letter sent by the council in Jerusalem lists 4 requirements.

For completeness’ sake, the whole letter is below:

The apostles and elders, your brothers,

To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:

Greetings.

We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.

Farewell.
(Acts 15:23b-29 NIV)

The requirements are to abstain from:

  1. Food sacrificed to idols
  2. Blood
  3. Meat of strangled animals
  4. Sexual immorality

The 4th requirement isn't part of the question, so I’ll leave that out of my explanation.

As for the other 3 requirements:

Jesus said: Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. (Mark 7:15)

That doesn't necessarily rule out that consuming the food might be a sin in some other way.

Now let’s take another look at these forbidden things to eat.

  1. Food sacrificed to idols
    • The reason for this is given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8; because eating food sacrificed to idols can “become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor 8:9).
  2. Blood
    • This commandment is from before the Law of Mozes. In Genesis 9, God says to Noah: “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.”. God doesn’t mention anything about “clean” or “unclean” here. No reason for it is given here.
      When God repeats the commandment in the Law of Mozes, he does give a reason: “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.” (Lev 17:11) Again, nothing about “clean” or “unclean”.
      So, the requirement to abstain from eating blood is not because it defiles somebody, but because “the life of a creature is in the blood”. Jesus also makes this clear by calling accepting the eternal live He gives through his sacrifice at Golgotha “drink[ing]” his blood in John 6.
      Edit: Another possibility is that Jesus was specifically referring to eating with unwashed hands when he said that “what goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them”.
      A possible third explanation is that not the fact that the blood enters the body is what counts as a sin, but whether or not this was the result of one's actions. Did (s)he know or should (s)he have known that (s)he was consuming it?
  3. Meat of strangled animals
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Mark's parenthetical remark (viz., "In saying this Jesus declared all foods clean") and James's letter to Gentile Christians only appear to contradict each other. In fact, they can be harmonized quite easily. We need first to lay some groundwork before harmonizing them.

It is a given that Mark's words in his gospel and Luke's words in Acts are both part of inspired Scripture. The Holy Spirit moved both men to record the truth of God, and there can be no real contradiction between two or more passages in the Bible, only apparent contradictions. James's words as Luke records them in Acts 15 were also inspired by the Holy Spirit:

"For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you [Gentile believers] no greater burden than these essentials . . ." (Acts 15:28).

I like the way James phrased this part of his letter: ". . . it seemed good to the Holy Spirit . . .," because the words indicate that James, the elders, and the whole church in Jerusalem were embroiled in a controversy which needed to be resolved right away. They therefore needed guidance from the Holy Spirit as to how to proceed, otherwise the fledgling--but expanding--churches in Judea and beyond were in danger of experiencing a paralyzing schism.

Luke tells us how this potential schism was instigated:

"Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved'" (Acts 15:1).

By analogy, imagine that in 2013 some ultra-conservative Christians in the Church of the Absolute Truth denomination (COTAT) are going from church to church insisting that any person with a tattoo cannot be saved and become a member of any local church in the COTAT denomination until he or she has the tattoo(s) removed surgically. Stay with me now!

These legalists--for want of a better term--are placing a burden on potential church members who in fact are born again but who offend these anti-tattooists within COTAT by having these "ungodly" tattoos on their flesh!

Personally, I am not a big fan of tattoos (I do not have one and do not plan to get one), but I would welcome into the fellowship of my local church anyone (man or woman) with a tattoo who also professes faith in Christ. I must add, however, that the leadership of my church has a God-given responsibility to inform all prospective members of some biblical criteria for membership within our local church. But I digress.

How, then, should the leadership of the various local churches within the COTAT denomination handle this looming controversy which threatens to divide the church into two camps: the exclusive anti-tattooists and the more-inclusive "It's OK to have a tattoo" faction?

Here is how the believers in the Jerusalem church handled their problem, which suggests how we might handle our tattoo controversy:

(1) They convened a meeting.

James, the elders, and the entire church in Jerusalem got together with church planters Paul and Barnabus, apostles to the Gentiles in the outlying regions of Israel. After an unsuccessful attempt of resolving the controversy through "no small dissension and debate" with the Judaizers (15:2), Paul and Barnabus decided wisely to take the issue to the denominational headquarters of "The Way" in Jerusalem.

The Bible tells us clearly, "in the multitude of counselors there is safety" (Proverbs 11:14; 15:22; 24:6). Barnabus and Paul recognized this principle and they joined key church leaders in Jerusalem to resolve the controversy.

The creation and fomentation of controversy within the local church is not of the Holy Spirit, whether the issue triggering the debate is tattoos or circumcision or dietary customs. God has not called us to schisms and rancor, but to peace and unity within the body.

"Let the peace of Christ rule [act as arbiter] in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body . . . (Colossians 3:15)."

Consequently,

(2) They sought guidance from the Word through the Holy Spirit.

Since it is imperative for Holy Spirit-filled leaders to exercise oversight in the practical, day-to-day affairs of the local church, they need to be informed by both the clear instructions of God's word regarding the non-negotiables of the faith, and a wise pragmatism to implement those instructions on a case-by-case basis.

One such "non-negotiable" principle is salvation by grace through faith. The Judaizers, who were much like the Pharisees and teachers of the law in Matthew 15 and Mark 7, were hung up on their own traditions and thereby effectively set aside a key foundational principle that salvation is "not of works, lest any man should boast" (Ephesians 2:8,9).

A wise man once said, "The challenge facing every local church can be summarized as follows: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing." Had the confabulation that convened in Jerusalem chosen to sweep the controversy under the rug, so to speak, the expansion of the church through conversions (see Acts 15:3) may have been imperiled. Is not "the main thing" to expand the church through conversions, baptism, and discipleship of all people-groups (Matthew 28:18-20)?

While "hot button" issues within the church may change over time and are certainly different from culture to culture, church leadership in every local church is to use discernment in "where they draw the line" between secondary, "grey" issues, and issues of great import and significance based on the clear teaching of God's word. In other words,

(3) They made a Holy Spirit-inspired, pragmatic, loving, God-honoring, and unanimous decision (see Acts 15:25).

That decision not only respected Jewish biblical traditions but at the same time recognized the "new thing" God was accomplishing in their midst; namely, the saving of Jews and Gentiles alike by His grace through faith alone, and not by grace through faith plus works.

In other words, the first-century church leaders in Jerusalem, all of whom were Jews (with very few exceptions) made their decision by a) respecting the Jewish majority in the body, who could say legitimately, "Hey, we were here first"; and b) by respecting the Gentile minority which would soon be a majority, who could say legitimately, "Hey, we weren't steeped in Jewish tradition, so it's not fair to make us play catch-up. Besides, aren't we saved by grace through faith alone and not by works?"

This principle of compromise is cause for stumbling, even among Christians today, as can be seen plainly in some of the other answers to the OP's question. That is why Paul was moved to write 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14 and 15, which provide us with guiding principles regarding our liberties in Christ. By providing Gentile believers with two dietary guidelines, James and the church in Jerusalem were not contradicting our Lord's declaring all foods to be clean; rather, they were encouraging the Gentiles to respect the scruples of their fellow believers who were Jews, years before the apostle Paul provided his Spirit-inspired guidelines in 1 Corinthians and Romans. As for the Judaizers, their false doctrine was nipped in the bud.

In conclusion, since none of us lives to himself or dies to himself (1 Cor 14:7) but are linked to other believers within Christ's body who may not share our freedoms concerning food, drink, and tattoos, we are to consider others' feelings and scruples before exercising our liberty in Christ. We all are free in Christ but at the same time are also bond-slaves of Jesus Christ, who did not come to please Himself but to do the will of Him who sent Him and to accomplish His work of ransoming sinners (Ro 15:3; Ma 20:28; Mk 10:45; Jn 4:34).

In summary, James et al. were not "laying down the law" in their letter to the Gentiles, thereby imposing a "greater burden" on them (Acts 15:19, 28), nor were they ignoring the scruples of the Jewish converts who had a great deal of un-learning to do. James et al. decided wisely to provide an interim solution to a temporary and divisive controversy. By doing so they set an example for us Christians today who may be struggling with contemporary and culture-specific controversies of our own almost 20 centuries later.

Now, who's up for getting a tattoo?

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To the anonymous -1: Please point out where you think I went astray. Thanks. Don –  rhetorician Aug 16 '13 at 14:10

Good question and welcome to Christianity.SE. If you look at Matthew 15 the question Jesus was responding to was not what foods make you clean rather it is written

"Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”" (Matthew 15:1-2)

So Jesus is answering a question about unwashed hands, in that context he then says

Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man. (Matthew 15:18-20)

Thus the freedom declared in Matthew 15 is freedom to eat food with unwashed hands, leaving the ban against unclean foods in place. Therefore when the ban against eating blood is declared even for the gentiles in Acts 15, that shows that the clean/unclean food regulations in the Old Testament are still binding upon Christians today. For it is written regarding Jesus second coming...

For behold, the Lord will come with fire And with His chariots, like a whirlwind, To render His anger with fury, And His rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire and by His sword The Lord will judge all flesh; And the slain of the Lord shall be many.

“Those who sanctify themselves and purify themselves, To go to the gardens After an idol in the midst, Eating swine’s flesh and the abomination and the mouse, Shall be consumed together,” says the Lord. (Isaiah 66:15-17)

Here the Bible says that those who consume unclean meats when Jesus returns and do not repent will be destroyed. More info on this topic here - http://www.amazingfacts.org/media-library/book/e/22/t/death-in-the-kitchen.aspx

There is perfect harmony therefore between Acts 15 and Jesus.

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Clearly, Jesus declared all foods clean. Mark 7:18-19: καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς...καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματα, i.e. "and he said to them...declaring all foods clean." –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Aug 14 '13 at 23:19
    
@H3br3wHamm3r81: Amen. As for who was "right," Jesus or James, see my answer. –  rhetorician Aug 14 '13 at 23:44
    
Clearly not friend, for Mark 7 is the same account and he says "Are you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?" (Mark 7:18-19 NKJV) It's the same account as Matthew, and purifying all foods is not declaring all foods clean, read the context I quoted in Matthew 15. Also in Acts 10 during Peter's vision when he is called to eat unclean foods he says "not so Lord for I have never eaten anything unclean". –  HelloWorld Aug 14 '13 at 23:49
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I don't have time to answer this in detail right now but I had to -1 this answer. The whole purpose of Jesus' ministry was to make that which is unclean, clean. This includes us! Eg Luke 8 contains examples of Jesus making a demon possessed man, a dead girl and a bleeding woman clean again, all of which would be unclean under the Law. See also Acts 10:15. –  Wikis Aug 15 '13 at 13:27
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@Mawia: Providing a reference from the Old Testament where the law for washing hands before eating is unnecessary, because Jesus did not change any laws before His death, and I never claimed the washing of hands was a law. There is no law against washing hands, it was a church tradition created perhaps by the Pharisees. Thus Jesus said "These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man." (Matthew 15:20) Jesus did not change any laws before He died on the cross thus also proving that Mark 7 should not be applied to unclean foods. –  HelloWorld Aug 16 '13 at 15:17

1 Corinthians 8 (NIV):

8 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.

4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father,from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

The Bible demonstrates time and time that God views a relationship faith. If a person is weak in their faith and believe this is a sin they shouldn't do it to honor God. Likewise someone who doesn't believe this, having greater faith should be respectful and not partake in the same act causing a brother to stumble. This example is also expressed when the Bible talks about drinking alcohol Romans 14:21

So this harmonizes as it was in fact the Jewish believers who were still dealing with the freedom from the law and the new believers being the Gentiles. It makes sense they would advise under the same principle for the Gentiles to sustain from such thinks as not to create strife or a stumbling block for the Jewish believers.

Sounds like wisdom to me!

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