Legalism at the Table

4 signs you might be bringing a legalistic spirit to the table. Thoughts on food, faith, unity, angst, and guilt-free guacamole. 

11 Minute Audio


The Whole30

Yesterday was Super Bowl Sunday. Which means, depending on the endurance of your New Year’s resolutions, you either watched the game cradling a bowl of fresh fruit salad or a bowl of chips con queso. If you’re the average American, healthy habits began backsliding in the fall as you traded protein shakes for peppermint patties and kale chips for candy canes. But on January 1 you kicked off a blitz bodily detox, and resolved to reset.

One of the most popular January resets, endorsed by both crossfitters and average and Joe’s alike, is the WHOLE30: The elimination diet where you strip your plate of sugars, grains, dairy, legumes, and alcohol for 30 consecutive days. If you sign up and adhere to the program protocol perfectly, then an official completion certificate will arrive in your inbox for your personal satisfaction or public social media posting purposes.

For some people, the Whole30 brings freedom from food addictions, relief from undiscovered allergies, and an increase in energy. Plus, it can even be fun with all the kitchen creativity and camaraderie. On the other hand, if a diet is approached poorly, and the spirit of the program is lost in the technicality of the rules, the result is something called “food legalism.” Interestingly, there are several similarities between legalism in food and legalism in faith.

Legalism and Definitions

In the health realm, I define a “food legalist” as someone who follows their diet perfectly, but not for the motive of things like proper nourishment, or sharing meals with good company. Following the food rules has become an end in itself.  

In Christianity, Steve Cole defines legalism as “an attempt to gain favor with God or to impress our fellow man by doing certain things (or avoiding other things), without regard to the condition of our hearts before God.” Having dabbled in both types of legalism at some point or another, I’ve made a few observations about the connection. 

 Below, are 4 signs of a legalistic spirit at the table. 

#1  Your vocabulary is sin centric

Look around any grocery store, and notice that foods, today are often described with words of moral judgment rather than flavor. If I peruse the aisles of Sprouts market, on one side, devil’s food cake tempts my taste buds with the seductive tag-line, “sinfully delicious” and hovering just over my other shoulder, the angel food cake and sinless whipped cream make a plea to my health righteousness ego. By the time I reach the chips and dips section, I face a moral dilemma of whether I prefer my bowl game guacamole guilt-free or guilt reduced. I never felt particularly guilty about guacamole before, but apparently, some foods must undergo a guilt reduction process prior to our consumption.

Food Faith Connection

Both legalists of faith and food have passion about what they’re against, although sometimes at the expense of what they’re for. Imagine asking a friend about her budding new love interest, and hearing a response like, “Oh Benjamin? He’s great! Our relationship is even cheating-free. It’s manipulation-less, and reduced-deception. Lots of work, of course, but totally worth it.”  Most likely, you were more interested in what they loved and treasured about each other, not about what they had agreed to avoid together.

A sin centric nutritional vocabulary can have a negative impact on our relationship with food, and even lead to behavioral backfiring. Operating with a legalistic spirit, you reason that if you already sinned one cookie, you might as well go all the way and sin the whole box.  Along similar lines, a sin-centric faith vocabulary, as commonly seen in legalism, can affect the way we view and approach God in relationship with him. Our behavior becomes motivated more by fear and avoidance, than love and abundance. But God is not just after us for our sin-free report cards. He’s after our hearts, and for our joy. He came to give us life and life abundantly. (John 10:10).

#2 You’re confused. A lot.

The big picture of the whole 30 is truly easy enough for a child to understand. In a nutshell, eat food you could hunt, gather, or catch. Drink black coffee instead of orange mocha frappuccino’s, and avoid processed stuff. Yet despite the inherent simplicity of the Whole30, some people approach meal planning like its Calculus BC.  

They ask questions like this:

  • Have you checked the Greek translation of the Whole30 rules? I’m pretty sure the outlaw of honey was culturally specific to the ancient Greeks and doesn’t apply to me.
  • If I get drunk with good people is my debauchery deleted?
  • What time, exactly, do I have to stop eating, at night? Am I allowed to eat bananas after 10 pm?
  • Since quinoa is technically a seed, not a grain, if I sacrifice the first of every 10 quinoa seeds to the garbage disposal does that make it a legal?
  • Do I have to come to the table every Sunday for family dinner? Or could I just go through the drive-through, alone if I still get fed?

Food Faith Connection

A healthy dosage of curiosity can be a very good thing. In honesty, I throw questions at my nutrition science friends, and church leader friends all the time! When asking these questions, though, we must also check in with our motives behind the inquiries. For example:

  • Am I listening to my body, and aiming to thrive? Or am I trying to get away with satisfying my sweet tooth cravings, while still staying skinny and impressing my friends with my whole30 compliance?
  • Am listening to the Holy Spirit and seeking more understanding about God? Or am I rallying on behalf of the flesh, to prevent my conscience from feeling uncomfortable?

With skewed food motives, we can weave ourselves into webs of confusion about what’s permissible, beneficial, or Paleo approved. But the body will not be mocked. At the end of the day, a box of donuts made of organic sugar and locally sifted rice flour will spike your blood sugar off the charts. Spiritually speaking, when motives go awry, or when stop listening to God, we make tangled mysteries out of the simplest of matters.

 Thankfully, we worship a God of clarity and order, not confusion. When lacking wisdom, we don’t have to resign ourselves to setting up camp in the dense fog of spiritual wilderness. Instead, we can ask for understanding.   (2 Timothy 2:7)

# 3 You believe your specific diet is the only way to health

A food legalist, by default, ascribes to a very specific nutritional school of thought.  Identifying yourself “paleo,” for instance, is not specific enough. Instead, you must specify whether you call yourself primal-paleo, veggie-paleo, or whole30 compliant-paleo. Not surprisingly, then, dietary division often lead to quarreling. Gather a group of firmly opinionated health nuts at a super bowl party, and the discussion might sound something like this:

  • Vegan Veronica: So, are you going on that primal-con retreat this year with your Paleo carnivore crew?
  • Ketosis-Kurt: No, my wife and I actually switched over to the keto diet a couple months ago. They’re a lot more scientifically sound. You should come check out our BBQ.
  • Vegan Veronica: But there’s no fruit in the keto diet. Literally. Ever since I went vegan all the cells in my body came alive. Why don’t you guys come over to watch Forks Over Knives, sometime? I’ll serve up some activated sprouted popcorn.
  • Ketosis-Kurt: Nah I just wouldn’t feel fed on that kind of diet. You guys cherry pick your snacks and water down your juice. My muscles need meat roasted by fire, not blueberries sprinkled in water. It’s a core value.
  • Average Party Paige: Uhh, I’m not a diet person. I’m just nutritional, so I do what feels right for my body. I believe in love and everything in moderation.

Food Faith Connection

Realistically, hundreds of different dietary regimens have led people down a path towards health, fitness, and even community garden potlucks. The food legalist, however, believes their dietary denomination is the one and only way to be healthy. Likewise,  in the Christian faith while doctrinal differences do exist, and matter,  many different denominations have led people to Christ and community. The Holy Spirit is alive and does multi-denominational heart transformation. Seek truth, but don’t forget to seek unity as well.  (1 Corinthians 1:10)

# 4 You’re in Constant Angst

One time, a friend of mine confessed that he struggled when grocery shopping for eggs. Somewhere between the cage-free chicken option, the Canadian ducks, and the omega 3 supplemented ostriches, he would get stressed out and opt not to buy any eggs at all.  See, for the food legalist, it’s imperative not just to make a good choice, but to make the right choice. After all, that program completion certificate is on the line,  just one corn kernel away from costing you the entire diet season.

Food Faith Connection

In the kitchen, even when we try our very best to eat right,  we will still miss the mark, on occasion. For example, it’s possible a Canadian duck suffered a bout of hypothermic malnourishment, throwing off your micro-nutrient count for a whole day. Sorry about that. But opting for starvation, because you can’t decide what to eat, does more harm than good. In this case, you’re better off making a choice to the best of your knowledge and savoring the omelet during a Wednesday breakfast with your spouse.

Also, just as a food legalist worries about stepping out of line, and losing their program certificate, a Christian legalist constantly questions their own salvation. They tiptoe through life as though God’s will is a tightrope, and one wrong move could result in irreparable soul damage.  In reality, we will all make mistakes, here but we don’t have to live in angst about it; redemption and the restoration of the broken are central parts of the gospel. Jesus promises us a peace beyond our understanding, and beyond our earning. (Phil 4:7)

So alas, come to the table just as you are.  Let your cup overflow, and be salt and light.




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