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Must Christians Today “Abstain from Blood”?

by  Kyle Butt, M.A.

The first-century followers of Christ faced several difficult challenges. Among the most problematic were the cultural differences separating the Jewish Christians from the Gentile Christians. Due to their deep respect for the Law of Moses, many of the early Jewish Christians felt that a faithful follower of God must believe in and obey Christ, but also keep certain aspects of the Mosaic Law, like circumcision. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, adamantly opposed this idea, maintaining that the Law was nailed to the cross and was no longer in force. The other Bible writers concurred. But many Christians in the early church were confused on the issue. Due to this confusion, Paul and Barnabas, along with the elders of the Jerusalem church and the apostles, convened to discuss the issue (Acts 15). During the discussion, the apostle Peter recounted the conversion of the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 15:6-11). Paul and Barnabas then testified to the miracles that God had worked among the Gentiles through their ministry (15:12). And James, the Lord’s brother, explained that the Old Testament prophesied that the Gentiles would be allowed into the church. From reading the text, it is clear that purpose of the meeting in Jerusalem was not to vote on a policy, but to discover the Holy Spirit’s position on the issue.

The council concluded that God had opened the door of faith in Christ to the Gentiles, apart from any adherence to the Law of Moses. The council then wrote a brief letter to be circulated among the Gentile churches in which the council stated: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (Acts 15:29).

The inspired statement from the Jerusalem council presents an interesting text for Christians in the 21st century. Do these rules still apply today? Were they for the Gentiles then, and adjusted afterward by later revelation to the inspired Bible writers? If they still apply, how would a 21st century Christian practically obey the command to avoid “things strangled,” since the details of the slaughter and preparation of store-bought items such as chicken, beef, ham, and turkey are rarely mentioned or known by the general public? These and other questions require an intense, honest look into the inspired council’s letter and its ramifications for today.

SEXUAL IMMORALITY

It is generally understood among commentators and biblical historians that the Jerusalem council had pagan, idolatrous feasts in mind when issuing the statement in Acts 15. Often, pagan worship included the sacrificing and eating of animals, sometimes with the drained blood being offered as a “course” in the meal. These festivities also generally included sexual participation by the guest in any number of immoral ways. Coffman noted: “Idol feasts were shameful debaucheries, marked by the most vulgar and immoral behavior.... In fact, it is possible that all four of these restrictions relate to idol worship” (1977, p. 299). Dennis Gaertner, in his commentary on Acts, noted that the pagan worship practices were most likely in view in the prohibition against sexual immorality and food sacrificed to idols, and were possibly in view in the command to abstain from blood, since “in some pagan practices blood was drunk apart from the meat” (1993, p. 240-241). Therefore, in order to understand the context of the four prohibitions of the council, one must understand their connection to pagan idolatrous practices.

In regard to the instruction for the Gentiles to abstain from sexual immorality, the New Testament is abundantly clear in other places that such was inherently sinful (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:9-11; Hebrews 13:4; Revelation 21:8). There was never a time when sexual immorality was permitted for a faithful follower of God. Even though pagan cultures considered such immorality to be “part of life,” it was not to be permitted or tolerated in the life of a Christian, regardless of his or her cultural background.

THINGS OFFERED TO IDOLS

The letter to be circulated among the Gentile converts also included the instruction for them to “abstain from things offered to idols.” This is a clear reference to the meat that pagans would sacrifice to an idol and then eat as a part of their feasts. The interesting aspect of this prohibition is that it is not the case that eating meat offered to idols was inherently sinful. In fact, the apostle Paul qualifies and elaborates on the instruction to abstain from meat offered to idols in other places. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul explained that there is nothing inherently sinful about eating meat offered to an idol. He stated: “Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one.... But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse” (vss. 4,8). Paul then explained to the Corinthian Christians that if an unbeliever invited them to his house, they should have no problems eating the meat that the unbeliever served them, asking no questions about whether the meat was offered to an idol (1 Corinthians 10:27). Thus, it is clear that to eat meat that was offered to an idol was not inherently sinful. Paul then added, however, that if the Corinthians were informed that the meat was offered to an idol, they should avoid eating it, if doing so would “offend” those who might have a problem with it (1 Corinthians 10:28; 8:10-13; Romans 14:21). The mindset, attitude, and intent of the one eating meat offered to idols were the pertinent factors involved in the actions, not any inherently sinful qualities of meat offered to idols. From this discussion, then, we understand that the prohibition to abstain from things offered to idols was not a blanket condemnation of an inherently sinful practice, but was instead conditioned on circumstances, attitude, and intent. Taking Paul’s discussion of things offered to idols into account, one is forced to conclude that it could be permissible, under certain circumstances, for Christians today to eat meat offered to idols.

BLOOD AND THINGS STRANGLED

We have seen that the council’s letter to the Gentiles contained a prohibition against the inherently sinful practice of sexual immorality. We have also seen that the instruction to abstain from things offered to idols was not a condemnation of an inherently sinful practice. The question to be answered, then, is to which category do the prohibitions to abstain from things strangled and from blood belong? Is it the case that eating blood or meat from animals that were strangled is an inherently sinful practice that Christians today must avoid? Or is it the case that such was a circumstantial prohibition that was and is conditioned upon the circumstances?

First, we need to understand the connection between “things strangled” and “blood.” Lenski noted: “‘From a thing strangled and from blood’ may be considered together since both alike involve blood. An animal that was not butchered but snared and killed by strangling still had blood in it” (1961, p. 616). Coffman also combines the terms in his discussion (1977, p. 300). The Gentiles would have understood this prohibition to include drinking the blood of a slain animal or eating the meat of an animal whose blood was not drained out. [NOTE: Some have suggested that eating a steak cooked “rare” or “medium rare” without cooking it completely would be “eating blood.” This would not have been the understanding of the Gentile Christians. Nor, in a practical sense, would it be possible to avoid “blood” in any meat, since it would be impossible to remove all traces of blood. If this prohibition meant that any trace of blood must be avoided, then no meat could have been eaten by the Gentiles.]

Is the act of eating or drinking animals’ blood sinful for Christians today? Lenski argues that it is not. He suggests that the prohibition from the council was made so that the Gentiles would not offend their Jewish Christian brethren. He states that the Jewish Christians were horrified at the thought of eating or drinking blood and that the “Gentile Christians were asked to respect this feeling and thus from motives of brotherly love, and from these alone, to refrain from eating blood and meat that still had its blood” (1961, p. 616). Lenski seems to base his conclusion on the idea that the prohibition against eating blood originated with the Mosaic instructions against the practice. But such is not the case. The prohibition against eating or drinking blood predated the Law of Moses by several hundred years. Following Noah’s exit from the ark, God explained to him that he and his descendants could eat animals. God said to him: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs” (Genesis 9:3). God did, however, provide a single regulation regarding the consumption of animal flesh. God said: “But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (9:4). Thus the command to avoid the consumption of blood was given several hundred years before the Mosaic Law was instituted.

The Law of Moses instructed the Israelites to avoid eating or drinking blood. Leviticus 17:14 states: “Therefore I said to the children of Israel, ‘You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off.” Also, Moses wrote that the Israelites could eat animals like deer or gazelle, but concerning their consumption, he wrote: “Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it on the earth like water” (Deuteronomy 12:16).

If the prohibition against eating blood in Acts 15 is binding, it would show that in every age—the Patriarchal, Mosaic, and Christian—the eating of blood has been for forbidden and is inherently sinful. Coffman maintains this view. Concerning Genesis 9:4, he stated: “This makes it clear that the denial of blood as food to man antedates the Mosaic law. Thus, they are wrong who see these restrictions as a symbolical binding of the Law on Christians. The authority they have for Christians of all ages derives neither from Moses’ law nor from the commandment of Noah, but from the authority of the Holy Spirit...” (1977, p. 300). The late Guy N. Woods noted God’s instructions concerning blood to Noah and to the Israelites under Moses, and said: “We have seen that the ‘apostles and elders’ at Jerusalem, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, extended this prohibition into the Christian age; thus, in every age God has forbidden his people to eat blood and things strangled” (1976, p. 240).

If it is the case that the eating of blood is inherently sinful, how can it be differentiated from eating meats offered to idols, which was not inherently sinful, since they appear in the same list? One response to such a question would be that we only know that eating meat offered to idols was not inherently sinful because New Testament passages such as 1 Corinthians 8, 10 and Romans 14 shed further light on the practice. If these passages were not included in the New Testament, then we would be forced to conclude that eating meat sacrificed to idols was inherently sinful and still prohibited for Christians. Since there are no passages that add information to the prohibition against eating blood or things strangled, and it is included in every age (Patriarchal, Mosaic, and Christian) it seems the most logical course is to conclude that the prohibition is still binding on Christians today.

PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS

Blood Transfusions?

If the prohibition against blood and things strangled is binding, what are the practical implications? First, the idea in Acts 15:29 of “abstaining” from blood implies that the eating or drinking of blood is to be avoided, but it says nothing about other types of contact with blood. God’s injunction to Noah explicitly stated that blood was not to be eaten, as did the Mosaic instructions. The immediate context of Acts 15:29 informed the Christians to “abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled.” To “abstain” from things offered to idols simply meant not to eat them. This same meaning applied to blood and meat that was strangled without being drained.

Certain religious groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, have contended that taking blood into the body in any way violates Acts 15:29. They argue that receiving a blood transfusion violates the injunction to abstain from blood. Their official Web site states: “What of transfusing blood?.... [T]hinking people in past centuries realized that the biblical law applied to taking blood into the veins just as it did to taking it into the mouth” (“Blood...,” 2006).

However, the conclusion maintained by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to extend the prohibition of Acts 15:29 to blood transfusions is simply not justified by the evidence for two primary reasons. First, the text and all related texts in the Old Testament deal specifically with consumption by mouth of large quantities of blood from an animal. The Gentile Christians in Acts 15 would have certainly understood the prohibition to be dealing with the consumption of blood by mouth. Second, the physical processes of the body in receiving human blood into the veins and consuming large quantities of animal blood that would go to the stomach are vastly different. A blood transfusion in which matched human blood is injected into the veins of another human to aid in healing is hardly comparable to drinking a pint of goat’s blood. To demand that Acts 15:29 means never taking any kind of blood into the body for any reason in any way is going far beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6).

Eating Habits

Because the prohibition against blood referred specifically to eating blood or things strangled, we must try to understand how it relates to our eating habits today. Since we know that the Israelites and Gentiles ate animal meat before and after the prohibitions of Acts 15:29, and we know that it is physically impossible to remove all traces of blood from meat, then we must conclude that the consumption of blood in small quantities (such as in a rare or medium rare steak) is not what is banned. The prohibition is against eating or drinking large quantities of animal blood. Dishes such as blood pudding or blood sausage would seem to fall into this category, as well as any dishes cooked in large quantities of blood, or containing such.

As for determining which animals have been strangled and not drained of their blood, we must understand that the focus was on the quantity of blood remaining in the meat of the animal. It was not the fact that the animal was strangled that kept it from being eaten, but the fact that it was never drained of its blood. Apparently, there was a visible, recognizable difference in the minds of the first-century Gentiles between the meat that was from an animal that was drained and the meat from an animal that was not drained. If Acts 15:29 is binding, and Paul told the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 10:25 to “[e]at whatever is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience’ sake,” then he must not have included meat from animals that had not been drained of their blood in 1 Corinthians 10:25. We must conclude, then, that avoiding meat from things strangled means avoiding meat that has a definite, visible amount of excessive blood readily distinguishable from drained meat. [NOTE: A cursory study of standard meat processing procedures in the United States and other nations shows that the vast majority (if not all) of the animals butchered and sold in major meat markets such as grocery stores are drained of their blood (“Rosenthal...,” 2006; “Best Practices...,” n.d.).] Thus, the practical implications of Acts 15:29 indicate that consuming blood or meat from things strangled takes place when a large quantity of blood is drunk or consumed in dishes where blood is a key, recognizable ingredient.

CONCLUSION

The inspired Word of God contains everything that pertains to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). It is so comprehensive that it has the ability to completely equip humans for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Because of its import, all commandments and instructions in it need to be seriously analyzed and critically considered in light of their potential present-day application. Biblical regulations that apply today must be obeyed in order for a person to be assured of an eternal home in heaven (Matthew 7:21-23). Four prohibitions are made in Acts 15:29 that were specifically aimed at first-century Gentile converts. These prohibitions included avoiding eating blood and meat not drained of its blood. Taking both Old Testament and New Testament Scriptures into account, it seems that since the time of Noah, eating or drinking animal blood has been something God forbade. The prohibition to avoid the consumption of blood, as found in Acts 15:29, is not altered, adjusted, or explained in other books of the New Testament. Thus, it seems most reasonable to conclude that the prohibition remains binding today.

REFERENCES

“Best Practices For Beef Slaughter” (no date), [On-line], URL: http://www.bifsco.org/uDocs/bestpracslaught12_05.pdf.

“Blood—Vital For Life” (2006), [On-line], URL: http://watchtower.org/e/hb/article_01.htm.

Coffman, James Burton (1977), Commentary on Acts (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).

Gaertner, Dennis (1993), Acts (Joplin, MO: College Press).

Lenski, R.C.H. (1961), The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg).

“Rosenthal HACCP Plans” (2000), [On-line], URL: http://meat.tamu.edu/HACCP/porkslaughter.pdf.

Woods, Guy N. (1976), Questions and Answers: Open Forum, Volume 1 (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University), Vol. 1.




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