Is Abstinence a “Doctrine of Demons”?

Q: Isn’t abstaining from meat one of the “doctrines of demons” Paul warned about in 1 Timothy 4:1-5?

A: Short answer: Not unless Daniel was practicing a doctrine of demons. Remember, we read in the book of Daniel:

“In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia . . . ‘I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.'” (Daniel 10:1-3)

Long answer: When Paul warned of those who “forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods” he has in mind people with the Manichean belief that sex is wrong and certain foods, like meat, are intrinsically immoral. (Thus the spiritual ideal for many modern New Agers is a celibate vegetarian, as in the Eastern religions.)

We know that Paul has in mind those who teach sex and certain foods are intrinsically immoral because he tells us that these are “foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:3b-5).

Sex and all kinds of food are good things (which is why the Catholic Church has marriage for a sacrament and heartily recommends the practice eating to its members), and this is precisely why it is fitting for them to be given up as part of a spiritual discipline. Thus Daniel gave up meat (as well as wine, another symbol of rejoicing) and Paul endorses the practice of temporary celibacy to engage in a special spiritual discipline of increased prayer (1 Corinthians 7:5). By giving up good things and denying them to ourselves we encourage an attitude of humility, free ourselves from dependence on them, cultivate the spiritual discipline of being willing to make personal sacrifices, and remind ourselves of the importance of spiritual goods over earthly goods.

In fact, if there was an important enough purpose, Paul recommended permanently giving up marriage and meat. Thus he himself was celibate (1 Corinthians 7:8), he recommended the same for ministers (2 Timothy 2:3-4), and he recommended it for the unmarried so they can devote themselves more fully to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:32-34) unless doing so would subject them to great temptations (1 Cointhians 7:9). Similarly, he recommended giving up meat permanently if it would prevent others from sinning (1 Corinthians 8:13).

Thus Paul certainly had nothing against celibacy or giving up meat — even on a permanent basis — so long as one wasn’t saying that these things are intrinsically evil, which is what he was condemning the “doctrines of demons” passage.

Since the Catholic Church only requires abstinence from meat on a temporary basis, it clearly does not regard meat is immoral. Instead, it regards it as the giving up of a good thing (which in less economically developed regions — including the whole world until very recently — was expensive and thus eaten at festive occasions, making it a sign of rejoicing) to attain a spiritual goal.

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