In the bits of the Church that I spend time in, there are many phrases and truisms, some good and some bad, which roll around from time to time. Today I want to focus on briefly on one which is particularly pertinent when talking about the merits or otherwise of a theology, book or position, or the merits or otherwise of a teacher or leader. I’m wary about tying what someone believes directly to what we might think about them – though certainly that is appropriate in some cases, I think – but want to focus on this phrase, this concept, of separating the meat from the bones. I often hear phrases like ‘we are called to eat the meat and spit out the bones’.
By this, people tend to mean the practice of discerning things, but in my experience it is often used to stop criticism of some ideas, or to avoid thinking too hard about the uncomfortable elements of a theological position. Variations on this phrase abound – but I want to make it very clear that I’m not judging, or advocating the judging of, people, but rather advertising the critical weighing up of ideas.
First of all, it doesn’t appear to be a particularly biblical phrase. It sure sounds biblical, as in, it sounds like it might be a Bible verse or a paraphrase, but it isn’t. And thus, however much we might want it to work, and recognise and redeem the grain of truth that lies within it, I think we need to be careful about using it. There are Bible verses about meat, often in the context of teaching, and contrasted with milk, instead of bones. 1 Corinthians 3:2 and Hebrews 5:12 draw this link, yet bones are nowhere in sight. Micah 3:3 is even harsher, focusing on prophets and leaders, where it describes the bad versions of these people as consuming them, eating flesh and chopping them up! It pays to check that we aren’t mixing our metaphors.
Secondly, it is just a pretty terrible analogy. As a meat eater – and apologies to any friends who are vegetarians or vegans – I am aware that meat can be of different quality, different nutritional value, and different bone/meat ratio. Also, it turns out, meat has other elements to it. Like gristle. Marinades that the joint has soaked in for a long time. Side dishes. There are even some things made of meat that we tend not to eat – like poisonous shellfish/fish, etc. Related to this, to push the analogy further to demonstrate the weakness of it – when you eat, you cut the bones out. You don’t put the whole thing in your mouth and then spit the bones out. That might happen with *some* fish – but not with all meat.
Why would you willingly put something in your mouth that you can’t eat, that might cut your insides, that isn’t good for you?
By the same token, why would you invest in trying to find cuts of meat that have bones in, to gnaw on them, when, there is so much good meat around pre-prepared? I hope I don’t have to spell out the implications for teaching, preaching, reading and opinion-forming. I alluded at the beginning to this notion of separating people from their perspectives. I think Rick Warren puts it really well, as I’ve quoted him on a number of occasions. But when it comes to those ‘in the family of faith’, particularly those in positions of leadership and teaching, I wonder whether some verses from the tail end of Romans might be appropriate:
“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they decieve the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil“
– Romans 16:17-19
Why does it matter what we listen to, read, and allow to shape our opinions? It matters because some people are out to cause division, put obstacles in our way, and divert us in ways that are contrary to the Gospel. Sometimes people do this unintentionally – and I hope folk would let me know when/if I do – sometimes it is deliberately. None of us want to be naive – but none of us on our own can do everything, know everything, read everything, discern everything. One way to avoid being decieved, to use Paul’s language, is to be part of a good local church, a gathered body of people who point us towards Jesus, pray for us in the power of the Holy Spirit, open and study God’s Word the Bible with us, and eat and drink the Lords Supper with us.
Paul gives a brilliant little challenge to encourage and guide gathered groups of saints, the local church, at the end of this snippet in Romans:
“Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil“
Romans 16:19 is fascinating. We aren’t called, for example, to chew the meat and spit out the bones. We are called to be obedient – that is the fundamental shape of the church. Obedient to Jesus, obedient to Scripture, obedient to God’s call and love. And we are also called to be wise about what is good. This means knowing what is good. And, presumably, knowing that isn’t. We are called to be innocent about what is evil – which doesn’t mean being naive, but being so caught up in the Goodness of God that things that aren’t of and from Him are easily exposed.
I hope this blog post has been helpful. I hope it will be of particular help to those of us in the charismatic wing of the church, whatever your flavour might be. We aren’t called to be stupid, naive, or blindly trusting. We are called to test everything, and to hold fast to what is good. Both testing, and holding fast. Dynamic. Like eating. Be hungry for Jesus, for his Word the Bible, for the Spirit, for the embrace of the Father, and fellowship with his Sons and Daughters.
What do you think? Where do you think the phrase ‘eat the meat and spit out the bones’ comes from? Have I pushed back too far? How can we distinguish between peoples beliefs and the people themselves?