Feasting and Fellowship in the Age of Food Allergies
“I can’t eat that,” a friend said, passing by the staple of our church’s monthly potluck: the perfectly crafted homemade macaroni and cheese from the kitchen of a church matriarch. Eating Emma’s macaroni was a ritual in our church; to not eat it might signal to the longtime churchgoer that you really weren’t one of us. But this young woman wasn’t being either ignorant or pretentious. In fact, she had a rare stomach disorder that would not allow her to eat dairy products. Had she eaten Emma’s signature dish, she would have become violently sick.
For most of us, eating is a joyful opportunity for Christian fellowship. For people like my friend, however, it can be a source of division and isolation. I (Dan) was a young pastor when this incident occurred, and it helped me realize how complicated church feasts— which serve as a visible symbol of Christian unity and identity—can be in a fallen world. Feasting together is good, but it can also get complicated. If we want to love our brothers and sisters in Christ well, then it’s worth our time to think deeply about food sensitivity and its relationship to Christian hospitality and self-sacrifice.
Acknowledge the Risk
Food allergies are growing more and more common. Over the last two decades, the CDC has tracked a steady increase in food allergies, with some estimates showing as much as a 50 percent rise. Many of us know this to be true, if only anecdotally. We know friends and family members who have food allergies. Maybe we have them ourselves. Given the reach of social media, we also hear the stories of children and teenagers who have gone into anaphylactic shock after one bite of a Rice Krispies Treat.
The causes of food allergies aren’t clear; the effects, however, are. For some, they are relatively minor: hives, skin reactions, eczema, rashes, itchy and watery eyes, and congestion. For others, they are life-threatening: shortness of breath, obstruction of airways by a swollen tongue or throat, drops in blood pressure, chest pain, loss of consciousness, and sometimes, death.
In light of the severity and increasing prevalence of some food allergies, many public institutions have enacted policies to govern what foods can be brought into shared eating spaces. Schools, for instance, mark certain foods like peanut butter as off-limits or operate with a constant awareness of individual threats to particular students. Teachers who know which student is allergic to what foods will consciously seat them away from students whose lunches include those foods.
If our public institutions are having to think intentionally about food, then it may be time for the church to do the same. Gathering to eat, after all, is woven into our story as the people of God. Once alienated from God’s family, we are now seated at the king’s table because of Christ. Every time we participate in the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate our adoption as sons and daughters. When we gather to celebrate milestones—graduations, weddings, homecomings, baby showers—we mark the occasion by sharing meals together. And every time we do so, we are showing a glimpse of the great feast we will enjoy one day in the kingdom.
For those with food allergies, though, the shared table can be a minefield. According to FARE, a group devoted to “Food Allergies Research and Education,” 90 percent of allergies come from only eight sources: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. With such a limited range of threats, one might assume it’d be easy to avoid problem foods. But without a list of ingredients or asterisks warning of the presence of allergens, a bite of Emma’s macaroni and cheese can turn into the dietary equivalent of playing a round of Russian roulette. A congregation of 100 people is statistically likely to have 1-5 members with a serious food allergy, with children being disproportionately affected—which means that a cookie stolen off the dessert table at a church picnic could mean an emergency trip to the hospital, or worse.
Because of the risk allergies pose to congregants, many churches are beginning to set food policies like those in schools. Some will label dishes that are allergen-free or set them on a designated table to reduce contamination, while others offer gluten-free bread for communion. As awareness of allergies grows, so do churches’ abilities to bear the burdens of those who risk their health every time they gather to eat as a congregation.
Don’t Be a Food Pharisee
Church members are also starting to bear each other’s burdens by discerning the difference between the risk brought about by allergies and the food preferences present in any body of diverse people. If the last two decades have seen a rise in food allergies, they have also seen growing interest in food sourcing, with many consumers growing increasingly conscious of what they take into their bodies and committing to eat only clean, organic, or locally sourced foods. For some, there is overlap: a diagnosis of food allergies leads to a commitment to eat only certain types of food. For others, though, the choice to eat organic or to avoid all processed foods is simply a matter of conviction.
Unfortunately, we don’t always remember that our choice to eat whole grain is not the same as needing to avoid grain altogether. Sometimes, we can project our food preferences onto others, judging them for what they put on their plates. When a sister or brother reaches for diet soda, we recall the research study that showed the perils of artificial sweeteners. When someone opens a crockpot filled with fried chicken, we mentally scroll through the CDC’s latest report on obesity. When someone else has the temerity to offer up generic canned vegetables, we wonder how it is they are still alive and kicking. If we are not careful, shared meals can quickly become a source of judgment and division.
The temptation is to turn our nose up at our neighbor’s offerings. We take satisfaction in knowing that we would never eat x. While our neighbors are legitimately suffering the isolating effects of food allergies, many of us actively embrace the isolation that they would gladly escape if they could, removing ourselves from the blessing of shared consumption. Suddenly, the feast which was intended as a source of communion, identification, and celebration becomes a source of division and conflict.
In the early church, food choices were often as contentious as they are now. Sometimes, for instance, Jewish and Gentile Christians disagreed over clean and unclean food. Jewish converts carried their lifelong commitment to Old Testament dietary restrictions into the church: restrictions that conflicted with Gentile Christians, who brought in their own food traditions. In Acts 10, the witness of the Spirit to Peter is that the new covenant removes food barriers and encourages unity between Jew and Gentile.
Christians also questioned whether they should eat meat that had been offered to idols. For believers whose conversion from idol worship was still fresh, the sight of another believer indulging in meat that was recently offered to a false god was disturbing, while others were frustrated by their fellow believers’ inability to see the creational good in food offered to a dead and impotent deity. There was even division around the very celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
In the physical body, an allergic reaction happens when the body’s autoimmune system, which is responsible for protecting the body from disease and infection, incorrectly identifies a certain food as a threat and kicks into overdrive. In effect, the body turns on itself. In food-based controversies like the ones described above, the choice of what and how to consume triggered a kind of autoimmune response within the body of Christ. Just as an overactive immune system reacts to the presence of an allergen, the overly vigilant consciences of early believers reacted to the presence of even the slightest difference, prompting a reaction that set parts of the body in conflict with each other.
The same happens today. When we project our own food preferences and convictions on our brothers and sisters, we unintentionally marginalize those with legitimate allergies, and we unintentionally stigmatize those who don’t eat like we do. We may not be arguing over pork like they did in the first century church, but our preferences, if not held in a loose grip, have the potential to cause similar disunity.
Come Together At the Lord’s Table
A healthy body knows a legitimate threat from an illegitimate one; it can identify food as a source of nourishment and growth. But our bodies are not always healthy. They are often broken, and so is our feasting. For some of us, eating together is a risk. For others, it is a temptation to shame and judgment.
But the central feast of the church shows us a way forward. When we celebrate the Lord’s table, we often recite these words from 1 Corinthians 11:23-24:
“The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’
Through the Incarnation, Christ entered our bodily brokenness, and through his death, he was broken for us. At the Lord’s table, we receive the benefit of his broken body as we acknowledge our own brokenness. We also learn to identify with each other’s brokenness, to follow Christ’s example and enter into each other’s suffering, allowing ourselves to be broken for them.
Within the physical body, autoimmune reactions can be stopped by medicines like diphenhydramine and epinephrine, which, among other things, hinder the release of allergic chemicals. They do not fix the broken body; instead, they allow those with food allergies to continue to live despite their body’s eccentricities. Spiritually, though, it takes love, wisdom, and selflessness to stop the division that happens around food. The apostle James urged this as the cure for the first century church—a body of believers that was similarly tempted to allow their preferences to create division:
“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).
We know we are acting wisely, both about our food choices and our relationships with our brothers and sisters, when the fruit of our conversations is love, wisdom, and selflessness. The work of the spirit to cultivate these virtues can allow us a measure of community despite the brokenness of our bodies—even the brokenness of the body of Christ.
De-Stigmatize and Accomodate
So what might this look like in our feasts and gatherings today? Every context and every church community has to handle food a little differently. For instance, a church in a university town made up of largely young people may have less need to diversify their offerings, while a church in a middle-class neighborhood with families and children may have to apply more sensitivities to allergies and other food risks.
What is most important is de-stigmatizing our environments and intentionally creating opportunities for those with significant allergies to share in the life of the whole church without feeling as though their special needs are a burden. We might, for instance, forego our own food preferences in order to accommodate those with restrictions. We might consider ways for those who prefer more organically sourced food and to share meals on common ground with those who don’t. We might also consider the economic and social barriers that lead families to consume what they do. And for those who scoff at the fresh food revolution, perhaps they might listen to their peers, making room for new ideas about stewardship and ways to forge better communities through our tables.
Thankfully, much of this is already being done at churches across the world. Some churches, for instance, are intentional about how they prepare for events such as potlucks, working hard to communicate the availability of offerings for those who have allergies. They ask ahead of time for those preparing dishes to avoid certain common elements that provoke severe allergic reactions. (Even the way we communicate this information is important. It’s helpful if church leadership presents challenges like these as opportunities to serve the marginalized rather than an inconvenience to be negotiated.) Other churches encourage their members to bring their best food to the table. One pastor says it like this: “If your idea of a feast is fried chicken, please bring that. If your idea of a feast is locally-sourced meat from a farm, please bring that. And let’s all work to enjoy each other’s labors.”
Ultimately, though, the community we share as members of Christ’s family and as participants in the Lord’s table is built not on the kinds of grain in our breads, but on the death, burial, and resurrection of the Christ whose body was broken for us. If we allow the Spirit to work in our hearts before we even reach the table, then the bread that we break together will grow to taste all the sweeter.