Morality Ch. 21: Is Gluttony a Sin?

In the Old Testament they killed gluttons, and in the church it became a “mortal sin.” So why doesn’t the New Testament take it so seriously, and why don’t we?


The world now contains more people who are obese than malnourished. This change first happened a few decades ago, but then conflicts in areas such as Yemen and Congo caused local famines. However, obesity has continued to rise and has overtaken malnutrition again. This reminds us that the planet has enough food, and its lack is usually caused by human sin.

We wouldn’t be in this happy condition without the invention of agriculture. It must have been an amazing genius who worked out that deliberately burying grain would actually produce more of it in a few months’ time. Rice farming is even more difficult, because it requires flat fields with borders to allow periodic flooding.

Both types of agriculture worked best within large, organized communities. People have to specialize in different tasks – some do farming (which is a full-time job), while others defend them, or produce tools and other things that farmers need. The community needs to store the food because harvests come only once or twice a year, and in bad years they may need to organize rationing.

But what happens when someone in the community rebels? What if they get drunk and smash things up, or break into the stores and gobble up all the best food? Before the invention of iron locks and sticky mortar to hold stones together, breaking out of a building wasn’t hard, so it was difficult to imprison a miscreant. In some rural Mongolian villages of circular yurts built from thick felt, they still tie a drunkard to a post until he sobers up because none of their buildings are secure. But the persistent actions of an antisocial individual could gradually drive a community into famine.

The Old Testament had a clear though severe solution: death. This type of person could cause the death of a community, and they couldn’t incarcerate him for any length of time, so there was little choice. Banishment would be equivalent to moving a child molester in a church to another parish – it would merely antagonize neighboring communities. So the elders made a decision, and the whole community showed their agreement by helping to stone him. The heart-wrenching aspect of this law is the start of the process: the ones who had to bring him before the elders were his parents. They had to admit that they couldn’t control their son and (no doubt tearfully) had to admit they had no other recourse. His actions were too dangerous to ignore.

In the New Testament, this law still remained in force, but no one applied it. Jesus is accused of being a glutton and drunkard by his enemies (Matt 11:19 = Luke 7:34), but they don’t attempt to arrest him for this because it no longer warrants the death penalty. They couldn’t repeal a law given by God, but it appears that they could neglect to enforce it. Similarly, there is still a law against singing profane or obscene songs in Metropolitan London streets, but no one enforces it.1

Surprisingly, greed and gluttony resurface in the New Testament Letters as a very serious sin listed alongside sexual immorality and idolatry. The people who practice it are so terrible that Christians should not entertain them as guests (1 Cor 5:10-11); and these people should not expect to enter heaven (1 Cor 6:10; Eph 5:5). The actual word “gluttony” isn’t used in most English New Testament translations, except rarely at 1 Peter 4:3, when translating komos, which the NIV and ESV translate as “orgies.” This helps to remind us about what was actually happening in the Roman world.

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Roman orgies

Romans really knew how to overindulge in all kinds of ways. If you think that modern bookshops and TV are fixated on food, you should sample ancient Latin literature. Although they still loved descriptions of battles like the Greeks did, there was a growing and voracious appetite for descriptions of banquets, with details of every course and delicacy. Middle and upper-class Romans spent a large proportion of their day eating or planning to eat. Lavish meals, often with entertainment, were the chief form of leisure and could last for hours. Meals bonded together business partners, political connections, friends, and family. A large part of a woman’s role was organizing meals, and only unsociable men would neglect to give regular invitations to friends.

When the host was trying to impress, the courses could be endless. It was rude to refuse, so Romans perfected the art of making themselves vomit. This probably wasn’t a regular practice, but at important banquets it could prove necessary. Otherwise guests would simply loosen their togas a little more. Overeating wasn’t looked down on, but failing to appreciate a host’s generosity could scratch one off his future guest list. So you kept eating and tried not to vomit in public.

Along with food came copious drink. Wives weren’t invited to traditional banquets, so that the host could provide hired women for after-meal “exercise.” When Paul and Peter refer to this type of meal (called a komos), they accurately associate them with sexual immorality and drunkenness (see Rom 13:13; Gal 5:21; 1 Pet 4:3).

So the “gluttony” translated from komos refers to something much worse than overeating. And the “greed” that Paul refers to in other passages (1 Cor 5:10-11; 6:10; Eph 5:5) translates pleonektes – which is “avariciousness” or “grasping,” usually seeking money and power rather than food. This doesn’t refer to overeating either, so where does the sin of gluttony come from?

Deadly sin

Gluttony didn’t become a severe sin until the writings of the church fathers in the first few centuries after the New Testament. They promoted it to a “mortal” or “deadly” sin – by which they meant one that caused you to lose your salvation. Of course, only severe gluttony was “mortal”: Aquinas defines this as the type of gluttony that causes you to break other laws of God in order to consume more.2 And he warns that this includes more than just gluttony for food, but also for alcohol, and no doubt today he’d include drugs. However, lesser overconsumption was still regarded as a sin of gluttony, so that Augustine felt the need to confess to God that he sometimes ate till he was “full.”3

Are commands against gluttony timeless, so that they apply to us today? The Old Testament law reflected the needs of the culture of the time, and the New Testament moral warnings reflected the Roman culture, which was completely different. Laws that reflect the culture of the time are unlikely to be timeless. Another indication that this law is not timeless is that the laws changed greatly with time: from constraining someone who was rebellious and uncontrollably destructive to warnings against the type of overindulgence that will lead to immorality.

Constraining greed

This doesn’t mean that we should dismiss what the two Testaments say. Although they clearly have different purposes, we should take both of them seriously. In some cultures, greed can rob others of the necessities of life, and the Old Testament shows that this greed has to be constrained. However, we no longer use force to do this; we now employ laws and taxes to influence people’s consumption. And the New Testament warnings about parties where nothing was off-limits are particularly pertinent in Western societies. Also, greed for money and power has to remain one of the most serious sins. However, overeating itself is not regarded as sinful in the Bible, and it only became a sin when the church was influenced by asceticism in the early centuries.

Nowadays, our view of gluttony is similar to that in Proverbs 23:21: “Drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.” We regard it as a moral failure that will lead to ill health, if not poverty. We celebrate things by having a big meal and look for something to eat as soon as we feel the slightest hunger. And we also constantly try to lose weight. All this implies a self-centered approach: we eat and we diet. The ancient world was more community based: greed was bad if it robbed the poor of scarce food, and mealtimes were good because they were social occasions for cementing friendships.

We could apply that community principle today if Christians decided to only eat when in company and regularly invite poor friends (who are often also lonely) to those meals. This would solve a lot of problems – for ourselves and others.




1^ “Legal Curiosities: Fact or Fable?” (TinyURL.com/LegalOddities).
2^ See Aquinas’s complete response at TinyURL.com/GluttonyAquinas.
3^ “Full feeding sometimes hath crept upon Thy servant” – Confessions 10.31, trans. J. G. Pilkington (TinyURL.com/Augustine-10).



This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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