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The Difference Between Milk and Meat

The believer's motivation to obey God

Doug Walton said that the sermons at our church were full of "milk for baby Christians," and that he would prefer more meat from the pulpit. The Dawsons actually left our church because they wanted more meat. And even from the more satisfied members of the congregation I've heard the comparison between Pastor Chuck, who is meaty, and Pastor Glen, who is milky.

I was aware, of course, that this milk-meat metaphor has a Biblical origin (as, presumably, were most parishioners) but its exact meaning has never been clear to me. And as one who has evidently perpetrated some of those sermons, I have to confess that milk was not my intention. Usually I'm doing all I can to be meaty. But sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference between the two. And I'm not alone in this confusion. When I've asked church members to explain the difference their responses seemed to be based not on what "milk" and "meat" were, but what they accomplished, in other words, on the feeling one gets after a sermon. If listeners felt good, it was probably milk. If it made them feel convicted of sin it was meat.

I don't believe, however, that an emotional response to a sermon was the Biblical authors' intent when drawing the comparison between milk and meat. Offering an alternative explanation, one person told me that milk is the basic teachings of Christianity, and meat the deeper stuff. This suggestion seemed helpful at first, and indeed is supported by Scripture. I recalled Hebrews 6:1 where the author encourages us to, "leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment." Previously he had said that his readers ought to have become teachers but were still infants. They still needed milk; not solid food (Heb. 5:11-14). It seems that the author has clearly indicated here that the elementary teachings are milk. But this created further confusion — the six things he mentions as elementary seem to exhaust much of my theology. If I have gained a good understanding of repentance, resurrection, judgment, faith, baptism, and the laying on of hands, what else is left? And if Hebrews 6:1 is a catalog of elementary teachings, then why didn't the author speak with the same specificity regarding the non-elementary teachings, so that I would have an easier time preparing meaty sermons?

A different perspective was offered me when someone suggested that the sermons delivered by Pastor John (at the large church down the road) are the essence of meat. John is known for his Biblical knowledge, his apropos Greek and Hebrew references, as well as extensive explanations of the geographical and historical backgrounds of his messages. Preaching through Acts 14, for example, he mentioned that Paul and Barnabas were hailed as gods in Iconium because the city was afraid that they would repeat the mistake of their ancestors, who supposedly ignored a visit from the gods. Throwing light on a passage like this was surely, this person said, the epitome of a meaty sermon. But is it?

To regain confidence in my own preaching, and perhaps also build a defense against possible future criticism, I decided to probe a little deeper. The metaphor of meat and milk occurs several times in the New Testament. In addition to Hebrews 5:11-6:2., 1 Peter 2:2 says, "Like newborn babes, crave pure spiritual milk so that by it you may grow up in your salvation." And Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:1, 2, says "I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly — mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it." In 1 Peter 2:2 the apostle states that milk is of great value, but only for babes. He encourages believers to "grow up," implying that they would eventually move away from milk. Hebrews 5:13, 14 similarly states that solid food is of greater value than milk. This author indicates that solid food is characterized by the ability to distinguish between good and evil. While these verses shed light on the real meaning of milk and meat, the most helpful and extensive reference is 1 Corinthians 3. The entire chapter centers on Paul's desire for the Corinthians to move from milk to meat.

Paul's explanation of milk and meat

The context of 1 Corinthians 3 clarifies Paul's meaning. The difference between meat and milk is the difference in one's motivation for obedience to God. The new Christian is motivated toward obedience with milk, and the mature Christian with meat.

This is shown by Paul's statement that he hoped to address the Corinthians as spiritual, but he could not because they were still worldly (3:1). The church was still plagued by several areas of sin: sexual immorality (5:1), division over loyalty to apostles (3:4), lawsuits (6:7), improper behavior in worship, including drunkenness (11:21), subversion of authority (11:10), and spiritual pride (5:6).

Paul's explanation is further amplified by his approach to the Corinthian church. He had hoped to give them meat. But since they were worldly he first had to give them milk. For instance, in regard to sexual immorality he gave them a specific list of forbidden practices: don't let that young man sleep with his mother (5:1-5); and fornicators, adulterers, prostitutes, and homosexuals will not enter the kingdom of God (6:9). Paul didn't like addressing Corinthians in this manner because these commands are milk for a baby Christian. Instead, he wanted to address them as spiritual. So immediately after giving them milk he offered them meat, for example by saying, "your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit" (6:19), and "Honor God with your body" (6:20). This is meat; not a simple command, but a principle for Christians to live by.

But a baby Christian who hears "Honor God with your body" has no boundaries to define this principle. It is nonsense without the milk first. So the rule must come first. But since rules lead to legalism, Paul wanted to address the Corinthians spiritually: not merely with a law but a principle. Not milk, but meat.

Similarly, regarding lawsuits, Paul begins with milk. He says, "if any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints?" (6:7). He didn't want to address them as mere babes in Christ: simply telling them not to have lawsuits. Desiring to address them as spiritual, he gives them the meat: "The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?" (6:7). To this the baby Christian responds: "Why not rather be wronged? Because I deserve better!" So the Christian first needs laws-"don't sue." But the spiritual Christian doesn't need laws. The (meaty) concept of sacrifice is sufficient; in fact, it is superior because milk leads to a false sense of self-righteousness. The milk-drinking believer reads a list of commands as a checklist and exclaims, "I'm a good person because I haven't done any of these things." On the other hand, the meat-eating believer has a much greater understanding. He reads the principles of Scripture and examines his heart to see if there is any part of his life that is not pleasing to God.

Paul preserves the same pattern of offering milk first and meat later in his letter. In the discussion on behavior in worship he once again initially presents the milk: don't get drunk at church (11:21, 22), don't be obsessed with the desire to speak in tongues (14:1, 2, 22-25), and women should wear a head covering (11:3-16). But I imagine Paul was agonizing as he wrote these words because he was a crusader against this sort of legalism. He wanted to elevate his instructions by also giving his listeners meat. Their immaturity, though, demanded a definition of the broader concepts first. Only then does he also give the Corinthians meat. After telling them not to get drunk at church he says, "a man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself" (11:28). He was not content with the simple command to "stop thinking like children [by desiring to speak in tongues], but in your thinking be adults" (14:20). So again he also gives the meat: "If an unbeliever comes in while everyone is prophesying he will be convinced that he is a sinner and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God exclaiming, 'God is really among you.'" (14:24, 25).

In each case he starts with a command for the worldly Christian. But he ends with a meaty principle for the spiritual Christian.

Milk and Meat Ministry

Recently a teenage girl asked me if I thought it was okay for a fourteen-year-old to date. Assuming this wasn't a theoretical exercise (and assuming my answer would get back to her parents), I asked her what her parents thought. Her mother had apparently told her she couldn't date until she was sixteen. This is the perfect illustration of milk versus meat. In a perfect world we would address teenagers as spiritual, but this girl's mother is concerned that she is still worldly. Milk says, "You can't date until you're sixteen." It's a concrete rule. Perhaps it's a little legalistic but it's an attempt to curb the impending licentiousness likely among fourteen-year-olds. The mature Christian, on the other hand, has moved beyond the need for a legalistic rule and thinks, "Date when the Holy Spirit indicates to you that it is right." Meat does not force a believer to respond to a law; it prompts her beyond this, to respond to a relationship with the Spirit.

Milk and meat, as in any healthy diet, should be balanced. The milk-drinker honors a set of rules. The meat-eater desires to honor God and people. A person who takes only milk desires to push the limits. Meat-eaters desire to steer clear of limits. Milk is law. Meat is love. Milk is the babe's desire to do what he's told, meat the believer's passion to obey God because he is deeply in love with Him.

The task for the pastor is to challenge believers to step beyond a list of rules and seek a loving relationship with God. That is the essence of a meaty sermon.


Dan Nehrbass is Pastor of SeaRidge Community Church in Irvine, CA.

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