Question on Corporate Fasting

As we have studied some “uncommon disciplines” the New Testament calls us to practice over the last few weeks, part of what we’ve tried to do is give practical advice concerning how to practice these disciplines. This is because, for the most part, the New Testament doesn’t always outline how to do these disciplines. As I said a few weeks ago, one of the main reasons why the Bible doesn’t always explain how to do them is that these practices were so common in their culture that you didn’t need to tell people how to participate.

One of the few exceptions actually involves the discipline of fasting. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives His followers some clear advice on how they should go about fasting. Matthew 6:16-18 says, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” This section of Scripture has caused a few people to ask if our corporate fast is appropriate seeing that Jesus calls His disciples to practice fasting privately.

I think it’s appropriate to address this valid question a few ways. First, I will say it is completely a personal decision and is totally fine if you choose to abstain. Things like this are always personal, and I wouldn’t force anyone to do it even if I could. So, if you are hesitant about participating in this fast but don’t want to feel guilty, consider permission granted for skipping the fast. The truth is I will not know that you did or did not fast unless you tell me personally (or are in my Life Group). On top of that, I realize there are a variety of reasons people may not feel led to participate, and that is okay.

Second, Jesus seems to be addressing the personal discipline of fasting rather than corporate fasting in Matthew 6:16-18. I believe there is plenty of evidence in both the Old and New Testament of God’s people being called to specific corporate fasts. Some of the best examples are found in 1 Samuel 7:5-6, Ezra 8:21-23, Nehemiah 9:1-3, Joel 2:15-16, Acts 13:1-3, and Acts 14:21-23.[1] The leaders in the community decided on the parameters for these corporate fasts, whereas in personal fasts, the parameters are more of a personal matter.

Finally, as far as addressing Jesus’ specific words on fasting in Matthew 6, I believe it’s always helpful to put these words on fasting into context of what surrounds them. Just before his words on fasting, he talks about prayer and says that we shouldn’t pray in public.[2] I believe what Jesus is saying in these verses is not to be taken in a wooden, legalistic way. Jesus was trying to get His disciples back to the heart of the disciplines, such as prayer and fasting, in order to rescue them from the show the Pharisees were putting on. So, to apply it to our situation, I think Jesus might say, “Don’t walk around all day Wednesday telling everyone how hungry you are because you are participating in a church-wide fast.”

My challenge to those of you wrestling with this subject is to view this corporate fast as an opportunity, not a burden. If you cannot participate in good conscience, then please don’t. On the flip side, I hope you can also see what an opportunity this will be for our church to collectively seek to engage in living out the mission of God through fasting together. I’m praying that God uses this to grow us personally and corporately closer to Him and to each other.

[1] Some New Testament scholars also believe Paul had the men on the ship to Italy fasting in Acts 27, specifically Acts 27:21
Side note: He also says in Matthew 23:9 that we shouldn’t call anyone “father” aside from our Heavenly Father.

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