You’ve probably noticed that many of your Catholic friends avoid eating meat on Fridays, especially during Lent. Instead, they often eat fish. So why don’t Protestants follow the same practice? What’s the story behind fish on Fridays?
A Brief History of Fish on Fridays
The practice of eating fish instead of meat on Fridays goes back centuries in the Catholic tradition. In fact, the Catholic Church officially codified it as a religious obligation all the way back in the Middle Ages.
Here’s a quick history:
- In the early centuries of Christianity, fasting was common on Wednesdays and Fridays. By the time of the Middle Ages, Friday had become the main fast day.
- The practice of abstaining from meat developed as a way to distinguish the Friday fast from other days. Fish was considered acceptable because it was seen as a “lesser” form of meat.
- In the 13th century, the pope made abstaining from meat on Fridays mandatory for all Catholics. This became an official part of Canon Law.
- Catholics were expected to avoid meat on all Fridays. During Lent, they also had to fast (eating only one full meal per day).
- After the reforms of Vatican II in the 1960s, many of the rules on fasting and abstinence were relaxed. But avoiding meat on Fridays remained.
So in short, the custom of substituting fish for meat on Fridays comes from medieval Catholic fasting practices. It became an ingrained part of Catholic identity. But why don’t Protestants carry on the same tradition?
Why Protestants Broke with the Fish Friday Custom
When the Protestant Reformation happened in the 16th century, the Reformers critiqued many Catholic customs as unbiblical. Avoiding meat on Fridays fell into this category.
The Reformers made several key arguments against fish on Fridays:
- It’s not in the Bible – Nothing in Scripture commands abstaining from meat or eating fish on certain days. It’s not part of biblical Christian practice.
- Man-made rules – Requiring Friday fish was an example of the Catholic Church creating man-made religious obligations not required by God. The Reformers saw this as legalistic and unhelpful for true devotion.
- No intrinsic value – Avoiding meat and eating fish has no moral or spiritual value in itself. What matters is the state of one’s heart before God.
- Undermines Christian freedom – Imposing specific dietary regulations undermines the Christian freedom we have in the gospel. The apostle Paul condemns such food laws (Colossians 2:16).
In essence, the early Protestants made abstaining from meat on Fridays an issue of religious freedom and fidelity to Scripture. They argued that such rules bound Christian consciences in ways God never intended. So as Protestants emerged from Roman Catholicism, they cast off Friday fish as part of breaking free from man-made religious burdens.
The Lasting Protestant Aversion to Friday Fish Bans
While many Catholics have happily kept up the Friday fish custom, Protestants have continued to reject mandatory meat abstinence:
- It’s mostly cultural now – For Catholics who avoid meat on Fridays, it’s often more cultural than spiritual these days. Many do it out of habit, family tradition, or church culture rather than deep piety.
- An individual choice – Protestants generally believe fasting and abstinence should be voluntary choices, not imposed obligations. It’s up to each individual before God.
- Wariness of legalism – There’s still a wariness that required religious dietary restrictions could lead to legalism, as prohibited in Colossians 2:16-23 and similar texts.
- Emphasis on inner piety – Protestant spirituality puts more emphasis on inward devotion than outward religious rituals. Avoiding meat doesn’t automatically make you more pious.
So while Catholics might happily keep the Friday fish fry, Protestants continue to affirm Christian freedom from mandated dietary obligations. They emphasize that what you eat on a Friday matters far less than your heart before God.
Key Takeaways on Why Protestants Don’t Avoid Meat on Fridays
To recap some key reasons why Protestants have historically rejected Friday fish bans:
- It’s not commanded in Scripture
- The Reformers saw it as man-made legalism
- Dietary choices don’t inherently make you more pious
- Required religious food rules undermine Christian freedom
- Outward rituals matter less than the inward state of the heart
- Protestants put more emphasis on voluntary spiritual disciplines
While rejecting compulsory Friday fish, most Protestants affirm that voluntary fasting and abstinence can be helpful spiritual practices in moderation. But for Protestants, the gospel frees us from thinking God mandates certain dietary regulations. So we emphasize spiritual realities far more important than what you choose to eat on Fridays!
Friday Fish in the Bible? Sorting Through the Evidence
Since Protestants seek to base all doctrine and practice on Scripture, some will point to the Bible to argue for preferring fish on Fridays. But what does the Bible really say? Let’s look at some potential proof texts:
The Sabbath Day Prohibition on Cooking
In Exodus 16, God provides manna for Israel in the wilderness. They’re instructed to gather a double portion on Friday so they won’t have to work by cooking on the Sabbath:
“Tomorrow is to be a day of sabbath rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord…bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.” (Exodus 16:23-24)
Some argue this shows fish would have been preferred for Sabbath meals since it didn’t require as much cooking. But this passage is not giving any instruction to prefer fish on Fridays or the Sabbath. It’s about preparing food ahead of time for rest on the Sabbath. There’s noActual support here for fish mandates on Fridays.
Jesus Serving Fish After the Resurrection
In two resurrection appearances, Jesus eats fish with the disciples:
“While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.” (Luke 24:36-43)
Jesus eating fish with the disciples post-resurrection does show fish was a common food at the time. But there’s no indication he was commanding special fish meals on Fridays or certain days. Jesus is simply eating a normal meal with his disciples to prove He’s resurrected bodily, not just spiritually. Nothing here elevates fish above other foods or commands preferential fish eating on Fridays.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand
In all four gospels, Jesus multiplies five loaves and two fish to feed a huge crowd:
“Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to distribute to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.” (Luke 9:16-17)
Again, this shows fish was readily available as a food source. But the narrative gives no special spiritual significance to the fish itself. The passage focuses on Jesus miraculously multiplying food, not endorsing fish over meat. There’s simply no link here to mandating fish consumption on Fridays or any other religious regulations around diet.
Allowing Fish with the Jerusalem Decree
In Acts 15, the early church decides Gentile converts need only follow certain dietary restrictions, which conspicuously allow fish:
“Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” (Acts 15:20)
On the surface, permitting fish but restricting meat and blood could seem symbolic. Yet a careful reading in context shows the intent was to ask Gentiles to avoid idolatry and offending Jewish sensitivities (Acts 15:19-21). Fish were allowed simply because they wouldn’t violate Jewish food customs. Again, there’s no sign the apostles were promoting fish for symbolic spiritual value. Just the opposite – they affirmed Christian freedom to eat any food as long as it’s received with thanksgiving (1 Tim. 4:1-5).
“Ambassador’s Fish” in Tobit
Finally, some Catholics point to the apocryphal book of Tobit, where the angel Raphael instructs,”Eat no meal without fish” as a lesson for evangelistic witness (Tobit 6:2; 12:2). But Protestants reject Tobit as uninspired Scripture. And Raphael is presented as an angelic helper, not a prophet conveying divine revelation. So this falls short as authoritative teaching. Tobit fails to show God commanding fish on Fridays or any other religious requirement around fish.
Conclusion: No Clear Biblical Basis
In conclusion, there’s simply no clear biblical basis for mandating fish consumption on Fridays or imbuing fish with special spiritual symbolism. Any apparent Friday fish precedent relies on isolated proof-texting or appealing to non-canonical books. Overall, the Bible’s view of food takes a different approach:
“I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself… For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:14,17)
Rather than regulating diet, Scripture upholds Christian freedom to eat without guilt, even as we thoughtfully consider not offending tender consciences.
Should Protestants Consider Occasional Fish Fridays?
Given this biblical perspective and Protestant principles, some will wonder if Protestant churches should consider encouraging occasional symbolic fish meals on Fridays, such as during Lent. There may be some potential benefits to consider:
Raise environmental awareness – Highlighting fish could draw attention to sustainable seafood and caring for ocean ecosystems.
Support public health – Fish is generally healthy, especially oily types containing omega-3 fatty acids. Moderately increasing fish intake provides cardiovascular benefits.
Foster community – Shared communal fish meals, like church potlucks, could build relationships, especially in coastal areas where fish is culturally prominent.
Enhance cross-cultural understanding – Honoring Catholic/Orthodox meatless Fridays could further mutual understanding and fellowship between Protestants and other traditions.
Accommodate spiritual disciplines – Voluntary fish Fridays could work with disciplines like Lenten fasting while avoiding potential pitfalls of required religious diet rules.
However, there are also potential downsides for Protestants to carefully consider:
- Could easily become legalistic, which would undermine Christian freedom
- Potential to confuse spiritual symbolism around diet, contrary to New Testament teaching
- Requires nuance so fish isn’t made “more holy” than other foods
- Harder to implement in inland areas without a strong cultural tradition of Friday fish
- Must be truly voluntary to avoid binding Protestant consciences
The key principle is Christian freedom in matters of diet, avoiding any sense of mandated religious obligations around food. But some Protestant communities might find occasional, voluntary shared fish meals on Fridays to be an edifying, unifying practice if kept in proper perspective. This could open rewarding opportunities for fellowship, outreach, creation care, and public health – all without legalistically binding consciences.
In the end, Protestants don’t have to go along with Catholics in abstaining from meat on Fridays – but they could consider gently encouraging voluntary fish fellowship meals to affirm their shared devotion to Christ. The gospel frees us from religious food laws, but as long as we don’t judge one another over diet, we’re free to celebrate Christian unity through mealtime (Romans 14:1-12).
Conclusion: Focus on Christ over Customs
When it comes to the question of meat on Fridays, Protestants encourage focusing on Christ Himself rather than religious customs. Mandatory Friday fish fails to find firm biblical grounding. Yet voluntary fellowship fish meals on occasion may hold value for certain communities.
The essence of the matter is that our relationship with Christ radically outweighs regulations about food. As Paul proclaimed, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). So while Catholics feast on flounder, you as a Protestant have freedom in the gospel. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and consider an occasional fish fry in thoughtful Christian fellowship!