An illustration in a 1916 edition of The Washington Post portrayed a group of Roman diners at a table with a large bowl beside each. The caption read, “The disgusting Roman custom known as the ‘vomitorium.’ After the banquet was over bowls were brought to the guests. When they had disposed of their dinner into these bowls another banquet was at once served.” Disgusting, indeed—if it were true. The Post, however, got the custom wrong on at least two counts.
First, the vomitorium was actually the name given to a separate space in the building. The vomitorium was not a custom but an area within the building.
Second, the vomitorium had nothing to do with vomiting. The urban legend of diners making space for more food by vomiting out what they had just ingested persisted for some time, but there is actually no evidence that this was ever routinely practised in ancient Rome. There is evidence that some of the Roman Emperors emptied their stomachs via their mouths to make room for more, but it seems that this was a practice that was considered to be disgusting to the average Roman citizen. The use of “vomitorium” as a Roman custom (or sometimes as the room in which the custom was carried out) appears to have arisen in the late 1800s, before being widely popularised in a 1929 Aldous Huxley novel.
In fact, a vomitorium was (and is) nothing more than a wide passage or tunnel situated beneath or behind a tier of seats in a stadium, which allows a quick mass exodus of spectators. If you have ever been to a live sporting event in a large stadium, you probably exited through a vomitorium after the game. The name was given because the space was created to rapidly “vomit” spectators out at the end of the spectacle.
Some years ago, I read a commentary on a certain passage of Scripture which made reference to a vomitorium as a room in a pagan temple in which worshippers would vomit out their food to make space for more. As I have said, however, there is no historical basis for supposing that this ever happened. One might ask, then, what would motivate someone to make such an accusation.
I do not imagine that the commentator in question made the claim knowing that it was false. He was probably claiming only what he had been taught, even though there was, in fact, no truth to it. His point was to show the utter senselessness and chaos of pagan worship, almost as if he were saying, “This is what one might expect of paganism, but never of Christianity.”
Ironically, while there is no evidence that ancient Romans routinely vomited as an act of worship, the same cannot be said of what goes by the name “Christian.” In July 2015, the Prophetic Healing and Deliverance Ministries Facebook page, posted a series of pictures of worshippers at a deliverance rally. Each worshipper pictured was photographed having just vomited on the ground. The caption read, “Vomiting induced by the Holy Spirit through Voice Anointing conducted by the Servant of God Prophet W. Magaya.” This is, sadly, not an isolated incident. A number of extreme arms of the Charismatic movement claim that exorcisms are routinely manifested physically in vomiting, crediting the act to the Spirit of God.
There are also other somewhat less extreme “manifestations of the Spirit” in Charismatic circles. Who can forget the Spirit reportedly manifesting himself in wild laughter and imitation of animals during the Toronto Blessing phenomenon in the mid-to-late 1990s?
If Spirit-induced laughter, barking and vomiting sounds suspect to you, it is only because you have some sense of what Scripture actually teaches concerning the work of the Spirit. The Bible clearly teaches that God is a God of order, not chaos. Writing specifically in the context of corporate worship, Paul exhorted, “All things should be done decently and in order.” And why should all things be done decently and in order? Because “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:35, 40). Do you see that? Because God is a God of order, worship should be carried out in an orderly fashion.
In the opening chapter of The Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer writes, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” How so? Because “no people has ever risen above its religion” and “no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.” Our beliefs about God will certainly shape our behaviour. “There is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.” He adds, “The idolatrous heart assumes that God is other than he is…. The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of him.”
For a Christian, in particular, there is nothing more important than her understanding of God. It will shape her every thought, word and deed. As she believes, so she will think, speak and act.
Asaph recorded God’s words to the wicked (where the wicked can be defined as those who claim to worship God but do so in a way that is dishonouring to him): “You hate discipline and you cast my words behind you…. You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit. You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son.” And what was behind this evil way of speaking and living? “You thought that I was one like yourself” (Psalm 50:16–21). What they thought about God directly revealed itself in how they behaved.
When you behave in ways that are dishonouring to God, it is because you think thoughts that are unworthy of him. Why do Christians look at pornography? Simply because they have a skewed understanding of who God is. They fail to recognise that he is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13). Why do Christians give into the temptation to slander, backbite and gossip? Simply because they think that God is just like them. They fail to recognise that God is interested in truthful and edifying speech. Their view of God determines the way that they treat and speak to and of others. Why do so many young Christians waste the precious time that God has given them on trivial matters of no eternal importance? Surely because they don’t recognise that God never wastes time, but that, even though he sometimes delays, he is always committed to doing things at the right time (cf. Galatians 4:4–5).
The husband who does not think rightly about how Christ treats his bride will be easily led to mistreat his own wife. Christians who do not recognise Christ’s sweet and joyful submission to his father will not submit to their God-given authorities in the way that God expects. Those who do not believe that the judge of the earth always does what is right will not treat their neighbours in a just manner. Tozer is correct:
The decline of the knowledge of the holy has brought on our troubles. A rediscovery of the majesty of God will go a long way toward curing them. It is impossible to keep our moral practices sound and our inward attitudes right while our idea of God is erroneous or inadequate. If we would bring back spiritual power to our lives, we must begin to think of God more nearly as he is.
When we embrace superficial views of who God is, we have fallen to idolatry, and we should not be surprised when wrong thoughts about God work their way out in behaviour that is dishonouring to him and destructive to our neighbour. “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).