The Word of Wisdom is a hot topic lately, with earlier posts here at W&T (here and here) and BCC (here and here). It was the New Era article a couple of weeks ago that got things rolling, followed just a few days ago by the adult version released at the Mormon Newsroom. And just so we’re on the same page, here is that short “Official Church Statement” in its entirety:
The Word of Wisdom is a law of health for the physical and spiritual benefit of God’s children. It includes instruction about what foods are good for us and those substances to avoid. Over time, Church leaders have provided additional instruction on those things that are encouraged or forbidden by the Word of Wisdom, and have taught that substances that are destructive, habit-forming or addictive should be avoided.
In recent publications for Church members, Church leaders have clarified that several substances are prohibited by the Word of Wisdom, including vaping or e-cigarettes, green tea, and coffee-based products. They also have cautioned that substances such as marijuana and opioids should be used only for medicinal purposes as prescribed by a competent physician.
I was tempted to review and comment on that statement line by line, but (as my college math books used to say) I will leave that as an exercise for the reader. Instead, let’s take two steps back and ask why any Christian church in the 21st century (or the 19th or the 17th) finds itself endorsing food taboos and issuing Official Church Statements defending the practice and adding new and exciting details on which foods are clean and which are unclean. The New Testament is pretty clear that Christians shouldn’t be in the business of worrying over which foods are clean or unclean, much less making such distinctions the basis of membership or admission to the House of the Lord.
Here is Paul in Romans 14:1-4, which you should have read last week if you are doing your Come Follow Me reading like you are supposed to. All my Bible quotes are from the NET Bible, accessed at the Bible Gateway, because I’m just not up to typing in all these passages from Thomas Wayment’s The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints.
Now receive the one who is weak in the faith, and do not have disputes over differing opinions. 2 One person believes in eating everything, but the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not despise the one who does not, and the one who abstains must not judge the one who eats everything, for God has accepted him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on another’s servant? Before his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
You can go back to Acts 10 to see the dramatic vision that Peter received (three times!) showing him that all foods are clean. Interpreting his vision, Peter expanded that to mean that all people are clean as well, so Gentiles (non-Jews) could join the Jesus movement. But you can’t easily argue that God used a false and misleading vision to make a true point. The point of departure that God gave Peter to figure out that no people are unclean was that no food is unclean. Here is Acts 10:9-16:
9 About noon the next day, while they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted to eat, but while they were preparing the meal, a trance came over him. 11 He saw heaven opened and an object something like a large sheet descending, being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed animals and reptiles of the earth and wild birds. 13 Then a voice said to him, “Get up, Peter; slaughter and eat!” 14 But Peter said, “Certainly not, Lord, for I have never eaten anything defiled and ritually unclean!” 15 The voice spoke to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not consider ritually unclean!” 16 This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into heaven.
It’s pretty clear this teaching, that all foods are clean, went back to Jesus. Mark 7 records his dispute with a bunch of Pharisees (who were big supporters of the clean versus unclean food list found in Leviticus 11). Here is Mark 7:14-23:
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand. 15 There is nothing outside of a person that can defile him by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles him.”
17 Now when Jesus had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Are you so foolish? Don’t you understand that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him? 19 For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out into the sewer.” (This means all foods are clean.) 20 He said, “What comes out of a person defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the human heart, come evil ideas, sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, and folly. 23 All these evils come from within and defile a person.”
Now the comment “This means all foods are clean” is a parenthetical comment added by the writer of Mark, which should remind us that this gospel account was written in the late 60s or early 70s, well after Paul’s discussion in Romans. So by the 70s, it was well understood that all food were clean and that point was attributed to Jesus, not to Paul or Peter.
So let’s be perfectly clear: All foods are clean. That means that in the sin versus righteousness sense, or the clean or unclean sense, or the moral versus immoral sense, God doesn’t care whether you drink coffee or wine or beer. Or whether you eat a lot of meat, some meat, meat offered to idols, or no meat at all. The Christian God is not in the clean or unclean foods business, period.
So, getting back to the Word of Wisdom and the recent Official Church Statement, what’s going on? Lots of possibilities. (1) Maybe senior leaders don’t read their Bible and are unfamiliar with the passages quoted above. Or (2) maybe they apply the updated 8th Article of Faith: “Sometimes we believe the Bible to be the Word of God, other times we just ignore it.” Or (3) maybe God, observing the habits and practices of Christians since the first century, decided that maybe food taboos weren’t such a bad idea after all, so in 1833 told Joseph Smith, “Hey, I’m back in the clean and unclean foods business, slightly updated.”
None of those options are very appealing. If you read the statement carefully, it doesn’t use the terms “clean” or “unclean,” although the concepts of ritual purity and moral cleanliness clearly guide how it is applied (that’s why we keep coffee drinkers out of our temples). Instead, a variety of pragmatic considerations are thrown out as justification for the prohibitions: it’s a law of health, it provides physical and spiritual benefits, it guides us to avoid harmful and addictive substances.
But those pragmatic considerations are just post hoc justifications and rationalizations. We all know that. There are plenty of harmful substances that are perfectly acceptable to eat by Mormon rules (sugar, chocolate, McDonald’s food) and prohibited coffee is arguably good for your health (read this short piece at the Mayo Clinic site for a quick summary). In some countries, it’s safer than water. Health has little or nothing to do with the Word of Wisdom. To quote one of my fellow W&T bloggers from a backlist discussion, these are simply “arbitrary eating guidelines.”
So, again, what’s going on? Why are senior leaders so attached to arbitrary eating guidelines? Again, some possibilities: (1) It’s tradition, it’s the Mormon Way of Eating and Drinking, and senior leaders aren’t going to change it. (2) It decreases the number of converts to the Church. (3) It keeps traffic down at LDS temples. (4) It gives judgmental Mormons (i.e, Mormons) a convenient basis for judging their neighbors.
You can see the problem. If you think clearly and read your Bible, there really isn’t much you can say about the Word of Wisdom that doesn’t sound a bit silly. My best sanity suggestion for Middle Way Mormons is to go read Leviticus 11 and say: “Well, I guess it could be worse.” Then go enjoy a meaty Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese, an obscenely unhealthy large order of fries, and a sugar-laced Coke for lunch.