By Loren Seibold | 10 December 2021 |
Ponder for a moment about how much we Seventh-day Adventists have cooked and eaten and talked around the assumption that God is anxiously exacting about matters of food, more preoccupied about what goes into our mouths than about almost any other life decision that we make.
It wasn’t until this latter part of my life that I came to understand that the reason for our fixation with food wasn’t health or Divine commands, but social cohesion. Anthropologist James Aho says that “According to [Mary] Douglas, personal body margins are analogous to social margins; and orifices, their exuviae and infusions, to society’s ‘specially vulnerable points.’” Aho concludes that “the experience of our personal bodies reflects the workings of our societal arrangements.”
So if you want to understand food rules, don’t try to explain why a sliver of lobster meat will assure you are incinerated by God, but you would waltz into the pearly gates if you’d choked to death on an insufficiently chewed chunk of rare beefsteak.
Understand instead that the more restrictions a group places on individual behavior, the harder the group is to enter, and the easier to draw boundaries around ourselves and to identify one another. Food is about group boundaries and belonging.
We Adventists have had to explain away many New Testament texts in order to maintain the picture of a God who is an obsessed dietitian—even if it means that people who may not have enough “approved” food to eat would have to go hungry.
Over the years I have tried, in a series of essays, to show how Leviticus 11 is subject to a full theological assault by both Jesus and Paul. Food, they said repeatedly, not only doesn’t save you, but has no effect upon God’s regard for you. Jesus used the Pharisees’ concern with hand-washing as an opportunity to say that food doesn’t make God love you any more or less. Paul said the same about food offered to idols: it makes no difference, he said, except if it offends the spiritual babies among us. Peter’s experience with the sheet let down from heaven makes Mary Douglas’s point perfectly: it’s about people, not food.
So here I discuss two more texts that are used to address this topic—both of which are regularly pulled out of context in a misguided attempt to say that God is as concerned about the content of our stomachs as he is the state of our souls.
1 Corinthians 10:31: So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
If you have been subjected to either Adventist education or Adventist evangelism, you have had this text quoted at you to say that you bring glory to God by eating only clean meats (or no meat at all) and avoiding certain drinks, which in our context includes caffeinated beverages as well as alcohol.
I must hasten to say (because I know how quickly some jump to conclusions) that I am not advocating eating or drinking or otherwise ingesting unhealthy substances. The question is whether that was what Paul was actually instructing us about in this passage.
All Bible readers know that the Jewish religious system had made food and drink a major item of spiritual behavior—not just the foods prohibited in Leviticus, but food bought in the Roman markets from pagan merchants whose wares were overseen by shrines to their deities.
Paul, just like Jesus in Mark 7 and Matthew 15, said that food was just food, a cause of neither sacredness nor pollution—even, said Paul, if had been offered to idols, for “We know that ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’” (1 Corinthians 8:4). Consequently,
Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience.
There is one caveat, however, and it is the reason for this passage: if a baby believer retains convictions about food, you ought to try not to upend their baby faith by what you eat or drink in front of them. Though Paul protests that this really shouldn’t be necessary, for “why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience?” he insists that we must not throw these infants a curveball:
Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God.
The passage says nothing about what you eat or drink. It says,
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
In this text Paul is not admonishing us to be disciplined eaters, or even complimenting disciplined eaters. He in fact thinks these fussy eaters are weak and immature.
God’s glory is neither enhanced nor diminished by the food itself, but by how you act toward the immature Christian Pharisees with whom you will sometimes find yourself eating. It is not what you eat or drink, but how sensitive you are to the immature others in your company. If you are eating with most Adventists, you are probably at table with weak Christians who falsely imagine themselves strong. We Adventists, who are so hung up on food, are by Paul’s definition immature Christians—and we take pride in our immaturity!
But if you love your dinner companions, as you ought to, you give up your freedom to eat what, if you were alone or with strong Christians, you would receive with thanksgiving. For as Paul says, “If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?”
In short, you may have good reasons for eating certain things and not others (and health is certainly a good reason), but this text says it isn’t the eating that puts you at spiritual risk. Your food choices aren’t threatening your own salvation.
Paul lays on us one responsibility in this passage, and only one: not to upset weak and judgmental spiritual babies. One would suppose that he would expect them eventually to grow up and quit judging others, as he did Peter in Galatians 2:11-13. But he doesn’t clarify that here.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20: Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
While there is much in the Bible—especially the Old Testament—about food, there is in fact almost nothing in either testament specifically about health as we define it now, with its nutritional, lifestyle and medical aspects.
Yet in my academy Bible classes, and in most of the evangelistic series and Bible studies I’ve been involved in, the above memory verse was employed for that purpose. It appears to refer to the specialness of the human body, and how God’s Spirit manifests through your body. My Bible teacher explained that if we eat unclean meats and drink coffee or beer or take drugs, we become unhealthy and our minds are dulled, and we inhibit the Holy Spirit’s communication with us.
At least in the matter of alcohol and drugs he was undoubtedly right, and I thank him for the warning. Again: there is no reason to ingest things that threaten your health or cause you to act stupid.
But this passage has no application to the Adventist health message. None. It is a casebook example of removing a passage from its context to make a point that the Bible writer did not intend. So what is it about?
Not to put too fine a point on it: it’s about having sex with prostitutes.
On a bluff above Corinth was the temple to the city’s patron deity Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sex. According to the geographer Strabo,
The temple of Aphrodite was so rich that it owned more than a thousand temple slaves, courtesans, whom both men and women had dedicated to the goddess. And therefore it was also on account of these women that the city was crowded with people and grew rich; for instance, the ship captains freely squandered their money…
And, apparently, so did some Christians. Which is why Paul writes,
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit (vss. 15-17).
This passage is about how the spiritual union of husband and wife in marriage is damaged by fornication, and (remembering that Christ’s body is the church) how whoremongering ultimately hurts the whole church.
You may think that it works nicely as an encouragement to be healthy. But you are using it for a quite different purpose than Paul meant it to be used.
Out of context
We often pull passages out of context. We quote a phrase from a song, or a line from a poem, and it clarifies or comforts. It says what we wish we could say, but better. We repeat pithy proverbs, passed down generation to generation, with no knowledge of what they meant originally.
We do that with the Bible, too, with favorite passages of comfort from the gospels or the psalms. We probably have the right to do some personal application of apt words. W.H. Auden wrote at the death of William Butler Yeats, “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.” So with the Bible.
But it seems to me that it is something quite different when we use texts to dictate doctrines that demand others conform to what we think God wants them to be, what their relationship to us is, and whether we will accept them or treat them as “other.”
Again, food is a cultural marker that divides those who eat a certain way from those who eat differently. It worked that way for the Jews, and it has worked in a similar way among us: even ex-Adventists remember those food rules long after they’ve left our company. And as long as it is clearly understood to be a cultural marker, as long as we don’t use it to exclude people, it isn’t necessarily harmful. We can say “Vegetarian potluck dinners aren’t a salvation issue; this is simply how our church family does things.”
Yet none of these are requirements placed upon us by our Christian Bible. And it has never ceased to astonish me how we Adventists have managed to explain away every passage in the New Testament—and there are many—that contradicts the righteousness-by-food emphasis of the Pharisees.
Let me say (for the third time here) that I am not saying that anything you take into your mouth is good for you. There is spiritual value in good health. But I remind you again that the preoccupation with a perfect diet as a sign of spirituality in the Jewish system doesn’t transfer over into the Christian era. Jesus and Paul both fought against that teaching, and for too long we have ignored the New Testament texts that say that.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.