by Loren Seibold  |  7 August 2020  |

Recently a friend sent me a video link to an Adventist offshoot ministry that was criticizing a recent AT Aunt Sevvy column, one where Aunty had suggested, in response to a question about lard in pie crusts, that the ceremonial food rules of Leviticus can’t be regarded as of salvific importance in the face of passages such as Matthew 15, Mark 7, and Romans 14. 

The leader’s response wasn’t unexpected, though it still takes me by surprise when someone so confidently ignores basic Biblical hermeneutics. First, he affirms that the Old Testament is fully applicable for Christians, even though I’m quite certain he doesn’t keep all of the Torah rules. Second, he ignores the New Testament passages that deal directly with Jewish food rules in favor of one that doesn’t: Acts 10:9-16.  

It’s this last I want to address. Peter’s trance has been a fly swimming in the Adventist soup for a long time, so let’s take another look at it.

The story

Cornelius, a Gentile, gets a vision in which he is told that he should look for a man named Peter to help him on the next step in his spiritual journey. God prepares Peter for this one day as he is praying on the roof of the house. 

Peter became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.

While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate.

The meaning

Let’s be clear that this message from God wasn’t primarily about food. Peter says as much when he explains to Cornelius that “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (10:28). Were it not for this pivotal moment, this crossing of the deepest and most fundamental boundary in Judaism, most of us reading this couldn’t be Christians at all. The first Christians were Jewish followers of a rabbi named Jesus. In Acts 10, we see one of the staunchest of the apostles break free from Judaism, and initiate the start of what effectively became a new world religion. 

To be blunt, we Seventh-day Adventists aren’t of the Jewish religion, and we shouldn’t act like we are. Judaism is in Christianity’s rearview mirror and has been receding from us since the cross. Only three things are still needed from the Hebrew scriptures.

First, Christianity’s background. The first Christians knew the Hebrew scriptures, quoted them and used their stories. We need to know them so we can understand Jesus and the apostles. Yes, there are lessons in these stories, though frequently we strain to make them fit into the Christian context because Jesus’ ministry was so often in contradiction to them, such as his dismissal of many aspects of the Torah law. 

Second, Christianity’s expectations. The Hebrew scriptures anticipated a superseding spiritual revolution, which was embodied in a Messiah. Those to whom the Messiah was sent didn’t accept him, but we Gentiles did. 

Third, a historical picture of God. The Torah shows how God revealed Godself to a wandering tribe of recently emancipated, uneducated slaves who had suddenly been pushed out into the desert. But we, now, are not a wandering tribe of ex-slaves. Christianity was shaped (I believe we can say, by God’s intention) by a Greek and Roman world. It has since found itself in a scientific world that would be unimaginable to the Children of Israel, and here, too, our understanding of God continues to evolve.

Christians can only view the Old Testament through the lens of the cross. Some basic principles of what God is like show through in the Hebrew Bible, but the God revealed by Jesus is strikingly different. The good news is now salvation for “every nation, kindred, tongue and people,” and it is about attitudes, not externals like circumcision and food. 

So what about food?

Peter’s trance (ἔκστασις) wasn’t primarily a lesson in diet. It was a brilliant metaphor, presented in terms that a Jewish fisherman could understand, about breaking down the boundaries between people. That’s how it should be understood, and how it should be used. Nothing external, nothing in one’s appearance or birth or background, should keep us from Christ, or out of the community of Christians. Nothing—neither a particular ethnicity, nor symbols like uncircumcision—stand in the way of it.

Some Adventist try to prove the Levitical food rules from this passage. They do this by stopping at verse 14, when Peter protests, “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” There it is! Proof that Peter, a follower of Christ, didn’t eat unclean foods, and so we shouldn’t either!

That proof is shattered if we read the next verse, though: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” 

One could argue, I think, that the voice that declared the cleansing of the Gentiles also cleansed Torah-prohibited foods. God did, after all, create those creatures that were displayed before Peter in a sheet, and that were eaten regularly by the Gentiles—even if, as many believe, not all of those foods should be eaten because they’re not healthy. Could the declaration of cleansing have applied to both the people and the food?

It’s unnecessary for us to unpack that, because Peter does it himself. In an instant, Peter’s whole view of his faith is changed. This is a serious far-reaching readjustment, admits Peter: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile.” He then invites the Gentile messengers to be guests in his Jewish home. He touches Cornelius, lifting him when Cornelius tries to bow before him. He baptizes the Gentiles. He lodges with the Gentiles for some time, and eats with them. Later, at Antioch, he shares a table with them (Galatians 2). 

In short, the sheet let down from heaven leads Peter to break the taboos of Jews associating with, touching, living with, and eating with Gentiles. While the passage never explicitly says they shared a pepperoni pizza, it’s clear that the whole body of law around eating only one’s own food with one’s own people has broken irreparably. 

And it would stay broken until Adventists repaired it, and again isolated themselves behind a border wall of, among other things, diet.

The bigger lesson

Acts 10 says there’s no ethnic or national barrier to Christ. The lesson is about with whom we associate and how. And here, we have advanced too little beyond the Pharisees. We Adventists associate mostly with Adventists. After all, we eat different things than the people out there do. We do our activities on different days than they do. Some of us even strive to look different than they do. We isolate ourselves in our own institutions.

Having separated ourselves out from the world, we have accepted separations among ourselves. White Adventists have white Adventist friends, black Adventists black Adventist friends. Conservative Adventists have conservative Adventists friends, and progressive Adventists progressive Adventist friends. Vegan Adventists have vegan Adventists friends. And so on.

Sadly, this is true all across the religious world. Protestant Christianity has been fractured by our divergent understandings of the Bible rather than drawn together by Christ. 

Body boundaries

The anthropologist Mary Douglas plops the food problem right down in the midst of the belonging question. In her well-known book Purity and Danger, she posits that religious food rules are part of a phenomenon where the physical body stands in for the group, its boundaries (entrances such as the mouth) representing the boundaries of the group. Just as you don’t take in unclean food, you don’t take unclean people into the group.

When I read that, I understood it immediately. What do we ask people to do when they join the church? Give up unclean meats, tobacco and alcohol, and by these actions declare themselves part of the group. Baptism isn’t enough: unclean people must clean themselves up before they can fully belong! And once we are members, how do we identify one another, and evaluate one another’s orthodoxy? By what we eat and wear and how we look—body things, all. 

That’s precisely what Acts 10 was meant to change. With Peter’s trance, boundaries to belonging were broken down, breached, erased, done away with. Ever since, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” No longer is there, in Paul’s world, a Jewish table and a Gentile table. To maintain a separate table, insists Paul in Galatians 2, is to deny the saving power of Jesus Christ.

The health pretext

I suspect that most Adventists haven’t thought about the reasons for not eating what Ellen White called “swine’s flesh” beyond that somewhere in the Good Book God said not to. Those who have contemplated the Torahic origin of these rules, and how only this one chapter of Leviticus gets grandfathered into Adventist Christianity, fall back on the justification of health. 

This becomes very confusing for Seventh-day Adventists. No, not everything you can eat is good for you. But for Adventists the two reasons—Leviticus 11 and health—are rather conveniently entangled, and we switch between them, sort of like having two shirts and changing into the cleaner of them as necessary. 

(For an interesting discussion, put this problem to your Sabbath School class. Two men go out to eat. One orders 48 oz. of rare beefsteak. The other orders the split pea soup that has tiny amounts of ham in it. Which man is doing what God wants? Watch them tie themselves into knots.)

But the real reason for shunning certain foods, the one that’s implied in Acts 10, we never explicitly admit: that it sets us apart from others in a way that makes us feel special and superior. That it defines who we are as opposed to those others who are less pure than we are. That it shows who’s in and who’s out. For all the talk about health, food laws have been about who we are and whom we associate with, not how well our body works. 

We don’t even need to call upon Peter’s trance to prove the disdain that both Jesus and Paul had for the notion that eating the right food and not eating the wrong food is what earns us God’s favor. No, Matthew 15 wasn’t only about washing hands—or why did Jesus even bring up food at all? Why, in Mark 7, did he talk about food going through the digestive tract and into the latrine, if he only meant to say we didn’t need to wash our hands? 

Why did Paul say in Romans 14 that the kingdom of heaven isn’t food or drink, but “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost,” and add that we shouldn’t criticize people’s food at all? (Adventist apologists say that in the context it’s about food offered to idols—though it amuses me that we who are so ready to use passages such as Isaiah 28:10 and Ecclesiastes 9:5 in lonely isolation are suddenly terribly concerned about context. To be clear, in Romans 14 Paul is talking about a whole lot more than food offered to idols, and to deny that shows our willingness to ignore hermeneutics to advance doctrine.) 

Why this matters

I’ve made these arguments before, not because food is so important but because the gospel is. I’m tired of substitutes for the Good News. I’m sick of the way these rules make God look as petty and as immature as the weakest and least thoughtful among us. 

Enough, Adventist friends. Let’s start seeing God as a grown-up who cares about the world’s big problems, not a fussy old busybody examining Seventh-day Adventist plates while other people don’t have enough of anything to eat. In the troubled world we now live in, we Christians have bigger fish to fry.

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Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

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