by Loren Seibold | 25 December 2020
Perhaps my very first experience of standing for truth though the heavens fall began with standing on my tiptoes at the school lunch counter at the Gackle, North Dakota, public school, my first day of first grade. I peered up at the cook, my heart pounding, and said (as my mother had schooled me the day before), “I’m a Seventh-day Adventist boy, and my religion says I can’t eat anything that has pig meat in it.” The cook (a large German woman who already knew who I was, because the community was very small) laughed and said, “OK, Seventh-day Adventist boy. I’ll make sure you don’t.”
It wasn’t until I was farther along in school that I read Romans 14:17. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” It seemed rather straightforward, and it still does.
But when I asked about it, my academy teacher told me that the passage was about food offered to idols, as though that canceled the plain meaning. When I voiced that, he replied that well, technically we’re not saved by the food we eat, but by our obedience to Leviticus 11 and Ellen White, which amounts to the same thing.
This is a common theology among us Adventists, but an exceedingly flimsy one. First, because it relies on diverting a bit of Torah around the cross and applying it erroneously to the New Testament era. Second, because both Jesus and Paul denounced the idea that salvation is based on either food or rule-following. And third, it requires that you let Ellen White interpret the Bible for you.
In short, you have to pull some texts out of context, ignore others, and patch in extra-biblical sources to make the case for righteousness by food. The oft-used “your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:9) is, in context, about visiting Corinthian temple prostitutes. And as for “whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever you do, do it all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:1)—Adventists who quote this invariably place all of the emphasis on eating and drinking, and little on the rest of “whatsoever you do.”
What it’s really about
“Yes, but this is about health!” I hear people say. That’s a convenient reason, but in actual Adventist practice, it’s traditionally not been health that we seek from either Leviticus 11 or Ellen White’s vegetarianism.
I remember a lecture in seminary by one of the denomination’s most famous evangelists, who taught us how to explain the clean-unclean meats to new converts in terms of the health message. He ended the lecture by saying, “And as for me, I’d rather starve to death than eat one bite of unclean meat.” Which prompted in me the thought: “And how would starving to death make you healthier?” He showed that he wanted to externalize his faith, making it something simple and doable “out there” rather than something challenging but rewarding “in here.”
It’s this—not food—that causes me to call this the text that Adventists most need to understand. Because Romans 14:17 is not about food. It’s about how we make faith into a set of simple doables that get us off the hook for anything really soul-remodeling and life-changing.
Food, we know from the New Testament, was one of the early Christian conflicts, mostly because the first Christians were Jews with lots of food hangups. But even after that faded, we Christians always came up with something external to use as a substitute for the more uncomfortable demands of Christianity.
For Roman Catholics it became about ingesting that blessed bread and wine. The old-world Protestants went for creeds and confessions. New-world Protestants stressed various kinds of personal piety. Mid-19th-century American-born religions like Mormons and Adventists brought back rules having to do with appearance, diet, and what we’re allowed to do at certain times of the week. Modern evangelicals make capitalism and abolishing abortion the apices of all goodness, though some have gone so far as to fantasize about a modern-day sharia law-like theocracy that puts women in their place and executes gay people. And slipped in there are some really bizarre manifestations, such as the Appalachian snake-handlers and poison-drinkers.
True religion is not those things. True religion is a consecrated heart that leads us to treat others with goodness and kindness. Of course, no one will ever behave perfectly, but the behavior that Jesus taught was a lot harder than checking the ingredient list on your box of crackers. It was about behaving like Jesus: doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly, which is too little practiced nowadays, even among Christians.
And that means being challenged by the Holy Spirit to do some very hard things—attitude changes way more difficult, even, than becoming a full-on raw-food vegan.
Righteousness, peace and joy
The end of this passage, I would argue, is much more important than the first clause. The first part tells us what the kingdom of God isn’t. The latter part tells us the end result of real Christianity: righteousness, peace, and joy.
As I look back at my career as a pastor, I realize that so many of the things I should have been—an evangelist with many baptisms, a well-organized church administrator, an eschatologist, a local promoter of denominational priorities—I wasn’t. The proof that I wasn’t one of the great pastors of the church is that I didn’t rise to what most Adventist pastors dream of being: a fat guy in a charcoal suit who works out of an administrative office. I ended my career (I say with some pride) among six small congregations in Appalachia.
But there is something I can affirm that I tried to do, and achieved most of the time: I tried to keep people focused on a faith that would do them good. A faith that reflected the character of a good God. That challenged them to be better, happier, stronger, and less conflicted. I tried to turn them from the evangelistic tropes that externalized their faith, that made faith in God into food, eschatology, and perfect Adventist rule-keeping. I tried to direct them back to Jesus.
I hate the parts of my religion that frighten people, that place useless demands on them. I have much to thank my Seventh-day Adventist faith for, but I will fight to my last breath to strip from it the anti-righteousness, anti-peace, anti-joy rubbish, the things that make us shallow and judgmental rather than careful and kind. There is no righteousness in food. There is no peace in a fearful eschatology. There is no joy in communities critical and hateful of those who are different from them.
(One of the reasons I joined Glendale City Church when I retired, though I don’t live in California, is because this congregation has proven in at least one important way that you courageously embrace people who are usually pushed out of the Adventist community. Thank you!)
In this world you will have trouble. Jesus said that, not me. He went on to add, however, that he has overcome the world. That doesn’t mean we won’t still have trouble, but he points us in the direction of being better, more resilient, happier people because of our faith. In other words: righteousness, peace, and joy.
If your faith doesn’t bring you righteousness, peace and joy, then you’ve got the wrong faith. Find one that does.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.