Jesus used disputes over kosher law to point people to the true nature of the kingdom of God. This is a similar opportunity. Do you really want to be like Jesus? Jesus was pushy and provocative about this sort of thing.
First, I’m going to talk about the “successful failure” of the Mosaic Law, and how it is directly relevant to the debacle.
Second, I’m going to talk about how Mormon leaders and spokesmen lack integrity and are repeating the history of rabbinic absurdity and Pharisaical hypocrisy.
Third, I’m going to talk about what Jesus and Paul have to say about the matter of food, drink, and being “clean.”
Fourth, I’m going to close with a plea for Mormons (and anyone else) to repent of their religious “righteousness.”
Part 1: The Successful Failure of the Mosaic Law
There is nothing inherently wrong with esteeming a healthy lifestyle, nor anything inherently wrong with religious laws about what one can or cannot eat or drink. Our bodies are awesome machines, even God-given temples, and ought to be treated as such. And God set up kosher-boundaries around the people of Israel to give them a religious and cultural identity. So I should not dismiss Mormonism’s “Word of Wisdom” out of hand simply for telling me what I can or cannot eat. If God doesn’t want me to drink coffee, then I hope that I would be willing to give it up. If God wants me to hop on my left foot and stick to a strict diet of peanuts, then so be it.
But that isn’t the issue here. The real issue lies in the difference between the Old and New Covenant. The Old Covenant, the Law, “was our guardian [KJV: schoolmaster] until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). If you try to keep the Law — and I mean, really try to keep the whole thing — you learn how corrupt you are in the deepest parts of your heart. You will get desperate for the recreation of your own soul, and thirsty for the true water that satisfies. But if you only try to keep part of the Law, then you get a false sense of righteousness, and you get in the habit of hypocritically judging other people and making a big deal of externalities. In Christianity, we sometimes call that “legalism” or “works-righteousness.”
Paul reminds people in Galatians, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (3:10). That’s the funny thing about the Judaizers — they wanted to judge Gentile Christians with the Law of Moses, but they didn’t actually want to be held accountable for keeping the whole thing. Nuh huh, says Paul. If you want to live by the Law, then your only option is to live and die by the whole thing. Keep all of its commandments, or be cursed.
Was the Mosaic Law successful? Yes and no. It was an intentional flop. It set people up for a failure. Paul bluntly said, “The law brings wrath” (Romans 4:15). When I ask Mormons, “Why is it that the Jews failed to be justified by the Law? What is it about the Law that makes it inferior to the gospel?” The answers I get are typically, “Because it didn’t include Gentiles. It was exclusive to Jews. And it focused on the externals.”
Part of the solution that Mormonism proposes is that we covenant to keep a higher, harder, and deeper law. To keep a moral code more perfectly, more spiritually, and more internally. If we do that, so it goes, then through the atonement we can be forgiven.
But this misses the point. Paul wrote,
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:19-20)
Did you catch that? The fundamental issue isn’t that the law of circumcision excludes Gentiles, or that the Law isn’t spiritual enough. No, the fundamental issue is that the Law brings “knowledge of sin.” It shines a light on the ugliness of our heart. And that’s a big problem, because the Law requires that we be without sin. It reveals the absence of what it requires, and it cannot provide what it demands. Going to a supposed stricter, higher, deeper law doesn’t solve this problem, it only intensifies it. If you want to be judged by a stricter, higher, deeper law than the Law of Moses, then you are on your way to hell for all eternity.
The solution to our universal human problem (which the Law of Moses so ably exposed in the theater of Israel throughout redemptive history) is found at the cross. Jesus was shamefully humiliated and executed on a cross and raised three Jewish days later. All who trust in him are immediately justified, forgiven, counted righteous, counted not guilty, and given the gift of the indwelling Spirit, by faith, and faith alone. You want that gift? Then stop working for it, and start trusting God to justify the ungodly:
“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:4-5, every single reputable translation contra the JST)
“Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? (Galatians 3:2-6)
Part 2 – Rabbinic and Pharisaical Absurdity 2.0
Many Mormons will justify the modern Word of Wisdom by mentally reducing it to a mere set of health guidelines. “What’s wrong with advising people to be healthy?” Nothing. But I think you know better, don’t you? The Word of Wisdom is more than that now. In LDS culture, it has been perverted into something far beyond what it originally was.
Before we discuss the original Word of Wisdom, it would be helpful to address the issue of Mormonism’s “official madness.” As I have argued elsewhere, Mormonism waffles between minimalism and maximalism, between reduction and expansion, between looking backward and looking forward, and between obeying prophets with discretion and obeying prophets with exactness. Mormonism boasts of going beyond (and sometimes, even against) the canon, but when this puts them in hot water, they boast of only being bound to the canonized Standard Works. The former is a kind of “prima ecclesia”, the latter is a kind of “sola scriptura.”
The original Word of Wisdom in D&C 89 was a principle revealed “not by commandment or constraint” (89:2). Today, one can’t get a temple recommend if they don’t live this “non-commandment” principle. Originally, “hot drinks” really meant just that: hot drinks. Today, hot chocolate doesn’t qualify as “hot.” Originally, drinking barley beer was encouraged (17). Today, if you take D&C 89’s encouragement on that, you lose your temple recommend. Originally, meat was encouraged to only be eaten “sparingly… only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine” (12-13). Today, most Mormons simply chuckle at this.
Mormons do not take the original meaning of D&C 89 seriously, but they do take modern Mormon cultural expectations seriously. One expectation has been the avoidance of caffeine. Caffeine is branded as a “terrible substance” that “has an effect on the brain that is similar to cocaine and heroin.” And an official statement by the LDS Church reads:
“With reference to cola drinks, the Church has never officially taken a position on this matter, but the leaders of the Church have advised, and we do now specifically advise, against the use of any drink containing harmful habit-forming drugs under circumstances that would result in acquiring the habit. Any beverage that contains ingredients harmful to the body should be avoided.” (Priesthood Bulletin, Feb. 1972, p. 4.)
The suggestion is clear enough: this is a matter of unofficial rebellion.
Gordon B. Hinckley confirmed to Mike Wallace on public television that Mormons don’t drink caffeinated drinks. Within Mormon culture, some simply take it as a “higher law.” It doesn’t have to be “official” — much of spirituality and theology in Mormonism goes beyond the “official” script. Just as much as there is “unofficial” doctrine, there is “unofficial” evidence of not being TBM (true blue Mormon). What does Hyrum spike the punch with at the dance in the Single’s Ward comedy film? Mountain Dew.
LDS Living magazine admits,
“It’s been a long and heated debate among members on whether or not caffeine is against the Word of Wisdom… This is a touchy topic – many Mormons will stick to their belief of no caffeine, while others might take this as a blessing to drink Mountain Dew.”
The issue of caffeine has dwelled in this “unofficial” controversial grey area for years, and the leadership has known about it. And the truth is that they have intentionally let the self-righteous anti-caffeine crowd perpetuate. LDS apostles don’t like to rock the Mormon boat.
Which is precisely why the LDS Church softened their recent LDS Newsroom statement from this:
Despite what was reported, the Church does not prohibit the use of caffeine. The Church’s health guidelines, known in our scriptures as “the Word of Wisdom” (Doctrine and Covenants 89), prohibits alcoholic drinks, smoking or chewing of tobacco and “hot drinks” — taught by Church leaders to refer specifically to tea and coffee. The restriction does not go beyond this.
… to this:
Despite what was reported, the Church revelation spelling out health practices (Doctrine and Covenants 89) does not mention the use of caffeine. The Church’s health guidelines prohibit alcoholic drinks, smoking or chewing of tobacco, and “hot drinks” — taught by Church leaders to refer specifically to tea and coffee.
While this might seem like a trivial change, it is not. Andrew over at the New Order Mormon blog WheatAndTares.org observes:
The old version, as you can see above, differs from the new version in two relevant ways — it explicitly states that the church does not prohibit the use of caffeine, and then it explicitly states that the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom do not go beyond alcoholic beverages, smoking or chewing tobacco, and “hot drinks” (which refer specifically to tea and coffee).
The main thing that the change does effectively is that it tones down the language of “not prohibit[ing]” to the more vague (yet also completely accurate) “not mention[ing]“.
I may lack creativity, but when contrasting the two statements, the only reasonable conclusion I can come up with is that the new statement is meant to be just a tad bit more vague about the status of caffeinated beverages than the old statement is. But interestingly enough, I think I can understand precisely why the church might want to do this…
I think it more plausible that the change focuses around pushback (whether actual or even projected) from the members who do not drink caffeinated soda — and who, in fact, believe that caffeinated sodas have always been prohibited.
To these folks, the earlier statement on the Word of Wisdom would have come as a system shock. Their entire lives and beliefs regarding the Word of Wisdom were invalidated with three lines (old version). And I’m not saying that these members’ faiths would be so fragile as to be destroyed by such a change…but I think it possible that a destabilizing change could definitely cause some folks to second guess whether they have a good understanding of what is doctrine and what isn’t.
And so, for the Newsroom, it is a relatively easy fix…tone down the language to something that can be read flexibly. Now, those who find caffeinated soda OK can look at the new statement and see a statement that validates them. Those who find caffeinated soda not OK can look at the new statement and see a statement that also validates them — for even if Doctrine and Covenants 89 does not mention the use of caffeine, that’s not the same as the Church (a far wider body of doctrine) explicitly not prohibiting it.
… the church can remain relatively silent — so that when one group or another either speaks in favor of caffeinated sodas or against, it can modulate its reaction appropriately. The church, in other words, has plausible deniability as a result of ambiguous policy statements.
So there you have it: The lighthouse beacon of doctrinal clarity is actually a fog machine. And if you don’t believe me, consider the poll over at LDS Living:
“Before this announcement, did you think caffeine was okay to drink?”
Of 14,458 votes, 38% responded: “No”
“After this announcement, do you think it’s okay to drink caffeine?”
Of 14,102 votes, 33% responded: “No”
When prompted for an explanation for why BYU Dining Services does not sell caffeinated beverages at the cafeterias, spokeswoman Carri Jenkins responded,
“Dining Services has made the decision to not sell or serve caffeinated beverages on campus simply based on what our customers want or do not want.”
Uh huh. LDS scholar Kevin Barney responded with incredulity:
How can they possibly know there’s no demand if they’ve never been sold there? That’s ridiculous, everyone knows it’s a holdover from older folk views of the WoW.
I bet even Carri Jenkins knows that. BYU students, how does it feel to be lied to?
Even if this whole caffeine issue was cleared up, absurdities would remain. If you’re 500 pounds and you religiously eat at McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, you can get a temple recommend. But if you workout six days a week and treat your body like a BMW, yet have an occasional glass of wine, then you are denied a temple recommend.
Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that the Word of Wisdom is of God, we are still left with the fact that Mormonism is repeating Pharisaical history. It is going beyond its own scripture, policing who is “in” and who is “out” based on man-made restrictions. And Jesus had something to say about that kind of thing: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” (Mark 7:9) You are “making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.” (7:13)
Part 3: What You Can Pee Can’t Make You Unclean
In a currently-used LDS Institute manual, students are taught to think of Levitical dietary laws as parallel to modern LDS dietary laws:
By voluntarily abstaining from certain foods or by cooking them in a special way, obedient Israelites made a daily, personal commitment to their faith. A formal choice was made, generating quiet self-discipline. Strength came from living such a law, and vision came from understanding it. Furthermore, what we eat (embrace) or do not eat (separate ourselves from) can symbolically remind us to remain pure and keep our spirits, like our bodies, free from contamination.
Ask students what health and dietary law the Lord has given us today. Read through the Lord’s counsel in Doctrine and Covenants 89 and list on the board which substances might be called “clean” and “unclean” today. Discuss how the Word of Wisdom, unlike the dietary law given to the ancient Israelites, warns of actual health dangers and gives nutritional counsel. However, it also serves as a symbolic reminder of our covenant status, sets us apart from much of the world, and is a test of our obedience. Share your testimony of how God’s covenant people have always had special instructions to be clean.
But is that really what the New Testament teaches us? Does strength really come from living such dietary laws? Are dietary laws part of the way that Christians are supposed to set themselves apart from the world?
No. Paul warns us about such attempts:
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—’Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:20-23)
Jesus teaches about the true nature of what makes us defiled:
“What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them… Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”” (Jesus, Matthew 15:11, 18-20)
Caffeine and tea and beer don’t come from the heart. Caffeine and tea and beer are peed into a toilet. Ergo, they can’t make you unclean.
The Word of Wisdom is not wise. Jesus is wise.
In Mark 7:19, after teaching these things, the inspired narrator writes, “Thus Jesus declared all foods clean.” And we never hear of another dietary restriction again, although we are called to be sensitive to others like Jews or ex-pagans who don’t want to eat meat sacrificed to local idols (Acts 15:29; Romans 14:13-23). But not even those circumstances seem to involve people who are insisting on living dietary laws as a universal requisite for true Christian living. As D.A. Carson writes,
“If I’m called to preach the gospel among a lot of people who are cultural teetotallers, I’ll give up alcohol for the sake of the gospel. But if they start saying, ‘You cannot be a Christian and drink alcohol,’ I’ll reply, ‘Pass the port’ or ‘I’ll think I’ll have a glass of Beaujolais with my meal.'”
Part 4: Repent of Your “Righteousness”
Do you want to be forgiven, and be truly righteous from the heart? Then repent of your efforts at demonstrating “righteousness” before God and come to him as a desperate, unworthy, bankrupt beggar. You are no better than a smoking, drinking, sniffing, tattoo-plastered porn-addict. Until you realize that, the smoking, drinking, sniffing, tattoo-plastered porn-addict will be closer to the kingdom of God than you are.
Jesus showed us what it really meant to be “clean” — the kind of clean that really matters. And he fulfilled a perfect righteousness on our behalf that none of us live up to.
Caffeine and coffee should be the least of your worries. Your hands aren’t clean, your lips aren’t clean, and your heart isn’t clean. You are are a spiritual leper in need of the itinerant preacher, miracle-working Jewish exorcist from the small hick-town Bethlehem, and his name is Jesus. Stop playing with religion and get serious about a relationship with him. Hunger and thirst after true righteousness, and you will be satisfied in Christ.
If you feel the weight of this, then let me give you some practical advice on how to proceed. My pastor once gave me some good counsel: he said, “We are all hypocrites, but not everyone is a hypocrite about being a hypocrite.” Stop being a hypocritical hypocrite, and confess to God that you are a hypocrite. Tell your wife and kids, “I am not worthy, but Jesus is worthy, and he loves me.” Pray to the Father, “Love me liked you loved all the unworthy patriarchs.” Pray to Jesus, “Love me like you loved the lepers.” Pray to the Spirit, “Give me the gift of yourself, freely. I need you.”
Jesus died for religious hypocrites just like you and me. He grieves over you. “Oh Provo, Provo! Oh Salt Lake City, Salt Lake City! The cities of self-righteousness! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Let his kindness bring you to repentance. This caffeine debacle really is that serious.