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Clean and Unclean, Inside and Out


The teaching and practice concerning clean and unclean meats has been a remarkably enduring element of Seventh-day Adventism. I don’t know what the younger generation of Seventh-day Adventists thinks (what there is left of a younger generation to ask), but among their elders, it still has fuel. Ask most Adventists what makes us special, and diet will be on the list. It isn’t at all unusual to hear someone who’s been absent from the church for decades say, “… but, in all these years, pastor, I’ve never eaten pork.” If people outside our community know anything about us, they’re also likely to identify diet as something that sets us apart.

The clean-unclean meats doctrine hasn’t a long history: it doesn’t appear in our fundamental beliefs list until after Ellen White’s death. (Ellen White seems to have mostly skipped the Leviticus 11 discussion and jumped directly to vegetarianism.) Biblically, it originates on the far side of the cross, in the context of rituals having to do with childbirth purification and skin diseases that it has never crossed our minds to enforce. Both Jesus and Paul dismissed the idea that what you eat has spiritual significance. Jesus helpfully observed that food goes in the mouth and once digested goes out of the body (“into the draught,” the KJV tactfully puts it), while nasty words and actions bubble out from the deepest part of us. When Paul says “But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do,” (1 Corinthians 8:8) how can that be read as anything but a complete repudiation of righteousness by food?[1]

The good Adventist will here jump in to say, “Yes, but it’s really about health.” That’s how our 22nd Fundamental Belief, entitled “Christian Behavior,” describes it. “It also means that because our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit, we are to care for them intelligently. Along with adequate exercise and rest, we are to adopt the most healthful diet possible and abstain from the unclean foods identified in the Scriptures.”

But in practice only the clause after the last “and” counts. If I were 400 pounds, bone idle, and lived on buttered potato chips, you might pity me, but you’d not disfellowship me. But if I were caught eating a bacon sandwich, even if I were a long-distance runner, the average congregation would regard that in quite a different light. I would be a bad Seventh-day Adventist if I ordered a cup of the lobster bisque, but I could still keep my church offices if I attempted the 80 ounce steak challenge.

So let’s just admit that the Seventh-day Adventist rules regarding food as we practice them now are more about spiritual defilement than health. Our spiritual identity in this area isn’t about caring for our bodies intelligently (or we wouldn’t have so many fat members) but avoiding impure foods.

If intelligent care of the body is the goal, the case for vegetarianism as made by Ellen White, backed up as it is by moral, economic and scientific arguments, is much stronger than the Biblical case for clean meats. But vegetarianism is far from a total health regimen. For that you’d have to exercise, limit sugars and fats, and add a heavy dose of fruits, nuts and vegetables—plus a host of other constantly evolving things. Applying these as doctrinal practices would be difficult, whether we’d enforce them from the results side (church discipline for people with a high BMI or high blood pressure) or the behavior side (pastors checking refrigerators for Pepsi and meat, or requiring an exercise journal).

And after reading Purity and Danger by anthropologist Mary Douglas I think it would be missing the point anyway. She shows that the reason clean-unclean food rules have so much power is not their value to one’s physical body, but because the human body serves as an image of the social system. Anthropologist James Aho explains that “According to Douglas, personal body margins are analogous to social margins; and orifices, their exuviae and infusions, to society’s ‘specially vulnerable points’ [121]”. Aho concludes that “the experience of our personal bodies reflects the workings of our societal arrangements.”

“In particular, I take our private exit and entry zones, our orifices, to stand for the doorways out of and penetration routes into the social bodies of which we are members. And further, I interpret the disciplines imposed on eye, mouth, anus, genitals, ear, nose and pore to symbolize efforts by groups to stave off contamination, invasion, or absorption by other groups.”[2]

Naturally the more restrictions a group places on individual behavior, the harder a group is to enter. Have you heard people say (generally with pride), “The Seventh-day Adventist church doesn’t add members like some others do because we require so much more of them”? You can join some churches simply by confessing Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. We check you for alcohol, tobacco, unclean meats and jewelry. In terms of body margins and orifices, consider our restrictions on marrying an Adventist to a non-Adventist (an entry, to both kinds of body, by someone from the outside). The prohibition on dancing says that we don’t like the physical body or the social body to be loose, free, out of rational control. Piercing ears, covering arms and legs, listening to popular music—traditional Adventist restrictions, even if they have moral reasons, also regulate group membership.

You can draw this out farther, this reflection of the physical body in the body religious. I know of a congregation that doesn’t eat together. Different members give reasons both theological (1 Corinthians 11:22) and physical (no kitchen or dining area), but there’s a sort of reflection in the body of the congregation: no one enters the group, and their biggest change in the past ten years has been losing about 2/3 of the members. In general it’s been my experience that the happier the church, the better the potluck Sabbath lunch. Or perhaps the better the potluck lunch, the happier the church. (This is far from scientific, but I ran it by some of my friends, who agreed.)

There’s value to body disciplines in religion. They can be spiritual anchors, spiritual reminders. Prayer and meditation often make use of physical disciplines like fasting or postures. And people like to belong to a group that sets them apart, that demands something manageable of them. The persistence of the Adventist diet among otherwise non-practicing Adventists shows how psychologically strong it is, as a reminder of the rest of the things they used to do and believe.

Still, it seems to me that our goal as Christians is a deeper, organic, kind of faith—what Jeremiah (31:33) and Paul (Romans 2:15) meant by writing the law in your heart, and Jesus by defining a mature faith as one that comes from inside, and whose deepest drive is to do good to others (Matthew 25:31-46). With a few exceptions, the people I’ve known most strict about diet have also been the least merciful and accepting, as if they no longer have to work on basic things like kindness and patience because they qualify for salvation with food.

The practical question is whether our body disciplines represent a desire to keep people out of our fellowship, rather than welcome them in. We hear a lot about congregations that are unfriendly and unhelpful, that are unable to welcome new members. It might be well to remember what Paul says about citizenship in God’s kingdom: “For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17, New Living Translation).


Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.

[1] Modern translations of Mark 7:19 aren’t necessarily correct when they have Mark adding parenthetically that Jesus declared all foods clean. First, that involves adding Jesus as the subject of a separate sentence ending with “καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματα”  (“cleansing all foods”), rather than it being the final clause of Jesus’ sentence. Second, the phrase as it stands makes logical sense if you use the meaning of καθαρίζω as a sort of refining; the body scrubs out of food the nourishment it needs, and casts the rest away as waste. This doesn’t change the import of the story in context, though: that Jesus didn’t see food rituals of any kind as a way to get right with God.

Some say that Jesus was only talking about hand washing, and Paul only about food offered to idols. But there are logical holes in this big enough to toss a suckling pig through. If Jesus only meant to set aside Pharisaical hand-washing, why did he declare that nothing taken in to the body was spiritually defiling? Why did he bring up food at all? As for Paul, if he were only concerned about food offered to idols, why did he conclude by talking about foods that make us no better if we eat them and no worse if we don’t—neither of which applied to idol-sacrificed foods? Both Jesus and Paul were drawing larger principles from specific situations.

[2]James Alfred Aho, The Orifice as Sacrificial Site: Culture, Organization, and the Body. New York, Water de Gruyter, Inc., 2002.

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