Seventh-day Adventists are a unique group among Christians (generally speaking) because they have stricter standards about food. While many Adventists choose to be vegetarian or vegan for health reasons, the baseline requirement is that those who do eat meat only eat the clean meats, which means rejecting the unclean animals listed in Leviticus 11. Many other Christians have criticized Seventh-day Adventists for being "legalistic" because of these standards.
But while this is certainly a fairly uncommon trait, and one that has seen tangible, objective health benefits for Adventists, there seems to be a lack of engagement with the full implications of all the Biblical teaching on food, health, and purity - even within Adventist ranks. So much of Adventist understanding is based on the writings of Church founder Ellen G. White and the science behind the positive health results that Adventist people experience from having a more careful diet. If we step back from those things, what can be clearly established from the Bible?
Christians have struggled with how to decide what behavior and activities are or are not acceptable since the church’s beginnings - not just with regard to food. Today, bloggers and theologians alike debate bikinis, tattoos, and rock music, desperate to decide what counts as acceptable for Christians. Entire websites are dedicated to cataloguing every gunshot, swear word, and glass of wine in movies and TV shows to help discerning viewers locate content that fits their Christian standards. Within the Adventist church alone, people disagree over drinking coffee, going to movie theaters, wearing jewelry, and dancing.
Proponents of more censure often quote Philippians 4:8 – “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (NIV). To them - this sets up a clear category of things that belong in Christian life, perhaps ignoring how much of the Bible itself would need to be disqualified on account of not being "pure and lovely."
Their opponents counter with open-ended verses like Titus 1:15 – “Everything is pure to those whose hearts are pure. But nothing is pure to those who are corrupt and unbelieving, because their minds and consciences are corrupted” (NLT). To this group, more restrictive Christians have missed out on the kind of freedom that is afforded to them by the gospel. People of this perspective may be missing out on the situational context of this statement, since the Bible does clearly make moral pronouncements outside of this statement that definitely make some things universally impure.
In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul had to settle a number of disputes, but the topic of one stands out: meat. In 1 Corinthians 8, we learn that some church members had been eating meat that had previously been sacrificed to idols. Other new converts were distressed by this, and interpreted it as implied worship of the pagan gods the idols represented.
Eating this meat isn’t sinful, Paul reassures his friends, because the gods it was sacrificed aren’t real, and the believers know this. “It’s true that we can’t win God’s approval by what we eat,” he writes. “We don’t lose anything if we don’t eat it, and we don’t gain anything if we do” (8:8 NIV). At the same time, he cautions, believers with weaker faith might see fellow Christians eating this meat and take it as an endorsement of worshipping idols. “You must be careful so that your freedom does not cause others with a weaker conscience to stumble,” Paul cautions (8:9 NIV).
Two chapters later, Paul returns to this point, laying out a principle for Christian consumption – of both meat and culture. “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’ – but not everything is constructive” (10:23 NIV). Believers can experience much of the world around them without worshiping it or giving it power over them, but if it damages their or their peers’ spiritual lives, then it is a negative influence.
There are numerous other passages in the New Testament dealing with food - sometimes regarding early church disagreements between Jews and Gentiles, sometimes in contexts where various Greek philosophies are influencing people into extreme diets, and sometimes where Jesus himself is confronting the traditions of the Pharisees. We have to be careful - both in reading the Bible and in dealing with people - that we take context, motivations, previous relevant scriptures, and broader scriptural principles into consideration when addressing these kinds of questions.
How do we cultivate discernment skills, so as to be able to encounter the world around us without it controlling us? There’s an English proverb that warns that “one drop of poison infects the whole barrel of wine.” I have a relative who once said something similar – about Finding Nemo. “This movie may seem positive and innocent,” he warned, “but if there’s even one negative thing in it, it’s distracting you from God. It only takes a little bit of poison to kill you.”
How do we strike a balance between embracing everything around us and shutting the world out? How do we distinguish between what is permissible and what is beneficial? Especially when it comes to food, an we know from scripture what God permits and does not permit? And do these principles apply to other areas in life?
Related texts or passages to consider: Psalms 24:1-2; Acts 10:9-23; Galatians 6:12-16;
Read Romans 14:1-15:7. What does this passage seem to say about food? Is Paul dealing with clean and unclean foods here, or some other issues?
What do you think it means when Paul says "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean" in Romans 14:14? (ESV)
Watch this video on Leviticus from The Bible Project. According to them, is it sinful to be ceremonially unclean? Does this principle apply to foods as well, or not? What evidence from scripture can you present to back up your point?
Read Matthew 15:10-20. Jesus is speaking with the Pharisees here. What does Jesus say about foods not making someone unclean? Compare this with the conversation recorded in Mark 7:14-23. What do these discourses have in common? What is different? What is the overall point that Jesus is making, and can his words be reconciled with a continued recognition that some foods are unclean for Christians? Why or why not?
During his ministry, Jesus allowed himself to be touched by a woman who had a chronic menstrual disorder (Matthew 9:20–22, Mark 5:25–34, Luke 8:43–48), touched a man who had leprosy, an infectious skin disease (Matthew 8:1-4, cf. Leviticus 13), and touched the body of a dead boy (Luke 7:11-17). In all of these cases, Jesus touches someone who should have made Him unclean, but instead his power heals and restores them to full life. What does this say about Jesus' attitude towards ceremonial uncleanness? Does this change anything about how God's people should think about unclean food? Why or why not?
To help you answer the last question, watch this video on Holiness from the Bible project. What does it tell us about being clean or unclean?
Do you think these passages like Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10 can be applied to other issues in life besides just food? What about music, movies, symbols, activities, or even people? How should one apply (or not apply) these principles to those areas?
Should churches bow to the demands of the most conservative members? Conversely, should Christians request that those around them change their behavior to make them comfortable? For example, if you don’t drink and your relatives do, should you request that they not drink around you? How does Romans 14:13-23 apply to such a situation?
How do we define what is beneficial? Can an attitude of “everything is permissible” lead easily into justification of bad behavior?
Read Ecclesiastes 7:15-18. What does this passage mean and how is it relevant to our current topic? What does it mean to be "overly righteous" and how might that lead someone to "destroy themselves?" Compare this with Colossians 2:18-23 for more details.