Questions & Answers

Unclean Meat and Sin

Francis D. Nichol was editor of the Adventist Review. This article was taken from his book Answers to Objections, pp. 352-353.

Occasionally someone writes to raise the question:

"Does the denomination teach that it is a sin to eat unclean meats?" Or this question: "We do not make the eating of swine's flesh a test of fellowship; can we therefore make the eating of pork a sin?" Or again: "Would we never, under any circumstance, be justified in eating pork, even if our life depended upon it?"

The denomination holds that the prohibition of "unclean" meats, as formally set forth in Leviticus 11, is not a ceremonial one, uniquely and exclusively belonging to the Jewish dispensation, and therefore that it is still in force in our day. There are at least three reasons why Adventists thus view this prohibition: First, there is nothing in the wording of this divine ban to suggest that the prohibition is a ceremonial one. Second, the distinction between "clean beasts" and "beasts that are not clean" (Gen. 7:8) was expressly set down by God long before there was a Jewish race. Third, God is described as having an abhorrence of unclean meats at the end of time, long after the Jewish ceremonial statutes have expired. Note the words of Isaiah 66:1 7: "They that sanctify themselves, and purify themselves in the gardens behind one tree in the midst, eating swine's flesh, and the abomination, and the mouse, shall be consumed together, saith the Lord."

Consistent with this view the denomination, in its "Doctrinal Instruction for Baptismal Candidates," lists the following among the distinctive Adventist teachings that the candidate should clearly understand and accept: "The Christian should recognize his body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. Therefore he should honor God by caring for his body, abstaining from such things as alcoholic beverages, tobacco in all its forms, and from all unclean foods" Church Manual (1951 ed.), p. 54. Almost exactly the same language is included in the Baptismal Vow that candidates are called upon to take before the whole church immediately preceding their baptism and admission to the church. See Church Manual, p. 57.

Now, it is true that though the church explicitly calls upon the baptismal candidate to abstain from all unclean meats, it does not disfellowship a member for falling back into the practice of eating such meats. The Church Manual, which authoritatively sets forth denominational teachings and practices, lists seven specific "grievous sins" for which a member may be disfellowshiped (see pages 224, 225), but eating unclean meats is not one of the seven.

To some, this fact may seem an evidence of inconsistency. We think, rather, that it is an evidence of the mercy and compassion of the church. It is one thing to call upon a candidate to order his life according to a certain code; it is something else to dismiss him because he failed after becoming a member.

But let no one hasten to conclude that because the church, mercifully conscious of the frailties of its members, does not dismiss them for failing to live up to all they vowed, therefore those points on which they failed are inconsequential. Let us cite an undebatable exhibit in illustration: The church calls upon the baptismal candidate to give obedience to the law of the tithe, and rightly so, for the Lord declares that those who hold back the tithe "rob" Him (see Mal. 3:8-11). But the church member who stops paying tithe is not therefore subject to expulsion from the church. However, he is properly the object of serious and earnest labor. And, of course, the same is true of the one who returns to eating "unclean" meats.

There are some matters on which we believe that the best interests of the individual member and of the church as a whole are served by leaving the judgment in the case to God alone. Both the eating of unclean meats and the failure to pay tithe we place in that category. But, we repeat, this fact does not justify anyone's concluding that the church considers these acts of minor importance. Undoubtedly, we all will agree that a failure to pay tithe, for example, is a sin against God. And why? Because such a failure is disobedience of an express command of God.

I have always hesitated to place the label "sin" on any act that the Bible does not explicitly thus label. In this sorry old world we have already too many sins without self-righteous people inventing any more. But it is always proper to call most sober attention to the grievousness of any course of action that flies in the face of a divine command. Doubtless one would not have to search far in our denominational literature to find the eating of unclean foods labeled a "sin." Nor would I know how, successfully, to challenge the label. The day we say that it is sinful to disobey some of God's commands, but not other of His commands, we take an untenable position.

One more question remains for consideration. "Would we never, under any circumstance, be justified in eating pork, even if our life depended upon it?" The fact that there might be a possible exception to a command should never be used as an argument to weaken the command. The fourth precept of the Decalogue categorically declares that on the Sabbath day we should "not do any work." But we know that there are lawful exceptions. The eighth command forbids stealing, yet a hungry person passing through a field might, with impunity, pluck sufficient food to relieve his hunger.

Whether, under some abnormal condition, an exception might properly be made in regard to the prohibition of unclean foods, I am not able to say. No power resides in me to grant indulgences or exemptions. I believe that those who find themselves in dire circumstances must discover the possible exception to this or any other particular command, in prayer to God.

Let us never forget that we walk a treacherous path when we seek to discover a working policy for our routine living in terms of some direful and wholly abnormal situation. We should seek first to settle the basic questions at issue by the light shining from the Holy Word, rather than by the murky and distorting rays of a singular situation. When we have established the principles involved and the normal course we should follow, then let us leave to God and the future the answering of questions as to what we should do in unusual and desperate circumstances.

Those who do not wish to give obedience to the Sabbath command like to raise the question as to how the Sabbath could be faithfully kept at the North Pole, for example. They want to know just how the Eskimos would keep it. I have always replied that we should not go to the Eskimos but to the prophets for our basic belief on the Sabbath. Having established that, we should seek to discover, by God's grace, the answer to difficult problems that may present themselves in obeying the fourth command under singular circumstances. The same reasoning holds in the present instance.

Francis D. Nichol was editor of the Adventist Review. This article was taken from his book Answers to Objections, pp. 352-353.