In a sermon clip recently posted on CanonWired.com, renowned Reformed pastor Doug Wilson asserts, “The Triune God of Scripture doesn’t care. Bacon is fine. . . . Oysters are fine. Refined sugar is fine. Processed stuff made out of something that used to be like corn is fine . . . As far as God’s concerned, Fairtrade coffee is fine, rip-off trade coffee is fine . . . God doesn’t care what’s on the plate, God cares what’s in the heart.” This might at first seem strange to anyone familiar with much of Wilson’s other teaching on theology and cultural issues, in which he is fond of saying that “theology should come out your fingertips” and insistent on applying Reformed Christianity to everything from teaching mathematics to dancing. In fact, however, it represents but another installment in Wilson’s ongoing crusade against the ethical food movement. My point here, however, is not so much to directly engage Wilson on this issue, but to use this clip as an opportunity to reflect on what the doctrine of adiaphora and Christian liberty really means, and how it might afford clarity for us on this vexed topic.
The doctrine of Christian liberty is commonly invoked in many contexts to tell Christians to bug off and stop being judgmental, not to lay down Pharisaical burdens beyond what God himself requires. And often, there is a good reason for this. Legalism is a perennial temptation, and many sectors of evangelical and Reformed churches are heavily weighed down by it. And yet, we must always take care that the call not to be judgmental does not become an excuse not to exercise judgment. The fact that God does not require something does not mean we can check our consciences at the door and any choice is as good as any other. There is no escape from the need for moral thinking.
So what might it meant to say that God doesn’t care about food? Well, in classical Protestant terminology, what Wilson is saying is that what we eat is adiaphora. However, there are at least two different ways of parsing that. On the one hand, we might mean that God does not require it in the sense of making it necessary to our salvation, to the state of our soul or our ability to have a relationship with him. From God’s standpoint, all who are in Christ have Christ’s righteousness, and their foibles–even quite massive ones–do not change that fact. Even the drunkard, the adulterer, the thief, yea, even the murderer, may enter the kingdom in heaven if they put their trust in Christ alone. In this sense, one might say that God requires very little. But we mustn’t push this antinomian line too far. God doesn’t just care that we get to heaven by the skin of our teeth. He cares that we live well, for our own sake and for the sake of his other creatures around us. And so there are many things God wants us to do and many things he wants us not to do, if we are love ourselves, our neighbours, and our creation rightly. Many of these things he commands or forbids in Scripture, and in this sense, God requires of us rather more than he requires. Adiaphora, on this second perspective, are those things that God neither commands nor forbids in Scripture. In this sense as well, we might reasonably say that “God doesn’t care” what we wear, for instance, since he tells us little or nothing on the subject in Scripture.
And yet, we would want to be cautious about this “doesn’t care.” Is it a neutral matter if Christian women go around dressed like sluts? Certainly Wilson would be the first to say no, having preached and spoken repeatedly on the subject of “feminine modesty.” Perhaps one might reply that is an unfair comparison, since Scripture does speak on this subject–women are commanded to dress modestly. And yet this remains at the level of general principle–the Bible does not tell us when skirts are too short or jeans too tight. But does that mean “God doesn’t care”? The legalist seeks to compensate for God’s silence by inventing his own rules and attempting to give them the force of divine sanction. The libertine takes God’s silence as guaranteeing divine sanction for whatever he or she chooses to do. But the godly Christian takes this silence as a summons, a summons to exercise judgment–fallible, human judgment, but judgment nonetheless.
The concept of an adiaphoron, you see, is really a logical abstraction, a “useful hypothetical” as Oliver O’Donovan put it to me in a recent conversation. It means that an action, taken on its own, independent of any context, is neither morally good nor evil. But of course, no action ever is–it is always embedded in circumstances, circumstances that call us to consider its fittingness, its lovingness, its edification. This does not mean, of course, that it is pointless or meaningless to designate something adiaphorous. If something is adiaphorous, this does liberate us. It liberates our conscience from a burden of fear, since it means that if we do our best in good conscience, we’re not in sin just because we decided wrong. It liberates us from the burden of inflexibility, since it means that we recognise our judgments are provisional, and we can respect differing conclusions that other conscientious Christians may reach. It liberates from the burden of ultimacy, since we know that there are often much more urgent serious and urgent matters that demand our moral attention and action, and if tending to these means we neglect the lesser matters, that’s OK.
But while all this should and must be said, we must not stop here. God’s silence on “adiaphora” is an invitation to get to work–not burdened by fear, but empowered by love–and to seek what is good and acceptable and perfect. Oftentimes love will mean submission–submission to the rules or expectations currently prevailing in church or society, submission to the scruples of a neighbour or the wishes of a spouse or pastor. But sometimes (and quite often in our very free and un-rule-bound societies), love will mean action–studying to to learn the way of excellence and right action, prayerful attention to God’s wisdom expressed in Scripture and in teachings of the church and meditation on how to apply it, discipline to improve one’s own actions in accord with virtue, and dialogue with (or, if in a position of authority, teach) others to persuade them to share the same concerns and take the same actions (with a charitable willingness to accept their disagreement). And, rightly qualified, God does care that we do this, and do it well.
We apply this already in so many areas of life that are adiaphorous–lacking any direct or specific divine guidance–how to vote in local elections, what films to watch or avoid watching, how to pursue romantic relationships in a godly way, etc. Can we not do the same with food?
(As this post is in many ways prolegomenal to the issue of food ethics per se, I don’t want to go into any great depth here, but merely to sketch the contours of an answer.) Clearly, the answer seems to be yes. All three levels of horizontal Christian love apply–love of ourselves, love of others, and love for the creation. God does desire us to love ourselves–to be concerned with our well-being, that we may enjoy him and serve him and others effectively. Obviously, what we eat is absolutely central to our well-being. If we eat foolishly and destroy our bodies, or weaken them so that we have to spend thousands of dollars on medical care for chronic and easily preventable conditions, we are exercising extremely poor stewardship, harming ourselves and indirectly others. So, to this extent, while surely even the worst foods are essentially harmless in sufficiently small quantities, we can say that in general, God does care (in our carefully qualified sense) if we eat too much bacon or refined sugar or “processed stuff made out of something that used to be like corn.”
God desires us to love others–to work for their physical and spiritual well-being, and to be mindful of the ways in which our actions directly or indirectly help or harm them. Obviously this means, in the case of food, that we should care not only that we don’t destroy our own bodies with foolish eating, but that, as much as reasonably possible (mindful of the thousands of taxing duties that parents have, and their very human limits) we protect our children from it as well. Beyond this, though, it also means cultivating a concern for those involved in making our food and getting it to us–do our purchases enrich the lives of producers or degrade them? If we have an option of buying a product that will directly support the livelihood of a local farmer, versus buying a product that will undermine the livelihoods of ordinary farmers and simply line the pockets of a food processing corporation, all other things being equal, perhaps we should buy the former. To this extent, we can say that in general, God does care (in our carefully qualified sense) if we buy fair-trade coffee or rip-off-trade coffee.
God desires us to love the world that he has made–to live in harmony with it and enrich it by our presence in it, rather than degrading it. He desires us to discern the relationships that he created it to have, and to seek to strengthen and encourage those relationships, instead of destroying and inverting them. He desires us to have regard for the lives of our beasts–to treat the animal creation as something that exists not merely to serve our whims, but to enjoy its own place within the world. Obviously, when it comes to food, we are having to devour part of this creation–plant and animal–in order to nourish ourselves, and that’s perfectly appropriate. But we can do this in a way that honours and preserves that creation, or a way that degrades and destroys it. Anyone remotely familiar with much of modern industrialised agriculture will recognise that it does a great deal of the latter, often in ways that are downright sickening (literally and figuratively). All other things being equal, we ought to seek to avoid supporting the production of such foods. To this extent, we can say that in general, God does care (in our carefully qualified sense) about the bacon we buy and even about that processed corn stuff as well.
Now, again, this is not an invitation to legalism, guilt, or strife. The insertion of the “all other things being equal” qualifier is essential, in reminding us that these moral responsibilities are not absolute, but exist in relation to a host of circumstances–our own limits of time, money, and energy, existing economic relationships that are highly complex, with the ability to transmit unintended consequences all over the globe, or the weak consciences of neighbours that might easily fall into legalism. And of course, it’s not as if any of us have the knowledge to consider all these factors adequately, so if we do our best with limited knowledge, God smiles on that. And even if we don’t, we can remember that in an ultimate sense, God doesn’t care–he will not arraign us on judgement day and condemn us for gluttonously indulging in refined sugar or refusing to shell out the extra dollars on free range chicken. At most, he will gently chide us, let us look down sheepishly for a moment, and then comfort us with a “Well done, good and faithful servant.” So no point in being paralysed with fear. But he does want us to live excellently, and shouldn’t we want to as well? So no point in remaining paralysed by apathy either.