As was previously mentioned, Logan and I will be posting our self-designated top posts from our previous blog. We each have picked five of our favorites to share with you. My number five choice: "Principles vs. Rules and the Word of Wisdom".
As can be seen from the first line, this post stemmed out of a discussion I (we) had with Matt and Adam at T&S. We were quite honestly baffled by their understanding of rules and principles. As such, I felt the need to clarify our position even more by creating a separate post. The post was meant to be a setup for more discussion about principles vs. rules. But my Word of Wisdom reference took all the glory and spun off a discussion with your friend and mine, Grasshopper. This didn’t particularly bother me, as Grasshopper’s original thoughts are most insightful. Selections from our comments have been included for your reading pleasure. Although if this does seem a bit long, skip past the comments and give me your take on principles vs. rules.
A discussion over at Times and Seasons has prompted me to revisit this issue. Principles vs. Rules: While most of us agree they are both important, most of us also agree they are not equally important. Those who are rule advocates, such as Adam Greenwood or Matt Evans at T&S, love to think that rules were created first, while principles are an after-the-fact spin off. Well, let it be known that Bob and Logan think exactly the opposite. Here’s why:
Rules tend to be dichotomous. You either kill or you don’t kill. We are told not to kill, but as Nephi has shown us, even the rule with the highest consequences, still has exceptions. The problem with rules is what I like to call the one-size-fits-all-approach. They tend to almost limit our free agency. Think of living the very rule oriented Law of Moses vs. living the principle based Christ teachings. Christ himself was probably one of the greatest rule-breakers of all. He continually broke the rules, showing us a better way, a way in which we look to God on a case-by-case basis rather than rely on rules, which may not always apply.
Principles tend to be a collection of moral/ethical standards/judgments. There’s quite a bit more flexibility. Living a principle based life has greater risk, to be sure. You must use your agency very carefully, but let us not forget our reason for being in this probationary state.
The Church rarely tells us rules we must live by. Almost everything is principle based. Think of the temple recommend interview. “Do you keep the Sabbath day holy?” Everyone answers this question differently based on a different set of principles they live. There is no question asking if you have shopped on Sunday, because that would be asking about a rule that only some of us have decided to strictly live by. Same goes for “love thy neighbor” (how much?), “paying tithing” (net? or gross? chickens or dollars?), “keeping clean thoughts” (what does “clean” mean?), etc.
Enter the Word of Wisdom: The last piece of “doctrine” the Church has left with no interpretation allowed: Don’t drink coffee, tea, and alcohol; don’t smoke; and don’t do drugs. This also seems to be the only exception in which the Church has taken something once considered a “recommendation” and now has decided it to be a “rule”. In every other aspect, the Church has progressively strayed from a list of dos and don’ts. The Word of Wisdom is what I like to call the least-common-denominator effect. For whatever reason, the Church has decided that its members live this in exactly the same way. Whatever the case may be, don’t be surprised if I’m drinking coffee after this life. :-)
Grasshopper: On the contrary, Bob, there is plenty of interpretation of the Word of Wisdom allowed. For example, is cooking with alcohol against the WoW or not? Is decaf coffee okay or not? Green tea? What about medicines with alcohol (Nyquil, etc.)? How much meat consumption is considered "sparingly"? And so on… These are all left up to individual interpretation.
Bob: You and I would like to think that… But ask your Stake President all those questions you posed here, and then get back to me.
Grasshopper: Bob, I’ve already talked to my stake president about these questions. He agrees with me that these things are left to individual interpretation.
Bob: Really?! How interesting. I have a grandmother no longer a member of this Church. And why she couldn’t drink decaf coffee was one thing that always got to her… Are you saying I should give her a call?
Aaron B: Give your grandmother a call. According to Lester Bush in _Health and Medicine Among the Latter-day Saints_, p.59:
"…Widtsoe and, subsequently, the First Presidency also advised inquirers that the use of decaffeinated drinks (including "97 percent caffeine-free" coffee) was NOT in violation of the Word of Wisdom. Remarkably, this latter guidance, provided repeatedly by the First Presidency from the 1940s to the present, has yet to be officially published."
In an endnote, Bush claims to have copies of several First Presidency letters to this effect, and Bush is a very reputable source. I remember seeing a copy of just such a letter at BYU. So tell Granny to drink away!
Bob: Logan / Aaron / Grasshopper, As far as the decaf coffee goes… we have a problem, Houston. For your info, Logan, I don’t agree with Grasshopper or Aaron; I’ve just been playing along sarcastically (hard to get across in writing).
Here’s the problem: As the WofW stands today; all types of coffee would have to be a no-no. If decaf coffee were o.k., because it doesn’t have caffeine, then you’re indirectly saying Coke is NOT o.k. Pick your poison, boys. I’ve heard numerous times that caffeine has never been the reason for coffee to be included in the Word of Wisdom.
If I’m "allowed" to drink decaf coffee, but not allowed to have the occasional Coke or Mountain Dew, I’ve been breaking the WofW for quite some time now, and my grandmother has probably been living it!
For the record, in my book and from my experience with three stake presidents, the WofW is very black and white: no coffee, black tea, alcohol, smoking, or drugs. If decaf coffee were o.k., then wouldn’t it stand to reason that we’d put an adjective in front of coffee just like we did with tea (no caffeinated coffee)?
Grasshopper: Bob, I disagree with you that if decaf is okay, then cola drinks are necessarily not. As I said in my first comment, this is left to personal interpretation, not creating a hard and fast rule.
There’s a record of the First Presidency under David O. McKay okaying decaf:
A religion professor at Ricks also quotes the First Presidency under Joseph Fielding Smith (1971):
" In reference to the Church’s attitude regarding Sanka coffee.
The use of a beverage from which the deleterious ingredients have been removed would not be considered as breaking the Word of Wisdom. However, in all cases it is well to avoid the appearance of evil by refraining from the use of drinks which have the appearance, the smell, and the taste of that which we have been counseled not to use. However, temple recommends should not be denied to those drinking Sanka or the cola drinks.
(First Presidency, Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, N. Eldon Tanner, Dec. 3, 1971.)"
Note, specifically, the First Presidency’s reference to cola drinks. This indicates to me that they would also disagree with your assertion that if decaf is okay, then cola drinks are not.
Bob: Grasshopper (ALL), You can throw quotes at me all day along that seem to pass by each other. But what I wonder is how do YOU (or anyone else) reconcile different Church leaders contradicting each other. It’s nice that Church leaders have said what they’ve said, but it just doesn’t make any sense.
You can drink fluid A (coffee) because it does NOT have substance B (caffeine). You canNOT drink fluid B (coffee) because it HAS substance B (caffeine). But fluid C (cola) you may drink even though it has substance B (caffeine), which is the specific reason you can’t drink fluid B (coffee)? Huh? Does not compute… system overload…
Grasshopper: Well, if I understand this to be a matter of personal interpretation, then I don’t have to reconcile contradictions between Church leaders; I just chalk it up to differing personal interpretation. However, there is more to it than *merely* personal interpretation, and here’s the sense I make of it:
The Lord does not have a rule that says "no coffee, no tea, no tobacco, no alchohol". He doesn’t mind if people use these things in moderation (IMO). So he gave the Word of Wisdom as counsel and not commandment, for us to use as a guideline in determining *for ourselves* what we should take into our bodies.
However, in the wake of the changes in the Church around the turn of the twentieth century, many of its distinguishing features were lost, and we needed something to take the place of plural marriage and the United Order to continue to have a covenant people separated from the rest of society. So Church leaders began to emphasize the Word of Wisdom as a rule of the Church (not as a commandment of God — yes, it has been called a commandment many times, but I have a hard time reconciling that with the specific "not by way of commandment" in D&C 89). Eventually parts of Word of Wisdom observance became requirements for a temple recommend.
As a rule of the Church, it is under the purview of current Church leaders, who can set the rule any way they see fit. If they see fit to allow decaf and cola, but not caffeinated coffee, that’s their prerogative. If I want a temple recommend, I have to follow the rule.
This sounds like I’m saying the Word of Wisdom isn’t important, and in a sense, I am. I’m pretty sure that Jesus is planning to drink alcoholic wine with a bunch of prophets at some future date (see D&C 27). But I think the Word of Wisdom *is* important as a "setting apart" of a peculiar people — a covenant people. My "covenant" to observe the Word of Wisdom as interpreted by current Church leadership is something that unites me to the Church and divides me from the world. I don’t avoid drinking alcohol because I think it is wrong to drink alcohol in any amount; I avoid drinking alcohol because this reinforces my relationship to the Church.
Thus, in those areas where Church leaders have left things open to personal interpretation, I feel free to make my own decisions and allow others to make theirs.
Bob: My respect for you just went up a notch (don’t worry, it was already pretty high). No, but really, your last comment hit the nail right on the head. For the record, I second everything Grasshopper just wrote. Well said.