Principles vs. Rules and the Word of Wisdom

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. :-)

Any comments?

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!

Please clarify…

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.)"

(from )

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.


  1. Now, I don’t intend to derail the discussion (or lack of one so far), but for me, the whole rules vs. principles debate always raises the other well-worn argument of R-rated movies. If we lived by principles then we’d watch movies which inspired us and avoid those which don’t, depending on our backgrounds, tastes, etc. (remember, we are all different and are inspired by different things), rather than letting a few guys in Hollywood decide what is good and bad for us.

    One thing I find interesting about the temple recommend interview is how many of the questions seem to be temporary rules/commandments that we obey because we are asked to, and how many of them will be part of the interview for all eternity. I imagine the keeping of our covenants and our testimony of Jesus Christ will always be part of it, but hope the WoW isn’t.

  2. Nice call on including this post, Bob. Grasshopper’s last comment really struck me and has stayed with me as the only way I’ve been able to reconcile some of the inconsistencies in the Church.

  3. When Bob says “The WofW as it stands today,” I think that illustrates something important. The WofW has been interpretted different ways since it was received. This leads me to ask an honest, open-ended question: Why is the WofW in the temple recommend interview? Why should one’s eligibility for the eternal, saving ordinances of the temple depend on their committment to a WORD OF WISDOM less than two hundred years old and not always even been enforced?

    My own conclusion as to why it is so emphasized by the church, sadly, is that the WofW is a great, outward test of someone’s loyalty to the church. Adherence to the WofW is a way to appear as a ‘peculiar people’ regardless of whether the WofW itself is ‘true.’ I think it’s a little unfortunate, because, I’ve never believed in adding commandments just for obedience’s sake. And, in this case, it is especially unfortunate (e.g., a father who occassionally has a beer with dinner is ineligible to see his daughter’s temple wedding). On the other hand, it is a good, general health code.

    As to how rigidly it is enforced, I think (beyond the tobacco, alcohol, tea, and drugs) the church pretty much leaves it up to interpretation.

  4. APJ: “My own conclusion as to why it is so emphasized by the church, sadly, is that the WofW is a great, outward test of someone’s loyalty to the church. Adherence to the WofW is a way to appear as a ‘peculiar people’ regardless of whether the WofW itself is ‘true.'”

    A couple of points. First, if something is a way of (1) signalling loyalty to the Church; and, (2) a way of seperating members off as a “peculiar people,” then I don’t think that it is fair to characterize it as “obedience for obedience’s sake.” Rather, it is obedience that serves an important function, namely the creation and maitence of Mormon identity. No small matter that.

    Certainly, acts that have primarily symbolic importance cannot, from an LDS point of view, be chalked up as meaningless, or mere “obedience for obedience’s sake.” Think for example of the temple rituals, which consist almost entirely of symbolic acts. Endowed members, I take it, wear the garment because it serves some of the same symbolic purposes as the WofW, regardless of whether it has “real” effects, e.g. stories of a person saved from a speeding bullet by the garmet, etc. etc.

    In short, I simply don’t think that there is a dicotomy between the WofW being “true” (by which we mean what exactly? Functionally linked exclusively to physical health and perfectly tracking the requirements for physical health?) and being primarily symbolic. Symbols can be true as well.

  5. Oh, yeah, I also meant to ask the same in regards to tithing. Why is it part of the temple recommend interview and why is the church so strict in regards to how to pay tithing? I know the church doesn’t conduct background checks about WofW or tithing, and I’m not suggesting that WofW or tithing are false teachings. My question is more: why are these two practices so important as to be included in the temple recommend interview?

  6. Thanks Nate, I was posting that follow up, just as you were posting the response. I appreciate your points. I guess by saying ‘true’, I was trying to point at whether it is based on an eternal principle. But your comments about symbolism make good sense.

    I guess it’s just always struck me as little ‘cultish’ (I know, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing) to have such a strict health code and to make it so integral to being an upstanding member of the Church. To me, it would make more sense to teach the WofW as good sense and let the members ‘govern themselves.’ But, maybe that’s why I’m on the activities committee….

  7. Bob Caswell says:

    I do agree with Nate in that we can’t really discount the importance of the symbolic nature of many relatively arbitrary things in the Church.

    But for as important as this is, it’s sometimes hard to reconcile this “importance” with the side of me that takes comfort in the fact that someday the WoW rule will disappear… and although I’m not sure about this next one, one can only hope that the garment won’t stay the most boring piece of clothing I’ve ever seen (designed in such a way that women have to pull it up to their rib cage in order for it to be worn properly).

  8. Bob, all symbolic references aside, I really don’t think you should be wearing women’s garments…j/k

  9. Does any of this have to do with consequences to past people’s actions? We don’t have further revelation on the afterlife because the members weren’t prepared to receive it (according to Joseph Smith). We are forced to live the WoW because the members didn’t follow President Grant’s council (the rest of this story has been told many times on T&S, right?). Aren’t we just reaping what those before us have sown (along with all the blessings of their righteousness)?

  10. Here’s something that may or may not be pertinent. According to this page, decaffeinated coffee is served at the Polynesian Cultural Center. I don’t know if this is true decaf or if it is an herbal substitute, but the PCC certainly gives the impression it’s the real decaffeinated thing.

  11. Bob Caswell says:

    Rusty, the problem I see with the idea that this falls into the category of “consequences of past people’s actions” is that it characterizes us (the human race) as a bunch of lemmings who will perform in exactly the same way under the same circumstances. For being such a “chosen” generation, it’s ironic that we need more rules to keep us in line.

  12. I’ll agree with Nate that you can hardly fault the Church for creating some form of boundary maintenance, for forcing a distinction between who is and who is not a Mormon in good standing. The best candidates for maintaining such a distinction are (no surprise) enforceable rules like what one eats, what one drinks, what one wears, what one contributes, and what one does on Sunday morning. Those aren’t necessarily the most important rules, just the observable and enforceable ones. Charity is more important than coffee, but it’s easier to figure out if one is a coffee drinker than if one is charitable.

    Of course, single something out as a boundary marker and it takes on new importance as well as becoming a focal point. The WoW takes on an aura of false importance simply by virtue of being a boundary marker. And I get the impression there are thousands of Utahns who take up smoking for the sole purpose of announcing to their fellowcitizens that they are not LDS.

  13. Bob Caswell says:

    “…decaffeinated coffee is served at the Polynesian Cultural Center.”

    One more reason to vacation in that part of the world!

  14. Bob,

    If it is any consolation, Joseph Smith could see pretty clearly that the Angel Moroni wasn’t wearing anything resembling a t-shirt.

  15. I think it’s pretty normal for there to be things that are arbitrary in our worship. Well, normal in the sense that that’s how it’s always worked.

    Whenever we make covenants with the Lord there’s an arbitrary symbol, or token, involved. Often there’s some sort of connection to the covenant being made, but that’s largely irrelevant. Is being immersed intrinsic to the baptismal covenant? What about the funky handclasps in the temple? All those things could just as easily be symbolized by another token.

    I look at things like the WoW in the same way. They’re symbolic of our covenant relationship with the Lord, but other symbols could be used just as well.

  16. Bob, I have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that because of the early saints’ unwillingness, you and I don’t have further revelation regarding the afterlife. Same with the fact that because of the actions of the saints in Utah disobeying President Grant’s council, we are all now commanded to live the WoW. Is it not a matter of us reaping their consequences? We’d also have an extra 116 pages of the Book of Mormon too if someone had followed the Lord’s council, and we are now reaping those consequences. Or is what I’m talking about nothing to do with the current conversation?

    Logan, I wouldn’t be too sure that immersion for baptism is arbitrary. Ebeneezer Orthodoxy makes a pretty good case for its importance here<.

    But isn’t everything that we do a symbol of our covenant relationship with the Lord? Aren’t all of the commandments really just a matter of keeping our promises? I don’t pay tithing because it will help the Church, I do it because I promised I would and I have faith that I will be blessed for keeping that promise. I love my enemy because I promised that I would (you know, in the big bundle of “keep my commandments”) and I have faith that the Lord will bless me for it. I don’t think I keep any commandment because I think that outcome is inherently beneficial. Or at least isn’t that the way that it should be?

  17. Rusty, I still think immersion isn’t intrinsic to the baptismal covenant. It’s nice and symbolic, but I think God could have decided that sprinkling works just as well in making the covenant.

    Also, I agree that tithing is somewhat arbitrary, but other than that (and the WoW), I don’t think I do very much that I don’t think is benificial on its own. I love others because I’m convinced it’s how I’ll be happiest. Loving my enemies is obviously harder than loving my friends, but I believe that the better I become at that the happier I’ll be. I believe this is intrinsic to human nature, and true for us whether or not it’s a “commandment”.

    If I don’t see the benefit in doing something, I’m pretty liberal with what I’ll reject, even if many consider it a “commandment”. I work hard at examining why I do the things I do, and I’m likely to disregard them if I don’t see the value. Sometimes I reject the wrong things, but that’s part of the learning and growing process for me.

  18. Logan, hmmm, I think you’re right… kinda. I guess we do things for many reasons. Though it’s convenient when we happen to agree that the commandment is beneficial to us in some way. However, I can’t imagine Heber C. Kimball (for lack of a better example) thought having multiple wives would be beneficial (other than to do the Lord’s will). Isn’t that where faith becomes really hard? When we can’t see the benefit in obeying, yet we do it anyway.

    I don’t know if I agree that the reason I live the WoW is to “signal loyalty to the Church” or to “seperate [myself] off as a peculiar [person]” (I hope my church doesn’t distinguish itself on a matter of coffee, I hope there’s more) I live it because I’ve promised to live it. Aren’t there a bunch of things we do for that same reason? Logan, now you’ve got me wondering, in light of everyone’s comments above, why do you (or anyone for that matter) live the WoW, if it isn’t because you are keeping a promise?

  19. Well Rusty, the proximate reason is that it keeps me temple worthy. If it weren’t in the temple recommend interview, I probably would have some wine from time to time, and probably coffee too. In fact, I don’t really think of it as “keeping a promise” necessarily. Have I “promised” to keep it? Maybe I have during some covenant — I can’t really remember. I keep it so I can tell my Bishop that I do so in my temple recommend interview.

    The reason I like the idea of the WoW being symbolic of our status as covenant people is that it’s the only way I’ve been able to reconcile it as a requirement. Before that it really bugged me; now I can live with it a little better.

  20. If we need a symbol of our commitment to God, why isn’t our charity good enough? After all, that is how Jesus said his disciples would be distinguished from others. It seems strange to me that God would want us to be distinguished by some arbitrary symbol or code of conduct that appears to have no basis in fundamental moral principles. He might just as well ask us to shave our heads or wear purple suspenders.

  21. Bob Caswell says:

    Gary, charity isn’t measurable whereas arbitrary things are (at least more so). That’s the whole problem. What’s really important is hard to quantify.

  22. Bob: Although charity is not measurable the same way other things are, Jesus seems to have been of the opinion that people would be able to distinguish his true disciples from other people by their love for other people. (“By this shall men that ye are my disciples . . “) But even if we concede for the moment that it is not measurable, why do we think we need something that is measurable? What purpose is served by adopting a code of conduct for the sole reason that it distinguishes us from other people for reasons that have nothing to do with morality? Why isn’t the standard that he proclaimed good enough for us?

  23. Bob Caswell says:

    Gary, as far as I can tell, we need something that is measurable so that we can be easily seen as a “peculiar” people. The WoW is what separates us from the rest of the world, as do garments. These are distinguishable characteristics, which are an outward observance of an inward conviction we have.

    Charity, on the other hand, is not exclusive to Mormonism. Although the two (Mormonism and charity) may be correlated, there is little to suggest that one causes the other. In other words, there are plenty of people in the world who are extremely charitable, dare I say, more charitable than many, many Mormons. We don’t have a monopoly on charity and never will. So although being charitable is commendable and in most cases more important than other aspects of our living, it is relatively unhelpful as a means by which we set ourselves apart.

  24. Purple suspenders and shaved heads–sounds almost like white shirts and short haircuts. Yeah, great tools for socially segregating a distinct and strictly demarcated group that is (voluntarily) bound to abide by a strict set of rules.

    The practices that set off regular members are less arbitrary than a missionary dress code. While it’s true that their use as boundary markers can come to overshadow the original moral or organizational justification and take on a life of its own, I don’t think there are any LDS practices whose sole purpose is to distinguish members from everyone else.

  25. Bob, yes, but isn’t it the promises (covenants) that we make are what distinguish us, NOT WoW and garments? I mean, we can’t say Charity≠Salvation but Charity+garments+WoW=Salvation. Isn’t it Baptism w/ authority+HG+Temple Covenants+Enduring to the End=Salvation?

    What I’m saying is that it’s the covenants that we make is what distinguishes us as peculiar people. I shudder to think that my fellow Christians think that the only difference between us and them is that we don’t drink coffee. I am charitable because I have made a promise (covenant) to do so. Others are charitable because Christ asked them to, or because it’s in their nature, or because it’s their new year’s resolution. That’s great for them, but if they don’t enter into the covenant, if they can’t make promises to God, then their charity is good for happiness, but it won’t bring them salvation.

    Gary, would you say that how we live our covenants is measurable? And Bob, are you saying there needs to be something measurable for other people, or do we need something measurable for God?

  26. I think it is interesting how discussions of “spirit v. letter” and “rules v. standards/principles” almost always devolve into pharisitical discussions of particular rules and one’s justifications for non-observance of those rules. I must also take exception to the notion that Jesus “broke the rules.” He broke the rules constructed by Pharisees when they interpreted the law, but he was a strict observer of the law.

    Recently I was reading a journal entry of mine from a few years back in which I was comparing the attitudes of three people in my ward. One was a holier-than-thou observer of rules (perhaps several of his own construction), who looked down on others for not toeing the line. One was an individual whom I described as “reveling in his non-conformance with mainstream Church views.” I wondered in my journal which of these attitudes was worse. At the time I wished there were more people like my third individual, who exhibited what I described as “humble orthodoxy.” Since that time, which is around the time I returned from my mission, I have tried to follow the path of humble orthodoxy. And my report is that I am happier for it.

    Three rules that I have been successful at following for the past few years and for which I think the Lord has blessed me are the following: (1) no caffeinated beverages; (2) no rated-R movies; (3) no working on Sunday (I graduated at the top of my class in law school with having worked on school work on Sunday only once). I say all this, not to pat myself on the back or suggest that others must do the same, but to say that I believe that I have truly been blessed for my obedience. My attitude is that I need the Lord’s help in my life so much that I should be willing to do whatever I can. Becoming like Jesus is going to take SO much more than not seeing rated-R movies and not working on Sunday, but I might as well make those things non-issues in my life. My sense is that those who often oppose the rules approach–and this is probably an unfair overgeneralization–do so because they are unwilling to place an earthly desire (whatever it is) on the alter of God. I don’t think anyone could successfully argue to me (although you are welcome to try) that my keeping of these rules has hurt my spirituality. Until they do, I am going to keep on following them and, of course, hopefully doing much more.

  27. It sure seems to me that, once upon a time, I remember hearing from someone in the Church with a high level of authority that drinking decaf coffee would not cause anyone to have their temple recommend denied them. I just wish I could remember when and where I heard this. It was very much on a “this probably shouldn’t be noised abroad very much, but…” kind of basis. It might have been in a meeting with my Mission President in France during the ’70s, it might have been at a Solemn Assembly at the Oakland tri-stake center in the ’80s. I just don’t remember when or where I heard it, but I know I heard it.

  28. Bob: Although it is true that the WoW distinguishes us from the rest of the world, I don’t know why that is a good thing. Why do we want to be distinguished by anything other than virtue? When God’s people are referred to in scripture as a peculiar people, it is surely not intended as a reference to their dietary code or their underwear. It is a reference to their character. The fact that we are not distinguished by our charity should tell us something important about ourselves, and to be distinguished by arbitrary codes of conduct is not something that I think we should desire. I don’t understand why God would give us something like the WoW for that reason. I think we have to look elsewhere for the justification for the WoW.

    Rusty: Generally speaking, I don’t think that the way we live our covenants is measurable by mortal observers. That is fine with me–I don’t know why we should expect otherwise. However, I still come back to Jesus’ statement that his true followers would be distinguishable by their love of other people. Loving people do stand out, even though their charity may not be “measurable”. I don’t why we would want to be known for anything else.

  29. Incidentally, on the decaf issue, I did have some personal experience with this. As a missionary, the issue arose in a branch in which I was serving and the Mission President sent a letter to the First Presidency to ask for clarification. I did not see the letter he received in response to his request, but he told me that the direction given to him was that drinking Sanka was not reason to deny a person a temple recommend.

  30. Gary, I don’t think it’s so weird to have symbols with the purpose of setting people apart. What about circumcision in the Abrahamic Covenant? And setting people apart in general has precedent as a purpose in and of itself. Cain had a mark put upon him and so did the Lamanites.

    Things like the Word of Wisdom are symbols. Sure we don’t need them — it’s the covenant itself that’s important — but then we don’t need any of the tokens of the covenants, yet every covenant seems to have them anyway.

  31. Bob Caswell says:

    Some good comments here… I’m especially intrigued by some of Rusty’s questions and a comment by Gary, so here goes:

    “Bob, yes, but isn’t it the promises (covenants) that we make are what distinguish us, NOT WoW and garments?”

    I see your point but would argue that the WoW and the garments are a means to an end. The “promises” are definitely more important but would not be memorable in the eyes of the Mormon-curious if they were promises “to live healthy” and “remember covenants” rather than the actual promises to live by the WoW and wear the garments. Every religion has some form of “live healthy” and “keep promises”. But where we are specific is where we are different. If this specificity gets more face value than that to which it makes reference, then so be it. Perhaps this is part of the sacrifice for true distinction. But those truly intrigued by our distinction would be more willing to learn more than they would if our religion were just Christian faith #42 or whatever.

    “And Bob, are you saying there needs to be something measurable for other people, or do we need something measurable for God?”

    Oh, I believe God is master over all measurements and knows our hearts. Measurements are almost always flawed and God sees past that. So, no, measurements aren’t for God. But we mortals are clueless when it comes to knowing the true character of those who claim to be “active” in our faith. So, we have measurements as a guide to help us (mostly bishops) figure this out. It’d be nice to just rely on the Spirit for everything, but we know that’s fairly unrealistic, otherwise we wouldn’t have paragraph-questions bishops are supposed to ask word for word.

    “Loving people do stand out, even though their charity may not be “measurable”. I don’t why we would want to be known for anything else.”

    Gary: These loving people stand out as exactly that: “loving people”. If Mormonism is correct and exaltation is only possible through the [eventual] correct ordinances by the true authority of God, then we need something more than “loving people” to make us stand out. People can see Mormons being “loving people” all day long and in turn these people can become “loving people” themselves from the example with no real need to know of anything more about Mormonism. This, in and of itself, is wonderful, to be sure, but not enough if we really want to be unique enough for others to take interest in our faith specifically…not just any faith where charity is a good thing.

  32. Logan: It is important to remember that the Israelites lived under a commandment not to marry non-Israelites. God clearly wanted them to live separate and apart from other societies. They weren’t exactly an example of a missionary oriented church charged with the responsibility to take the gospel to the entire world. I don’t think we can use that example to justify the WoW as something given for the purpose of setting us apart from others. We too have been called to be different, but not in the same sense. We are not to partake of wickedness. We are to live the gospel. But why is that not enough distinction? What advantage is there to distinguishing ourselves from our friends and neighbours in ways that the rest of the world thinks are just plain silly, and which cannot be defended by reference to some moral standard?

    I am all for symbols. I just don’t see the WoW as symbolic of anything. What covenant do you think it symbolizes? Section 89 certainly does not, on its face, purport to be a symbol of anything. Its stated purpose is not to symbolize other covenants. In what sense is the WoW like other symbols or tokens of covenants? It seems like nothing more than a commandment, or a word of advice to me. Are the law of chastity, or tithing, or church attendance also symbols? Why is the WoW different in this regard from other commandments–or is it, in your opinion?

  33. Bob Caswell says:

    Gary, I know your questions were addressed toward Logan, but they created new questions I have for you. So when you say, “What advantage is there to distinguishing ourselves from our friends and neighbours in ways that the rest of the world thinks are just plain silly, and which cannot be defended by reference to some moral standard?” Are you suggesting that you have yet to find a purpose for the WoW? You’ve alluded to it being silly [mostly in the eyes of others] and not necessarily morally grounded. Do you, then, offer an explanation as to its current existence as part of the temple recommend interview?

    I personally believe it has little to do with morals or health (though I wouldn’t bring that up in Sunday school, as I would be fighting in a battle already lost). So far, “distinction” has been the best answer given to me. But I’m open to other suggestions…

  34. Bob: To be honest, I don’t have an answer that satisfies me. I agree that it has little to do with morals or health. The only explanation I have come up is that it is a rule that prevents more harm than having a more relaxed rule or no rule at all. Tobacco, for example, is always bad for us, so an outright prohibition for the sake of our health makes sense. Alcohol is different. It is not bad in moderation, and some of it appears to be good for our health in moderation. However, God knows that a revelation counselling us to use alcohol in moderation will simply not work for a significant minority. They will abuse it, and too many will become alcoholics. It is better then to ban it completely because this will result in less damage than the counsel to use it in moderation. The extreme rule has this effect only if it is strictly enforced and this is the reason we are so strict about it. As I said, I am not entirely convinced by this explanation but it is all I have come up with so far. I don’t think it works for coffee and tea or for some other aspects of the WoW.

    Another possible explanation is a more naturalistic one. When given, it was good advice. Over zealous leaders grabbed hold of it and made it into more than it was ever intended to be, and our rigid interpretation and enforcement is not dictated by God at all. I think we sometimes have a natural tendency to create easy litmus tests for the purpose of distinguishing ourselves from others. As missionaries, we often had a tendency to try to outdo others or ourselves by “out obeying”, or “out sacrificing”. If fasting is good, then why not fast for 2 or 3 days. If hard work is good, then why not get up at 5:00 instead of 6:00. Maybe some of this attitude has crept into our view of the WoW. I realize that this explanation would be offensive to many, but I am open to that possibility.

    I guess one of the reasons I don’t buy the theory that it was given for the purpose of separating us is that I think we are much too separate as it is. I think it often acts as a barrier to our relationships with other people who think it is bizarre that we would not drink tea, for example, for religious reasons. It also conveys the impression that we think that those who don’t observe this principle are somehow less worthy than we are. We are already far too insular, and I don’t think that arbitrary rules which further distinguish from society at large do us or the mission of the church any good.

  35. Gary, I don’t think the charge for the Israelites not to mix necessarily matters. God could have given the commandment without circumcision, yet he wanted a token of that covenant.

    Careful when you talk about section 89 and the Word of Wisdom in the same breath, too. I’m a subscriber to the Two Word of Wisdoms Theory. Section 89 is only loosely related to the requirements in the temple recommend interview. The Word of Wisdom was originally given as counsel, explicitly “not by way of commandment”. It was later made a requirement, as spelled out by Grasshopper in the comments included in Bob’s original post (I’m not sure if you read those, but they do a better job of talking about this interpretation than I do).

    You know something? — I’m not entirely sure why God wants to distinguish us either, but he seems to have done so in every era. Just because we’re distinguished doesn’t mean we can’t associate with others or do missionary work, though. In the New Testament they changed the day of worship to Sunday from Saturday, even though Paul did buttloads of missionary work. Whatever symbolism about the Lord’s day was involved, the change was a very stark differentiation between them and the Jews among whom they lived.

    I actually agree that many in the Church use these arbitrary defining characteristics as a measure of righteousness, and I wish they wouldn’t. But I think that just shows the WoW’s status as a symbol of being LDS. If it wasn’t that, it would be whatever other defining characteristics we have that people would use as a way to call others less righteous.

    While you may not agree with it (and while I may not understand every aspect completly myself), I think the distinguishing approach to the importance of the WoW is much more coherent and satisfying than the one you mentioned. At least it is to me. When the approach you articulated was the best I could come up with for the WoW I was about ready to tear my hair out because it made no sense to me at all.

  36. Logan: “When the approach you articulated was the best I could come up with for the WoW I was about ready to tear my hair out because it made no sense to me at all.”

    That may go some way to explaining why I am so follicularly challenged. I am not satisfied with my approach answer either, but I don’t see the value in this kind of symbol of being LDS. So in the end, I am left bald and still unsatisfied with any explanation which I have heard to date. Just one more on the list.

    In this connection, as we discuss principles vs. rules, why not go to the extreme and ask why we are so rigid in our views of premarital sex. What is it about the signature of a low level government bureacrat on a piece of paper that converts sex from a gross sin to something is a positive good? Couples can make commitments to each other without the involvement of the bureaucrat. Why is that commitment not good enough–why must it be formalized before a civil authority? Is this is a case where we have to draw a line somewhere, so we draw it there, but that line is not really grounded in any moral principle? And if so, is breach of this arbitrary rule always a sin in God’s eyes?

  37. Logan: Just one more thought regarding the value of being distinguished by practices such as circumcision and other apparently arbitrary standards. I think it is instructive to note that the Christian church shed all of the standards that made Jews distinct. Had they not done so, I doubt that Christianity would have spread the way it did. The WoW is hardly in the same league as circumcision, but to the extent that it or other arbitrary rules serve to distinguish us from others, they may also create artificial barriers to the acceptance of our message.

  38. Gary, we may have to disagree about the value of symbols and the sense of identity they can engender. I think they’re powerful psychologically, although I may not be able to articulate an irrefutable argument. I do think the idea of symbols as distinguishers has precedent, and I think it serves as a way of being able to make a discrete decision to join the Church. We have a few absolute requirements to be a member in good standing, but lots of areas with tons of leeway. If everything had leeway, there wouldn’t be anything holding us together as a unit. Hence this way of looking at it satisfies me. I suppose I could be talked out of it if there were a better rationale given.

    If it helps, I’m bugged by the particular symbols that have been chosen myself.

    But as for sex, I agree. Our standards there are also arbitrary. I’ve written about that previously, too.

  39. Bob Caswell says:

    “Maybe some of this attitude has crept into our view of the WoW. I realize that this explanation would be offensive to many, but I am open to that possibility.”

    I don’t think it’s offensive as much as it would be very sad. We’ve had how many prophets and apostles since the formalizing of the WoW? To believe that we are a part of an overly zealous Church that requires specific things of us that God doesn’t care about it assumes that our leadership has been completely naïve for how long? Now, I’m in favor of questioning prophetic counsel (usually in isolation), but this? It’s one thing to say I disagree with Bruce R. McConkie when he says X. It’s another thing to say I disagree with thousands of men (and women) over the last 100 years who have said A-Z and who [supposedly, according to some, I guess] had authority from God.

    As controversial as I like to be, I’m not ready for that step solely because I can’t think of any better explanation.

  40. Logan: I am not so sure that we disagree as to the value of symbols and sense of identity they engender. I do see considerable value in those things. I think our disagreement is with respect to a more narrow issue ie. Is this the justification for the WoW? I don’t understand why a belief in the restoration and a commitment to living as disciples of Christ is not enough to define ourselves and to hold us together. It was that commitment that was good enough for Alma at the waters of Mormon. It seems to have been good enough for the ancient Christians who, as far as I know, did not adopt arbitrary rules to distinguish themselves from society. I can get excited about a community that seeks to distinguish itself by faith in God and commitment to discipleship. I can’t get real enthused about a community which seeks to distinguish itself by arbitrary dietary codes.

    Bob: I share your reluctance to adopt the naturalistic explanation. As I said above, I just don’t know what I think. However, when I consider that most of the prophets up to Heber J. Grant, as I recall, would not qualify for temple recommends today, I can’t help but wonder whether the relatively modern elevation of the WoW to its current status is a human, rather than a divine innovation. We do have other similar precedents, after all.

  41. Wayne Wells says:

    “What covenant do you think it (WoW) symbolizes?”

    The covenant that came to mind when I read this is the covenant we make in the temple to observe the law of sacrifice. Many may feel that coffee, tea, and tobacco are an inconsequential sacrifice, especially when compared circumcision. Imagine having to be an Israelite missionary under the reign of the Judges teaching that principle to an investigator! We could consider it to be training wheels for the covenant of sacrifice. Much like tithing is to the covenant of consecration. If we can’t give up tobacco, how could we sacrifice our lives if needed? If we can’t tithe, how can we consecrate?

    I am concerned that the Latter-day Pharisees would say to themselves, “If sacrificing coffee is good then sacrificing cola is better and sacrificing chocolate is even better.” All the while they are ignoring the part of Section 89 that suggests that we eat whole grains (wheat for man, unless you’re feeling like a swine, in which case you can have a little rye bread :>) )

  42. Maybe the reintroduction of seemingly “preparatory” (training wheels) ways of marking ourselves off from the world, as the Jews did with the Law of Moses, is part of the restoration of all things. It’s a peculiarly modern error (I think) to believe that “spiritual” covenants and practices (e.g. “faith in God and commitment to discipleship”) are necessarily superior to physical performance of ritual acts of covenant.

  43. Kristine: “It’s a peculiarly modern error (I think) to believe that “spiritual” covenants and practices (e.g. “faith in God and commitment to discipleship”) are necessarily superior to physical performance of ritual acts of covenant.”

    Why do you think this is an error? I thought that those physical rituals were intended to point us toward a “higher” and more “spiritual” level. If so, isn’t their value derived solely from their function as pointers to or reminders of our commitment to discipleship? Charity, consecration and honesty all have value independent of ritual and symbol, but symbols and rituals which don’t lead to those qualities seem worthless. It is for that reason that I think that they are superior. Do you disagree?

  44. Bob Caswell says:

    “I can get excited about a community that seeks to distinguish itself by faith in God and commitment to discipleship.”

    Gary, sorry to keep coming back to this, but aren’t there oodles of communities that supposedly distinguish themselves by “faith in God”? I think it’s kind of a paradox to use the word “distinguish” with “faith in God”. It’s just like saying “We distinguish ourselves by our believe in the Bible”. I think the best example of how this “distinctiveness” was utterly useless was that young boy, age 14, who was ultimately unsatisfied.

    Also, I tend to agree with Kristine that it does seem very “modern” to assume “spiritual” covenants far surpass “physical” covenants.

    And last but definitely not least, I’m not sure who Wayne is, but I really like where he’s going with that first paragraph of his.

  45. Bob: I think that we can and should distinguish ourselves by more than faith in God. I believe I mentioned above that we are or should be distinguished by our belief in the restoration and by our discipleship. I realize that many other faiths also take discipleship seriously, but they do not believe in the restoration. However, I can’t help but come back to the standard that Jesus rather clearly taught. He said his true disciples would be distinguished by their love for others. Why is that not good enough for us? If we want to, we could add to that our belief in the restoration. But when he has declared that we will be distinguished by that quality, why would we seek to be distinguished by our adherence to arbitrary rules? It is the easiest thing in the world to come up with ways of distinguishing ourselves. To be distinguished by our character should be our objective.

  46. Bob Caswell says:

    Gary, the problem with buzz words like “love” and “character” is that everyone and their dog uses these words in a million different contexts making it virtually impossible to use them in a way that would be distinguishable.

    However, I think you and I are on common ground with your restoration suggestion. That is more of a non-threatening but easily distinguishable characteristic of our church.

  47. Wayne: I understand and agree with your point when you talk about tithing. I see the connection between tithing and consecration. Tithing is not arbitrary–it is a step along the road to the ideal. I am not sure this is true of the WoW. I keep it, but I don’t see how it teaches me about sacrifice. If the law of sacrifice simply means that we obey arbitrary rules just because God says so, then I guess it does give us practice in obeying arbitrary rules. However, if the law of sacrifice means that we sacrifice that which is wicked, or that which is of fleeting value for that which is of eternal value, or that we sacrifice our personal comfort, time or possessions for a greater good, then I don’t see the connection to the WoW. In fact, I can understand a person being more willing to sacrifice her life in defence of truth, than to sacrifice something less consequential for no particular reason. Rules and rituals connected to moral principles make sense to me. I have trouble understanding rules and rituals which do not appear to have such a connection.

  48. Gary–on some level I don’t disagree with you; many physical acts are important because of the principles they point us towards. But some physical acts–being baptized, taking the sacrament, the motions we make in the temple–have significance purely as physical acts. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any need for proxy ordinances. What our physical bodies do is important in ways I don’t think we fully understand–it may be that the W of W is partly about reminding us that physical obedience is important even if (especially if?) we don’t entirely understand the symbolic or spiritual intent of certain commandments. An important part of the Restoration is the reinvigoration of our understanding of the intimate connections between physical and spiritual–“all spirit is matter.”

  49. Kristine: I take your point as it applies to ordinances. However, I don’t see how the WoW is analogous. Whether or not I completely understand the signficance of baptism or temple ordinances, I do understand that they are ordinances, and that I am making covenants that have eternal significance. I can’t say that about abstaining from tea. Maybe I am just too time bound and earth bound to get it.

  50. Here’a a simpler analysis: Organizations invariably tend to stress rules over principles. Some commandments embody easily identified principles, such as “thou shalt not kill.” Other commandments appear to be essentially rules, such as the Word of Wisdom. So is it any surprise that the Church (an organization) ends up stressing the WoW (esentially a rule) more than principles like charity or humility?

    Sure one hears the terms “charity” and “humility” over the pulpit, and few Mormons think that the WoW is more important than charity. But organizations can’t enforce principles, only rules, so the WoW gets more weight than it should.

  51. “invariably tend to stress rules over principles”

    That’s dead-on, of course, which is something the Church has always struggled against. But some would argue that what’s needed is a set of rules that more accurately reflects the overarching principles. After all, these rules are meant to stem from the principles, not vice-versa. So the the extent we criticize over-emphasizing the WoW, we could just be chafing against the extent to which it fails as a rule to point us towards the principle.

  52. Aaron Stone says:

    I believe that the WofW has been declared a commandment. In the scriptures, we are all counciled to keep our bodies clean, as our bodies are “Temples of God”. Therefore, any harmful substance taken into the body is disregarding the rule to keep our bodies “clean”. Harmful substances can also be applied to the area of media. What we allow, or take into our minds, effects us more than most people realize. Therfore, my vote goes to saying that the WofW is in fact a Commandment of God.