Monday, June 29, 2009

Secular laws vs. God's laws

I was on the road last weekend and attended church at a Mormon ward in another city. Their Sunday School schedule was a week behind my home ward, so I got to hear the Word of Wisdom lesson twice. After hearing members of the class quibble over what constitutes "hot drinks" and the purpose behind the various prohibitions and admonitions, I started thinking about how the Word of Wisdom compares to secular laws.

I've often said before that the Word of Wisdom would be a lot clearer if it came with a definition section, but that approach probably wouldn't work well for a religious law. A Word of Wisdom written like modern statutes would probably be less ambiguous, but it would also be limited by the text of the document. For example, illegal drugs are commonly included in the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom, but there isn't any particular text in Doctrine & Covenants 89 that supports this interpretation. Instead, that prohibition is based on the spirit of the law and (more importantly) revelation and clarification by modern prophets having the authority of God.

We have secular laws for many of the same reasons that we have laws from God. Those laws are intended at least in part to encourage certain behaviors and discourage others, so as to create a better-functioning society. Secular laws tend to be lengthy and difficult to understand, with rigid structures and terms of art that make them inaccessible to the layman. Secular laws, even constitutions, can usually be updated or amended by their enacting bodies to deal with changed circumstances. Sometimes secular laws can be interpreted by judicial bodies to clarify or extend the application thereof.

God's laws tend to be relatively simple, even if they aren't exhaustively thorough. They are designed so that even a child can understand the basic principles. They aren't always crystal clear in structure or purpose, but like secular laws, religious laws can be clarified and expanded -- not by legislatures or judges, but by God's servants and messengers. And unlike secular laws, God's laws always have an element of subjective application. Thus, there is considerable variation within the Mormon Church with respect to certain practices, such as paying tithing on gross or net income, drinking or avoiding Coke, etc.

Even though a Word of Wisdom with a definition section would be easier to follow, it doesn't seem like a good idea. God's laws weren't meant to be subjected to textual analysis, but rather, inspired guidance and illustration by His servants. Attempting to quantify and dictate every aspect of worship was precisely what the Pharisees of Jesus' time were trying to do, and that didn't work out too well for them. Worship was never intended to require legal counsel -- it is a personal relationship with Deity. So now when the members of my Sunday School class question how much meat consumption qualifies as "sparingly," I sit back and smile. If that's what it takes in order to keep the Gospel of Jesus Christ from devolving into arcane legal discussions, then it's a small price to pay.


  1. That's an interesting observation, and I would wholeheartedly concur. I would only add that the issue of legalism in religion isn't limited only to the Pharisees, although they certainly stand out. I submit it's precisely the result one gets when one operates with a limited amount of light and especially in the absence of revelation. Joseph Smith pointed this out when he observed how different Christian denominations would interpret the same scripture so differently so as to make it impossible to get a firm grip on what was actually true (JS-H 1:12).

    It can even happen with us if we're not careful. For it also suggests that when we ourselves become legalistic in our approach to scripture (I mean, in the absence of specific guidance from a prophet, apostle, or general authority, such as Coke as a Word of Wisdom issue), we need to urgently ask ourselves whether we are at that moment both close to the Spirit and within the bounds of our stewardship or authority before we can move forward with that interpretation, especially in relating to others. Even the Church Handbook of Instructions, which probably comes as close to a law book as anything we've got, presupposes that leaders receive revelation within their calling and stewardship. --SJR

  2. I've thought on several different occasions "why doesn't the Church come out and list exactly what we can and can't consume." For example should we drink green tea? It's tea but usually not drank hot and it's really good for you. Or is drinking a "Red Bull" energy drink Okay--there's nothing good about it. But if the Church did come out with a list saying "don't drink Rock Star's, don't eat at the double stuff gorditas from Taco Bell" that would be even more problematic. They would constantly be modifying the list to add new unhealthy products and remove those which are now somewhat more healthy.

    So I think it's wise for the Church to give us a little guidance and then let us follow the spirit of the law.

  3. When our ward had that lesson recently, I posed (rhetorically -- it oculd have really messed up the lesson otherwise) this question: If the prohibition is on "illegal drugs," or even "illegal use of drugs" (so as to cover abuse of prescription meds), doesn't the W of W have different meanings in different countries?