The recent update to the Word of Wisdom puzzles me. The prohibitions against vaping, recreational use of marijuana, and green tea do not seem new or revelatory—indeed, it would have been more shocking had the Church released a statement expressing that these activities were within the pale of acceptable interpretations of the Church’s policies around the Word of Wisdom. Even more bizarre than the update, the New Era article, ‘Vaping, Coffee, Tea, and Marijuana’ is almost farcical in its advice, ‘if you’re in a coffee shop (or any other shop that’s well known for its coffee), the drink you are ordering probably has coffee in it, so either never buy drinks at coffee shops or always ask if there’s coffee in it’; one cannot help but wonder if the author has ever been to a coffee shop.
Despite the rather unimpressive New Era article and the unsurprising clarification to the Word of Wisdom, I cannot help but wonder if we’ve lost the plot. The Church, her sacraments, her teachings, and her policies are supposed to be focussed on one thing: ‘inviting others to come unto Christ by helping them to receive the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement, repentance, baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end” (Preach My Gospel). Every action of the Church reviewed against this goal. Therefore, the renewed emphasis on the Word of Wisdom begs the questions, 1) how does the Word of Wisdom help bring people to Christ; 2) what is the purpose of the Word of Wisdom; 3) what is the relationship between the Word of Wisdom and sin?
The traditional narrative of the Word of Wisdom is that Emma Smith was tired of cleaning up the chewing tobacco left behind after every time the Elders of the Church met with Joseph Smith. She complained to Joseph Smith and he prayed to God asking what should be done about the situation. The response was what would later become Doctrine and Covenants 89. The Word of Wisdom begins with a statement that it is ‘for the benefit of the council of high priests. . . the church, and the saints’, was not revealed as a ‘commandment or constraint. . . showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days’ (Doctrine and Covenants 89). This then answers the question concerning the relationship between the Word of Wisdom and sin. The Word of Wisdom was never intended to define a rigid set of morals or behaviour. It lacks specifics that typically characterise Divine pronouncements on what is good or evil. The rather facile response, ‘It lacks specifics to emphasise our agency’ does not fit the pattern of the Unchanging God who announced that ‘To look upon a woman lustfully is to commit adultery in your heart’ (Matthew 5:28) and who gave the Ten Commandments and the Law which governed their application (Deuteronomy 5-6). Elsewhere in scripture God is unambiguous, He said ‘as many as have received me, to them have I given to become the sons of God’ (3 Nephi 9:17), not ‘think about whether this might be the right or wrong way to live and make a decision, I will honour your decision’. The final nail in the argument that the Word of Wisdom outlines a list of sinful and righteous practices should be that Christ, who was and is Sinless, drank wine and promised to do so with His disciples in Heaven. If perfect Christ could drink and remain perfect (His first public miracle was to make good wine) and we are to drink wine with Him in Heaven, then drinking cannot be a sin sui generis. Is this permission to break the Word of Wisdom? Heaven forbid, we of the Church are required to submit to the guidance of the ecclesiastical authority. Rather, this is a call for Church leaders to re-examine the emphasis placed on establishing “worthiness”, as if one could ever truly be worthy of Christ, on a dietary law. For dietary laws, though present in the Old Testament, were explicitly ended in the New Testament (Acts 10 and Romans 14) because their purpose—to ritually demonstrate the consequence of the Fall and the transmission of the sinful state—was accomplished in the Atonement of Christ.
What then, if not to divide wicked practice from righteous practice, is the purpose of the Word of Wisdom? A textual analysis gives several reasons to follow the Word of Wisdom, temporal salvation from conspiring foes, some basic medical guidance before the Latter-day Saints left the civilised confines of Nauvoo for the wilderness of Deseret, and the promise of increased wisdom and knowledge. These blessings are contingent, not on following a part of the guidance but on following the entirety of it. Some are clearly time-specific—the Church has not made its own wine for Sacramental use for a very long time. Similarly, there do not seem to be bands of conspiring individuals attempting to overthrow the Church through smear accusations of drunkenness, like they who made accusations against Joseph Smith. The wisdom and knowledge, the health, and the medical guidance are not about dulled senses, addictive behaviours, or slavery to vice—rather they are blessings coming from obedience to the cautions of God as revealed by His Church.
Finally, does the Word of Wisdom lead people to Christ? Not of itself. It might be a convenient addition to those searching for something to scratch that itch; conversely, it can be a stumbling block to those who do not easily submit to its rule. Is the addict to be barred from baptism, and the Grace necessary to overcome all, because he is stuck in a foolish practice? Should the smoker be denied salvation because she cannot quit? Would this extend to all the different components of the Word of Wisdom? Should the fat be excluded from Heaven? Those who eat meat and fruits out of season? I do not argue the abolition of the Word of Wisdom; but in focussing on the Word of Wisdom as a litmus test of moral “worthiness” to participate in the Grace-giving sacraments of the Church seems a monstrous abuse. Indeed, the Word of Wisdom as a list of “do nots, sometimes do, grey area, and dos”, as it is treated in LDS culture and occasionally in policy, seems out of place and off plot.