Why don’t Adventists eat pork? Most of us cite Leviticus—about animals with divided hooves and chewing cuds. However, the Bible has a range of laws Christians don't tend to follow these days. There are commands about wearing blue tassels (Numbers 15:38), cutting the hair at the sides of our heads (Leviticus 19:27), avoiding mixed fabrics (Leviticus 19:19) and calling to worship with a trumpet (Psalms 81:3). How do we pick and choose?
Which law is which?
When Jesus said God’s law was eternal (Matthew 5:18) what law did He mean exactly? Are blue tassels included? While Paul writes much on the law, his writings can be confused because he uses the term law (translated from the Greek nomos) in a variety of ways.1 Peter notes that Paul's writings contain "some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist…" (2 Peter 3:15-17). So does the Christian New Testament oppose the Jewish Old Testament? This question caused the first major crisis of Christianity, exemplified by the dispute about circumcision in Acts 15. In fact, we still fight about this today and it fundamentally distinguishes Adventists from other Christians.
The "traditional" Christian approach
The "traditional" Christian approach divides the OT Law into three.2 As explained by Roy Gane of Andrews University: "A common approach is to regard moral laws as time- less and universal principles governing relationships with God and with other human beings. Ceremonial laws were applicable only to the Israelite ritual system. Civil laws were applicable only to ancient Israelite life under their government, especially under the theocracy."3
All major denominations uphold this traditional approach, including Roman Catholics,4 Anglicans5 and the Uniting Church.6 Therefore, what divides us is not the test but its application.
Adventists keep the Sabbath because we say it forms part of the eternal moral law enshrined in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11) and is found in sinless Eden7 and the New Earth (Isaiah 66:22, 23). Likewise, our health message corresponds to civil-law principles still applicable today—as human bodies don’t fundamentally change.8
The "Noah-Alien" principle in Acts 15
The problem with this traditional approach is it’s an artificial construct not explicitly found in Scripture.9 The apostles in Acts 15 probably viewed this issue differently.
First, verses 1, 2, 10 and 19 confirm Gentiles do not have to keep all 613 customs prescribed by Moses. That explains circumcision and blue tassels.
However, in verse 20 James still imposes four unusual commands on Gentiles: "to abstain from eating food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from eating the meat of strangled animals and from consuming blood". So why these four? Why not refer Gentiles to the Ten Commandments? And why does James think this so important that he repeats it twice: in Acts 15:29 and 21:25?
Bible scholars believe the four commands correspond to those OT commands applicable to Ger toshav—"Righteous Gentiles" or "Resident Aliens". Remember David’s man Uriah the Hittite?
Unlike wearing blue tassels, the OT says these four commands apply to Jews and Ger toshav alike.10 In this way Acts 15, "fully upholds the law of Moses by requiring of Gentile Christians obedience to the four commandments which the Law itself imposes on them".11
A similar approach is found in the covenant of Noah.12 Both historically13 and today,14 Jews do not expect Gentiles to undergo circumcision or convert to Judaism but simply follow Noachide commands given to all humanity after the Flood.
Lastly, as to why the apostles listed only four commands, these aren't all the rules applying to Ger toshav but probably a then-popular summary.15 The NT itself attests Gentiles were already attending the synagogue (Acts 18:4). Verse 21 suggests the apostles didn’t invent something new but merely reaffirmed what the law itself required, as had been preached in synagogues on the Sabbath day for generations.
What about the Sabbath?
It must be one of the greatest ironies of Christian history that the only commandment of the Decalogue that explicitly says it does apply to Gentiles is the Sabbath—to the alien within your gates (Exodus 20:10). The NT also demonstrates Sabbath-keeping wasn’t contentious like circumcision because Righteous Gentiles were already keeping it.16
What about biblical food rules?
It's also interesting, for most Christians who think biblical food principles don’t apply, that three of the four commands in Acts 15:20 relate to food. From an Adventist perspective, we don’t just abstain from unclean meat because it's a command found in the Bible—so is wearing blue tassels.
Rather, God commanded Noah to take seven pairs of clean animals onto the ark for sacrifice and eating.17 Similarly, other food rules are not just for Jews but specifically stated as applying to Ger toshav.
History proves it
History supports the Adventist position. Fourth century historian Scholasticus confirmed Christians continued to celebrate communion on the Sabbath, at least outside Alexandria and Rome.18
Concerning food rules, second century historian Eusebuius defended the charge against Christians being cannibals (misunderstanding the Lord’s Supper) by explaining: "How would such men eat children, when they are not allowed to eat the blood even of irrational animals."19
The Eden-Heaven principle in Matthew 19
Finally, we should observe the apostles in Acts 15:1, 28 were only dealing with the "essentials"—the minimum. Jesus confirms in Matthew 19:8 that there is also an ideal to strive for, alluding to the sinless state "in the beginning". Similarly, whilst celibacy is a heavenly ideal, Jesus admits not all can embrace it (Matthew 19:10).
We see this distinction between "minimum" and "ideal" in the example of vegetarianism. While vegetarianism is clearly ideal, alluding to our original pre-Fall diet (Genesis 2:9) as well as post-resurrection condition when wolf lies down with lamb, (Isaiah 11:6) eating meat is not a sin—as even Jesus ate meat (Luke 24:42). Thus, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is right in viewing unclean meat as "minimum" while seeing vegetarianism, like celibacy, as merely "ideal".
It's important to stress that Peter in Acts 15:11 confirms salvation is by grace alone—not works (Acts 15:11). So this isn’t about legalism but the proper response of love when people turn to God (Acts 15:19).
While God desires we show love by avoiding cruel butchering, such as eating animals strangled to death, or better still becoming vegetarians, God doesn’t expect us to wear blue tassels. It's important we Adventists have a sound basis for our "distinctives"; otherwise we’ll have to wear those tassels and stop cutting the hair at the sides of our heads.
Sometimes meaning the entire OT (Rom 3:19; Gal 5:3); the first five books of the Bible or Torah (Rom. 3:21); the Ten Commandments (Rom. 7:7); or even legalism (Col. 2:14).
Sometimes divided into two (moral and ceremonial), and sometimes into four (where civil laws and health laws are put into separate categories).
Roy Gane, The Role of God’s Moral Law, Including Sabbath, in the “New Covenant” (Michigan: Andrews University, 2003), 7, published on the General Conference Biblical Research Institute website.
Thomas Acquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, q.100.
Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, 1563, II, q.7.
Westminster Confessions of Faith, 1643,q.19.1-19.4
Thus, it cannot form part of the ceremonial law, which were shadows introduced after sin to point towards the future life, death and resurrection of Jesus: Gen. 2:1-2.
Gane, n9, p.8.
No idolatry in Lev. 17:10; no blood in 17:10-12,14; nothing strangled in 17:13 and no sexual immorality in 18:6-26.
RJ Bauckham, “James and the Jerusalem Church,” in The Book of Acts in its Palestinian Setting (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 179, 470.
Rambam Maimonides, Laws of Kings and Wars, 8:9–10:12.
Rabbi Moshe Weiner, The Divine Code (Brooklyn: Merkos Linyoni Chinuch, 2010).
T. Callan, The Background of the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25) (CBQ 55, 1993): 284-97.
Acts 13:42, 15:21, 17:1-4, 10-12, 16-17 and 18:4.
Genesis 7:2; 8:20.
Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 5, 22; NPNF 2nd, II, p 132.
Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 5.1.26, 4th Century.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, and a member of Livingston Adventist church.