Americans still love to eat their meat—175 pounds of it per person per year [Matthew Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2002), 322]. Yet the number of vegetarians continues to grow. They now make up some six percent of the general population, and their numbers are increasing most rapidly among teenagers, many of whom consider vegetarianism to be a virtue [Harriet Barovick, “I Was a Teen Vegetarian,” TIME (October 16, 2000), F18].
These days vegetarianism comes in many different varieties. There are the garden variety vegetarians, who refuse to eat meat. There are the pesco-vegetarians, who will eat seafood. There are the fruitarians, who only eat fruits and berries. There are the ovo-vegetarians, who sometimes eat eggs. Then there are the lacto-vegetarians, who don't eat eggs but do eat dairy products. Finally, there are the vegans, who refuse to eat any animal products at all. One thinks of the character on The Simpsons who claimed to be a “Level Five” vegan: he wouldn't eat anything that cast a shadow.
People become vegetarians for a variety of reasons. Many consider it to be a healthier way to live. Others are opposed to eating animals as a matter of moral principle. To kill an animal for food, they say, is to violate its right to life. So they advocate a non-violent diet. Then there are vegetarians who object to eating any meat produced by the methods of industrial farming. They say—and rightly so—that many meat farms and slaughterhouses show little respect for the welfare of the animals that live and die on them. Most Americans are carefully shielded from this bloody business, but if we had to kill all the animals we eat, would we still eat as many of them as we do?
Some of the people who refuse to eat meat are Christians. For some this is a matter of personal choice, but others say that this is the biblical thing to do. Witness the “Hallelujah Diet,” a creation-order meal plan based on Genesis 1:29: “I give you all plants bearing seed everywhere on earth and every tree bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.” Or witness the ad campaign (sponsored by People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals) in which billboards declared “Jesus Was a Vegetarian.” The image of Jesus on the advertisement was adorned with a giant slice of orange for a halo.
The claim that Jesus was a total vegetarian is demonstrably false. He ate fish with his disciples (Luke 24:4243), and as a pious Jew he undoubtedly ate lamb at Passover. But the question remains: Is it permissible, or advisable, or even mandatory for Christians to be vegetarians?
I will not try to answer this question from the nutritional point of view, except to say that a properly balanced vegetarian diet can supply everything a person needs (one thinks of the marvelous benefits that Daniel and his friends enjoyed in Babylon by eating only vegetables and drinking only water), and that by itself, eliminating meat does not make a diet healthy. But I am called to be a theologian, not a nutritionist. So what does the Bible teach about eating plants and/or animals?
To begin with, the Bible plainly teaches that human beings are permitted to eat meat. It was not that way in the Garden of Eden, but it has been that way ever since God made his covenant with Noah, and said, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything” (Gen. 9:3). Any absolute objection to meat-eating, therefore, stands in contradiction to Scripture. “There is no sin,” said Thomas Aquinas, “in using a thing for the purpose for which it is” [quoted in David J. Atkinson, “Animal Rights,” New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995), 745]. And in the case of animals, one of their purposes is to supply us with food.
Furthermore, the New Testament warns against making vegetarianism or any other diet an article of religious faith. The apostle Paul says that among the dangerous and demonic doctrines of the last days, when some people will depart from the faith, is required “abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Tim. 4:3). According to the apostle, there is something spiritually harmful about making dietary requirements or restrictions the basis for finding favor with God.
Then the apostle proceeds to give a strong endorsement of the enjoyment we may find in using creation according to the intention of its Creator: “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4). Among the many good things that God created for us to enjoy—as long as we use them for his glory—are nice, juicy pieces of meat.
Having said all of that, we must also say that nothing in the Bible requires Christians to eat meat. While meat-eating is permissible, and potentially enjoyable, it is not obligatory. We are free to eat or not to eat meat.
Here, then, is an area for Christian liberty. As Paul said to the Romans, “The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God” (Rom. 14:6). Although the context here is meat offered to idols, the principle has a wider application. Whether we indulge or abstain, we can all glorify God by doing it: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).
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