A Theology of Vegetarianism?

Could reading the Bible change what you eat? I was recently asked for my thoughts on what the Bible says about vegetarianism, especially in relation to how the food industry treats animals. I thought about this for longer than I’d expected and came to a conclusion that wouldn’t have been anticipated by anyone who knows my eating habits: Deb and I are now eating much less meat. As in, we’ve essentially stopped cooking meals with meat in them. (We’re eating a lot more grains because my taste buds are nowhere near to accepting a mushroom in place of a burger.)

This is voluntary decision rather than a conviction that the Bible commands us to do this, because it doesn’t. We’ve found the most powerful argument to be that meat production is pretty terrible for the planet (to say nothing of the animals involved), which is contrary to the call on God’s people to use the gifts He gives us wisely and respectfully.

A decision like this can seem extreme and is usually taken with no space for compromise (hence veganism). That’s not how we’re doing it. We haven’t completely removed meat from our diet, we’ve reduced it. In the same way we have (ethically dubious) smartphones because they’re extremely useful – but we don’t upgrade them all the time. Not many of the clothes that we buy are ethically sourced but we try to find items that are, we don’t buy more than we need (need being a relative term, of course), and we pass them on to charity shops and fabric recycling if we’re done with them. This kind of pragmatism seems necessary for most people most of them time, I think, if we’re to get anything else done.

If you want to have a more thorough think about this, here’s a theology of optional vegetarianism based on four questions:

  1. Do animals have rights?
  2. What gets eaten in the Bible?
  3. What shall we eat now?
  4. How shall we eat?

No animals were harmed in the writing of this article.

1. Do animals have rights?

Most advocates of vegetarianism would suggest that animals have rights, but the Bible emphasises something else.

Animals are made by God, so they have inherent dignity. The creation account tells us that everything God made was “good” (Genesis 1:25) but the arrival of humans causes an upgrade in God’s assessment to “very good” (1:31). Why the change? Because humans are made in God’s image (1:27) and are given the His very breath (2:7). We are unique. When Adam meets and names all the animals on earth, he realises that there is nothing else like him: if he is to have a companion it must be Eve (2:18-23).

This sense of difference is confirmed by what God tells humans to do:
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (1:28).
We are God’s stewards, He has given us the planet to form and fill, care for and enjoy. Animals belong to God (Psalm 50:10-11) and are our responsibility, as Genesis 1:30 implies when it notes God's provision of food for them, reminding us to ensure that they are well fed. None of this suggests that animals that have rights, but that they are the responsibility of humans.

That the death of animals is not necessarily evil is shown by the story of Cain and Abel: the animal sacrifice offered by Abel to God was acceptable to Him (Genesis 4:4) but the murder of Abel by Cain is an abomination (4:10-12).

The principle of “animals good, humans very good” continues throughout the Bible. The Old Testament law states that animals should be rested on the Sabbath along with all humans (Exodus 20:10), and be fed as they laboured in the fields (Deuteronomy 25:4). Proverbs notes that one of the characteristics of a righteous person is that they look after their animals (Proverbs 12:10). There is, however, far more detail and significance to the laws which describe how people are to treat each other.

Animals matter as everything that God has made does, but people matter more than anything else in creation:
“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26)
If you’re a vegetarian who buys clothes and other products that are made by exploiting people then your priorities are the wrong way around.

2. What gets eaten in the Bible?

a. Original creation

Genesis says that the first humans were vegetarians:
“Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.” (Genesis 1:29)
The most simple explanation for this is that where there is no sin there is no death. Soon after sin enters the world, animals die. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the first ever clothes – made by God to cover Adam and Eve’s shame after they sinned – were leather (2:21).

Sin infected all of creation: food immediately became difficult to produce and gather (3:17-19). This struggle is made worse as sins works its evil in human hearts, and it is this combination that creates bad food production processes. The farmer and the farmed are polluted.

b. God’s people in the Old Testament

God extends the range of man’s diet in Genesis 9:23 to include meat (no reason is given for this), and He directly provides meat for people to eat in Exodus 16:12-13. Old Testament Israelites were given land to tend and crops to herd, which they were to acknowledge as God’s loving provision to them. Plentiful animals were a sign of God’s blessing (Deuteronomy 28:4) as they were a valuable commodity. Preparing a meal with meat in it was a way of honouring a guest (Genesis 18:1-8) or celebrating (especially the Passover, Exodus 12).

When establishing how Israel was to live, God distinguished between meat that was “clean”, which they could eat, and that which was “unclean”, which they were not to eat (Leviticus 11, Deuteronomy 14). This was less about hygiene and culinary preferences than it was about displaying God’s holiness by marking out His chosen people as distinct among the nations.

Animal sacrifice (described in Leviticus 10 and elsewhere) was a key part of the Jewish religious system because sin is so serious that only death can atone for it. Blood is very significant in this, so the Law forbade consuming an animal’s blood but allowed the priests who sacrificed an animal to eat parts of it afterwards (Leviticus 17:11, 6:26 respectively).

These principles of holiness and right sacrifice were in Daniel’s mind when he refused to eat Babylonian meat (Daniel 1:8-16). His acceptance of vegetables instead was probably because the meat would have been sacrificed to idols, and was a symbol of the Babylonian king’s ownership of him. Daniel worshiped and trusted the God of Israel only, and is blessed for his faith. This story is not a lesson in the nutritional sufficiency of vegetables but in the sufficiency of Yahweh.

c. God’s people in the New Testament

We know that Jesus ate lamb (Luke 22:7-16) and fish (Luke 24:42-43). He miraculously provided meat on more than one occasion (Luke 5:1-11, John 21:1-14). His first disciples had no qualms about eating clean meat (Acts 10:9-16) and eventually realised that He had taught them that all foods were clean (Mark 7:14-19).

The New Testament has several extended discussions about eating meat but these are always in the context of greed or idolatry, rather than animal rights (e.g. 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, Romans 14). As in Daniel’s day, animals sold at the Roman markets were often sacrificed to gods, and prayers of thanks to those gods would be made at meals. Christians were concerned about whether eating meat would make them partakers in idolatry, especially given that many of them were recent converts from those religions. This is the setting for every carnivore’s favourite Bible verse, “the weak person eats only vegetables” (Romans 14:2). Those with fragile faith should avoid anything that seems hazardous to them.

Paul was convinced by Jesus that all foods were clean (Romans 14:14) but he chose what to eat depending on the circumstances of the meal: would it encourage his fellow diners that Jesus is Lord, or not? With the confidence of Christian freedom and the urgency of Christian mission, Paul doesn’t care what is put on his plate, so long as he can talk about Jesus during the meal (1 Corinthians 10:33)!

While he is flexible in what he eats, Paul is rigid in his condemnation of those who would ban others from eating certain foods, and who thus put limits on the freedom Christ has won for us:
“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Timothy 4:1-5)
This is strong language and has to be taken extremely seriously.

d. New creation

Christians live with a taste of the glorious tomorrow on our lips.

The image of a meal is used to describe the return of Jesus, when He will bring Heaven fully to Earth. It will be like a feast (Isaiah 11, 25), a banquet (Luke 14), a wedding feast (Matthew 25). The new age will begin with the marriage supper of Jesus and His bride, the Church (Matthew 22, Revelation 19:9). This sensory metaphor is significant: we will live on the physical earth, we will have real bodies, we will eat real food. Jesus will have made all things new. All of creation is yearning - groaning even - for this day when it becomes what it was always meant to be: fully glorious and free from corruption (Romans 8:19-22). Only then will food production be perfect.

Sin and death will be destroyed. Isaiah 11:6-7 gives us a vision of new creation harmony in which naturally antagonistic animals are reconciled to each other (“the wolf shall dwell with the lamb”) and carnivorous animals such as lions and bears eat grass.

What exactly will we eat? The basic principle for understanding anything in the new creation is: like now, but incomprehensibly better and without sin. In Revelation 22:2, John sees “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.” Isaiah 25:6 talks of “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” That “marrow” is not the vegetable but the tastiest of meat.

However literally you want to take these accounts, they are clearly making the point that God will provide wonderful food for us. They could also be suggesting that in the future perfect circumstances this won’t involve the death of animals.

3. What shall we eat now?

The Bible is clear that everything on the table is allowed, but there are questions we can ask that might cause us to limit what we eat:

a. Spiritual health

Question: Given that self-control is a work of the Holy Spirit in us, what you are struggling to say no to? (Galatians 5:23)

My answer: Meat is more associated with gluttony and a lack of self control than vegetables, though it is not the only food that tends to be abused by us. Gluttony is one of the most tolerated sins in the western church, despite Paul’s insistence that he would not be mastered by anything, including his stomach (1 Corinthians 6:12-13). In a culture that loves to consume and have more than its fill, refusing to do so can be a powerful statement of what we ultimately delight in: God Himself. As it happens, I’ve found not eating meat to be remarkably easier than I first feared, and I think it's helped my general discipline.

Question: Given that joy is a work of the Holy Spirit, what can you receive from God with joy and thanksgiving? (Galatians 5:23)

My answer: Meat is more associated with enjoyment and blessing than vegetables! Of course it isn’t the only food that causes joy, but as Paul forbids forbidding food (1 Timothy 4:3-4) and encourages us to relish God’s generous gifts to us (1 Timothy 6:17), eating meat can be legitimately celebratory. Perhaps eating less if it will increase the joy of the occasions when you do. The New Testament principle would seem to be: eat whatever is set before you with a smile on your face and thankfulness in your heart.

b. Physical health

Question: What helps your body be in a good condition so that you can serve God and others well? (2 Timothy 2:4-6, 1 Corinthians 9:27)

My answer: Health experts advise that we eat more vegetables, fruits and grains, than meat. Meat can be a very efficient source of energy, it can also cause poor health if eaten to excess.

c. Social health

What might cause the reputation of Jesus to suffer because of your behaviour? (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 7, 8:13, 1 Timothy 3:3)

My answer: Jesus warned His followers that they can’t win: whether they abstain or feast they will attract criticism (Matthew 11:18-19). In some cultures, refusal to eat what you are offered is deeply insulting, and Christians should use their freedom to accept another’s preference rather than impose their own, in order to win a hearing for the gospel. We want to convert people to Christianity, not our diet.

d. Creation health

Question: What best cares for all of creation? (Genesis 1:26-31)

My answer: There are methods of food production that are uncaring towards animals and damaging to the planet, and people can be harmed by these in a number of ways too, thus failing all the creation responsibilities God gave us in Genesis 1-3. On the other hand, technological progress has made food cheaper and more accessible to people than it ever has been, and it is possible to farm animals sustainably and respectfully. Once again we should note that the problems in this category aren’t unique to meat. Jay Rayner’s book, A Greedy Man in a Hungry World, gives a useful, if very sweary and blasphemous, account of how complicated this all is.

Although I’ve made both sides of the argument in each category above, I think these questions can be answered to give you legitimate reasons to eat less meat, or not to eat meat at all. Deb and I have decided to change from a typical pattern of one meat-free evening meal a week to maybe just one meaty meal a week. We had already tended to buy fairly-traded meat and other foods that are carefully and sustainably farmed, but we are now being more consistent in this. For us, the decision was based almost entirely on the issue of caring for creation.

Will my choosing to eat less meat and only buy responsibly-farmed meat change the agriculture industry? That’s not my business, I’m just here to live faithfully before God.

Where does this stop before having to run your own farm or becoming a vegan? I go back to Paul’s point about not being mastered by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12-13). Our diet won’t define us. We certainly won’t tell people who are inviting us round to dinner that we prefer vegetables (I don’t!), and we want to offer our guests food that they will enjoy. If we’re eating out and the meat is declared to responsibly sourced, so much the better. If it isn’t, well I decide what I feel like. This liberty is, I think, more important for Christians to maintain than constancy in diet.

4. Conclusion: how shall we eat?

Surely above all we should eat with thanks (Acts 2:46). With every meal we are given, God is showing His love to us by providing for us: acknowledging this stirs gratitude and happiness.

Whether you decide to eat anything or refrain from some things, remember that the choice you’re making is secondary to your responsibility to love and bless people. If your decision to not eat meat makes someone else’s life more complicated (if they are cooking for you, for example), then why not rather bless them by accepting what they make for you, rather than telling them what you will and won’t eat? I say this as a fussy eater.

Paul reminds us that “food will not commend us to God” (1 Corinthians 8:8). This is important to remember because people often grant themselves moral worth (and look down on others) based on their dietary choices – and yet a Christian’s only credit comes from what Jesus did on our behalf. Whatever we eat, we do not prove ourselves to God with it. This is better news and more sweet to us than our favourite meal being served.

Whatever goes into your stomach, make sure that your heart is full of worship:
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

UPDATE: Every Living Thing is a website full of resources to help you think these things through.