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'Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred.'

So says Proverbs 15:17. Whatever else it means, it implies that roast beef is more palatable than just vegetables, and most of us would say Amen to that.

But the strident voices of the vegetarian lobby proclaim a different view, and there are Christians among them who try to argue a biblical case for a meatless diet. What are we to make of this? Should Christians forsake their bacon and eggs for nut roasts and tofu?

That you can be a Christian and a vegetarian no-one will deny. The point is, should every Christian be a vegetarian? Is the Christian carnivore a contradiction in terms, as some maintain, or is meat-eating merely a personal option currently favoured by the many and scorned by the few? Most important, is vegetarianism biblical?

What certainly is biblical is the compassion for animals that steers many into a vegetarian lifestyle. 'A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal,' declares Proverbs.[1]  The God who feeds the birds[2] insists in the Law on compassionate treatment for working animals. No muzzling of an ox when it is treading out the grain.[3]  No ploughing with an ox and a donkey yoked together, which hurts them both.[4]  The Law gave working beasts the same Sabbath day off as their owners,[5] and caring for their needs took precedence over normal Sabbath restrictions on work.[6]

But there's nothing there about vegetarianism. Indeed, the Jew who lawfully cared for his ox and donkey had no qualms about slaughtering a lamb for the annual Passover festival and eating it roasted with his family. Indeed, the same God who gave the Law commanded that he do so.[7]

But I'm not a Jew in Bible times. I'm a twenty-first century Westerner—and squeamish. I feel sick when surgical operations appear on TV, so I get the point of Paul and Linda McCartney's famous remark: 'If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.' I can cope with shrink-wrapped mince and pork chops in the supermarket, but you'd never get me near an abattoir, thanks very much! In Bible times, by contrast, people slaughtered their animals in their own back yards. The kids grew up with it. It was normal. And it remains the same in many poorer countries today, where people eat meat with relish whenever they can get it.

So was Jesus a vegetarian? Certainly not, in spite of claims to the contrary—all based on the non-inspired apocryphal Gospels. As a faithful Jew Jesus ate lamb at least once a year at the Passover.[8]  And like many of his contemporaries he ate fish—consuming it himself,[9] cooking it for his disciples[10] and encouraging them in their fishing.[11] Indeed, his miracle of the feeding of the five thousand provided fish as well as bread for a vast crowd of hungry followers.[12] So no-one can claim the example of Jesus for a vegetarian lifestyle.

They might, however, claim Daniel & Co. Along with his companions, Daniel found himself in exile in Babylon, training for the Babylonian diplomatic corps.[13]   The regime included 'a daily amount of food and wine from the king's table'—only the best would do for this elite group. But these young Jews chose instead a diet of 'nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink', which implies that the king's diet included meat. By eschewing, rather than chewing, that meat they turned out fitter and healthier than the rest of the students. A triumph, it seems, for vegetarianism.

But their choice was on religious, not dietary, grounds. To eat the king's food would have been to 'defile' themselves because, as any commentary will confirm, Babylonian meat and wine were routinely offered to heathen idols.[14]  To avoid any hint of idolatry—and the breaking of the second commandment[15]—the only safe diet was vegetables and water.

But what about the sixth commandment: 'You shall not kill'?[16]  'Kill' means 'kill' and, if killing's wrong, how can we condone the slaughter of animals?

Very easily. God doesn't contradict himself. If the sixth commandment extends to animals, how could he at the same time actually command the killing of animals for sacrifices[17] and for eating? No, the Hebrew word in the sixth commandment means 'to take human life',[18] which is why all modern translations render it, 'You shall not murder.'

Some animal activists, alas, are quick to tinker with even that word. Their 'Meat is murder!' placards, waved outside burger outlets, proclaim their ignorance, because 'murder', too, is by dictionary definition the taking of human life. To extend the term to the killing of animals is illegitimate.

But it's no surprise that they use the word this way. Many vegetarians embrace a pantheistic New Age philosophy that erodes the difference between people and animals. Once you raise animals to the same level as humans you can apply 'murder' to both. But such a levelling has no place in the Christian worldview. While we have much in common with many vertebrates (head, heart, lungs, legs etc.), we are also vastly different. Unlike them, we are made 'in the image of God',[19] and this difference, the Bible insists, is infinitely more significant than our similarities. That's why taking human life is in a different league.

So meat is not murder. Killing animals is not the same as killing people. And Jesus wasn't a vegetarian.

Why, then, should any Christian even consider becoming a vegetarian? There are some compelling reasons. World hunger, for instance. As Christians we should be concerned for the welfare of all, and a huge proportion of today's population are hungry. When it takes ten kilos of plant protein fed to an animal to acquire one kilo of its flesh, going vegetarian will help keep many from starvation.

There's also the health argument. By common consent, eating a lot of meat can lead to serious problems like heart disease and cancer. For this reason, vegetarians tend to live longer than non-vegetarians. The Bible teaches that, as Christians, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit[20] and thus worthy of careful maintenance. If cutting out meat—or at least cutting down on it—keeps the temple in better order, Christians should be open to it.

Then there's animal welfare to consider. True, God created us humans to 'rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'[21]  But 'rule' doesn't mean treat in a ruthlessly cruel and selfish manner. God's own concern for animals, already noted, requires an attitude of responsible stewardship. Sadly, in the Western world, the search for greater profit-margins has sometimes pushed intensive farming to excess. Serried ranks of de-beaked chickens in batteries can't be right and for many Christians such excess is reason enough to turn vegetarian.

Some would add an environmental argument. We are to 'work' the earth and 'take care of' it.[22]  Both Hebrew words[23] imply an attitude of serving the earth's interests.[24]  The demand for meat in the West, however, leads directly to the destruction of life-sustaining rain-forest in order to provide pasture for cattle-grazing. Livestock also produces methane, which fosters the greenhouse effect and global warming, and the ammonia from animal waste leads to the acid rain that destroys both trees and fish. Caring Christians, therefore, might want to ease back on meat-eating for the earth's sake.

And of course God made both humans and animals vegetarians at the creation[25]—that sin-free order that he pronounced 'very good'. Sadly, sin quickly spoilt the original order and, after the Flood, God made dietary concessions: 'Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.'[26]  Meat was now on the menu. We still live under that fallen order. In principle, therefore, we may eat meat with a clear conscience. We don't have to, but we may. Lions and crows eat meat instinctively, but humans have a choice.

And in our choosing we must not force our views on others. When the 'meat or vegetables' arguments in Paul's day threatened to split the church in Rome, he ruled that 'The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.'[27]  Militant vegetarians today would do well to heed Paul's advice, even though the root issue in Rome, as in Daniel's Babylon, was idol-worship, not diet in itself.

Another threat in Paul's day came from Gnosticism, which had much in common with today's New Age thinking. He warned against professing Christians who, following 'deceiving spirits', would 'forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.'[28]

So enjoy your steak and ale casserole with a good conscience. Diet is not central to sound Christianity, 'for the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.'[29]  If you're more evangelistic about vegetarianism than about salvation by faith, get your priorities back into biblical order. 'Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat [meat], and no better if we do'[30]—and vice versa.

Let's be clear: the Bible does not teach vegetarianism. I've been appalled, in reading around the subject, how some Christians go about things the wrong way. They first adopt a vegetarian position, then come to the Bible and bend it to fit their views. They are guilty of sinfully elastic exegesis. The quails incident in Numbers 11 becomes an attempt by God to wean the Israelites off meat and violence. Moses' call to 'choose life'[31] becomes a summons to a veggie lifestyle. And when Jesus quotes God as saying through Hosea, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice',[32] he is expressing regret for the whole Old Testament sacrificial system that centred on the shedding of animal blood.

Carving up the Word of God this way is infinitely more serious than carving up the Christmas turkey. We must not do it. We dare not squeeze Jesus' actions and words to fit our narrow agenda. Some Christians wish that, at Cana, Jesus had turned wine into water, and that, in his parable of the Prodigal Son, the father had called for meatless sausage and a Waldorf salad rather than 'Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate.'[33]

The Scriptures are clear: this side of the age to come we may eat meat. When that age dawns, however, meat-eating will be no more. With the creation 'liberated from its bondage to decay',[34] we shall enjoy a glorious existence free from blood-shedding and death. One-time carnivores will fraternise with herbivores, and all will be at peace with human kind.[35]  We'll all be vegetarians then—and we'll enjoy it!

Till then, the choice is yours.

But here's a thought. Aren't we called to move here and now towards the state of affairs that the age to come will bring? For example, we'll be fully Christlike then: 'When he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.'[36]  So we work at becoming more Christlike here and now, beginning in this age the process that will be complete only at his return.[37]

Another example: we'll be vegetarians then, so maybe…

And here's another: there'll be no sexual relations then.[38]  Mmmm—this is getting serious. Happily, Scripture urges married folk not to neglect the physical dimension, which we can enjoy to the full this side of Christ's return.[39]  The question is: in terms of progress towards the age to come which scenario does vegetarianism match? Sanctification or sex?

I'll go for a cuddle and a kebab.

Copyright © David Matthew 2001

1. Proverbs 12:10

2. Matthew 6:26

3. Deuteronomy 25:4

4. Deuteronomy 22:10

5. Exodus 20:8-10

6. Luke 14:5

7. Exodus 12:1-11, 43-47

8. Luke 22:10-11, 20. The phrase 'after the supper' in v20 refers to the eating of the Passover lamb.

9. Luke 24:42-43

10. John 21:9-13

11. Luke 5:4

12. Mark 8:18-213

13. See Daniel ch 1

14. E.g. C.F. Keil & F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Daniel, Eerdmans, 1988, p80

15. Exodus 20:4

16. Exodus 20:13

17. For example, Leviticus 1

18. Hebrew ratzach. It is never used of killing animals; other less specific words are employed in an animal context.

19. Genesis 1:27

20. 1 Corinthians 6:19

21. Genesis 1:26

22. Genesis 2:15

23. abad and shamar

24. See the respective entries in R.L. Harris, ed., Theological Wordbook of the OT, Moody Press, 1980

25. Genesis 1:29-30

26. Genesis 9:2-3

27. See Romans 14:2-3

28. 1 Timothy 4:1-5

29. Romans 14:17

30. 1 Corinthians 8:8. See also v13

31. Deuteronomy 30:19

32. Matthew 9:13; 12:7

33. Luke 15:23

34. See Romans 8:18-23

35. See Isaiah 11:6-9

36. 1 John 3:2

37. 1 John 3:3

38. Mark 12:25

39. 1 Corinthians 7:3-5

A Meal of Vegetables

Should Christians be vegetarians?

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A Meal of Vegetables

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