Vegans, Vegetarians, and the Bible

As you've discovered, opinions on vegetarianism and veganism vary widely within the Christian community. To complicate matters, these opinions are sometimes held with great fervency of emotion. Quite often there is relatively little tolerance for anyone who represents a different point of view. This is both sad and unnecessary. Scriptural support can be found for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian perspectives. Besides, the New Testament makes it abundantly clear that followers of Jesus are free to follow the dictates of their own conscience when it comes to matters of dietary regimen. In the final analysis, we all need to make decisions in this area that are consistent with what we believe God wants us to do, even if others disagree.

Let's take a closer look at some of the relevant biblical teachings and principles. We'll start with the creation account. In the beginning, God said to the man and woman in the Garden of Eden, "See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food. Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food" (Genesis 1:29, 30).

This has been interpreted to imply that vegetarianism was part of God's original purpose and plan for both man and the animals. Not an unreasonable assumption. On the basis of this, some Christian groups have decided that vegetarianism is an indispensable part of a redeemed and sanctified life. You're free to do what you wish with this idea. But you should bear in mind that the strictly vegetarian program outlined in Genesis was repealed in the time immediately following the Flood. In Genesis 9:3 God told Noah, "Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant."

Later, the Levitical Law made distinctions between "clean"( kosher) and "unclean" foods. It permitted the Israelites to eat animals that "divide the hoof, having cloven hooves and chewing the cud." It forbade them to eat the meat of all others (Leviticus 11:1 ff.). We should note that Jesus did away with these rules in Mark 7:18 and 19). God delivered a similar message to Peter in the Book of Acts. While on the rooftop of Simon the Tanner's house in Joppa, the apostle had a vision. After being shown a sheet containing all kinds of "clean" and "unclean" animals, he was told, "What God has cleansed you must not call common"(Acts 10:9-16).

The epistles of the New Testament expand upon this theme. They finalize the shift away from Old Testament legalism. They also underscore the importance of Christian liberty and the rule of individual conscience. "One believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables," writes Paul in Romans 14:2-6. "Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him … He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks."

It's worth mentioning that some Christians recommend a vegetarian diet for reasons that have nothing to do with biblical teachings. In certain cases, they make this choice in response to reports of the way animals are raised and handled in the food industry. This is a point worth considering. God gave us dominion over all the earth (Genesis 1:28). But He also expects us to behave responsibly and to be accountable for the way we treat His creation. Cruelty to animals is inconsistent with a Christian world view. Proverbs 12:10 says, "A righteous man regards the life of his animal." To this extent, animal advocacy groups have a perfectly valid point. Unfortunately, many of them seem to have forgotten that animal life cannot be given priority over human life. Man alone has been made "in the image of God" (Genesis 1:27). For this reason it would be wicked and foolish to deny food and sustenance to starving people simply in order to protect the "rights" of birds and beasts.

It can also be a good idea to stop and weigh the medical pros and cons of vegetarianism and veganism. As you probably know, many people are attracted to a vegetarian diet because of its health benefits. It tends to be high in many important nutrients, including vitamins, fiber, and phytonutrients (nutrients that come only from plant sources). It also tends to be lower in calories and fat. Most of the fats encountered in the vegetarian diet are of the "good" kind. To be specific, they are monounsaturated fats. In practical terms, this means that they lower LDL (the "bad" cholesterol) and may raise HDL ("good" cholesterol). The drawback is that strict vegetarians (particularly vegans) may fail to get enough protein, vitamins, and essential amino acids in their diets. The trick is to eat the right variety of foods. People considering embarking on a vegetarian or vegan diet should consult a registered dietitian or their doctor to make sure they are getting all the nutrients they need.

Here's the bottom line. If you and your friends feel that God is calling you to stop eating meat, all we can say is "more power to you." But we would encourage you to be careful about passing judgment on others who think differently. As you can see, there's a strong case to be made on almost every side of this question. The New Testament tells us again and again that believers must be tolerant towards one another when it comes to matters of this nature. It's crucial to remember that discussions of this kind are secondary to the central issue of saving faith in Jesus Christ. In the words of the apostle Paul, "Everyone should be fully convinced in his own mind" (Romans 14:5).

If you think it might be helpful to discuss these ideas at greater length with a member of the Focus team, our staff chaplains would consider it a privilege to speak with you over the phone. You can contact them Monday through Friday between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. Mountain time at 855-771-HELP (4357). The Family Help Center staff member who answers the phone will arrange for a chaplain to call you back. One of them will be in touch just as soon as they're able. They'll be happy to assist you in any way they can.

Resources
Reasons For Faith (book)

What Every Christian Ought to Know Day by Day: Essential Truths for Growing Your Faith (book)

Mere Christianity (book)

Basic Christianity (book)

What The Bible Teaches: The Truths of the Bible Made Plain, Simple, and Understandable (book)

Referrals

Christian Research Institute - An organization that specializes in refuting aberrations of the Christian faith and assists people in learning the true character of the God described in the Bible.

Insight for Living - Encourages people in the Christian faith and their trust in God.

LeeStrobel.com - An apologetics website.

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