Some of my friends have decided to become vegetarian and vegan, and they’re trying to get me to join them. One of these friends is a strong Christian who says that God wants us to live this way. But other believers in my life think vegetarianism is legalistic.
There are a lot of different opinions on vegetarianism and veganism in the Christian community. And to complicate things, people can hold those opinions very tightly; they don’t always tolerate anyone with a different point of view.
That’s sadly unnecessary because support can be found for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian perspectives in the Bible. Besides, when it comes to eating, the New Testament says that those who follow Jesus are free to do what they believe is right.
Bottom line: 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 from the Old Testament and the New Testament.
We’ll start with the creation account. In the beginning, God said to the man and woman in the Garden of Eden,
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. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food. (Genesis 1:29-30, ESV)
Some Christians interpret that to mean that vegetarianism was part of God’s original purpose and plan for both man and the animals. Because of that, they’ve decided that vegetarianism is a necessary part of a redeemed and sanctified life.
But the strictly vegetarian program outlined in Genesis was lifted immediately following the Flood. In Genesis 9:3 God told Noah,
Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. (ESV, emphasis added)
Later, the Levitical law made distinctions between clean (kosher) and unclean foods. It permitted Israelites to eat animals that “parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud.” But it didn’t allow them to eat the meat of all others (Leviticus 11).
However, in the New Testament, Jesus did away with these rules when He “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:18-19).
God delivered a similar message to Peter in the book of Acts. While the apostle was on the roof of Simon’s house in Joppa, he had a vision. After being shown a sheet containing all kinds of clean and unclean animals, he was told, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:9-16, ESV).
In other words, the New Testament finalizes the shift away from Old Testament legalism. It also underscores the importance of Christian liberty and individual conscience.
As Paul writes in Romans 14:2-6,
One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. … 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 gives thanks to God. (ESV)
Diet and social conscience
Some Christians recommend a vegetarian diet for reasons other than biblical teaching. In certain cases, people choose vegetarianism or veganism because of reports about how animals are raised and handled in the food industry.
This is a valid point because God did give us dominion over all the earth (Genesis 1:28). And as part of that responsibility, He expects us to be accountable for the way we treat His creation. Cruelty to animals isn’t consistent with a Christian world view. Proverbs 12:10 says, “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast” (ESV).
Unfortunately, many animal advocacy groups don’t acknowledge that animal life shouldn’t be given priority over human life. Man alone has been made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). Because of that, denying starving people food to protect the “rights” of birds and beasts is wicked and foolish.
Diet and medical needs
Other 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’s also usually lower in calories and fat. (Most of the fats found in a vegetarian diet are monounsaturated fats. And those can lower LDL, the “bad” cholesterol, and may raise HDL, the “good” cholesterol.)
The drawback is that strict vegetarians, especially vegans, might not get enough protein, vitamins, and essential amino acids in their diets. (Vegans cut out all animal-based foods from their diet, including eggs and dairy products.)
The key is to eat a careful variety of foods. People considering a vegetarian or vegan diet should talk to a registered dietitian or their doctor to make sure they get needed nutrients.
The choice is yours
You can make a case on almost every side of this question. In the end, if you feel that God is calling you to stop eating meat, that’s OK. Just be cautious not to judge others who think differently.
The New Testament tells us again and again that believers must be tolerant toward one another when it comes to topics like this because they’re secondary to the main issue of saving faith in Jesus Christ. In the words of the apostle Paul, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5, ESV).
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