To eat or not to eat: the question of Veganism

What is the biblical theology of food and how should it effect our diets?

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Introduction

Ever since a tablecloth from heaven filled with all sorts of animals descended before Peter in a vision the kitchen doors have been flung wide open to all kinds of delicious dishes we have come to love. Dishes such as bacon, lobster, shrimp, sushi, and of course, the classic steak and potatoes. Yet, there is still the lingering question as to whether or not veganism more closely aligns with God’s original dietary design for humans and our future diet on the New Earth.

Now, this article has nothing to do with those who may have chosen to cut back on meat, perhaps even rarely eating meat, for health purposes. I myself do not eat as much meat as I used to eat; there are a lot of vegan dishes packed with a lot of plant-protein, including wonderful chickpea burgers, casseroles, and many kinds of soups, a great many wonderful recipes in Dr. Fuhrman’s Eat To Live: Quick and Easy Cookbook. The subject of this article is the radical viewpoint that meat should never be eaten, a view which the apostle Peter says will increase in the Last Days (1 Timothy 4:1-3).

Food in the Bible

First, it is important to note that while the Israelites were in the wilderness, God provided quail for them every evening and bread every morning (Exodus 16); that is, the people ate at least one serving of meat every day for 40 years by the gracious provision of God. Second, most of the disciples in the New Testament were fishermen whose livelihoods and daily meals depended on a good catch. Third, one of the Lord’s most famous miracles was feeding 5,000 people with a young boy’s sack lunch which consisted of some fishes and a few loaves of bread. Fourth, even after his resurrection in his glorified body, Jesus broiled and ate fish that he had helped his disciples catch that day. As we read Scripture, meat, particularly fish but also quail, was a staple part of the Israelite diet which our Lord himself ate on an apparently regular basis. Furthermore, every single day throughout the Old and New Testaments until 70 C.E. there were a great many burnt offerings from the livestock being offered to God as he had commanded.

The question about vegetarianism or veganism only comes up in the context of the pre-fall world during which God gave humans only “seed-bearing plants” and the “fruit from trees” for food. Then, upon the New Earth, we read that instead of killing animals, even the lion “will eat straw like the ox” and no further blood will be shed.

God’s Provision for Christians

Yet, regarding eating patterns, neither Jesus nor the apostles (though they had many opportunities to do so) argued from a pre-fall eating pattern forward or an eschatological eating pattern backward for how humans should eat today. Such an approach would have easily solved some of the problems in the churches of Corinth and Rome, but Paul did not take that approach, emphatically going in another direction. Neither the pre-fall world nor the post-sin world provide us with a model for how we should eat in this present world. Indeed, the glorified body of the risen Christ is the closest glimpse we have of the age to come and he ate fish. Paul argued as follows (1 Corinthians 10:24-26):

No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.’

This was not meat that had been offered to idols; Paul had dealt with that issue back in chapter 8. Here the word μακελλον makellon, translated “meat market” in the NIV, distinguishes the meat from the context of the idol’s temple and sacrificial rituals. In chapter 8, the apostle dealt with the issue in which some Corinthian believers were not merely eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols but actually were eating within the ειδωλειον eidoleion, that is, within “the idol’s temple” (8:10). Therefore, Paul encouraged the believers to choose a private venue to eat their meals and in chapter 10, the apostle said that the general meat market of the city was fine, reasoning from Psalm 24:

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.

The whole question of meat offered to idols would have been solved for Paul if he had taken the approach that eating meat itself was sub-Christian, reasoning from either the pre-fall or post-sin worlds as many try to reason today. Instead, however, writing under the authority and power of the Holy Spirit, he argued in the exact opposite direction. The apostle argued that animals which provide meat do not belong to themselves or to the earth, but that they belong to God who provides for his people’s needs, and therefore, we should not have any qualms about eating any kind of meat if we remember to give God thanks. Animals, vegetables, fruits, seeds, and all kinds of plants are the Lord’s which he has graciously given us for both food and the development of medicines to overcome many of the effects of the Curse, taking dominion of the planet as God originally intended.

Conclusion

Yet, regardless of whether a Christian’s diet is carnivorous, omnivorous, or herbivorous, it should not be an issue that divides Christians. Paul’s foremost concern in Romans 14 was a conflict between those who had decided they should only eat vegetables versus those who continued to eat meat. The apostle says:

One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servant’s stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Meat-eating Christians ought not to despise fellowship with vegetarian Christians, but vegetarian Christians also must guard against judging their meat-eating brothers and sisters. There is nothing inherently wrong with either choice; on such issues each person, as Paul says, stands before the Lord to give his own account and Christians must not make themselves lords judging each other on this issue.

It is fully possible for both a meat-eating Christian and vegetarian Christian to each live long, healthy, happy, and productive lives to the glory of God, and each kind of Christian has done so for two millennia. Although the American diet industry depends on selling the latest fad, being healthy is not complicated and summed up in only six words, Eat right and move around more. Unfortunately, that does not sell as well as the countless (and often contradicting) books by experts. Later in the chapter, the apostle gives his key message, saying (1 Corinthians 14:15, 17-18):

If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. … For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

The issue of vegetarianism/veganism versus meat-eating in Paul’s mind is not a matter of health, it is not a matter of attaining the ideal of the pre-fall world or post-sin eschatological conditions, but it is an issue of love. It is only a great issue in that sense alone; what we eat here is of zero significance compared to righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit which are the manifestations of the saving reign of God among his people. If such matters regarding what we eat are coming between us and other Christians then we have the duty to change or cut back on what we are eating; we have the duty to think of others before ourselves. For meat-eating Christians to mock or scorn vegetarian Christians or for vegetarian Christians to judge meat-eaters are both equally against Scripture. Paul’s theology of food is that, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,” and we ought to remember that no matter what we are eating.

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