The Bible and Vegetarianism

At the suggestion of a reader I have looked into some material by the Christian Vegetarian Association for a check of their scholarship. Before going further I should probably relate a few relevant details.

To begin, the CVA, for what few problems we will find below, is clearly not to the level we find in the sort of people who promote Ouseley's Gospel of the Holy Twelve. You won't find these folks citing all manner of apocryphal documents to justify their cause, and that we can take as a sign of responsible scholarship.

Second, I'll note my personal view, which is that I have no beef (pun intended) with any person choosing a vegetarian lifestyle, for whatever reason. Being that I live in Florida, a state that has been overrun with empty strip malls, I have rather more sympathy for environmental issues than most of an otherwise politically conservative bent would have. Vegetarianism as a means of responsible stewardship, as a protest against modern means of raising animals, is something I can respect.

Our purpose here, though, is not to engage the practical (health) or political aspects of the issue but to answer the simple question, "What does the Bible have to say, if anything, on the matter?" We're therefore only going to look at a certain number of points from a Q and A on the CVA website that relate directly to that question, once we offer a certain observation.

One theme that permeates the CVA site is that modern meat-eating is supported by such processes as factory farming which involve cruelty to animals. It is not our place to issues judgments on these matters, but the question that arises, and isn't answered, is, "If we were to eliminate these practices, then would meat-eating be acceptable?"

Although we wouldn't go as far as calling it dishonesty, it does seem rather incongruous with sound argumentative principles to not answer this question (though in one case the question is to some extent put forward, and then avoided).

Is vegetarianism biblical? The CVA site points out indications that vegetarianism was an "ideal" lifestyle, approved as "good" in Gen. 1:29-30 and foreseen in the future in Is. 11:6-9 as part of the refurbished earth. This is in accord with what my friends at Creation Ministries International have noted, that carnivory was not established until after the Flood.

The CVA site notes that God gave permission to men to eat meat in Gen. 9:2-4 but adds:

Gen 9:2-4 describes God giving Noah permission to eat meat, but this may have been because all plants were destroyed by the Flood and does not demonstrate that meat-eating is God's highest ideal. Similarly, there is no prohibition of slavery in the Bible, though it clearly does not agree with the highest biblical ideal. Throughout the Bible, people are encouraged to use their own free will to decide whether or not they will behave according to God's highest ideal.

The analogy is somewhat mismatched. There is really no justification for the statement that slavery "clearly does not agree with the highest biblical ideal." Paul speaks of himself in terms of being a slave of Christ (see Slavery As Salvation : The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity by Dale B. Martin) and Biblical slavery was a much different institution than we might think it is (see here).

However, this would not affect the main point that carnivory was not in the original "specs" for life on earth.

What about animal sacrifices? Of course one might argue that allowing animal sacrifice does not mean one should eat the sacrifice by itself (though priests were instructed to eat of the sacrifices for their own sustenance).

The CVA cite does correctly note that the time for sacrifices is past; however, it does misuse OT "objections" to sacrifice (i.e., Hos. 6:6, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice") in the same way that certain Skeptics misuse Jeremiah 7:22 to claim that Jeremiah did not believe that the Law was ever given. Hos. 6:6 and similar verses stress the importance of mercy over sacrifice, but are not actually "objections" to the practice.

Didn't Jesus eat meat? The site acknowledges, "Luke 24:43 relates that Jesus ate fish." It may also have added that Jesus passed out fish to thousands, and that the Passover Supper required a lamb. But it then adds, only, "However, many Christian vegetarians believe that Jesus would be a vegetarian today."

It is not explained why this is the case. Other vegetarian sites say that Jesus would have objected to cruel factory farming processes. This may indeed have been the case, but as it stands this still seems to not address the question, "What if such practices were not in use?"

The implicit answer, which the CVA site seems reluctant to acknowledge, is that barring such practices, Jesus would not have required vegetarianism. Indeed a far more relevant passage, not cited by the CVA site, would be Mark 7:18: "Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him?"

What about the passage in which Peter is instructed to "kill and eat" all creatures (Acts 10:13, 11:7)? The site replies, "Many Christians, reading on, find that this passage is not a literal instruction to consume flesh. Peter, pondering this vision's meaning, concluded, 'God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean' (Acts 10:28). However one interprets this passage, it does not require that we consume meat today."

This is also a bit of an avoidance; it is doubtful that anyone is arguing that the Bible says that we are required to eat meat. The issue is whether it is permissible, and of course, as I don't think the CVA would deny, this shows that it is.

Instead of advocating vegetarianism, shouldn't we seek reforms? This is the question which we feel should have been answered, but the CVA site, regrettably, does not really answer:

There are many ways to promote compassion, and many vegetarians are seeking reforms. While we carry out whatever public mission we feel is appropriate, we believe that people should be aware of the many negative effects of animal-based diet and agriculture, and we feel compelled to be vegetarians ourselves.

In essence, this does not answer the question at all -- it does give another reason to go vegetarian (health issues) but the question itself is not answered at all.

So is eating meat a sin? The site gives a fair and sound answer here:

James wrote that "anyone, then, who knows the good they ought to do and doesn't do it, sins" (Jas 4:17). Therefore, if you believe as we do, that vegetarianism represents superior stewardship of our bodies, animals, and the Earth, it may indeed be(come) sinful for you to eat meat. Paul affirms this when he says, "Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.... if anyone regards something as unclean, then for them it is unclean" (Rom 14:5,14).

If vegetarianism is so important, why doesn't the Bible emphasize it (more)? This also receive a fair answer, and it is an answer well-grounded in scholarship this time. Beyond arguments beyond our scope about the impact of meat-eating on the environment as a whole, it is written:

In Bible times, however, most people did not eat much meat in comparison to today. Thus, eating meat in antiquity caused much less damage to their health, animals and the environment. (Since world population and prosperity were comparatively tiny in the ancient world, meat demand was fairly limited. So intensive "factory farming" had not yet been developed in response to enormous public demand for meat, which would have been unaffordable in centuries past.

This is certainly true. Ben Witherington in his Acts commentary has noted that the eating of meat was rare in the ancient world, precisely for these reasons, though the eating of fish was more common in areas like Galilee. Anthropological sources like the works of Malina and Pilch note that a huge percentage of ancient calories came from bread products.

We have noted in another essay answering the question of whether comparing people to sheep is offensive, because sheep were eaten: "'No, they weren't.' As Glenn Miller has noted in this article: Sheep were raised for their wool and milk, not for meat and hides (although hides and bone were obviously re-cycled wherever possible). The average person rarely ate meat in the ancient world, since animals were far more valuable for their secondary products. Sheep were regarded as too valuable to kill for food in the ancient world -- obviously this is no longer the case today."

So it is fair to note that we would not expect a lot to be said about vegetarianism in the Bible. Most people had to be vegetarians for most of the time because they had no choice.

In conclusion: Those who seek to honor God with a vegetarian diet do not do so wrongly. Aside from a few miscues in scholarship and a very prominent avoidance of an answer that does not affect other points, we conclude that the CVA site does make a responsible case for vegetarianism as a Christian choice of lifestyle. How that plays out in terms of health and other issues is something beyond our scope and that each reader will have to decide on their own.