Should Christians Be Vegetarians?

Eating meat. Should Christians eat meat? With the growing popularity (at least in North America) of a vegetarian diet, some have suggested it is wrong to eat meat at all. I will share with you what I believe the Bible teaches.

At the time of creation, the Lord prescribed a vegetarian diet for our first parents (Gen. 1:29). But that was before the fall (man's first sin), and before the flood. Conditions on earth were ideal, and a non-meat diet was sufficient not only for man, but also for the animals (Gen. 1:30). (In that world, mosquitoes did not have to draw human or animal blood to get the needed protein in their diet. Happy day!)

However, with the fall, came a "curse" upon creation, with nature out of balance becoming a kind of object lesson of the destructiveness of sin (Gen. 3:17-19). Then, with the world-wide flood of Noah's day climatic conditions changed radically. In place of a uniform warm, moist climate from pole to pole, came more severe weather, with ice and snow, and freezing temperatures in many regions. Further, it seems a protective vapour canopy which once surrounded the earth was removed at that time. The sun's more harmful rays began to invade the earth. (This is one reason for the dramatic fall in life spans from the pre-flood times. Where human beings once lived nearly a thousand years, longevity rapidly declined after the flood to what we know today.)

With the changes just described, God gave new instructions regarding diet, allowing human beings to eat meat (Gen. 9:3). There are ample examples in the Bible of individuals consuming meat (e.g. I Kgs. 4:22-23; 19:21; Neh. 5:18), and it is not condemned as harmful or sinful. In fact, the holy days of Judaism required the eating of meat. Take the Passover, for example. Central to the ceremony was the consumption of roast lamb (Exod. 12:1-11). And since the Lord Jesus, as to His humanity, was a Jew living under the same law (Gal. 4:4)--a law which He perfectly fulfilled--He apparently ate the Passover lamb too. And we know Jesus not only ate fish (Lk. 24:41-43), but He broiled fish and served it to His disciples (Jn. 21:9, 12-14).

One more issue remains: the dietary restrictions of the Jews. Though they were pointedly allowed to eat the meat of mammals, fowl and fish, there were some limitations. Four-footed animals that did not chew their cud and have cloven hooves were excluded (Lev. 11:4-8), as were fish without scales--as eels or shellfish do not have (Lev. 11:9-12). Birds of prey that feed on dead carcasses were also excluded (Lev. 11:13-19). Some insects were off limits, though locusts could be eaten--and the latter were part of the diet of John the Baptist (Lev. 11:20-23; Matt. 3:4). But two specific questions must be considered with regard to these restrictions.

1) Did God set these limits because the excluded animals were unhealthy to eat? If so, then what was unhealthy 3500 years ago when the Law was given would seem to be unhealthy still--and still something we should avoid. Sometimes pork is used as an example to prove this point in the affirmative. It is pointed out that without proper refrigeration pork would have been extremely dangerous. But surely the same could be said for fowl and fish. In fact, the dietary restrictions of the Jews were mainly ceremonial, not health related. Consider Leviticus 11:24 as an example. Even touching the carcass of one of the restricted animals rendered the individual "unclean," but only "unclean until evening." It was a ceremonial uncleanness limiting religious activities until the period of uncleanness was over.

The main reason for all the restrictions seems to be this: God wanted Israel to have a continual reminder that they were different. They had been set apart by God for Himself as a special people, a unique privilege not given to other nations (Deut. 14:2). (Note that this last text immediately precedes a review of the dietary laws.) The daily application of these laws said, "You are different. You are set apart for Me, and must live in obedience to Me, and trust in Me." It is impossible to prove there is a consistent health problem with consuming the meats on the restricted list (as long as they are properly stored and prepared). It was a ceremonial thing. Which leads to the second issue.

2) Are we still to live by the restrictions of the Jewish Law? The answer is No. On this side of the cross, God is doing a new thing. He is bringing Jew and Gentile together in a new body (the church) through faith in Christ (I Cor. 12:12-13). Those aspects of the Old Testament Law that have to do with morality are also taught in the New Testament (e.g. not committing adultery, not stealing, etc.). But we are pointedly told that the church is not under the old Law (which included 613 commandments in all). About a dozen times this truth is restated (Rom. 6:14; 7:6, etc.).

When Peter was given a vision preparing him to extend the Christian gospel to the Gentiles, he reacted as a Jew (Acts 10:9-16). Commanded by God to eat the meat of animals he considered unclean, he refused. But a voice said, "What God has cleansed you must not call common" (vs. 15). And after Gentiles began to turn to Christ, a church council was held in Jerusalem to consider their status, and whether the Jewish Law should apply to them (Acts 15). The main dietary concern was that the Gentiles should agree not to eat meat from which the blood had not been drained. This had been a major and overarching command of Judaism for centuries (Lev. 17:10-11). Reverence for the blood related to the fact that in it was "the life of the flesh," and it was shed in the sacrifices "to make atonement for your souls." The early church agreed to ask for a respect for this prohibition among the Gentile believers (vs. 23; 28-29).

Significantly, nothing at all is said by the Jerusalem council about keeping to a vegetarian diet. Under grace, there is freedom of choice in this area. "Let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths [i.e. the restrictions of the Jewish Law], which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is Christ" (Col. 2:16-17) And Romans 14:1-10 pointedly says that those who believe they can only eat vegetables are "weak in the faith"! The Bible tells Christians, "The living us richly all things to enjoy" (I Tim. 6:17). Of course, as with most things, moderation is important. Too much red meat in one's diet may indeed be harmful. Moderation is the key. If a person decides a certain diet is right for him, we may express concern if it seems an unhealthy choice. But we have no right to judge him on religious grounds. In that he has liberty, and is accountable to God, not to us.