Vegetarianism in the Context of Evangelical Christianity
I recently read an article called How to Encourage Christians to be Vegan. While I applauded the author's intentions, I was not convinced that the author truly understood why the vegetarian community often has difficulty convincing Christians to become vegetarians. In fact, as an evangelical Christian, I have often felt frustration at the lack of understanding that many vegetarians have of Christianity when they try to use arguments from the Bible to open the minds of evangelical Christians to the possibility of a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. This essay is written with the hope that I can help vegetarian activists to better understand why many of their arguments are not very effective in convincing evangelical Christians to be vegetarians or vegans.
The arguments that I present in this essay are in response to the following three paragraphs from the How to Encourage Christians to be Vegan essay:
"When I am challenged about Christianity and vegetarianism, I respond by saying: I do not share your interpretation of the Bible. I believe God's will for us is to be vegan. The Bible depicts a peaceful world at creation and at the end of time. God found everything in Eden 'very good,' and gave all animals and humans a vegetarian world (Genesis 1:29-30). Several prophecies such as Isaiah 11:6-9, foresee a return to this vegetarian world where the wolf, lamb, lion, cow, snake and little child co-exist peacefully.
"When I am being accused of picking and choosing Biblical verses, my response is, because the Bible is open to such a wide range of interpretation, all Christians pick and choose certain biblical verses that support their belief system. The God I pray to is about love, peace, and compassion for all living creatures.
"In the past people used the Bible to justify slavery, segregation, and the oppression of women. We now understand this was a misuse of the Bible and its true intent. The same is true for eating meat."
I believe that activists who try to use the above arguments will generally not be effective in convincing evangelical Christians to become vegetarians. If you are reading this article as someone who is looking for more effective ways to open the minds of Christians to the possibility of vegetarianism, than I hope that I will be able to provide some insights that will enhance your effectiveness. You may not agree with everything I say. Nonetheless, I hope that this essay is helpful to you, even if it's only in small ways.
I agree with the argument that God intended humans to be vegetarians when He created us, and that God will one day restore the world to a state of vegetarianism. I believe that this is a solid, Biblical principle. However, as a Bible-believing Christian, I also understand that eating meat doesn't go against the Bible's intent.
The initial permission to eat meat was stated in Genesis 9:3-4: "Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is its blood." God, in this passage, is not saying (as many assert) that animals were created for people, for all life belongs to God. Rather, as the Master of the Universe, God is granting people, who are the stewards of the earth, permission to eat meat. The life of Jesus also confirms that God has allowed people to eat meat, for Jesus fed 5,000 people in one day with fish (Matthew 14:13-21). Additionally, it is very unlikely that Jesus was a vegetarian because he kept the Jewish Passover feasts.
Most Christians are aware of these passages. Dismissing these passages with comments like "the Bible is open to such a wide range of interpretation, all Christians pick and choose certain Biblical verses that support their belief system" will not go over very well with evangelical Christians. This sort of argument directly contradicts the ideology that Bible-believing Christians are committed to. II Timothy 3:16 says, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God." Dedicated Christians therefore believe that the Bible is NOT open to a wide range of interpretations. It is only open to ONE interpretation: God's interpretation. This is not to say that sincere Christians do not have different interpretations of various Biblical passages. Rather, it is to say that Christians must strive, by the power of the Holy Sprit, to move toward a true understanding of Scripture. When I hear activists say that the Bible is open to "a wide range of interpretations," it even turns me off, and I'm a vegetarian. How much more will it turn off a non-vegetarian Christian? A great deal more, I think. I believe that activists need to stop using this sort of argument when talking to evangelical Christians. It won't work. In fact, it may have the opposite effect that they want it to.
Yes, I know that people have tried to use the Bible to justify everything from slavery to oppressing women. However, those who have done so could only do this by selectively picking and choosing whatever passages fit their perspective while at the same time ignoring other passages. Take, for example, the argument about slavery. Southerners in the 1800's justified their atrocities by arguing that the Bible permitted slavery (which it did in some contexts), but they selectively ignored the Biblical passage that forbids the kidnapping and selling of people ("He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death" --Exodus 21:16). The Biblical notion of slavery is therefore very different from the modern conception of slavery. Evil men have also used the Biblical notion of "wives submit to your husbands" (Colossians 3:18) to justify controlling and abusing their wives, but they do so by conveniently ignoring Ephesians 5:25 which tells husband to love their wives just as Christ loved the church. What does it mean to love? Love is defined in the well-known passage found in I Corinthians 13:4-8. This passage clearly says that love is not controlling or abusive. So, again, the Biblical notion of submission is different from the world's definition. Biblical submission does not imply being controlled or abused.
What I am trying to say to vegetarian activists is that you must look at all of what the Bible says, and it is only through taking this approach that you will begin to open the minds of evangelical Christians to your arguments. You will not be able to convince evangelical Christians of your perspective when you dismiss those passages in the Bible that permit the eating of meat, or when you make a statement such as "the Bible is open to a wide range of interpretations." If you want to be effective, you must acknowledge that the passages I have quoted above are in the Bible. These passages must be a part of your argument. If you fail to take this advice, it is my opinion that you will not convince very many evangelical Christians of your position, if you convince any at all.
I do not believe that God requires me to be a vegetarian. But yet, I am a vegetarian. Why? Because I believe, like the author of the article that I quoted above, that it is not God's ideal for me to kill his creatures for food. And I will make some of the same arguments that the author made. I will point to the fact that we were created to be vegetarians in the Garden of Eden, and I will point to the fact that we will all be vegetarians again, according to the prophet Isaiah. Why not begin now? I will also point out that there were Biblical characters who were vegetarians (Daniel 1:11-12). I have never met a Christian who has ever disagreed with me on these points, as long as I do not try to argue that it is wrong to eat meat. Biblically, I must acknowledge that it isn't a sin in the eyes of God to eat meat.
There are several Biblical principles to consider, and they must all be considered in a truly Christian argument for vegetarianism:
(1) God does care about his creatures (Matthew 6:26) and it is not his ideal for them to suffer or to inflict suffering (Isaiah 11:9).
(2) However, we do NOT live in God's ideal world yet (Romans 8:22). The world is fallen and cursed because of sin (Genesis 3:7-19).
(3) In our imperfect world, we are permitted (but not commanded) to eat meat (Genesis 9:3-4).
(4) It is a good thing for a Christian to choose vegetarianism now, for it gives acknowledgment of the way that God intended things to be, and it looks forward to the world that God will some day create (Isaiah 11:6-9).
Vegetarianism, for the Christian, is a choice, not a requirement. It must be presented in this way if you want to convince most serious Christians (as opposed to nominal Christians who don't embrace the inerrancy and ultimate authority of the Bible) of the validity of vegetarianism.
Maintaining consistency with all of what the Bible has to say has been the most effective way for me to open the minds of Christians to the possibility of vegetarianism. Sure, I have not convinced many of my fellow Christians to be vegetarians, but I have opened the minds of several of them to the possibility, and some have even taken steps in that direction.
In summary, Christians, myself included, believe that the entire Bible is inspired by God. It is inerrant and is the ultimate authority. If you want to open the minds of Christians to the possibility of vegetarianism, you should not dismiss those portions of the Bible that teach that God has permitted us to eat meat. If you do this, evangelical Christians will reject your arguments. They will see that you are conveniently disregarding those passages that are not consistent with your beliefs, even if this is not your intention.
This essay was written by Robert J. Ruhf
Email your comments to Robert