Dietary Matters: New Testament Dilemmas —Part 2
In the first post, we briefly looked at the vegetarian ideal as well as the permission to eat animals and its relationship to the sacrifices. God’s sacrificial system that is so often used to justify killing animals is in fact a restriction on one’s right to do whatever one wants. While not every sacrificial animal was eaten, meat-eating and the act of ritual sacrifice are closely connected, as both involve God placing restrictions to ameliorate the injustice of slaughter and consumption of animals. Some Christian beliefs about substitution and animal sacrifice miss the explicit compassion that underscores the sacrificial system. The texts clearly convey God’s deep concern, helping us understand how seriously He feels for the animals that are slaughtered. While eating meat is not a sin, there are conditions under which we can commit sin against animals. Our treatment of animals should therefore be practiced with fear and trembling before the presence of God, who cares about them. He clearly wants us to feel the tension between His permission to eat animals and His creation ideal, which the Biblical narrative never loses sight of.
At a luncheon a number of years ago, I met a college student who was studying theology at a religious institution. Needless to say, my dietary practices became the center of our table discussion when I bypassed the animal flesh offered to guests. This was nothing unusual, as I frequently encounter such mealtime conversations when others notice that I abstain from eating meat. My ministerial friend, who was quite comfortable with his meat consumption, described to the dining guests his favorite carnivorous endeavors and shared that he particularly enjoyed the succulent delicacy of lobster. Since he was attending a religious institution that considered Old Testament dietary instructions relevant for modern-day Christians, I seized the opportunity to politely suggest that the Old Testament considered crustaceans—indeed any fish without fins and scales—unfit for food, but he brushed this restriction aside with his supersessionist theology, insisting that it didn’t matter since Jesus declared all foods clean, thus negating all dietary restrictions.
How is my vegetarianism a theological concern when Jesus appears to sanction meat-eating by declaring all dietary restrictions obsolete? If my Christian friend is within his Biblical rights to eat meat, what difference do my dietary reflections make in my relationship to God? Sadly, many self-proclaimed followers of Jesus have become exponents of an antinomian logic that asserts the Old Testament laws have all been repealed, a claim explicitly denied by Jesus Himself (Matthew 5:17–20). Those who think the Old Testament is irrelevant as a source for guidance and hope today should consider rereading it, as it is nothing less than a revolutionary and liberating development for both human and animal rights (Romans 15:4). For the most part, Christianity has created a dietary theology independent from the principles found in the Old Testament. In the Second Century it was Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist, who first proposed that God’s dietary prohibitions were imposed as punishment for Israel’s disobedience. Christians can thus rejoice that they are free from the dietary burdens placed upon the Jewish people! This is supposed to be the good news. Really? Yet, the dietary laws God sets in Leviticus are carefully observed by Jesus, which not only reaffirms them but fills them with new and greater meaning. God’s earlier dietary principles were not canceled by Jesus and carry enduring theological applications that can be beneficial for both us and animals today.
I realize that many Christians feel entitled to eat meat, citing a number of New Testament passages that support this assumption, and are ready to contradict my theological reflections on diet. As already mentioned, I realize that meat-eating is not prohibited by Scripture, which presents a challenge to my dietary theology. Did Jesus repeal God’s early dietary instructions when he declared all foods clean? Did Peter rejoice that he could eat pork chops, shrimp cocktails, and oysters on the half shell? Did Paul really ridicule vegetarians?
According to many Christians, the Scripture in which Jesus allegedly discounts and overturns all diet restrictions is Mark, chapter 7. It’s the text most frequently used to show that Jesus declared all foods clean, indicating that we can eat whatever we want. Yet, upon closer examination, we find that the passage teaches us something entirely different. The conversation Jesus has with the Pharisees is not about abolishing God’s dietary principles in the Old Testament, which serve as directional markers to God’s ideal way. It is rather about the rabbinic definition of purity, which the Pharisees were trying to impose upon others. The question at the center of the controversy is whether the disciples should eat without engaging in ritual handwashing to avoid ingesting defilement. The issue is thus about the traditions of the elders (Matthew 15:6–9). In their desire that people engage in their practices of food purity, the scribes and Pharisees violated God’s intent by going beyond what He required. Moral defilement results from a rebellious heart. The food previously permitted remains clean whether or not one’s hands have been ritually washed. While the purity of one’s heart is more important than what goes into one’s stomach, the validity of God’s dietary requirements remains intact. We really can’t argue that this passage implies we can eat anything we want because Jesus upholds God’s inspired word about diet.
The point Jesus makes is that our diet must serve the spirit of God’s instructions. To maintain the integrity of God’s will for our lives, we must not be misled by the doctrines or traditions of men that distort their true meaning. I have met many Pharisaic vegetarians over the years who like to dictate how others should eat. There are plenty of food gurus out there who go overboard and preach their versions of dietary reform, trying to “strain out everyone’s gnats.” Plant-based eating should not become doctrine, lest we cause others frustration and lose touch with the direction of the Biblical narrative. We cannot reduce Biblical instruction to abstract derivatives or absolute rules that exist apart from God’s character and intent. God does not call us to worry about others’ dietary practices. He is not honored by food purist’s who share the Pharisees’ attitude and criticize others for potential impurities.
Many also misunderstand Peter’s vision of the animals to mean that God permits Christians to eat all kinds of meat. Read Acts 10 carefully, however, and you will find that it does not convey what many Christian apologists think it does. While Peter is waiting for lunch to be prepared, he is taken into vision, where he sees a giant sheet held by its four corners being let down from heaven. Inside are all kinds of wild animals, including creepy reptiles—hardly a tasty picnic. Three times, God tells Peter to kill and eat the animals, but each time Peter rejects the entire lot. The heavenly voice does not separate the clean from the unclean animals that presumably fill the sheet, which leaves Peter confused. He feels that even the permitted animals have become profane due to their proximity to the unclean ones. Then God clarifies: “What I have made clean, do not call common.”
What does all this mean? Is God literally commanding Peter to expand his menu options to pigs and desert snakes? No, because God was addressing something else altogether. The purpose of the vision is stated clearly in Acts 10:15 and 11:9. The point of the vision was about the three men who were about to knock on the door downstairs. It’s about Peter relating to the household of Cornelius, who wants to associate with Jewish disciples to learn more about Jesus. Peter’s vision has nothing to do with muting the Old Testament and lobster now being on the menu. It is about associating with Gentiles. Peter says, “God showed me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” For Peter, uncleanness includes conforming to the additional rabbinic traditions, which hold that Jews cannot mix with Gentiles for fear of becoming impure by association. There is nothing new in his vision, except education for an apostle who had been blinded by the religious definitions of his day. Peter learned about the inclusion of people—one big table where we can all feast our hearts on the “Bread of Life”—the way God has always intended it to be.
Another often-misunderstood passage on the question of diet is Romans 14. Paul describes how some individuals in the early church know that idols are nothing and thus believe that meats sold in the pagan marketplaces do not counter the dietary requirements given in Leviticus 11, while others eat only vegetables because their sensitive consciences are easily offended, since there was a specific command regarding knowingly engaging in cultic practices (Romans 14:2; 1 Corinthains 10:23-28). Paul does not ridicule the dietary commitment of “the weak,” for within the Biblical tradition, it is perfectly acceptable to abstain from meat and practice vegetarianism for the right reasons (Daniel 1:8, 16; 10:2-3). Paul’s argument does not discount vegetarianism inspired by the Old Testament but seeks to strengthen its perspective and position. What is objectionable to Paul is not the foods people eat but the attitudes, judgments, and rigidity they express towards others. His expressions convey the absurdity of using opposing food practices to justify disrespecting one another. “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brothers way” (Romans 14:13, NKJV).
Rather than scoffing at those who warn us against food associated with animal cruelty, with hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and disease, we transform these dietary concerns into contributions for the kingdom that can nurture the needs of others. Seeing the character of God’s love reflected in our food preferences transforms them into occasions for Christians to witness to God’s grace in the community. We may disagree about the importance of diet and how food is obtained, but Paul urges us to pursue the way of love in our dietary decisions. Eating for compassion is more important than avoiding possible self-contamination or engaging in practices that others may find theologically troubling.
1 Timothy 4
Paul’s criticism in 1 Timothy 4 is not directed against vegetarians but against a group that connects strict diets to their condemnation of marriage, a direct reference to Gnostic beliefs. What Paul is concerned about here is not vegetarianism but a belief system that considers all created matter as evil. He denounces the influence of those who despise the goodness of the natural world (Colossians 2:20). Paul counteracts forced asceticism with the truth about God creating the world and declaring everything to be good (Genesis 1:29–31). Paul recalls Genesis, where food was first created and the institution of marriage ordained, compelling us to receive God’s good gifts with gratitude. God filled the earth with food and then provided a diet appropriate for human consumption (Genesis 1:29). He created a beautiful Garden free from death, so we can rejoice in life. God shows that He cares about the foods we eat by presenting a right choice from among the Garden’s trees. Only by respecting the boundaries God sets can man fully enjoy life. To use any of these good things in ways contrary to how God intended is to oppose the very order and goodness of creation. Paul does not condemn vegetarianism any more than he does singleness but rather the debasing of God’s creation. The extreme asceticism of sectarian groups that strive to overcome the body and its needs—being material and thus evil—must be denied as a degradation of creation.
Paul’s condemnation of such extreme asceticism does not discredit vegetarianism for health, compassion or respect for creation. To discredit it based on such concerns would be a gross misapplication of these texts, since Paul aims to maintain the Creator’s good intentions for His creation. While Paul never directly addresses meat-eating or vegetarianism, he emphasizes that the good gifts God has provided must be respected and used with expressions of gratitude. Interestingly, meat-eating today has become a way of devaluing God’s creation. To gratify the demand for meat, animals are treated very cruelly. The twenty-first century thus calls us to a renewed recognition of animals as creatures with God-given value. In light of 1 Timothy 4:1–5, how might we protest against our modern culture’s devaluation and industrialized abuse of God’s creatures? The issue of meat-eating today isn’t just about killing animals for sustenance; more often, it includes a complete denial of the animal as a living creature. Might a vegetarian eco-friendly diet be considered an integral part of our protest and an approval of God’s good creation (Genesis 1:29, 31)? Whether or not we eat meat, we all must take to heart that it matters not only what we eat but how we choose to eat.
God’s Biblical dietary instructions contain more than just a hint of where our compassionate God is heading. The New Testament is not trying to blunt or mute the message of the Old Testament. It is the same grace that not only meets human needs but answers the call for compassion on its way to greater fulfillment in Jesus. In the next blog post, I will share the reasons behind my decision to continue being a vegetarian.
Until then, bon appétit!
Craig Ashton Jr.
2 Responses to “Dietary Matters: New Testament Dilemmas —Part 2”
At this stage of my life having learned and studied much more of Gods word, it’s hard for me to imagine asking God to bless a meal filled with the body parts of dead animals that He did not create at creation for food. If God sees the sparrow that dies and grief is felt for even a little bird, that example should show us the value He puts on life…all life, and so should we.
I agree. Making our diets cleaner or more compassionate is a call to a higher standard of mercy. Our dietary preferences should be sensitized towards God’s creation ideal without condemning anyone else who eats meat. Most people are not insensitive toward animals. However, very few are aware of the abuse and unnecessary suffering that animals endure. The animal-based food economy contributes to a fractured and unsustainable world which beckons us to embrace a more compassionate way of life. Norman Wirzba writes about the importance of saying grace and how food can connect us to God and one another as members of creation. Our daily meals can become spiritual activities that celebrate the goodness and beauty of God’s creation.