Should a Christian Become a Vegetarian?

Rev. Steve Schlissel - August 21, 2002

The Question…

Dear Rev. Schlissel

Is it all right for a Christian to become a vegetarian?

Green in Ontario

The Answer…

Dear Green,

In the winter I’d expect to hear from Blue in Ontario, so I’m glad that at least you’re warm enough to be green. Speaking of green, the comedian Jackie Mason has a routine about health foods. He says if you look inside health food stores, the people there look to be of green or orange complexion, gaunt of face, and as if they’re about to pass away. But if you look inside a Jewish delicatessen, everybody’s HAPPY and gezunteh-looking, eating their corned-beef and pastrami sandwiches.

Maybe he has a point. Moses, a manly meat-eater, lived to be 120. And for every vegan today who lives to be 100, I’ll show you 10 Dutch farmers who passed the century mark while eating meat, eggs and butter every day of their adult lives. (Just read the obits in the Banner!)

Speaking of vegans… there are three recognized groups of vegetarians. LACTO OVO vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products in addition to fruits, vegetables and grains. LACTO veggies allow dairy but not eggs. VEGANS eat no eggs, no dairy, and some refuse to eat honey or wear wool or leather.

To answer your question, though, a Christian may freely choose to embrace any of these diets, if it makes him happy. What he may not do is suggest that there is an ethical obligation to embrace a particular diet, or some measure of superiority in those who choose it.

Interestingly, vegetarianism in the West has religious roots, much akin to to the temperance movement. Advocates frequently foreswore alcohol and tobacco, as well as flesh-eating. It is said that John Wesley was, in his later years, converted to vegetarianism by a British physician, George Cheyne, who extoled its virtues on health and (allegedly) Biblical grounds.

As a movement, vegetarianism was advanced by a peculiar Christian group pastored by a Rev. Cowherd (talk about misnamed people!) in Manchester, England. In 1817, forty or so members of this Bible Christian Church, led by a Rev. William Metcalf, emigrated to Philadelphia. Metcalf eventually founded a vegetarian society which held its first meeting in New York City in 1850.

Sylvester Graham, for whom graham crackers were named (graham bread and crackers use unsifted whole-wheat flour), was a Presbyterian minister led to embrace vegetarianism by a Bible Christian Church member. In turn, Graham converted William Alcott, whose cousin, Bronson Alcott, was the father of Louisa May, who later wrote of her dad’s failed vegetarian communion in Transcendental Wild Oats. The Kelloggs of Battle Creek, MI, were prominent Seventh Day Adventists and advocates of the so-called health reform movement. [FOOTNOTE 1]

It is obvious to Bible readers that Adam and Eve were given what might be called a green diet. And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat’ (Genesis 1:29). But it is also obvious that man’s choices were later expanded: Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs (Gen. 9:3).

The rabbis have an interesting explanation for this change. They say that man was entitled to the fruit of the earth because he, in the person of Adam, was the one who tended and cared for it. When man, in the person of Noah, rescued and cared for all the animals, he was allowed to use them as food sources (with restrictions: there were, even then, clean and unclean animals). This thesis has a certain charm because it resonates with the Biblical ideas of stewardship, responsibility and dominion. Even the ox is said to be entitled to the grain which he helps bring to harvest.

The motif of limited to expanded was repeated from Moses to Jesus. The limited menu given at Sinai was later expanded, upon the completion of types in Christ, to include all foods as ceremonially clean. The freedom we have in enjoying food is a fruit of Christ’s triumph, His sovereignty, and His reign as Almighty King. Just as Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, so is He Lord of our diets. He has given us explicit permission to enjoy whatever we can give thanks for (1 Timothy 4:3,4). To our vegetarian brothers and sisters who choose to limit that for which thanks can be given, we have all respect, so long as they do not try to twist the Scripture into the service of their stomachs, and do not seek to forbid the rest of us from having our stomachs celebrate the freedom won for us by Christ.

And Green, next time you’re in New York, why not take me out to Ruth’s Chris Steak House? It’s a place where vegetarians routinely repent.

FOOTNOTE 1: My thanks to Jan Mohl Cohen for the source, Vegetarianism, A Way of Life, by Dudley Giehl. Information in paragraphs 5-7 of my answer was gleaned from pages 205-211.


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