Here's What The Bible Has To Say About Vegetarianism

For many adherents of religion, diet and faith are intertwined. For example, certain kinds of meat are forbidden for the world's 1.8 billion Muslims, per Pew Research Center. As for the rest of the meat, it must be prepared according to certain rules — a concept known as "halal," according to the Islamic Council of Victoria. Similarly, many practitioners of Hinduism are steadfast vegetarians, according to the Hindu American Foundation.

For most of the world's 2.3 billion Christians, however, diet and faith are not tied together. There are exceptions, of course. For example, Catholics avoid meat on certain holy days, and the Christian Seventh-day Adventist Church practices a mostly plant-based diet, per Healthline. But for most Christians on most days, they eat as if the Bible has given them broad leeway in their food choices.

But is this actually true? Does the Bible promote a vegetarian or vegan diet? Does the Bible say anything at all about this kind of diet?

Understanding the timeline of dietary restrictions in the Bible

The first mention of food restrictions in the Bible comes in Genesis 9. Following the Great Flood, God tells Noah that he and his descendants can now eat animals, where previously man had been expected to only eat plants. "Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything," God said.

However, a few pages later, God reveals his law to Moses, and here's where things get tricky. Long story short: Page after page, verse after verse is given over to describing dietary restrictions — the "kosher" diet — in exacting detail. In summary, God commanded his people to eat meat only from animals that have split hooves and chew cud (Leviticus 11), meaning beef is okay, but pork is out. As for aquatic creatures, they must have fins and scales, so lobster is out while tuna is fine. And so on.

Finally, in the New Testament — Acts 10, to be specific — Jesus' disciple Peter has a vision in which God commands him to eat certain forbidden animals if he's hungry. Although there's a deeper theological meaning behind this vision that has nothing to do with food, many theologians have taken it to mean that it also allows Christians to eat whatever they want. Writing in Evidence for Christianity, John Oakes notes that he — and indeed most Christians — have taken the view that the New Testament as a whole teaches that Christians don't have to obey Jewish dietary laws.

But what about plant-based diets?

So if Peter's vision in Acts is blanket permission for Christians to eat whatever they want, then the matter is settled, right? Actually, no, it isn't.

In New Testament times, there was a cultural and religious conflict between Christians who came from the Jewish tradition, and new Christians who came on board from the Greek tradition, as Grace Communion Seminary notes. What's more, multiple passages in the text try to address these conflicts, including when it comes to diet. For example, in Acts 15, a council of Christian leaders of the time tried to address this conflict, and when it came to diet, gave this advice: "Abstain from food polluted by idols ... from the meat of strangled animals and from blood."

Elsewhere in the New Testament, the writers attempt to address conflicts between Christians from different traditions regarding eating meat on certain days, or eating meat at all. For example, in Romans 14, the Apostle Paul addresses this issue twice, effectively calling for understanding and compromise. "Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God," he wrote in one passage. And in another, he writes, "It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall."

Modern Christians, vegetarianism, and veganism

These days, the cultural conflict between Jewish Christians and gentile Christians is water that went under the bridge centuries ago. However, that doesn't mean that Christians don't have to grapple with questions of animal cruelty, good nutrition, the environment, and other broader matters related to the consumption of meat.

Writing in Free From Harm, Robert Wayner says that "all scriptural passages pertaining to animal welfare are viewed within the larger context of the Christian message of grace, atonement, and mercy developed throughout the Bible." According to Wayner, this broader message points to complete abstinence from animal products.

In his question-and-answer column for Desiring God, theologian John Piper recognizes that for some Christians, matters of animal cruelty, environmental stewardship, and similar related issues compel them to eat a vegan or vegetarian diet. However, he also acknowledges that some Christians don't see things that way. His conclusion was effectively that of Paul: Christians should be allowed to eat what they like, but to regard one another in love, regardless of their dietary choices. "What we eat here is of almost zero significance compared to righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit ... Let's keep things in perspective. Manifest the reign of God and love one another," he wrote.