Vegetarian groups are trying to mainstream their image with an accelerating public relations campaign. And they have a celebrity spokesperson who’s hard to say no to—Jesus of Nazareth.
With billboards, publicity stunts, and a content-heavy website, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is seeking to tap into the Christian constituency with the “Jesus Was a Vegetarian” campaign—arguing that Jesus was an animal rights activist who is disappointed in his carnivorous followers. At the same time, the Christian Vegetarian Association points to the vegetarian diet of the Garden of Eden and the coming peaceable kingdom of the New Earth to argue for a vegetable diet as a means of sanctification. As they put it, Christians should ask, “What would Jesus Eat?”
On one level, we probably shouldn’t take these movements all that seriously. After all, if there is ever a movement doomed to failure in conservative evangelical circles it is vegetarianism. On the other hand, these activists are appealing to Christian theology for their claims, arguing that our churches show their hypocrisy with every plate of bacon served up at a men’s prayer breakfast. That deserves a closer look.
First of all, we should admit that on some things the vegetarian Christians have a point that is quite biblical. There are some Christians who seem to believe cholesterol is a fruit of the Spirit. Scripture explicitly forbids gluttony as a sin for which Christ was crucified (Proverbs 23:20; 28:7; Gal 5:23). The New Testament also commands us to exercise careful stewardship over the body as the Temple of the Spirit of Christ (1 Cor 6:19). An unbalanced consumption of greasy red meat is not Christ honoring. And there is indeed something awry when a wheezing, obese pastor rails against smokers for their lack of self-control. Likewise, while we should reject the unbiblical call for “animal rights,” the Bible does mandate mercy for the animals placed under the stewardship of humanity (Deut 22:6; 25:4).
But, there is much more at the heart of the “Christian vegetarian” propaganda than simply good health and animal mercy.
The first problem with these campaigns is their reckless use of Scripture. When Jesus is faced with the hungry multitudes in Matthew 14 and 15, he is told that a young man is ready with loaves and fish. The vegetarian Jesus might have responded, “I’ll take the loaves, and…might you have any soybeans?” And yet, Jesus responds miraculously to the carnivorous inclinations of the crowds. Indeed, immediately after His resurrection from the dead, Jesus prepares breakfast for His disciples—and eats with them (gasp!) fish again (John 21:11-14). Jesus tells His apostle Peter in a vision to “kill and eat” a variety of animals. When Peter protests because of the old covenant dietary restrictions against certain kinds of meat, Jesus rebukes Him for calling common what God has declared clean (Acts 10:9-16).
So what’s the basis for the “Jesus as vegetarian” claim? It turns out not much at all. Bruce Friedrich, the mastermind of the PETA Jesus campaign, admitted to me on Albert Mohler’s “Truth on the Line” radio program that the Bible does not teach a vegetarian Jesus. Still, he said, the claim gets attention from Christians and directs them to the PETA website! The animal rights crowd is unpopular enough with evangelicals. Why do they think lying about the Bible will help their case?
The same is true with the eschatological claims of the Christian vegetarian movement. Yes, the prophet Isaiah teaches the future tranquility of animal life in the messianic order of the New Earth (Isa11: 6-9), but he also speaks of God preparing a banquet of choice meats—full of marrow—for His people in the New Earth (Isa 25:6). Regardless, Scripture hasn’t revealed the menu for the messianic banquet, but is has revealed the freedom of Christians to eat meat in this present age. Here Christian vegetarians blur the “already” of the Kingdom with the “not yet”.
The second problem with the Christian vegetarian movement is its denial of the uniqueness of humanity as the image-bearing vicegerents of God’s created order. The Christian Vegetarian Association, for example, posts on their web site the quote: “For flesh eater to claim to love animals is as if a cannibal expressed his devotion to the missionaries he consigns to a seething cauldron.” It is hard to think of anything more offensive than a comparison between a martyred missionary and a pork chop. The group also notes that they “don’t judge those who may have eaten meat, owned slaves or done other things we believe are not God’s highest ideals for humanity.” Again, to compare the eating of meat to the enslavement of human beings is not just silly, it’s dangerous.
The Scripture, however, presents a different picture of humanity in relation to the animal kingdom. Jesus Himself teaches the surpassing value of human life over that of birds (Matt 10:29-31), as does the apostle Paul regarding oxen (1 Cor 9:9-10). We see this in the Gospel itself. The triumph of Christ is indeed cosmic in its scope, reversing the effects of the Fall on a creation God has declared “good” (John 3:16; Rom 8:19-22; Col 1:20). And, yes, the Scripture does teach that animal life is present in the coming Kingdom order (Isa 11). But, this cosmic redemption comes through atonement for humanity (1 John 2:2). Human beings were given dominion over the cosmos—including animal life (Gen 2:26-28). Human sin resulted in the violence of a nature “red in tooth and claw” (Rom 8:22). And human redemption restores the benevolent dominion lost in the Edenic catastrophe. Any ideology that blurs this unique role of human beings as made in the image of God can only lead to a distortion of the good news of redemption.
The third problem with the Christian vegetarian approach is the persistent danger of legalism. God gave to human beings the animals for food (Gen 9:3). He provided meat to the people of Israel—enough to sicken them on the taste of it (Num 11:18-20). Christian vegetarianism is not new. It was present in the false teachings of the esoteric spiritualists stirring up the New Testament church, and in the tender consciences of some believers who sought to avoid a meat industry tainted with idol worship (1 Cor 10:23-31). In every case, the New Testament teaches Christians not to judge one another over “doubtful things” such as vegetarianism versus meat eating (Rom 14:1-4). Sanctification is through the truth of the gospel (John 17:17), not through external rules for eating and drinking (Col 2:16-17).
Finally, and perhaps most seriously, there is a problem with the way the Christian vegetarian movement is in danger of taking the Lord’s name in vain (Exod 20:7). Imagine if “Cap’n Crook’s Fish House” used billboards featuring the multiplication of the fishes in an ad campaign: “If Jesus were here, He’d eat at Cap’n Crook’s.” Christians would be appalled. No less offensive are animal rights activist groups co-opting Jesus as a political mascot or evangelicals seeking to use Jesus to sell copies of a new cookbook or fad diet plan.
Despite the wackiness of the “Jesus was a vegetarian” campaigns, some Christians will decide, for health or conscience reasons, that a vegetarian diet is best for them. Others will choose a Mediterranean-style diet rich in grains and fish. And still others will cap off a night of door-to-door witnessing at the Outback Steakhouse. That’s okay. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17, ESV). Love Jesus. Respect your body. And
eat what you want.