Food is a blessing
Food. Did you know that food is a blessing from God? The Bible tells us that food is given to us as a gift from God for our good. We see this firstly in Genesis chapter 1.
Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food’ (Gen.1:29).
Then came the flood. After Noah and his family left the ark, God spoke to Noah and his sons. Genesis 9 says:
God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it’ (Gen. 9:1-4).
It’s important to notice that, God specified in the very next verse that killing animals to eat was quite different from killing human beings.
Food is a regulated blessing
Although God gave food as a blessing, he also regulated the use of this gift of food, not only specifying what should and should not be eaten, but also how it should be prepared and eaten. See Leviticus 11:3-4, 19:26 and Deuteronomy 14:7-8. Violations of God’s food laws were to be punished (1 Samuel 14:33-34, Ezekiel 33:25). It is clear from these laws that from the time of Genesis 9 the people of God were omnivorous, that is they ate plants and meat
Food in the new covenant
In the New Testament there are two occasions when food surfaces as an issue among believers. Firstly, in Acts 15 we see arrangements made for Jewish Christians to have their consciences protected whilst entering into fellowship with believing Gentiles. Then in 1 Corinthians 8, we see the clash of the ethnically diverse community of God’s people over food. Here the question is food offered to idols. The key issue is that it was essential to the blessing of the new covenant to bring all things together under the headship of Christ (Ephesians 1:10).
So why do we need to look at the issue of food again today?
In our society we are being confronted with another food ethic than the one we find in Scripture and as Evangelicals we need both to question our own faith and practice around food and be ready if necessary to reform them according to a Scripture pattern.
The dangers of just breathing in the atmosphere
In January 2019, the ‘plant-based diet’ was featured in the Eat-Lancet Report, a report commissioned by one of the most respected medical journals and the work of an international group of 37 scientists. Its core recommendation is to minimize the consumption of animal sourced foods and replace these with other sources of protein and fibre such as whole grains, legumes and nuts and it promotes this diet as a healthy alternative. The report has been heavily critiqued as to its methods, content and conclusions but popular discourse seems to be convinced of the health benefits and sustainability of the plant-based diet as espoused in the Eat-Lancet Report.
This subject is of particular concern to me, a committed evangelical environmentalist and rural chaplain in South West Wales, engaged daily in marginal hill farming. The recent ‘plant-based diet’ push risks discrediting environmentalism, seeking to eliminate the pattern of agriculture and the eco-systems that exist here with serious implications for the people I serve and for the economy, culture, community and language of my people. More significantly, it also has serious theological implications.
Is it cruel to eat meat?
We often hear that killing animals for food is cruel and this is cited by some as a reason that Christians should eat a plant-based diet. However, this is not the biblical viewpoint. Make no mistake, cruelty towards animals is ruled unethical in Scripture. Proverbs 12:10 is clear: ‘The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.’ The Bible makes it clear that environmentally sensitive and humane meat production is not cruel (Genesis 9:3-4).
Throughout the Bible, the divinely approved practice of the people of God across the ages was to eat an omnivorous diet. In fact, the Lord Jesus who, after all, was sinless (Hebrews 4:15) chose the menu for his last supper on earth with his disciples which (fundamentally) turned out to be a lamb dinner!
That old monster, methane
Christians need to guard against ‘breathing in’ the popular idea that all methane is bad. Livestock is touted as the single biggest source of methane and the link is made that all of this ‘bad methane’ is down to livestock farming.
Unlike ‘mineral’ methane, the methane that comes from animals, such as cows and sheep, has been shown to be part of a cycle that sees cows eat grass, belch methane, drop dung which feeds methane gobbling micro-organisms in the soil beneath the grass which in turn remove methane from the atmosphere by oxidation. Therefore, the truth about methane is more nuanced. Much more could be said, but the spike in atmospheric methane levels correlates with the worldwide race to fracking, shale gas and natural gas extraction, not to any changes in animal agriculture.
Establishing one’s own righteousness
One of the unwelcome features of our time is the virtue-signaling that has come to permeate our culture. This desire to establish one’s own righteousness rather than to freely confess sin and trust to the imputed righteousness of Christ seems to have latched on to the popular idea that meat is bad and plant-based food is good. Eating plant-based food may make people feel good about themselves and can give them a feeling of self-righteousness. To teach that Christians should not eat meat or even to imply that a plant-based diet is ethically superior unavoidably critiques the sinlessness of Christ. He himself chose to eat both fish and red meat. It also impugns the Eternal God, who not only created meat animals but explicitly assigned them to humanity to eat; invented the entire levitical system (where the priests were given the meat of certain sacrifices to eat) and never once in the whole of Scripture criticized the omnivore diet.
Giving thanks to the Lord
Having said all that, Scripture clearly states that we are wrong to judge our brethren on whether they choose to eat meat or not, because we insist that our way, either omnivore or plant-based diet, is the right way. Compare 1 Corinthians 8:13 and 10:25. ‘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’ (Romans 14:6). Let us thank God for all his provision of food to us, whatever we should choose to eat ourselves.