Paul's letters to Timothy (first letter, chapter 4) and to the Romans (chapter 14) say that all food is good to eat. He also calls abstinence from meat a false teaching. How do you reconcile vegetarianism with these teachings?

Using Paul's letters to justify eating meat betrays a misunderstanding of what Paul was saying. Paul's commentary on eating meat serves a specific historical purpose, just like his teachings on marriage and slavery. Viewed in context, Paul's writings support vegetarianism.

Recall that Paul's writings have been used over the years to justify all manner of evils, from slavery to spousal and child abuse to the Western expansion and slaughter of Native Americans. We must be careful not to misuse Paul's writings to justify the gross abuse of animals inherent in raising and slaughtering them for food.

Some vegetarian Biblical scholars simply note that the author of First Timothy says that "all food is lawful." Animals are not food, they note, but living creatures of God in their own right. The food given to humanity by God is the food of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1:29) and the food of heaven, where "no one will harm or destroy over my holy mountain, for as water fills the sea, the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord" (Isaiah 11). There will be no slaughterhouses in heaven.

It is crucial to recall that in all of his letters, Paul is writing to specific communities at a specific period in history, as is clear from his writings with regard to slavery and a woman's place in the congregation, which make sense in historical context, but have been misused for many years. Much in the scriptures attempts to address specific issues facing the early Church and must be understood within that framework. The letters to Timothy, written not by Paul but by one of his disciples 60 to 150 years after Paul's martyrdom, are good examples.

Vegetarianism was a hot topic in the early Church, as it has been ever since, with many Christians abstaining from meat for fear of eating meat offered to idols. Others abstained in order to affirm a God of compassion, the God of Genesis 1 and the prophetic vision of Isaiah 11, as addressed in our question on eschatology. Still others abstained because they believed material creation to be evil. It is only the vegetarianism of self-denial, abstinence from meat based on a belief in bodily impurity, which Paul disdains as heresy, as in First Timothy.

Any introduction to First Timothy, or even the brief notes in a study Bible, explain that among many early Christians were some who "despised everything concerning the body," and out of this they opposed marriage, drinking wine, and eating meat. They also instituted practices such as self-flagellation and nonstop fasting of one sort or another. It is this "ascetical vegetarianism" which is being condemned by the author of First Timothy.

Vegetarianism for others was an affirmation, rather than a rejection, of God's creation, and would thus be acceptable. As Dr. Richard Alan Young explains in Is God a Vegetarian, "The author [of First Timothy] condemns only those who turn vegetarianism into an absolute law because they believe that the physical creation is evil. … Within the Pauline tradition, it would have been perfectly acceptable to abstain for the right reasons" (p. 117).

Bible Scholar John Davidson concurs. Commenting on the use of First Timothy as a blanket rejection of vegetarianism in The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of His Original Teachings, he states that "The justification for eating meat…is a parody of logic and compassion. One could apply the same reasoning to anything in the world that one desired--that God had created it so it must be all right to eat it, indulge in it, possess it, and so on. This comment is also quite the reverse of Paul's attitude in which he recommends vegetarianism if eating meat seems to upset someone" (p. 941).

Apparently, Paul both adopted and advocated a vegetarian diet, as shown in his first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 8) and his letter to the Romans (chapter 14). Commenting on First Corinthians, chapter 8, Vaclavik explains that "Paul is here clearly stating that, if his habit of eating meat causes dissent among the Christian fellowship … he will cease eating meat from that day forward" (p. 309).

Some suggest that Paul was a vegetarian for the "wrong" reasons. However, as Davidson explains, "Paul was expecting the imminent end of the world" (p. 941). Thus, Paul's writings and practice focus on inclusivity and immediate salvation. Paul accommodates slave owners (e.g., I Corinthians 7:20-24, Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, I Timothy 6:1-2, Titus 2:9-10, Philemon 1) and meat-eaters, despite the direct contradiction of meat-eating and slavery with Jesus' counsel that human beings should be compassionate and merciful.

Young concludes, "From God's approval of creation (Genesis 1:31) to God's redemption of all creation (Romans 8:19-21), we learn that the created world is good and is to be valued for its own sake. Just as the early Church denounced those who devalued creation, the church today should denounce animal abuse wherever it is found, for it too debases God's good creation. Ironic as it may seem, the devaluing of animals by the Gnostics lead to a very strict form of vegetarianism, whereas the devaluing of animals today leads to an unrestrained eating of meat" (p. 119).

In summary, a vegetarian diet is in much better keeping with the life-affirming spirit of Paul's teachings than with one that supports the violence and disrespect for God's creatures inherent in a meat-inclusive diet.

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