So why are you a vegetarian (if indeed you are)? As part of Paul’s efforts to bring the gospel to life, he raises some ‘lifestyle’ issues that affected not only the First Century Romans but also affects the 21st Century Western world. We have a huge amount of freedom under the gospel: how do we relate to people who in some way choose to restrict themselves and encourage others to follow them? It strikes me that people are vegetarians for one (or more) of three reasons: (1) Personal taste – they don’t enjoy eating meat; (2) Moral objection to the concept of eating meat – either in an absolute sense or out of disgust with the way the meat has been prepared or farmed; or (3) Religious conviction – they think that eating meat or certain other kinds of food actually offends the Lord.
Reason (1) is not really a problem at all: such people simply regard it as a matter of personal preference and are generally content to accord other believers the same principle of choice too. Reason (2) is a cause of potentially greater friction, since it potentially carries the implication that “I don’t do this due to strongly held moral reasons, and nor, therefore, should anybody else!” In addition to vegetarianism / veganism, there are those people committed to ‘Fair Trade’, or to avoiding products from companies who peddle formula milk to the third world, to drastically minimising one’s carbon footprint, and even to holding a party-political viewpoint as being much more ‘Christian’ than the rest. There are elements in each of these strongly held moral imperatives that are excellent and do relate to aspects of the gospel. However, I would warn those that hold them strongly of two dangers to avoid at all costs…
Firstly, the Bible really does not strongly support any of the above standpoints in any specific way – and it is false to claim that it does. Of course, there are verses that say: “A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal” (Proverbs 12:10); and Jesus also refers to the need to rescue animals even on the Sabbath, but that is about as far as the Bible goes. We can also regard our creation role as humans on earth as being ‘guardians’ of the rest of the planet on God’s behalf! But even so, we need to take care to avoid distorting the interpretation of scripture to achieve our own moral objectives.
It should also be noted that Jesus himself certainly ate fish and meat and encouraged his followers to do so also (Matthew 14:19; Luke 5:6; 24:42; John 21:9; Mark 7:19; Mark 14:12). His emphasis was to free up mankind from unnecessary restrictions and to place the focus on obedience to him. He also rode roughshod over the silly Sabbath restrictions that the Jews imposed open themselves and all their followers. Paul echoed Jesus’ stance on all these things and encouraged freedom in terms of diet (Romans 14:14, 20).
Secondly, it is very easy for a Christian to become a passionate ‘single-issue’ activist who becomes deflected from the main thrust of the gospel and their relationship with the Lord, by their enthusiasm for their specific ‘issue’. As soon as Jesus stops being the central focus and is displaced by the ‘strongly held issue’, the danger is that the joy and power of the gospel in that person’s life will quickly evaporate. The purpose of the gospel is to re-join lost people to their Lord and Saviour, creating as an outcome, righteous people who will naturally make unselfish and compassionate choices.
Actually, in Romans 14 (and 15), Paul speaks very little about ‘moral campaigns’ and focusses more on my Reason Number Three. Those believers who had come from a Jewish food law tradition were hypersensitive about dietary restrictions and genuinely thought that eating certain types of food were an offence to God. Paul makes several points: (a) All foods are now perfectly acceptable to eat, as long as you do so in thankfulness to the Lord; (b) Having dietary restrictions for ‘religious’ reasons is actually an indication of a weak faith (since the Law of Moses that gave them validity is now obsolete in God’s Kingdom); (c) The gospel gives us far more freedom than most of us imagine; (d) If you think that a particular food is denied you, and yet you go ahead and eat, you have gone against your weak conscience and you have sinned against the Lord.
In terms of how we all relate to one another, Paul identifies that love and self-sacrifice are the way forward. Those believers who do enjoy their full freedom in Christ must completely accept those believers who have ‘issues’ about eating certain foods or keeping certain days special, for example. They should not consider their understanding of their freedom somehow makes them superior, and the believer with the stricter diet must not judge the one who eats with greater freedom. The fact is that each one of us will individually answer to our own Lord and Master on the Day of Judgment, and not to one another. Secondly, Paul wants to re-assert our priorities: “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17). The very worst thing that we can do to one another is to be the cause of divisions in the Body of Christ, simply because we disagree on what is essentially a ‘worldly’ viewpoint, however strongly it is held.