Matthew H. Bevere, Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Ashland Seminary in Ohio, explains how God’s covenantal relationship extends to all creation and why compassionate eating should be a prime concern for all Christians.
We Christians who have been persuaded that adopting a vegan lifestyle is the most consistent with the peaceful vision of the Christian faith often face an uphill battle with our fellow Christians. In a church and world that has taught us, from the time that we were young, that animals are merely here to serve human needs and desires, it can be quite difficult to gain a hearing. Much of the problem comes from that fact that Christians, certainly in the West, have been taught the animals are of no consequence in God’s saving work. The result has been that the church has interpreted Scripture through a lens that has discounted the place of animals within the biblical narrative.
It is important for us to reframe the biblical narrative in a way that recovers the scriptural understanding of the comprehensive nature of God’s salvation, which extends to all creation, including animals. This reframing is important if we are to make a compelling case to those who have been taught to frame the witness of Scripture differently and exclude the animal realm from God’s saving work. This reframing narrative is to be found within the covenantal relationships that God has established.
It seems to me that the task before us is to demonstrate how God’s covenantal relationship with God’s people and the rest of creation support the notion of a vegan lifestyle. That covenantal relationship also calls us to reject the factory farming system because of its cruelty (a system that would have been unknown to our great grandparents). While the Bible does not reject the consumption of animals, it clearly rejects animal cruelty. Without cruelty, the current factory farming system could not exist. Making the case for a rejection of the factory farming system is also an appeal to those Christians who do not reject the consumption of animal products, but reject such cruelty perpetrated on God’s creation.
The best argument in favor of a vegan lifestyle is an eschatological one that is rooted within the creation covenant. It indicates that human consumption of animals was not part of God’s intention for creation. In the creation story, the man and the woman are commanded to “take charge” of the animals, but the extent of their dominion is limited. God gives them vegetation for food (Gen. 1:28-29), but animals are excluded. In fact, they share this dietary restriction in common with the animals who are also given plant life (“grasses”) for food (Gen. 1:30).
Permission to eat animals is not given until after the Great Flood. Noah is granted such permission to eat animals as part of the covenant that God made with him and his descendants (Gen. 9:1-3). The fact that this permission is given after evil enters the world is pivotal. It is a concession and does not reflect God’s original intention for his creation which, at its very foundation, was to be non-violent. The prophet Isaiah looked forward to a time when the original non-violent creation would return (Isaiah 11:1-9).  For Christians, to eat a diet free from animals is to live in expectation of the coming restoration of creation as it was divinely intended. The Apostle Paul asserts that, because of the resurrection of Jesus and the new covenant, Christians were to put off the old life with its old practices. (Ro. 6-8).
The permission to eat animals within the Noahic covenant is expounded upon within the Mosaic covenant. It is here that the care of animals is most explicit when it comes to practices prescribed for God’s people. While the use of animals for work and food is not forbidden, the rules concerning their treatment by their human stewards are clear. Sandra Richter, among others, has ably demonstrated that the Mosaic covenant’s call for proper care for animals, wild and domestic, rests firmly within the assertion that the creation and all that is in it belongs to God and God alone. God calls Israel to be stewards who are charged to care for creation in a manner that is required by the Benefactor of all creation. Deuteronomy is clear that Israel must humanely care for animals, even when it is contrary to economic gain and efficiency; a principle that is contrary to the purpose of the factory farming system. As Richter states,
Just like us, Israel struggled with the competing demands of a diverse society, insufficient yields, property loss, land tenure, poverty, and taxes. But underlying their response to these issues, at least in Deuteronomy, was one central tenant: this land and these creatures are not ours; they are on loan to us. We must manage them well so that each is preserved. And we must take God at his word, that in response to our obedience, he himself will bring about the increase (Deut 30:9). Short-term, desperation management that exhausts current resources in answer to the cry of the urgent was not acceptable.
Justice and mercy, in the Mosaic covenant, were rooted firmly in the practice of Sabbath. The practice of Sabbath was a safeguard against the powerful who would lord their power over the powerless. Sabbath laws were explicit. All inhabitants were protected by Sabbath rest, the citizen, the immigrant, the land, and the animals (Deut. 5:13-14). Those in power could not exploit them. It is Jesus who accused those in power of using the Sabbath for their own gain at the expense of others (Luke 11:29-54). Given Jesus’ passionate response to the misuse of the Sabbath, it is difficult to imagine that he would be accepting of the intense and relentless suffering of animals within the factory farming system.
It is here, with Sabbath, that we are brought full circle in a Scriptural understanding of God’s love for all for his creatures. Contrary to those who would assert that God’s salvation is merely a matter of human concern, God’s covenantal relationship extends to all creation. Human beings are the caretakers of that creation. Animal welfare, therefore, is a matter of deep concern for those who call themselves the people of God.
Matthew H. Bevere is Regional Director of Advanced and Doctoral Programs and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Ashland Seminary in Ohio.
 This includes the egg and dairy industries in which hens, male chicks, cows, and calves suffer intensely in order to provide maximum output.
 All scriptural quotations are from the Common English Bible.
 Richter, Sandra, “Environmental Law in Deuteronomy: One Lens on a Biblical Theology of Creation Care,” Bulletin for Biblical Research, 20, no. 3 (2010): 355-376.