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Clean and unclean animals

In the Old Testament, God defines which animals were clean and unclean for consumption. Is that true today? Many people believe that since Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament that we can now eat anything we want as long as we abide by our duties as caretakers. Is that Biblically true?


Hi, @acarlylefr808!
Acts 11:7-9 stated that the Lord cleansed the unclean animals, especially if received with thanksgiving according to 1Tim.4:4.
The clean/unclean distinction is largely for health and diet purposes, not on animal stewardship, and I would say that this principle especially applies today in this age of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). We really should ask for God’s cleansing of whatever we eat.


While the distinction between clean and unclean animals goes back to Noah’s time (Genesis 7:1-2), the initial distinction appears to be between animals that were considered suitable for sacrificial offerings and those that were not. The specific grant to man of the use of animals for food does not appear until Noah and his family disembarked from the ark, and the only restriction on such use given at that time was that meat should not be eaten with blood still in it (Genesis 9:1-4). The most common explanation I have seen for this is that blood represents the life which is given by God alone and belongs solely to Him, and man is not to encroach on God’s sovereign right or to attempt to incorporate the life of another creature into himself as has been the purpose of some pagan or magical practices. Man is also not to commit sacrilege by treating the representation of the means of his redemption as something common (cf. Leviticus 17:10-14). Because the prohibition on eating the blood of a food animal predates the division between Jews and Gentiles, it would appear to be binding on the entire human race. Later, the Law of Moses made distinctions between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ animals with regard to their use for food (Deuteronomy 14:3-20), but this was specific to the people that God had bound to Himself by covenant (the Jews) and those who became proselytes and so chose to identify themselves with the Jews and the laws of the Jewish covenant.

The question of clean and unclean foods for Christian believers appears to be addressed in two places. First, Mark tells us that Jesus effectively declared all foods clean because it is not food but the sinful nature of the human heart that makes a human being unclean and unable to be in relationship with God (Mark 7:18-23). Second, when the question of requiring adherence by Gentile believers to the Law of Moses (which would naturally include the dietary laws) was placed before the council of the church at Jerusalem, the decision of James and the other apostles and elders present was that Gentile believers should be enjoined only to abstain from sexual immorality, from foods polluted by idols (presumably from having been offered in pagan rituals or otherwise dedicated to pagan gods), from meat from animals that had been strangled (which would still have undrained blood in it because of the means of death), and from eating blood (Acts 15:5-20). Thus, it seems the only restrictions placed on the Christian believer with regard to food are the prohibition on eating blood and the prohibition on eating food under circumstances that would effectively mix Christianity with the practices of other religions.

Of course, Christians may abstain from the eating of any food at any time because of unsatisfied questions of conscience, for the sake of avoiding unnecessary offense (such as abstaining from pork when eating with a Muslim or Jewish friend), or for the sake of not placing temptation before a fellow believer to violate his or her conscience. The guiding principles appear to be outlined in Romans 14; if you can eat in good conscience and give glory to God, do so and be thankful without condemning the believer who abstains, and if you feel you cannot eat in good conscience for whatever reason, eat what you believe to be permissible for your circumstances and give God thanks without condemning the believer who eats things you do not feel you can rightly eat.


Hi! Great points here! I would be curious how you incorporate 1 Corinthians 8 into this position.


In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul was dealing particularly with the case of meat that came from animals that had been sacrificed to idols. I believe Paul was making a distinction between what eating the meat meant to a mature believer and what it might imply to a less mature believer, especially one who had come out of an idolatrous background. For the mature believer, the meat was simply meat because s/he knew that the idol in and of itself was nothing more than rock, wood, or metal and represented nothing real. But for the convert from idolatry, the associations connected with that meat would be very powerful and would defile the conscience if s/he ate it. This, I think, is the meaning behind Paul’s reference to “eating in an idol’s temple,” in that the pagan convert would have great difficulty in separating that meat from the purpose to which it had been put and so would see the mature believer eating the meat through the lens of someone who had done this to honor pagan gods. (It’s worth noting, though, that the study Bible I am currently using suggests an alternate interpretation that may or may not have been unique to Corinth. In its marginal notes, it references archaeological discoveries of two temples at the site of ancient Corinth that contained chambers apparently used for sacrificial feasts; if this was the case, Christians asked to come and eat with pagan friends might find themselves quite literally dining in an idol’s temple, which would make the associations that much more potent.)

In any event, Paul goes on to make the case that while the mature believer is free to eat the meat because his/her understanding grasps that its associations with an idol are meaningless, that freedom must be tempered by awareness of what eating of that meat might mean to brothers and sisters lacking that understanding. Abstention in this case was not driven by a perception that the meat was unclean but by the perception that eating the meat would tempt a fellow believer to violate his/her conscience. This is reiterated and elaborated on in I Corinthians 10, where Paul advises believers not to ask where meat bought at the market or served at a pagan friend’s meal came from because it ultimately came from God; nonetheless, if the question of conscience was raised because it troubled someone who knew the meat had been used in sacrifice, then abstain for the sake of that person, so that s/he would not be tempted to what would be sin for them (“whatsoever is not of faith, is sin”). Ultimately, the question of whether or not to eat the meat was to be settled by the call to do everything to the glory of God and the love of one’s fellow believer.


I certainly agree, I must have been missing this nuance in this part of your earlier post:

1 Corinthians 8 is a great passage because Paul uses this debate to shift the Corinthians foundation for morality. Both sides of the debate, ultimately were wrong to condemn the other side. Those who were “weak” were chastised for their failure to acknowledge the supremacy of God, and the “strong” for their using their superior knowledge to belittle the position of the “weak.” Those who said that to eat meat sacrificed to idols was perfectly acceptable because the idols “were nothing” founded their moral stance on their superior knowledge.

Paul chastised the “strong,” which of course were the accountability lies, and informed them that knowledge is not to be their foundation of morality (a holdover from Greek philosophical thought). Love was to be their foundation of moral behavior. Therefore, even though they were right they were wrong. Their love should have trumped their knowledge and caused them to humble themselves and condescend to someone of a weaker state. I believe it was Keirkegaard who talk about love means that we, on occasion, lay down that to which we have a right for the benefit of another. That point is illustrated here.

My point here would be that this is the only law to which we are accountable. The law of loving God and loving others as ourselves. Outside of that I can see know Pentateuch-esque law. As I read it, the Council of Jerusalem was still working out what the implications of this when they laid down the rules they did. They were still trying to grapple with what it meant to be a “Christian” post-resurrection.

I am curious where you would stand on that.

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