What role would an Ebionite Christian Church play — why would anyone want to form one at all? The main reason is to provide a place for ethical vegetarianism in Christianity. The Ebionites, whatever else you may say about them, believed that vegetarianism was part of the gospel message. When Epiphanius asks an unnamed fourth-century Ebionite why they abstain from meat, when meat-eating is in the Bible, the Ebionite responds, “Christ revealed it to me.”
That is the essential starting point for any “Ebionite Christian Church”: the gospel message requires vegetarianism. Where we go from there, or whether we are even going to start such a church or group, is a different issue.
However, there are some immediate consequences just to get to this point. A commitment to ethical vegetarianism immediately takes you out of Christian orthodoxy, even after allowing exceptions for people who are starving and have no other choice. The problem is that meat-eating is in the Bible. This is exactly the complaint that Epiphanius makes, and people who say “but Jesus ate meat!” are simply replaying this ancient debate. This debate goes back not only to the fourth century and Epiphanius, but the first century and the disputes between the Jerusalem church and Paul. Yes, there are pro-vegetarian passages in the Bible (Genesis 1:29, etc.), but there are also anti-vegetarian passages. Meat-eating is in the Old Testament (animal sacrifices) and in the New Testament (Jesus eats fish, Paul asks “does God care for oxen?”).
So if anyone wants to base their Christianity on the Bible, there is a problem right at the start. You cannot simultaneously follow Jesus, be an ethical vegetarian, and believe that Jesus ate meat. Pick any two of these three. The Ebionites followed this consistently, saying that there were false texts in the scripture, and that the true law is not concealed in any place, but can be “read by all” (Homilies 8.10), thus eliminating the requirement for either priests or a scripture.
If you agree on ethical vegetarianism, there are a number of different options you could take, many of which were mentioned by people who commented on my previous blog. What kind of belief system, if any, will there be? Will there be rituals such as baptism and communion? What is the role of personal experience? Most critically, what kind of lifestyle practices does this fellowship imply? Vegetarianism seems to be clear enough, but what about simple living and nonviolence? How can we practice either in contemporary America?
I have some ideas on these questions, but I’d prefer to “live in the questions” as the community evolves over time.