The Ebionite Christian Church, part 2

Jesus and Nicodemus (H. O. Tanner)

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.

11 Replies to “The Ebionite Christian Church, part 2”

  1. I have read 2 of your books. I am a convicted vegetarian. I won’t join a church because they all seem to put men over women, including the ebionites described in your books. Equality is one change you would think Jesus tried to make; but no church really gets that. Ok, ranting about church hierarchy. Your blog is about vegetarianism.

    Spirituality is behind convicted vegetarianism. But my moment of clarity came from Tiensen Palmo and her book Cave in the Snow, not church. I am not a Buddhist either.

    I would like to eat eggs, but I can’t even stand the thought of where that egg came from and how it got to the grocery store.

  2. I’m sitting here thinking – and I’m the crazy man btw who coined Ebionite Christian Church – that if we started a vegan/vegetarian church it would reach a certain size and then splinter into two or more denominations. For one thing, the liberal – conservative divide is ALWAYS there. I could see Frank Hoffman running one (as he sort of does now) for evangelicals and Steve Kaufman (chairman of CVA) running one along Jesus Seminar lines. Would these two small denominations dwindle into dust or is the vegan Christian population large enough to support both?

    1. When I was very young I was in a Southern Baptist church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, that had a minister who had been a missionary to China. There would be two revivals every year, one in the spring and one in the fall. For one, they’d invite some Bible-thumper that would put the fear of God in everyone, and for the other, they’d invite a college professor who would wax eloquent about Kierkegaard or Tillich. (We would skip the former and always went to the latter!)

      As I recall, this was one of the first, if not the very first (white) Baptist churches in the area to integrate. The minister nearly lost his job in 1965 when he preached a sermon against the war in Vietnam. Later, people saw the wisdom of his stance. Remarkably, although the minister passed away in 1969 (if I recall correctly), the church stayed together until about 2000, when the conservatives took over and the moderates formed a separate church.

      There has to be some civic responsibility somewhere. You just need to understand what is really important to you and what you’re willing to tolerate.

  3. All true. It seems impossible to find a perfect church. No church appeals to everyone.

  4. Don’t you realize that the very fact of being a vegetarian or better yet a vegan makes you a part of the church as it establishes a respect for Life within your living temple. Christ said “I am the Light of the world” and that Light is coherent. The science of Biophotons show us this. The coherent Light of Christ is what upholds life. When Paul asks “does God care for oxen?” of course God does. It is readily apparent that there is a Spirit that upholds all Living beings – that Spirit is what Jesus was referring to when the Light of Christ flowed through him to make the statement “I am the Light of the world”. When the ebionites say that the law can be read by all it is a True statement as it is plainly apparent when we look at nature with simple eyes. All sentient living beings want to Live. Life and the will to Life is inherent in all creatures. Where did that will to Live originate? Who placed it there? The Creator placed it there as the living testament of the Word and it says LOUD and CLEAR – by respecting creation we are RESPECTING the CREATOR. Creation is God’s Word and as Jesus said “ye shall know them by their works”. It is the very work/act of respecting the living creation that makes us followers and fellow laborers with Jesus. Respect for Life which includes all living creatures brings us closer in touch with the Creator and swings wide open the doors to the True church as Jesus taught. Just remember that The Church is not made by the hands of men and your very action of being vegetarian/vegan brings you closer to the Creator and helps you to hear that Eternal sermon a bit more clearly and increases the clarity of Light that flows through you. We don’t proselytize but the Light/Life which shines forth from us certainly does. There is no need to use the personal ego/will to attempt to convert others – just respect Life and the Light of God will shine forth from you to others who you encounter in your daily lives.


  5. I Believe that it may be possible to combine working for a more vegetarian World, which I do, plus being a vegetarian , which I am, with still being a relatively orthodox christian, which I would say that I am myself. I Believe that a qey-factor, also for winning the confidence of more christians and their understanding for the ideals that we vegetarian christians might hold, is not to deny the role of Christ as the saviour of the World in the perspective of eternity, not to reduce him to being just an ethical teacher and not to claim that vegetarianism is an absolute requirement for getting part of the salvation through Jesus. I Believe that if I would be teaching that no meat-eaters may be saved by Christ I would be deeply wrong spiritualy. I Think the bible is important, that christian congregations are important and that communion is important and so forth. I also believe in staying within allready existing churches. I Think that Gods Power will slowly change things in them too. I am myself a protestant but I feel a deep spiritual brotherhood with believing catholic and orthodox christians . As long as they see Jesus Christ as the saviour, not just a prophet as he is seen in islam I am their brother in faith. Salvation by grace in contrast to the karma-beliefs in religions from east Asia is an absolute cornerstone in my faith , as well as belief in a personal God that was here on Earth once as Jesus from Nasareth in contrast to pantheistic views of the far east and of new age. However I also Believe that God loves compassion and respecet resulting in humbleness and non violence towards Creation at large, including also animals and unborn humans. I think a true christian wants to work for love in the World. By the fruit you can tell about the tree .I am greatly inspired by Christian Vegetarian Association/ Best wishes from Sven in Sweden

    1. The question is not whether nonvegetarians will be denied salvation. I do not believe that nonvegetarians are damned (either necessarily, or at all). The question is whether it is wrong to eat meat, and whether the gospel message includes vegetarianism. If you believe that it is wrong to eat meat, then this takes you out of orthodox beliefs, because it follows that Jesus was a vegetarian and taught vegetarianism.

      There are a number of other problems with Christianity, and one of them is that maintaining this or that theological position is not spiritually helpful. Rather than get into a discussion of the divinity of Christ, Biblical inerrancy, and so forth, it would be more helpful (in my view) to start over.

      I salute those such as yourself who can maintain a vegetarian position and remain in the orthodox Christian churches. You are a powerful witness against the bloody practices of the overwhelming majority of Christians. But that’s not my path. That is why I raised the question of what a modern Ebionite Christian Church might look like.

  6. Deep respect to you Keith for an honest work and will to benefit the cause of love also for non human parts of creation! When it comes to right or wrong to eat animals I believe that in an ideal world there is no eating of other (killed) beings and no death what so ever. I think I can serve God by choosing non violence to both animals and humans , both born and fetuses, and by eating vegetarian food , and I do so. Within an hour I`ll go to an indian restarurant for a tasty vegetarian buffet. On the other hand: If I was in a situation where I had not access to vegetarian food but only to animal food, I honestly would eat it, viewing the permission to Noah to do the same thing as adapted to a sitution when the vegetarian production in the world he knew was temporaily destroyed . My theory is that we are living in a destroyed world/creation where we sometimes have to make priorites/choices between things that would be desirable in a perfect world. I am convinced that the orthodox view of Christ as the saviour of the World, not just an ethical teacher/prophet, is correct but I am not 100 % sure he ate meat when he was on earth. If, and I say If, Jesus ate meat while walking on this earth it might have been out of nessecity in situations when finding vegetarian food was not priority number one. For example when eating fish after ressurection that might have been in a situation when wittnessing about this spiritual truth was more important than finding other food than the one that was close at hand and that the disciples there and then had to offer. I also believe that every killed, and eaten animal, is not dead for ever spiritually. Yes it is my belief that there is an afterlife also for animals, and in fact several known church leaders appear to share or have shared this belief with me. The renewal of creation involves also its non human parts according to my beliefs . (I Think especially of Romans chapter 8.) As I have experienced it I would say that I belive I have myself wittnessed glimpses of the supernatural happening in orthodox christian circles and I do believe The Holy Spirit is Active there. I also see certain other changes in existing churches today. I see for example things happening that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. I have seen evangelical preachers coming together and pray for the pope on his own request. Christians of different denominations come together and I sort of feel that a new spiritual Power is present with love and understanding . Today even some more conservative christians from different churches question our modern societys use of , breeding and killing of animals on large scale. I Think a new wind of spirit is blowing and that we will see even more great things happening. I also see more and more people of jewish backgraound confessing Yeshua(Jesus) as their saviour and I read the other day another interesting thing connected to Israel . I read that also veganism is becoming more and more frequent in Israel. Even Soldiers can choose non leather boots if I understood what I read correctly. Some would Count me as orthodox or even fundamentalistic, Others would not. I am somewhere in between maybe.

    1. I agree that we cannot fault people who are starving to death for eating meat, when that is the only alternative to stay alive. We can also leave aside the question of accidental killing of insects or even animals. I only question the deliberate and unnecessary killing of sentient beings for food.

      There’s no suggestion in the Bible (or elsewhere) that Jesus or his disciples were ever in danger of starving to death. Everyone in the community was provided for (Acts 4:32-35). The vast majority of people in ancient times in the Roman Empire (outside of the “1%” of the rich) were vegan most of the time, out of necessity. The major exception, both for Jews and gentiles, was at festival time. This is why the attack on animal sacrifice (Matthew 21:12-13 and parallels, Matthew 9:13 and 12:7) is so crucial.

      Perhaps vegans have also had an experience of the divine analogous to that to the writers of the gospels, the prophets, and others down through history. Why shouldn’t we accord this experience a status at least equal to that of the authority of the orthodox church?

  7. Indeed I think it is very possible that there is experience of divine power ammong vegans/vegetarians that is not well known to christians in general. I have not contradicted that just because I am more towards the “orthodox” direction. I have myself experienced amazing things that I believe to be astonishing signs of Gods care for animals.

Comments are closed.