How Should Christians Think about Animal Rights?
Debates over animal rights have grown increasingly loud in the last few years. Animal rights activists have taken aim at zoos and theme parks. Just 2 years ago the historic Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closed operations in part over pressure from animal rights activists. We are also debating what is appropriate care for livestock and pets, because more and more people don’t see much of a distinction between human and animal rights. Some don’t see any distinction at all. For example, in 2011 PETA filed a lawsuit against SeaWorld on behalf of five orcas. They claimed that SeaWorld had violated the whales’ rights under the 13thAmendment, which forbids slavery.
We shouldn’t be surprised by these shifts. It’s only natural that our society will blur the distinction between mankind and the animal kingdom as we increasingly replace a biblical worldview with materialism and pantheism. If you believe that people are merely highly evolved animals, then why don’t animals deserve equal treatment? And if you believe that there is a divine aspect to everything in nature, then protecting the various animal species becomes a religious duty.
With all the pressure in our culture, some have tried to adapt Scripture to modern sentiment. For example, some argue that since Adam and Eve originally lived on a vegetarian diet, we should also. Others argue that God will eventually restore harmony between animals and human in the kingdom (Isa 11:6–9); therefore, we should pursue restoration today. The problem with such logic is that the Fall actually occurred. Both humans and animals were dramatically altered, and it will take a divine act to fix what was broken. The Bible teaches that our responsibility is to live in our present world according to biblical principles and commands, not to fix what only God can resolve.
So what does the Bible say about the value of animals and how we should treat them? First, the Bible commands us to treat animals well.Deuteronomy 25:4 states, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” In other words, God commanded Israel to allow oxen to eat and drink freely while they labor. To restrict this ability would be cruel and abusive. As well, Proverbs 12:10 states, “A righteous man regards the life of his animal.” In other words, he is sensitive to the needs of his animals. He is not cruel or neglectful. These directions complement the other biblical principles regarding care for creation. God cares for his creation (Gen 9:17; Matt 6:26). Mankind is responsible to be a good steward of creation (Lev 25:1–4; Deut 20:19–20), and God promises to restore his creation (Rom 8:18–25; Col 1:15–20). In light of these principles and commands Christians must not abuse or neglect animals. To do so is to disobey God and to dishonor his creation. We are required to treat animals well and to be sympathetic to their needs.
However, the Bible also teaches that people are infinitely more valuable. The creation account slows dramatically with the creation of Adam and Eve. God declares, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (v. 26). Our unique status as God’s image bearers makes us infinitely more valuable than animals. Hebrews 2 develops our unique value. “You (i.e., God) have crowned him (i.e., mankind) with glory and honor, and set him over the works of Your hands. You put all things in subjection under his feet” (vv. 7b–8a). God has given us a unique glory and authority over creation. In order for us to fulfill God’s purpose, Christ became one of us. He became our brother (v. 11), and he shared in human “flesh and blood” (v. 14) in order to “release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (v. 15). In other words, Jesus became a man to provide a unique redemption that sets us above even the angels in God’s purpose (v. 16). While it is true that God intends to reconcile all creation to himself (Col 1:20; cf. Rom 8:21), the pinnacle of God’s redemptive work is the redemption of man, and the reconciliation of creation is contingent on our reconciliation to God (Rom 8:19–21). Therefore, contrary to the materialist, we are not merely a more developed version of animals; we are entirely different with a far greater value.
Furthermore, God has given us dominion over the animals. God commanded Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (v. 28). Dominion does include caring for creation, but it primarily involves using creation for human flourishing. Therefore, God created the world to serve and bless his image bearers and ultimately to bring glory to himself. It’s worth noting that he made this declaration before the Fall. Therefore, riding a horse or hooking it to a plow were right and good even before the curse. God made animals for these purposes, and we glorify God and obey his will when we use them according to God’s design.
Of course, the Fall dramatically changed the relationship between man and animals. God illustrated this fact by killing an animal to make clothing for Adam and Eve and by instituting animal sacrifice (Gen 3:21; 4:4). But God does not call us to try to live by pre-Fall standards; rather, he expects us use animals according to the realities of a fallen world. When God instituted the Noahic Covenant, he declared that animals would now fear men. He also gave us the right to kill and eat them (Gen 9:2–3). Jesus followed God’s design when he ate fish (Luke 24:41–43) and declared our right to eat all animals (Acts 10:13).
In light of the biblical teaching, I’d like to develop 3 conclusions.
First, Christians must resist the world’s efforts to eliminate the distinction between humans and animals and between human and animal rights.
Animal’s rights are not simply a step down from human rights; they aren’t even in the same world. If we blur this distinction, we cut at the heart of the gospel and God’s purpose for the world. This is because God’s image in man and his unique love for us are foundational to the story of Scripture. Christ became one of us and died for us. Christ intends to glorify us, and we will rule alongside him in his kingdom. Christians must glory in our unique place in God’s story, not apologize for it.
Then our values and practices must reflect biblical teaching. For example, you are welcome to enjoy your pets, but it should be very clear that they are not family members. They do not have a right to live a long, fulfilling, and comfortable life. They don’t have a right to medical care or an honorable burial. I’m not saying you can’t love them or provide well for them, but make sure that you keep perspective and that your feelings toward them reflect biblical truth. For example, it can be very difficult to lose a pet, but if you mourn the death of a pet like you would a family member, you should probably consider whether or not your emotions betray unbiblical values.
Second, we must maintain a biblical perspective on our God-given right to use animals for human flourishing and on what that means for defining animal cruelty.
God could not be clearer that we are to domesticate animals for food and for labor. It is okay to refrain from eating meat for health reasons or as a matter of taste, but the moment it becomes about sentiment for the animal, you have practically denied what God says is good. We must make sure that Scripture shapes our values, not human sentiment or worldly influence.
We also need to be very careful about accepting the world’s assumptions about animal abuse on farms, in zoos, and with pets. The Bible commands us to domesticate animals for the purpose of human flourishing. Having grown up on a farm, I know that you can’t realistically give livestock ideal living conditions and also produce economical goods. Certainly, there is a line of cruelty that God condemns, but Scripture must shape our priorities. If activists get their way on standards for livestock care, it will come at the cost of human flourishing. We should be far more concerned that children get necessary nutrition than we are about a chicken living in a cage.
Third, enjoy your pets but don’t let them become idols.
If you want to spoil your cat, then by all means do so. But remember, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21). How you spend your money and your time will affect the values of your heart. As well make sure that you don’t neglect weightier matters. If you are spending large amounts of money on a pet, but you don’t have money to serve others or to contribute to spread of the gospel, it’s a problem. And God is not honored when we spend money we don’t have. It does not honor God to put a $1,000 veterinary bill on your credit card if you don’t have the money to pay for it.
Our culture is very confused about the value and rights of animals, and if Christians do not stay firmly rooted in Scripture, this confusion can affect our focus on God’s purposes and priorities. Let’s make sure that Scripture shapes our values and our conduct.