Animal Rights - a biblical approach

John Parkinson, N. Ireland

Do animals have rights? In recent times this issue has been the cause of much passionate debate and political activism. The press and media frequently report on threats and violence against those who allegedly deny animals their rights.The anti-fur, anti-hunt, and vegetarian lobbies have become very powerful political forces in society.We are told that animals have equal rights with humans when it comes to sharing the resources of our planet. What should the attitude of the Christian be on this issue?

Does the Bible have anything to say on the subject? Quite a lot! In fact, the believer is duty bound by scripture to practise good animal welfare. We read in Proverbs 12. 10, 'A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast; but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel'. In other words, it is right for a man to have due regard for the life and welfare of his animal. Moses actually legislated so that it became a legal requirement to afford animals certain rights.

Animal rights under the Law of Moses

  • The working animal had a right to one day of rest per week, 'Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it‘, Exod. 20. 8-11. God programmed His creation so that one day in seven would be a day of rest. The working animal could easily have been excluded from this privilege. But God stipulated in the fourth commandment that the cattle too were entitled to this rest-day.
  • If a man saw his neighbour’s animal going astray he was to return it to its owner, Deut. 22. 1-3. Further, if a man discovered his neighbour’s ass or ox fallen down by the way, he was duty bound to help the animal up again, Deut. 22. 4. Thus, a man was not only to care for the welfare of his own animals, but also for the welfare of his neighbour's animals.
  • It was forbidden to plough with an ox and an ass together,Deut. 22. 10. Such an arrangement would have been grossly unfair to both animals. The smaller and weaker animal would have been at a great disadvantage, not being able to pull with the same strength as the other. The stronger animal would have had a disproportionate share of the burden. It would have been a complete mismatch. Paul applies this principle in 2 Corinthians 6. 14, warning his readers that believers should not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. Such an unequal yoke results in a far more serious and disastrous mismatch.
  • It was forbidden to muzzle the mouth of the ox when it was treading out the corn, Deut. 25. 4. The animal had a right to enjoy some of the good of its own labour. Yet, it was not really animal welfare that was on Paul’s mind when he stated that this was analogous to gospel preachers having the right to live off the gospel, 1 Cor. 9. 9-10.
  • So far we have been thinking about the rights and welfare of working animals, but what about the beasts of the field? Did wild animals have rights under Moses? There was a gracious provision for wild animals that is often overlooked. Each seventh year the land was to have its rest, when there would be no sowing or gathering. The poor people of the land were to be allowed to eat freely, whether it was of the field, vineyard or olive orchard. But what the poor people did not eat, 'the beasts of the field shall eat', Exod. 23. 11. It is interesting to observe that when the Israelites were obeying the law of Moses, the very beasts of the field got a blessing! Equally, when Christians are living close to God, who can tell the blessings that may filter through to others?

We can see that there were important animal rights under the law of Moses. But how do such rights compare with the ideas of the modern animal rights movement?

Are animals and humans equally important?

The modern animal rights movement has a very definite anti-Christian agenda. Their philosophy is rooted in ideas borrowed from New Age, Buddhism, vegetarianism, reincarnation and evolution. The leading premise of the animal rights movement is that 'non-human animals' have an equal right with 'human animals' to share the earth. This is clearly unbiblical. The Lord Jesus made a qualitative difference between humans and animals. Having established that not a single sparrow is forgotten by God, the Lord goes on to say that people are of more value than many sparrows, Luke 12. 6-7. In terms of intrinsic worth, there is no comparison between a man and a sparrow.

We can conclude that animals and men are not equally important, but that men are of far greater value than birds or animals. Men are to have regard for the welfare of animals, but that is a very different thing to saying animals have the same rights as humans. In the creation account of Genesis,we are told that God gave man dominion over the animal world. Christians who have contact with animals ought to treat them with sensitivity and kindness. We need not fear such subjects as bio-ethics or animal welfare. The Christian should be a highly responsible steward of God’s creation.We should treat all living things with the respect due to God’s creatures. And of course,we should remember the Lord’s own evaluation and exhortation, 'Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows', Luke 12. 7.

The modern animal rights movement has a definite anti-Christian agenda