Christian Living,  Ethics

The Bible and Pets: a Theology of Animals

Photo pets playing

Americans love pets! It is reported that 67% of American households own a pet (the top pets being dogs). The amount of money Americans spend on their pets grows each year, increasing over 50% between 2013 and 2018. That means people spent $87 billion dollars on their pets in 2018!

To put these numbers in perspective, in 2018 couples spent $845 on average per year on pets! Over 10 years (an average life span of a dog), that would mean spending $8,450 on one animal! Given the value that people put on their pets, it comes as no surprise that many hold to a viewpoint that pets are inherently equal to human beings.

Although pets should be important to us, if we follow the cultural line of thinking we risk elevating pets to an unbiblical place. I think it is important for all Christians to be taught the differences between pets and human beings. This is especially true for children. Children need to be taught that the Bible has a lot to say about pets. Fundamentally, children need to learn that a human being is inherently different than an animal. Just because we love our pet fluffy, doesn’t mean fluffy is equal to a human being. There is a difference!

In dealing with the issue of the value of pets, I think it is helpful to consider four main principles.

Pets are to be viewed as different than human beings.

Although many would teach that human beings are no different than pets (we are told we are all animals), it is important to stress that Scripture emphatically stresses human beings are different in value than animals. Only human beings are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), and as such, are given dominion over animals (including our pets) and the rest of creation (Gen 1:28). In other words, man is God’s representative ruler over the creation.

Genesis 9:3 also says that it is acceptable for man to kill animals for food. On the other hand, Genesis 9:5-6 clearly emphasizes that there is a stringent penalty for taking the life of one’s fellow man.

To demonstrate this point, consider the obvious example of a house fire. In one part of the house are your pets (two dogs), and in the other part of your house is a baby boy. Our moral obligation would be to rescue the baby boy and not the pets because human life is made in God’s image and thus infinitely more valuable than an animals.

Pets are to be treated with value and purpose.

Although human life is infinitely more valuable than pets, this does not mean pets (or any animals) are to be treated harshly. Genesis 9:3 gives allowance for killing animals for food, but Scripture also gives indication one is to take care of the pets in one’s possession.

Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel (Prov 12:10).

You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain (Deut 25:4).

Both of these verses stress the general principle that godly individuals take care of the animals that God has allowed to be in their possession. Those who own pets are morally responsible to give them adequate care.

Owners have a responsibility to properly control their pets.

The biblical principle is that humans are responsible for the actions of their pets or animals.

When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. If a ransom is imposed on him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is imposed on him. If it gores a man’s son or daughter, he shall be dealt with according to this same rule. If the ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned (Exodus 21:28-32)

Without repeating what is said in this passage, let me draw out a few principles. First, if an animal is accustomed to violent actions against others, proper action should be taken to ensure this does not take place again. For example, we once owned a dog that would bite anyone who was not my dad. We kept him tied up whenever anyone came over, but eventually we had to get rid of the dog because it was too dangerous to keep around. It was not possible to properly control it, and therefore appropriate action had to be taken.

Second, notice that the owner is held responsible for the actions of his animals. There is a tremendous responsibility for those who own pets because the animal actions are the liability of the owner. If an animal causes damage to a neighbor, it is the obligation of its owner to make restitution for that damage.

Owners should view pets as a means by which to glorify the Lord.

As an overarching principle consider the words of Paul.

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31).

If pets are not allowing you to be most glorifying to God, then you should not have pets. Consider two examples. First, perhaps there is a man who owns a dog. Unfortunately, he is never there to take care of the dog because of work. Thus, the dog is always running around and causing problems with his neighbors without supervision. This man is demonstrating an example of poor ownership. To rectify this he could keep the dog on a chain while he is gone, or he could give up the dog. Something has to change though because this situation is not glorifying to God.

A different example might be a husband who buys his wife a dog to keep her company while he is gone all day at work. This is an example where having the dog gives some protection to his wife as well as comfort while he is gone. Each situation needs to be evaluated under the question, will this situation glorify the Lord?

In summary, humans are created in the image of God and are therefore the most valuable part of God’s creation. Although inherently more valuable, each individual is tasked to care for and appreciate any pets in his or her care. Having authority and ownership over pets is a serious endeavor not to be taken lightly, for the owner is responsible for making sure pets behave properly. I hope this has been helpful and that you and your families enjoy having pets around!

photo credit: Dogs Playing via photopin (license)

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

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