In my last post – part 1 of body stewardship and the concern for Southern Baptists – I presented the biblical warrant for body stewardship, which is accepting responsibility for the body by appropriately caring for its needs. I will now show that, historically, believers recognized the importance of honoring the Lord by valuing the body.
The Westminster Confession of Faith written around 1650, is a significant theological work as it explains and extends matters of Christian doctrine and practice. I believe it plays a crucial role for body stewardship as well. It takes the 6th commandment – you shall not murder – and draws further conclusions from this prohibition against killing. The confession extends not killing to preserving life. The inference is that the prohibition not to kill also compels the preservation life, life of oneself and others. It organizes these extensions into two categories, “duties required” and “sins forbidden,” or things we should do and things we should not do. Though the catechism lists several extensions of this commandment, I’m highlighting three which are pertinent to body stewardship. The confession declares the 6th commandment:
“requires to preserve the life of ourselves…a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreation…” while condemning, “the neglecting or withdrawing…necessary means of preservation of life…and immoderate use of meat, drink, labor, and recreations…”
Don’t miss this. The confession recognizes preserving one’s life to be the opposite of taking life. So, the first implication of that is for Christians to preserve their lives by reasonable use of meat, drink, physic (medicine), sleep, labor, and recreation. At the same time, the confession condemns neglecting the things that preserve life – sensible use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreation. This is the second implication. The third is that it condemns the excess of meat, drink, labor, and recreation. It is my contention that acts of preserving one’s life are the same as acts of body stewardship. Believers understood this centuries ago.
Body stewardship, then, requires viewing daily activities as ones that either maintain life or detract from preservation of life. Therefore, anything that neglects or withdraws the means of life preservation should be limited or avoided. The confession helpfully lists some of these behaviors as immoderate use of meat, drink, labor, and recreations. In our day, Christians ought to connect these examples to their own lives. Immoderate use of food and drink equates to gluttony, regularly eating too much and being driven by the idol of food and excess. Per the confession, it is also arguable the types of food and drink we consume matter as well. Consumption of unhealthy foods containing high amounts of sugar, saturated fats, sodium, and offering little nutrient content could be considered contradictory to life preservation as habitual intake of these foods can lead to diseases like diabetes, high cholesterol, and blood pressure. Surely, this is not actively seeking to eat and drink in ways that preserve life. At the same time, we are not legalistic. We keep in mind consuming unhealthy foods is not wrong, as long as we do so in moderation with self-control as the goal. It is the immoderate consumption of unhealthy foods or a gluttonous, mindless intake that Scripture condemns according to the Westminster Confession.
We also accept life’s seasons frequently change. For example, maybe you’re experiencing a season where your access to a gym or healthy foods is limited. Your season might not be ideal, but body stewardship isn’t one size fits all. It simply calls for an honest assessment of whether you are being faithful to honor the Lord with your body wherever you currently are. Some self-assessment questions might be: Do I excessively consume food or drink? Do I regularly obsess over food with a gluttonous mindset evident of an idolatrous relationship? Am I engaging in regular exercise? Do I monitor my work life so that it doesn’t become my identity? Or conversely, am I unreasonably obsessed with food or exercise from a health perspective? Does meal planning or counting calories and macros rule my thoughts? Am I harming my body with over exercise? Do I jump from diet to diet just to lose the next 5 pounds? Believers need to wrestle with these questions and others like them. We all have areas of struggle, neglect, or obsession making critical reflection an essential part of the Christian life.
For more historical evidence of body stewardship, take the following examples from SBTS. The seminary’s second president, James Broadus, promoted regular exercise and healthy habits to pastors. Broadus held that improved physical health would generate effective preaching. In his memoirs, he wondered how men would feel if they engaged in regular exercise to alleviate the stress and strain of daily activities. By this, he meant going beyond walking to activity that should include “muscular exercise every day. . . moderate exercise for all the most important muscles.” But he knew few realized the need. Additionally, Broadus advocated regular physical activity on campus, putting students in charge of leading daily exercises. Broadus, remarking on his own wellbeing, noted, “I have kept alive, amid many infirmities, and I know it has been through persistent exercise and plenty of sleep,” which he called laws of health. Promoting Broadus’s opinions, students advocated good nutritional habits and wrote against neglecting physical health to spend more time studying. Broadus also quoted Charles Hodge on how the tenures of Addison Alexander and James P. Boyce were negatively impacted by a presumption of health. Upon Alexander’s untimely death, Hodge claimed because Alexander devoted himself to “incessant reading and writing, with an almost total neglect of exercise…the world lost all those other noble works which he might have been expected to produce.” While Boyce, Broadus remarked, “suffered from lack of bodily exercise.” This leaves one to wonder today how many Christian leaders, pastors, professors, missionaries, etc understand exercise as essential to their ministry fitness? The spiritual rigors of ministry life demand body stewardship, as the health of both body and soul is imperative for faithful, effective gospel work. (Read my post on body and soul.)
Now that we’ve seen that some held body stewardship as a necessity for the faith, we must take an honest look at statistics relevant to the church today. Sadly, we will see the Evangelical community is largely characterized by an indifferent attitude to the body.
In America, the obesity epidemic has reached staggering levels, but for the Bible belt, the story is even worse. This is easily observed by comparing the states that report to be the most devout and the states with the highest levels of obesity. The overlap is clear. The states claiming to be the most religious are also the most obese. (Access the most obese here and most religious here). Of the 10 most religious states, 8 are also the most obese. Only Tennessee and Georgia fall out of the top 10 but by 3% or less.
For Southern Baptists, the bad news continues. According to a study done at Purdue University nearly 20 years ago, religious people – with Southern Baptists leading the way – have the highest incidences of being overweight or obese, while non-religious people have the lowest levels. Why is this? Certainly, religion doesn’t cause obesity, and there are definitely sociocultural and other factors involved. But sheer observation spawns an obvious conclusion. It would seem our Christian faith is not influencing our health practices.
Still, there is more. As instances of obesity rise, so do obesity-related diseases (type II diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, some cancers, etc. Note that I’m not saying these diseases determine obesity as genetics can be to blame). These are diseases of excess. Our access to excess has toxic potential. The cost of these diseases has caused healthcare costs to skyrocket. With the high numbers of being overweight and obese in the church, we must accept the fact that we are burdening society by the costs of these diseases. It also becomes clearer still that we are likely limiting potential ministry suffering from these obesity-related diseases. We must be honest with ourselves. God did not create our bodies to endure these largely self-inflicted, first-world maladies. Simply put, many Christians are not making choices that value or steward their bodies but are arguably living in ways that devalue the body. The physical health of the church cannot be pleasing to God.
“America is becoming known as a nation of gluttony and obesity, and churches are a feeding ground for this problem…If religious leaders and organizations neglect this issue, they will contribute to an epidemic that will cost the health-care system millions of dollars and reduce the quality of life for many parishioners.” Kenneth Ferraro, author of Purdue study
This is a sobering conclusion from 20 years ago. Because the obesity epidemic has grown, particularly in the most religious states, Ferraro’s words are haunting. But despite the church’s current condition, believers can reclaim the value of the body and begin to steward it in ways that glorify the Lord. It is my argument that a proper theology of the body will heed the reality of embodiment and necessarily lead to body stewardship. So if the church will recognize that Scripture speaks to our embodied reality, then we will renew our understanding of what God says about the body. For if he cares about the body, so should we.