Do we have a moral/ethical/spiritual duty to keep in good health? Obesity rates are at an all-time rate. Doesn’t the Bible teach us that our body is a temple, and we should take care of it?
This is a fair question to ask, with a few provisos.
It is a fair question to ask provided you are not a thin person who is looking at an overweight person with a dismissive or a judgemental attitude.
It is a fair question to ask provided you understand the context that your judgement will be applied to. Have you considered genetic dispositions? Could there be other factors like illness or stress? Could there be biological factors like metabolism? Could there be cultural factors? Not everyone with a BMI over 25 is lazy or making poor food choices. Not everyone with a BMI under 25 is healthy and active.
It is a fair question to ask provided you are not guilty of a reciprocal pride. Body sculpting can be driven by just as many demons as overeating. Gluttony is a sin, but so it pride.
It is a fair question to ask provided you are asking it out of honest concern and a desire to help. Careful, prayerful judgement breeds ministry rooted in love. Knowledge puffs up while love builds up. (1 Cor 8:1)
That said, fair questions can come from poor exegesis. If we stop for a minute to look at the context and content of 1 Corinthians 6:19 we will learn a few things.
The body is not for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. Now God indeed raised the Lord and he will raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that anyone who is united with a prostitute is one body with her? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But the one united with the Lord is one spirit with him. Flee sexual immorality! “Every sin a person commits is outside of the body”—but the immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God with your body.
Firstly, Paul was not talking about physicality and health in that passage, but about sexual immorality and, more specifically, about prostitution. At the temple of Aphrodite there were more than 1000 ‘hetairas’, temple prostitutes, who taught that illicit sex was a form of worship. Paul is invoking temple against temple. I cannot partake in sex at that temple, because I am already a temple of the one true God, who tolerates no rivals. Paul’s teaching allowed Christians to eat meat from the markets around the temple (so long as their conscience allowed) (See 1 Cor 8) but he was drawing a firm line beyond that.
But the image of the Temple is instructive. The temple exists to glorify the God, not for its own glory. The temple exists to praise its God, not to beautify itself. Indeed, overactive interest in physical health and body sculpting (gym, dieting, etc.) could be the opposite of what Paul was driving at – leading to self-worship and narcissism. Paul is always concerned that God is the only thing to be worshiped.
It is true that reference to 1 Corinthians 6:19 has been used as arguments against vices like smoking or alcoholism or drug-taking, etc. And the users of this verse probably meant well, but perhaps took it out of context.
So then, what does the bible say? Let’s have a look.
Jesus talks about food in Mark 7
Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”
After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
The Jews believed that certain food caused friction between someone and God. They avoided meats that God had declared “unclean” and regarded as “unclean” anyone who ate them. Jesus’ response was simply to declare all foods clean. Food, in and of itself, cannot separate you from God. Peter, in Acts 10, is shown a vision of unclean foods – everything he promised God he would never eat – and God instructs him to eat. Jesus’ logic is instructive: “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them”. The game of nutrition is not played for spiritual stakes, even if it is played very, very badly. To quote Paul “food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (1 Cor 8:8)
So then, where to from here? Is it a good thing for us to take care of our bodies and steward them as a resource God can use? Yes it is. Can we make it a theological axiom? Well, I’m not sure we can go that far. But that doesn’t end the question, does it? A person who doesn’t care for their body will probably put undue and inequitable pressure on social and medical services as a result of their selfish disrespect for their health. There may be political, financial and ethical considerations here, even if there are not theological ones.
Is the person who smokes immoral or sinning in doing so? Is the person who consumes sugar (or fizzy drink) or sleeping pills immoral? Is the parent who feeds their kids junk food immoral? Is is it appropriate for Christians to lobby against harmful foods? Valid cases can be built to answer yes to each of these questions. But each case should come with a bright yellow label warning the holder of such opinions about the dangers of forming too strong a judgment. Judgement is easily as addictive as sugar, and perhaps a bigger rush.
Paul left the issue of nutrition up to the believer. If it offends you, don’t do it. He also warned about behaviour that negatively affected others. We shouldn’t do things that make others fall. We should be careful about the example we set and the impact we have on others. This caution and care should apply to believers on both sides of the issue.
“Do we have a moral/ethical/spiritual duty to keep in good health?” I’m not sure there is a legalistic, black and white, cut and dry answer to this question. Surely it wise to be in good health! Of couse, being unhealthy sucks! But forming judgments about others who are unhealthy or who struggle with their weight, that sucks too! In looking at this issue, we are looking from one that is gray, to one that is black and white. For whatever we end up saying about healthy eating, being judgemental is spiritually toxic.
What would Jesus response be? I can only imagine Jesus encoutering the obese person with the same love and compassion he gave all people. I can’t imagine Jesus clicking his tongue or rolling his eyes. Jesus, as I see him, begins with a compassionate acceptance of who we are and where we are, and then leads us on to better things.