The Self-Righteousness of Christian Physical Fitness (or Avoidance)

I’ve written previously about a new brand of legalism advocated by Christian fitness enthusiasts, as though a certain definition of physical fitness were nearest to godliness. I write again here with a desire to question what the Gospel has to do with this and with other ongoing miscalculations about the physical body continuing to be propagated in the Protestant church, in particular, and the broader culture.

On the one hand, as previously mentioned, there is a spectrum of evangelical churches advocating for physical fitness amongst its congregants.

This is sometimes equated with a certain fitness regimen or acquiring a “six pack,” for example. On the one end of the spectrum is the “word of faith movement” or Prosperity Gospel that presupposes that faith equals riches, success, and physical beauty, which is confined to a 21st century Western view of beauty, often meaning thin (or now also muscular) women and thin and/or muscular men. Jesus is often portrayed here as being the most muscular, and thus the most righteous man, an obviously anachronistic portrayal of Western culture into 1st century Judaism. This new self-righteousness outcasts the sick, disabled, and even those pursuing a moderate form of physical fitness who may not inherently enjoy physical fitness pursuits.

On the other hand, as I grew up believing and continue to hear proclaimed, we take care of our bodies only so that we can be ready to minister to others. This view is a neo-gnostic view, which downplays the body as a necessary evil, so to speak, or, at best, something which we must only tolerate while in pursuit of more spiritual matters.

The evangelical theology of the body is thus without the evangel and remains schizophrenic.

Both viewpoints fail to recognize that God is at the center of the pursuit of all of our joys. The one view places the focus on ourselves, on our successes, on our approval by other people. The other ignores the extent of the Gospel, that Christ’s work extends to all of life and even to the end of the universe. He is restoring all things, and, despite all of creation’s and our bodies’ groanings, Christians begin to taste his redemption of the body now, in a complicated way, by pursuing His joy in every aspect of their lives.

What does the Gospel have to do with this? The self-righteousness of the one wing creates a new outer shell of “perfect bodies” (perfect to whom?), which sounds kind of like the white-washed tombs who were the Pharisees. The Gospel speaks grace into the lives of those who don’t meet these expectations and further questions whether this outer shell is the goal anyway.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who, like me, struggle to find room in their spiritual head-space for the appropriate care of the physical body. We have bought into the spirit as the only goal of salvation and have minimized God’s saving work, forgotten that He created holistic beings with physical bodies that will be renewed, as Christ’s, into all of eternity. We have snubbed our noses at those who would waste their lives on caring for the physical body, even if they inherently enjoy the pursuit of physical fitness.

On a more moderate note, some of my evangelical brothers and sisters are truly trying to engage stewardship of the physical body as part of their discipleship. The danger here though is the slippery slope, as in all things. The danger is idolatry. Muscular Christianity that was the start of the YMCA lost the Gospel in this way. What started as a reaction to ignoring the physical body and acknowledging care for the physical body as part of one’s pursuit of God soon became equating fitness with godliness. Once fitness became godliness, there was no longer a need for the Gospel.

When Christians today advocate for physical fitness or weight loss programs, should not our hope be set on Christ rather than on the scale? Please don’t hear me saying that we shouldn’t care about physical fitness (o contrare!). But to make somebody feel that their pursuit of Christ should look like a six-pack is ridiculous on multiple levels. For one, some people have a six-pack without even trying. For two, a six-pack probably isn’t healthy and sustainable in the long-term for many people. For three, the complicated course to a six-pack for some may steal from their joy in God, such as by stealing from their energy level or by stealing from their ability to enjoy God as their treasures above themselves, if their hearts aren’t right in it.

Should not the Christian life be one of grace (even for oneself) and freedom because Christ has accomplished all that is necessary for salvation of the whole person? Thus, in one’s pursuit of caring for the body in such a way to maximize one’s joy in God, should there not be grace for those of different enjoyment levels of fitness, including those strong men who don’t have six packs because their abdomens are too strong 😉 Also to include those who will never attain the six pack otherwise?

On the other end of the spectrum are those who would say “Amen” because they hear me saying that we don’t have to care for the body. Yet the Gospel extends to all of life because Christ’s work extends to the ends of the universe, which means that we are freed to pursue Christ within objective reality. God’s common grace revealed through the sciences would help us understand physical goals we may have as part of the pursuit of joy in God. Freedom in Christ is freedom to pursue Him with our whole being, because Christ has already accomplished all of the work. Thus, we love Him with all that we are.

There is no room for self-righteousness because all we have is Christ’s righteousness, who has accomplished all through His death and resurrection. Christians can encourage each other to worship in every minute area of life, including care for the physical body, without casting judgment on others, who may actually love Christ more than them despite what they look like.

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