Obesity in the Church

No, I don’t mention this in the context of male-female relations. That horse has been slaughtered over here many times.

Oh noes. This is about a larger problem.

I used to joke about how I always thought “Full Gospel” was a reference to the size of pastoral waistlines. In fact, I often wondered if Dunlop’s Disease (“stomach dun-lopped over my belt”) was a prerequisite for being a pastor.

But it’s no longer a joking matter.

Not long before I got married, JRC, one of the members in my youth group–during my tour of duty as a youth minister–died at age 34 from complications of Type II diabetes that had long been exacerbated by his chronic obesity.

Just last week, a friend of mine–CD–from a previous church life died at age 36 from congestive heart failure. No one knew he had it, until he developed pneumonia and ended up in the hospital, where the docs discovered that his heart was dangerously weak. He had no chance.

CD was a cheerful guy, albeit socially awkward because he was mentally handicapped. But CD was also quite rotund: he was a heavy eater–he was one of those guys who would raid the potlucks and go for the all-you-can-eat buffets. While obesity does not always cause CHF, I’d hazard a very educated guess that his lifestyle was a huge contributory factor.

I say none of this to pile onto CD or JRC. They were each mentally not quite all there; my gripe was the larger culture–including their own parents–who coddled them too much and enabled their lifestyles.

At the same time, their cases bring home a larger issue that–I must confess–Christians as a group need to address soberly.

No, I’m not the food police. Nor have I any desire to micromanage what you put into your mouth.

At the same time, last time I checked my bible, gluttony is a sin. And while all obesity is not the result of gluttony, a heck of a lot of it in the Church is. (If you disagree, then fine, but then it is on you to show that Christians who attend church regularly have a genetic issue that facilitates this more so than Buddhists.)

I DO put the blame squarely on the pastors in this one. It pisses me off, because their negligence is feeding a culture that is leading to higher morbidity and loss of vitality, on top of presenting a mockery of a witness for the Gospel.

9 thoughts on “Obesity in the Church

  1. Sorry. I’m not seeing it. To me, this is just another one of the old Roman Church heresies. I can’t find anything in my bible about gluttony being a sin. Bad, yes. Sin, no. Nor is there anyone in the pulpit qualified to dispense dietary advice. On those rare occasions when I have seen clergy attempt it, it was ALWAYS to push snake oil cures and dietary supplements and prohibitions that were unsupportable biblically and biologically.

    • If a pastor–like Robert Bily, whom I ripped in my review of A Twisted Faith–starts insisting that people must eat a certain way, then I would call it heresy of the first order. That isn’t what I am referring to.

      The issue is not specific nutritional advice (what to eat, carbs vs. protein, vegetarian vs. meat, GMO vs. organic, vegan vs. paleo vs. Atkins vs. South Beach, etc.) but rather the type of overeating that is representative of gluttony.

      Pastors must admonish about the latter as the situation demands it–as there is plenty of Biblical admonition about it–but stay away from the former.

      When American Christians–as a group–are so prone to overweight and obesity, the issue bears mention. Particularly in Baptist/evangelical circles where the “all you can eat buffet” culture is very rampant.

      This is not about someone who ate too much during the holidays, or enjoyed too many chicken wings at a Super Bowl party, but rather about a chronic approach to eating that is a form of idolatry, on top of (a) being self-destructive and (b) sending a very bad message to those outside the Church.

  2. In the Bible, gluttony was a sign of a rebellious child who merited a death sentence.

    Deuteronomy 21:18-21: “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.”

    While I am hardly calling for death sentences—someone who is gluttonous is already sentencing himself to that, ceteris paribus—it does make the case for the evil of gluttony.

    As for how we can see it, it depends on the cases.

    In extreme cases, it’s easy to see. Particularly when someone who is morbidly obese is crashing the buffets and then complaining that he or she has a genetic problem that keeps them from losing weight. Or whose eating has led to other destructive behavior (bulimia), whose eating is getting in the way of their basic functionality. I’ve seen folks who can’t even work because they are so consumed with eating.

    And yes, in those cases—and there are more of those than anyone in the Church wants to talk about—it’s clearly a form of idolatry that requires some intervention.

    My gripe is that, for those folks, the Church culture often enables the destructive cycle.

    Where it gets thorny is on the margins, and that’s where I would reserve judgment, because—as you would point out, and I would agree—it becomes a personal preference. This isn’t about anyone who has some pounds they probably could stand to lose, or even someone who occasionally eats too much at various events.

    Nor am I calling for pastors to be the Food Police, but rather to (a) set the example for moderation, (b) call people to be more sober about food, (c) reach out to those who clearly have problems, and foster a church culture such that, in addition to the unhealthy stuff that everyone loves, there are healthy choices available so that those seeking such will have that.

    The last thing I would want is to take anyone’s fried chicken, pie and ice cream away.

    (I would, however, make healthier desserts an option at the table, and would go out of my way to provide that myself. My wife and I are getting into the habit of doing that. Oh, and no one has ever complained.)

    I’ve been in the Baptist/Evangelical circles for long enough. What I’m speaking to is a larger culture that openly encourages gluttony and even makes it fashionable.

    The guy who died at 34? He left behind a wife and two kids. Those kids get to grow up without a father because (a) their father was irresponsible and (b) their grandfather—who was a pastor and was himself quite rotund—did nothing to admonish his son over his excesses.

  3. I see what you did there. You inserted your own preference and then cited an unrelated passage from Deut. Glutton and drunkard were charges in addition to stubborn and rebellious, not explaining how the person was rebellious. (you may have noticed that I am somewhat of an expert on rebellion).

    The guy who died at 34 lived every day that was allotted to him and not one day longer. Lots of people die young. Most do not choose the date and means of their death. They are simply on the wrong side of the normal distribution.

    The central question remains: how much is good and adding one gram more become gluttony? It is my understanding from reading the Bible that God is not an accountant. He will not be brought low to be the counter of your calories and weigh them on the scale against your activity. He judges the Heart, not the waste-line.

    There is no sin in Gluttony. That is a Catholic thing carried along from the Feudal church. It is an add-on in Christianity.

    Personally, I do not like fat people and I choose to actively discriminate against them every chance I get. But I have zero cover of scripture to for doing that. Just like scripture is silent about how often I should wash my car. (cleanliness is next to Godliness?)

    • Damnit, PH, how dare you discriminate against hotties like Lena Dunham!

      Gluttony is pathological; this isn’t about eating too much at a single potluck. It’s about using your “freedom” as a license to gorge yourself. What does “gorging” one’s self entail? That depends on the individual. A large meal for me would be an appetizer for an NFL linebacker. (In my small group, we have very large folks–not heavyset–who eat much more than I do. If I ate as much as they did, I’d gain at least 50 pounds in short order.)

      My point was to the general evangelical culture that enables–if not tacitly encourages–such license. While we will always have gluttons, just as we will always have drunks, at the very least the Church can–I would suggest ought to–foster a culture that encourages self-discipline.

      As for gluttony, the OT passage I cited is very important, because it reveals that gluttony is a symptom of an undisciplined life. From a Christian standpoint, that is antithetical to the fruits of the Spirit, among which of self-control. That’s not a personal preference on my end.

      Christians, of all people, should (generally) be models for a disciplined life. That they are leading in obesity is proof that this is not the case.

  4. For PH –
    Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things
    – Philippians 3:19

    and put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony.
    – Proverbs 23:2

    You have had enough in the past of the evil things that godless people enjoy–their immorality and lust, their feasting and drunkenness and wild parties, and their terrible worship of idols.
    – 1 Peter 4:3

    For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good
    1 Timothy 3:2-3

    Gluttony is about lack of self-control. Lack of self-control is allowing something else to control you – in the nature of gluttony, appetite and food are the controlling factors. It is seen in scripture as a type of idolatry. While the majority of people aren’t like the capitalists in The Hunger Games, rabidly devouring and then regurgitating so they can devour some more, many people DO struggle with exercising self-control around food.

    For many, it is seen as a benign way to lose control – and certainly, food is far better than wine, drugs, or sexual pleasures – but it is still idolatry and, in fact, dangerous to our health – our bodies – which are to be Temples dedicated to the Lord.

    Our priest (who was incredibly overweight until he shed 200 lbs in the last 4 years) has spoken at great length of how we are to be stewards, not only of our financial and spiritual gifts, but of our physical gifts – and our body is a gift from the Lord that we should be good stewards of.

    • Amir,
      I’ve been struggling with this for several years, actually. I haven’t successfully lost weight in about 4 years now, instead gaining consistently.

      I’ve been feeling strongly that this is about affluence – once you have it, it is hard not to enjoy it… and America is affluent even in the poorest areas. The amount of money we pour into food is overwhelming. One day, I was driving down the road and was suddenly ashamed of my new car and my suburban neighborhood. It all felt so… superfluous. And the idea of its harder for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle just became so abundantly clear. Its hard to give these things up once you have experienced them – just like sex! We become strapped and tied to these external trappings and unwilling to walk away from them. It is so easy to say “no” when you don’t have it, but to give it away after you do?

      Anyway… back to my struggle. Its been a few days… I’m supposed to be reading a chapter of scripture with every meal for lent and this has convicted me to go back to that.

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