On any Sunday, you could walk into almost any Southern Baptist church in America and enjoy doughnuts and coffee before Sunday School, a potluck dinner on the grounds after the morning worship service, or an ice cream social in the evening. Many of our church activities are centered on food. Food is a gift provided to us by God to enjoy and to sustain our physical bodies. But are we overdoing it?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity is now the number one health threat facing Americans — and the church is certainly not immune.
A new study recently published by Purdue University Professor Ken Ferraro examined the relationships between religion and both body mass index (BMI) and obesity. The study found that church members tend to be more overweight than the general population, and Baptists, including Southern Baptists, have the distinction of being the most overweight religious group in the study.
Unfortunately, our own statistics lend support to Ferraro's findings. Each year at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, GuideStone Financial Resources and LifeWay's LeaderCare ministry sponsor a Wellness Center where convention messengers can take advantage of a free health screening. An Executive Summary Report of Wellness Center statistics for the 2005 convention showed that more than 75 percent of the 1,472 participants who completed the screening were found to be significantly overweight. Compare this to the national estimate that approximately 65 percent of adults are considered overweight, and you see a problem that the church must address.
There is no question that excess weight poses a serious threat to our physical health, but is there more to it than that? While some excessive weight problems may be due to medical problems, being overweight may also indicate a spiritual problem.
Gluttony is a Sin
God created in us both a need for food and the capacity to enjoy the pleasure of food. Bible stories like the feeding of the five thousand, the wedding at Cana, and the Last Supper all center on food or celebrations involving food. The problem comes when we over feed ourselves and allow our lust for food to control or harm us.
The Bible condemns overindulgence in many things, including food. Proverbs 23:20-21 says: Don't associate with those who drink too much wine, or with those who gorge themselves on meat. For the drunkard and the glutton will become poor, and grogginess will clothe them in rags. Here, as in other verses, gluttony is placed in the same category as other sinful behavior. Yet, while the church denounces the use of alcohol, we don't often speak up about the sin of overeating even though the lack of self control is usually the root of both problems.
When used properly, food should satisfy our bodies' needs. The problem is when we overindulge with no sensitivity to hunger. When we look to food to comfort us, soothe our emotions, solve our problems, or make us happy, we are placing food before God. Using food to satisfy our spiritual needs is a sin.
Obesity Destroys the Temple of God
Do you not know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own (1 Corinthians 6:19).
As obesity rates rise in the U.S., so do rates of diseases associated with obesity. In a press release by the CDC, director Jeffrey P. Koplan said, "Overweight and physical inactivity account for more than three hundred thousand premature deaths each year in the U.S., second only to tobacco-related deaths. Obesity," he continued, "is an epidemic and should be taken as seriously as any infectious disease epidemic. Obesity and overweight are linked to the nation's number one killer — heart disease — as well as diabetes and other chronic conditions."
Overweight and obese people are at increased risk for developing conditions like coronary heart disease (CHD), diabetes, stroke, hypertension, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea and other respiratory problems, several types of cancers, and even death. Statistics from the 2005 Wellness Center summary showed that more than 70 percent of the almost fifteen hundred participants who completed the health screening were at moderate to high risk for CHD.
Yet many Christians are destroying the temple of God with excess food, insufficient sleep, and physical inactivity.
Obesity is Poor Stewardship of the Body
For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body (1 Corinthians 6:20).
As Christians, we must take care of our bodies in such a way that we are physically prepared to do whatever God asks of us, whenever He asks it. Honoring the body means making a commitment to live a healthier lifestyle by carefully considering the foods you put into your body, making exercise a regular part of your life, and getting enough sleep.
Not only is obesity poor stewardship of the body, it's also poor stewardship of our financial resources. It has been estimated that annual costs associated with overweight and obesity in the U.S. are just under $123 billion. This estimate includes more than $64 billion in direct health care costs for preventive, diagnostic, and treatment services and almost $59 billion for indirect costs such as wages lost by people who are unable to work and the value of future earnings lost because of premature death.
Obesity, defined as having a BMI of more than thirty, greatly impacts the length of hospital stays and the quantity and cost of doctor visits and drug prescriptions. This, in turn, has a direct impact on the rising cost of health insurance in the U.S. Prescription drugs related to treatment of cardiovascular disorders and claims related to hypertension and/or heart disease are two of the most prevalent expenses in GuideStone's medical programs.
Overeating Indicates Walking in the Flesh Rather Than the Spirit
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23).
Christians may fear placing too much emphasis on the physical at the expense of the spiritual, but neglecting the body can be just as wrong. When we are unable to control our eating habits, we lack the self-control that is the fruit of the spirit. Balance is the key. Without taking care of the physical body, we are unable to concern ourselves with the spiritual.
When we are able to control our appetites, we are usually better able to exercise self-control in other areas like anger, lust, and gossip. Walking in the spirit means using food as God intended — to provide energy for our bodies — and enjoying food in appropriate quantities. This places the proper emphasis on food and allows us to also place proper emphasis on spiritual matters.
A Well-Disciplined Life Honors God
The story of Daniel demonstrates a person willing to sacrifice physical pleasure to honor the Lord. When King Nebuchadnezzar brought Daniel and several other young men to him: The king assigned them daily provisions from the royal food and from the wine that he drank (Daniel 1:5). However, Daniel determined that he would not defile himself with the king's food or with the wine he drank (v. 8). Daniel requested, Then examine our appearance and the appearance of the young men who are eating the king's food, and deal with your servants based on what you see. He agreed with them in this matter and tested them for ten days (v. 13-14).
At the end of 10 days they looked better and healthier than all the young men who were eating the king's food. So the guard continued to remove their food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables. God gave these four young men knowledge and understanding in every kind of literature and wisdom. Daniel also understood visions and dreams of every kind (v. 15-17).
Daniel and his friends showed the wisdom of eating properly by including fresh vegetables in their diets instead of overindulging on the king's rich foods. They also demonstrated that by placing the correct emphasis on food as a tool to nourish our physical bodies instead of yielding to our lust for food, we are healthier and better able to follow God's call.
The Church's Response
Changing our eating and exercise habits isn't easy, but with the help of God, it can be done. First John 5:14-15 says: Now this is the confidence we have before Him: whenever we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears whatever we ask, we know that we have what we have asked Him for.
What can the church do? First, ministers need to look at themselves and determine if the change needs to start with them. Next, they must speak up and encourage their church members to have discipline in all areas of their lives. Because the Bible addresses eating, indulgence, self control, self discipline, gluttony, and other related sins, we need to be able to address this topic in our churches without fear of offense. Congregations are blessed when their pastor encourages them to make changes in their lifestyles that will ultimately bring glory to God.
Wendy Ashley is Communications Development Leader and staff writer for GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.