One Sin the Church Can't Afford to Ignore

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In 1744 Benjamin Kennicott (who would later become a noted cleric and biblical scholar) went to see John Wesley preach. He recorded his impressions of the controversial evangelist and his description of Wesley is both striking and telling:  “He is neither tall nor fat; for the latter would ill become a Methodist.”

Despite Wesley’s lifetime of teaching on the importance of health, nutritious diets and dietary discipline, such that during the 18th century one might joke that obesity would “ill become a Methodist,” today, in the midst of an epidemic of obesity that finds over a third of American adults and nearly twenty percent of American children clinically obese, the jokes are more likely to be like Garrison Keillor’s: “You know you are a Methodist when doughnuts are a line item on the budget.” No doubt this would deeply trouble Wesley.

According to a 2010 study published in the journal Obesity, a full three-fourths of the Methodist clergy in North Carolina are overweight, and forty percent are clinically obese, a rate ten percent higher than that of the North Carolina general public.  The problem is not, however, uniquely Methodist.  The Obesity article cites, for example, a 2002 study by the Evangelical Lutheran Church reporting that 34 percent of ELCA pastors were obese, compared to the then national average of 22 percent. Anecdotally, in his book The Rest of Life Ben Witherington describes speaking to a convention of Southern Baptist pastors and their wives and being shocked to see that “a considerable majority of them were overweight” and that over 30 percent of them were “certifiably obese or morbidly obese.”

Obesity increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. One study has concluded that nearly one-fifth of all deaths in America each year are linked to obesity. On average an obese person spends $1,500 per year more on health care than a person of normal weight. And consider this sobering fact: in the U.S. medical expenses attributable to obesity exceed $147 billion per year, about five times more than the $30 billion the U.N. estimates would be sufficient to eliminate world hunger.

Interestingly, obesity rates are highest in those parts of the country with the highest rates of church attendance. In a 2006 study of the relationship between obesity and religion Purdue University sociologist Ken Ferraro concluded, “America is becoming known as a nation of gluttony and obesity and churches are a feeding ground for the problem…. Overeating is not considered a great sin—it has become the accepted vice.” A 2011 study by researchers at Northwestern University based on research conducted over 18 years, found that people who attend church services at least once a week are a whopping 50 percent more likely to become obese than those who do not. These facts surely suggest that too little is being done by churches to combat obesity in their communities, congregations and pulpits.

John Wesley did not consider eating to be a morally neutral act. In fact, wellness and diet were central to Wesley’s message in ways that might seem strange to most American churchgoers today.

Wesley believed that God expects food choices to be made with the preservation of health in mind, rather than the gratification of personal desires, and that those who choose to eat poorly will someday be required to account to their Creator for having done so. In his 1768 sermon “The Good Steward,” Wesley imagines the scene on the Day of Judgment, when all of humanity is standing before God to give an account of their lives and to be judged accordingly. One of the specific questions Wesley imagines God asking those about to be judged concerns their diets:

The Lord of all will next inquire, “How didst thou employ the worldly goods which I lodged in thy hands? Didst thou use thy food, not so as to seek or place thy happiness therein, but so as to preserve thy body in health, in strength and vigour, a fit instrument for the soul?”

Surely the prospect of answering such a question should be disquieting to those who have ruined their health with junk food and overeating.

Indeed, Wesley considered the intentional consumption of unhealthy food to be a grievous sin, tantamount to suicide. In commenting on Deuteronomy 5:17 (“Thou shalt not kill”) in his Explanatory Notes on the Old Testament, Wesley referred specifically to food choices, pointedly asking the reader, “Are you guilty of no degree of self-murder?  Do you never eat or drink anything because you like it, although you have reason to believe it is prejudicial to your health?”  Likewise, in a letter of April 16, 1777 Wesley wrote, “Thus our general rule is ‘Thou shalt do no murder’; which plainly forbids everything that tends to impair health, and implies that we use every probable means of preserving or restoring it.”

In light of how strongly he held these beliefs, Wesley would find distressing the contemporary Church’s relative silence on matters of nutrition and personal health. Temperance and moderation of consumption are fundamental to a Wesleyan food ethic. For Wesley a diet of nutritious, wholesome food is best-suited to keeping the human body in the healthy condition he believed God desires and intends. A properly nourished body, healthy and fit, is most capable of doing the good works God expects from it. Intentionally choosing an unwholesome diet, in Wesley’s view, is a direct affront to God. Wesley might well be baffled, therefore, at a contemporary Christian culture that calls itself “pro-life,” while engaged so pervasively in “self-murder.”

Order Organic Wesley: A Christian Perspective on Food, Farming, and Faith by Bill Guerrant from our store.

8 COMMENTS

  1. No doubt Jesus own confession would lead us to believe that he could reasonably be accused of gluttony. I’m pretty sure that you mean well but this read and you’re concern is a waste of time and spirit. It is, however, the type of effort I have come to expect from religious folk.

    • Very true. It is articles like this that encourages eating disorders like bulemia and anorexia. In Wesley’s day, these diseases were not well understood.

  2. Calling attention to the problem of obesity is certainly non-Christian, but one is drawn to conclude, from the inclusion of the quote: “America is becoming known as a nation of gluttony and obesity and
    churches are a feeding ground for the problem…. Overeating is not
    considered a great sin—it has become the accepted vice.”, that a vast portion of Church-going Christians are consigned to the category of habitual (three-times-a-day, or binge) sinners. In light of 1 John 3:6, we might infer Mr. Guerrant is nudging overweight Christians toward either conquering a life-time problem, hell, or a belief in purgatory. Oh, BTW, what is the definition of over-eating and obesity–cross culturally? If you have the stats, please follow with an article something like, “A Wesleyan Perspective on How Science Defines Sin.”

    • While Wesley certainly taught that our choices (including our food choices) can have eternal consequences, in the case of gluttony and overeating his emphasis was more on the effects in the here and now than in the hereinafter. Wesley taught that, in addition to being disobedient to God, when we intentionally choose a diet that shortens our life and diminishes our physical abilities, we disable ourselves from doing as much good as we otherwise might have and we impair bodies that are gifts of God. When we overeat to the point of obesity, Wesley argued, the extra food we eat is “snatched from the mouths of the hungry.” And when we spend vast sums of money to treat illnesses caused by overeating, we divert resources that might otherwise have been used to help those suffering from illnesses not caused by their voluntary choices. Wesley deemed temperance in all things (including food) to be an essential part of the lives to which God calls us and he called upon Christians to exercise self control and strive toward the perfection (both spiritual and physical) that God intends. These subjects are all covered in more detail in Organic Wesley. If you find them interesting you would probably enjoy the book. http://organicwesley.seedbed.com/

  3. Can we not comprehend that this sin is one of the very reasons the church gets so disparaged from the outside when it highlights certain issues and all but ignores some obvious others like obesity? Yes, even food can be placed ahead of God, and this is a welcome and wise reminder of that.

    One of the things I’ve gleaned from Wesley is the totality of sin, the total depravity (to borrow the phrase of another camp) that extends to things like our eating habits.

    In closing, I’m reminded of this:

    Proverbs 23:2
    And put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite.

    A heck of a crash diet, but I think in line with the Wesleyan understanding espoused here.

  4. It is disappointing when the North American Church does not offer healthy options where food is present. Shame on us for bring a source of temptation and feeding into addictions. Thank you for saying what I’ve been thinking.

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