I walked out of my own church this Sunday. After the offending section, which I will describe below, I tried to stay and just get over it. But I could not remain in worship with the people who had spoken. It was too jarring. I went over to Home Depot and got some aspen trim.
It has a good ending. By the time I got back the sermon was in full swing, and Earl’s lesson hit exactly on my point of objection, but subtly and with balance. He had not written the sermon with the visiting speakers in mind, but the Holy Spirit was on top of that. If they could hear it, the corrective was there. Better still, it was on target enough that I could see where it provided corrective to me as well.
There are many good things which are not the Gospel of Christ, and we confuse them with the gospel at great peril. The demon Screwtape, in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters encourages junior demon Wormwood to get his “patient” interested in "Christianity And."
What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call "Christianity And". You know — Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring.
Every age has its own fashions, many of which are quite good things in themselves, worthy to be encouraged by Christians. But it is these fashionable good things that are more of a danger to our faith. What we regard as greatly important is far more likely to be confused with the Faith As Taught than lesser goods. We recognize safe driving as a good thing, but we are unlikely to regard it as Christian doctrine. We think carpentry an honorable profession and useful skill, but we are unlikely to incorporate a demonstration into weekly worship. (Though I personally would find that more uplifting than liturgical dance.)
This era of the church has a serious problem confusing health and food issues with Christianity. If you have any temptation to think of healthy eating as part of a Christian lifestyle, or whole foods as part of God’s plan, or physical health as anything other than a worldly good, you are already well within its grasp.
“But AVI! The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.” Yes, and in point of strict fact, I very seldom sleep with temple prostitutes, and even less often have I married anyone who worships other gods. That is the intent of that verse, and adding our own cultural values in to it is quite simply…heresy.
The opposite attitude, of eating for joy instead of health, is neither better nor worse. There is some chance that it might be spiritually safer, however, as we are less likely to believe it is a god. The church has never had anything against health. But it has regarded an attitude of being focused on staying healthy as being equivalent to being focused on good horsemanship. More Christians have found encouragement from Scripture to neglect the body than to cherish it.
The conflation of healthy eating with spiritual advancement is quite recent in Christian history. It is another of those odd ideas that we picked up in the 19th C. Prior to that, Christians were far more likely to err in the direction of punishing the body, fasting or denying themselves to point of danger or even death. We are the oddity; our era. It is we who all other eras of the church, and most other geographical areas of the church today would furrow their brows at and ask “What are those people thinking of? What on earth does that have to do with Jesus?” Health is a form of wealth, like beauty or education, and we do well to keep thinking of it in those terms.
The speakers this Sunday came from another denomination, one that is known for its focus on healthy eating. The woman speaking is the health officer of her church. Well, why not a Good Sex officer, then? Don’t we want marriages to be joyful? Why not a church cosmetologist, or an insurance officer? Do we hate beauty and security? No, but in those instances we recognize them for what they are: temptations that bind us into this world; potential rivals to God. This health heresy arises at precisely that point in history when we start living longer, and has increased in pace with longer life. We who are wealthiest in length of life are the most careful to protect (should I say hoard?) it.
When I got back to service, Earl was preaching on Romans 8: 5-11, and was at that point on verses 6-8:
6For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Our guests, I suspect, heard that more in terms of “eating sausages is giving in to the flesh and unholy; eating lentils is more disciplined and righteous.” No matter. The truth was there if they wanted to hear it. Earl was hot on the trail of the many ways we can seek after the things of this world, and though he didn’t specify being a food fanatic, it was in there for such as I who needed to hear it. The Holy Spirit comes through again, eh?
I imagine most Christians in America let some sort of similar idea sneak in when they think about being “in the flesh.” It is dangerous precisely because it so permeates parts of our culture, and is thus so easily incorporated into unofficial doctrine. I seldom mention it, because it would tick so many people off, and comity in Christian community is also a good thing. People mention it all the time – moms especially because their special charge to instruct in good habits – good studying, good driving, good eating, good organization – makes them susceptible. I nearly always give it a pass when people get that slightly obsessive food thing going in a Christian context. I suspect they would be granolas even if they weren’t Christians, and just don’t stop to think about separating things out clearly.
But when it gets this over-the-top, when the speaker is framed by loaves on the Lord’s Table and is talking about cholesterol, I willingly risk offense.