CULTURE WATCH: Faith and Fitness (Part 3)

Muscular Christianity

By Wendell Cantrell

(This is the third of four articles examining the Christian response to faith and fitness. Read the first article. Read the second article.)

We regularly “talk down” popular culture that surrounds and engulfs. With this series, we are being a bit more introspective, and are asking the evangelical church to look in the mirror and examine our own culture. Is it possible that in our desire to be extending the gospel of grace by being more loving, accepting, and tolerant, that we may be neglecting the gospel of truth?  Letting people know they are loved is commendable, but when we tell them they are fine when they really aren’t, could we be ignoring a major truth?  He calls all of us to live in a spirit of repentance and openness to His transforming work. Our Savior loved both the rich young ruler and the woman caught in adultery, but He called them both to leave their lives of sin. There is danger in redefining this kind of love to speak God’s acceptance, without calling each other to repentance.  We risk judging Jesus’ methods in these two instances as somehow deficient.

We are going to look now at a movement birthed in England in the 19th century known as Muscular Christianity (MC). This idea of carrying the gospel to the body (literally) grew out of a fear that the Anglican Church was becoming too tolerant of weak, flabby, effeminate men.  Lest it be viewed as a sexist issue (sadly present in that age), women were also very much on board1. MC wasn’t about looking good, but having a body fit for active service for the Lord.  Actually the founder of basketball, James Naismith, was a serious MC proponent. This generation of leadership understood, as we should, that fitness can provide a fertile garden for our spiritual growth and that sloth and gluttony can eventually corrupt our souls especially using.

As author Gary Thomas researched this topic,2 he developed a vibrant metaphor – souls of silver. This term defines a soul that has been beautified and purified through a sometimes brutal refining process. The refining process removes what is known as dross from the silver (Proverbs 25:4) so it can shine with all its glory. This refining process in our own souls will sometimes feel terribly burdensome. Two areas of dross that the MC folks focused on are widely overlooked today – our lack of self-control in areas of eating and activity. We could make the case for fitness in a number of ways: living longer, looking younger, or enjoying physical health. While these are very important motivations, the apostle Paul offers a far superior one, “he will be an instrument for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work” (2 Timothy 2:21 emphasis mine). If we desire a silver soul, we are called to stop treating our body like an ornament and start treating it like an instrument set apart to serve Him.

With any movement there can be excesses, and it was the same with Muscular Christianity.  Some of the early proponents would attack study, pitting the mind against the body.  Others leaned a bit too far into the “social gospel” camp.  From my view, it is a challenging message we all need to hear about – “taking the gospel to the body.”

The MC movement noted and responded to the idea that Christianity wasn’t offering enough of a challenge. An early YMCA speaker argued, “Churches have made religion too easy and too cheap.” He suggested the need to promise young men battles instead of feasts, swords instead of prizes, campaigns instead of comforts. “The heroic that lies deep in every man will leap in response,” he claimed. MC believed that youngsters who don’t see themselves as part of the solution would inevitably become part of the problem. Do we need to resurrect the high regard for the strenuous life that some of our forefathers felt so strongly about?

Obviously Satan has a hand in this battle. He is out to cause our physical death. Why does he want believers dead? It would abruptly end our loving care of others and the whole purpose to which God called us. With you out of the way, he has eliminated a key person God desires to use to touch those in our circle of influence. He knows most of us are too smart to go the suicide route, but being the ultimate con artist, he will suggest more acceptable behavior that will negatively affect our health and eventually bring the same result3.

We have all read Proverbs 24:30-34 about the field of a sluggard. Listen to Gary Thomas’ idea of a modern version:

I went past the body of a sluggard, past the body of someone who had no sense. His cholesterol was killing him from within. His high blood pressure was a tinderbox waiting to explode. His breath was labored and he could barely move without breaking a sweat. He said he had no time to exercise or prepare healthy meals, but he lost hours going to the doctor and much money buying medicines to treat the symptoms rather than attack the disease. I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw; A little sleep, a little softness, a life of overindulgence — and ill health will come on me like a thief and frailty like an armed man.

We are not our own.  We are bought with a price. How are we doing with honoring God with our bodies?

 Questions or comments may be directed to culturewatch @dentonbible.org.

  1. Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America by Clifford Putney
  2. Every Body Matters by Gary Thomas
  3. Total Heart Health for Men by Ed & Jo Beth Young, Michael Duncan, Richard Leachman