By Jeri Ballard —
Is eating the area where Christians have trouble with self-control? There are fellowship dinners and snacks at Bible studies. We may not go to the bar to drain alcoholic beverages, but we go to the restaurant and knock back the extra fries and milkshakes. It’s not a beer belly; it’s a potluck paunch.
Extra pounds around the waist or on the thighs are more often carried to church than Bibles. In fact, one pastor in Guatemala teased a slim colleague, Pastor sin panza no da confianza, which translated means: A pastor without a paunch doesn’t inspire confidence (it’s mirthful in Spanish because it rhymes).
But while there is a disturbing trend in Christianity toward obesity, there is a new generation of shepherds who are saying no to the second helping of shepherd’s pie.
Take Steve Reynolds for example. The way he sees it, he was “trashing” his temple of the Holy Spirit (his body), according to US News & World Report. The pastor of Capital Baptist Church in Annandale, Virginia weighed 340 pounds.
While Reynolds never pumped iron, he downed a tub of ice cream each night. While he circumvented cardio, he crammed carbs.
As a result, doctors ordered him to take eight separate medications to stave off diabetes and other disorders. At some point, Reynolds had an epiphany.
“I’m looking forward to heaven,” came the flash, “but I’m not ready to get there yet.”
Reynolds had to upend some bad habits. He started an exercise regime and began a diet inspired by the Bible. It turns out the Holy Writ has much to say about healthy living, but he hadn’t noticed previously. By searching the word “body” in his concordance, he found some inspired guidance.
Health Fitness Revolution unearthed stats to back up Reynolds’ claim: A 2006 Purdue study found that the fundamental Christians are by far the heaviest of all religious groups, led by the Baptists with a 30% obesity rate. A 2011 Northwestern University study tracking 3,433 men and women for 18 years found that young adults who attend church or a bible study once a week are 50% likelier beobese.
Jesus “could walk 40 miles, not in Reeboks but in leather sandals,” Reynolds wrote in his book. “Yet His followers on this planet are unhealthy, overweight, sedentary couch potatoes.”
As a result of the regimen developed by Reynolds, he dropped 100 pounds and no longer needed the medications. His findings and testimony were published in his book Bod4God.
“We believe our bodies are very important to our faith,” says Scott Roberts, head of William Jessup University’s kinesiology department, where faith-based fitness courses are offered.
If 1 Timothy 4:7 says, “Bodily exercise profiteth little” to highlight spiritual health, nevertheless the verse does says that there is value in physical health. The purpose is not to counter pose bad/good, but to compare good/better.
In 2014, Health Fitness Revolution named the top 10 fittest pastors. Joel Osteen topped the list for his enviable six pack.
Scott Bennefield was also featured as the “Iron Man Pastor.” Prior to 1991, he never gave much thought to fitness. But then he decided he’d better start running for exercise. He progressed and amplified his goals: at age 43, the pastor of the New Covenant Church in New Mexico competed in his first Iron Man competition and completed six more by time of publication.
Chuck Bernal, pastor of the LifePointe Church in Crowley, Texas, also earned an honorable mention. Through diet and exercise, he slimmed down from 367 pounds to a fit 226.
Mega-church Pastor Rick Warren joined the list. His introduction to health came by way of baptizing 858 people. Two-thirds of the way through dunking disciples, his arms grew tired. And he noticed the excess water displacement by the obese — including himself. Consequently, he lost 30 pounds.
Today, there are Christian diet plans, apps, tapes, exercise routines — all of which motivate through the Word of God for the goal of fitness. Exercising has become as important to some as healthy eating.
Monsignor Rick Hillgartner hits the gym regularly. “If I take seriously being a good steward of the gift God has given me — the gift of myself, my body, who I am as an instrument for the Lord — then I need to take care of that,” he says.
Dr. Lawrence Czer, a Christian Los Angeles cardiologist who heads Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s Heart transplant program, points out that the Old Testament custom of the priest cutting the fat off red meat made it leaner and healthier to eat. The Pentateuch knew it before modern science, a fact that should surprise no one.
There are healthier ways to prepare food, such as steaming food instead of frying. Avoiding processed foods — which alter God’s natural design with chemicals and factory processes — can also help.
Suzanne Leffler of Williamsburg, Virginia attends aerobics classes in her church. The group follows an international program called Body & Soul Fitness, which designs exercise routines to praise and worship music.
“My strength is renewed whenever I go to Body & Soul; I can listen to the lyrics and really focus on what they’re saying,” Suzanne says. “It’s more than just a workout for me – it’s a time of worship.”
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Jeri Ballard studies at the Lighthouse Christian Academy in Los Angeles.