Almost a decade ago sociologist and researcher Dr. Christian Smith pinned a name on the de facto “religion” practiced by most Americans—“Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism” (MTD). No matter how we identify ourselves, says Smith, the way we behave unmasks our true beliefs. And MTD describes what most Americans really believe about God:
• God exists—he created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
• God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
• The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about yourself.
• God does not need to be particularly involved in your life, except when he’s needed to resolve a problem.
• Good people go to heaven when they die.
Of course, this is a Trojan Horse gospel—it sounds nice and positive, and apparently “good people” propagate it, but its belly is full of lies. MTD offers a great framework for understanding the “gospel alternatives” we unconsciously embrace. But it does leave out one glaring heresy that most in our culture, and especially those in ministry, have wholeheartedly embraced…
It’s called Gnosticism.
The ancient Gnostic heretics believed that “matter” was evil and spirit was good. In essence, the material world—the world of everyday human behavior and physical activity—was of little importance. Gnosticism divorces the spiritual from the physical. And when it comes to our physical health—our relationship to exercise, nutrition, and fitness—those who serve in ministry are some of the most avid practitioners of Gnosticism. I know, because I’ve been embedded in the “youth ministry nation” for 26 years and it’s not hard to notice we have a problem. I’m not pointing fingers—the truth is, I lived most of my adult life as a Gnostic Jesus-follower. I made the spiritual pursuit of Jesus my life’s passion but allowed myself to get 50 pounds overweight and decidedly unfit.
Matthew McNutt, youth pastor, former Biggest Loser contestant, and author of Me First! describes his own battle with Gnosticism: “For years I didn’t connect my spiritual health with my physical health. So while my heart and mouth claimed I belonged to Jesus, my 366-pound body proclaimed my lack of self-control, discipline, and respect for my body. Somewhere along the line I allowed the same Gnostic heresies that the Apostles fought thousands of years ago to invade my beliefs. In effect I lived a life that claimed my soul was right priority. Like many of us, I took New Testament passages on our bodies being temples of the Holy Spirit and used them as warnings to teenagers against having sex or doing drugs, but I failed to see what these Scriptures had to do with my expanding waistline.”
Two years ago I started a messy journey toward rejecting my functional Gnosticism. I’m no hero—my health club offered a free year of membership if you won a six-week “fitness challenge.” I wanted to save that money, so I entered, thinking it was quite possible I could beat the 30 other people in the contest over a six-week stretch. So I changed my diet (I didn’t go on a diet—I changed what I eat to healthier options that I like better), and I changed my exercise schedule (from one day a week at the club to four lunchtime classes a week). And I didn’t win the contest. But after a year, I’d lost that 50 pounds and was in the best physical shape of my life, and I’ve kept it all off for a second year. I feel great, but more than that, I’m not leading the secret life of a Gnostic heretic… at least not as much as I was two years ago.
Listen, my wife and kids bugged me for years about eating better and exercising more—I know the magnetic grip Gnosticism has on us. Use whatever leverage works for you, but make today the day you lay down your heresy and take steps toward treating physical fitness as one aspect of your “spiritual act of worship.” If you will do this, here’s the enemy you will have to face down: The connection between our spiritual life and our physical life is more profound than we’d like to admit—we will go to the mat to protect our heresies if they help us make our life “work.”
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