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[Healthy Living] The Heresy We Love

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_mcnuttMatthew 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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0 thoughts on “[Healthy Living] The Heresy We Love

  1. even a “gnostic” or any of us who do think spiritual health is MORE important than spiritual health (more, not that physical health is unimportant) would know that the spirit has to experience life through the body and the soul is adversely effected by poor health. Of course, that includes poor health choices that might not be as obvious as being overweight.
    Edwards took great care to notice the effect on his energy and focus that eating had on him. Good Article!

    • Rick Lawrence

      Luke, great observation… I think the underlying issue here is a misunderstanding of our “wholeness” as people created in God’s image. Gnostics might believe Jesus is “fully God,” but they have their suspicions about “fully human.”

  2. Truth. One that’s been speaking gently to me as I’ve gained weight over the years. This morning I actually did a few chin ups before running out the door to work and reading this timely article. Thank you Jesus for never giving up on us even when our views and practices are tilted. Give me the courage to follow truth today. Amen!

    • Rick Lawrence

      We can all relate to the story of the widow’s mite—we only-ever offer Him the smallest thing, but our “smallest thing” is often everything we have…

  3. Excellent post! I have battled eating issues for years. What is depressing is the Christian church’s lack of understanding that how we eat can be tied to spirituality. This is a real thing for me – it’s an area that I have written on and spoken about for years. Thanks for shedding more light on it.

  4. I thought this article was about scriptural heresies that others lived out … in a genius way, Rick, you handed me a mirror to look at my own heresies. Thank you.

    Though it was uncomfortable, I needed to read this today. Printing this one out!

  5. Rick Lawrence

    Shawn, we all normalize the heresies that work for us and demonize those that don’t. Thanks for leaning into “uncomfortable”—it’s an outward sign of an inner preference for courage…

  6. Kevin Barnhouse

    Actually Rick, most Gnostic sects were characterized by their asceticism (sometimes severe) rather than the libertine lifestyle you seem to have attributed to them. There are passages from Iranaeus that seem to confirm a more sexually promiscuous sect but many of them emphasizing portion control (fasting) and high protein intake (meat sacrificed to idols, lol). You see, the Gnostics’ real heresy was was a form of skeptical humanism. Instead disciplining their bodies for service in the church or in submission to God’s command, they worshipped what was in their own hearts through policy. And I’ll bet that after they acheived “fitness” according to their own standards, they felt compelled to share it for the purpose edifying others. Because the physical fallacy in Gnostic belief isn’t thinking too little about your physical body (which is a much less dangerous heresy), but rather thinking about it too much. Gnosticism probably had its roots in Judaism. But today we ate surround by Christians who tell us what is unclean on the sheet. We have many more examples of church fathers accepting the quirks and idiosyncrasies of our spirits having bodies, rather than admonishing believers for not having a lower BMI than Team Gnostic. Which of course brings us back to the startling and real difference between the Church Fathers and the Manichaens, when we remove this all too common policy-mongering from man’s most sovereign possession: his own body. That difference being obedience, of course. So please, if you’ve been commanded to make a physical change in your life or are not fit for the physical requirements of your position in the church, shape up. But if “Brother Ass” gets you back and forth to your job, your wife, your kids, your ministry, then let that donkey breathe, and give thanks for MSG. Don’t be afraid to enjoy the physical world around us. That’s Christian.


    A big old’ fat guy

    P.S. I gave the writer a hard time cause I like showing off. What he was saying here is 90% righteous. Please ignore all the snark and sass if it doesn’t help you find that 10%. I know he wants you to enjoy the physical just as much as I do, and his advice was just that: advice. Pray always! Ciao!

    • Rick Lawrence

      Thanks for investing serious time and thought in your response, Kevin. The main distinction of the Gnostics is that they saw human beings as compartmentalized, with one of those compartments less worthy than the other. It’s a heresy because Jesus was fully God and fully man, and the Incarnation itself refutes Gnostic thinking. This is the primary thought here…

  7. Sheila Allen

    Thank you so much for sharing how our spiritual life is connected to our physical life. If we’re not discipline in our spiritual life it will manifest itself in our everyday life. Right now I really need to be more discipline in the area of eating and exercising, but I haven’t been lately. I’m not in denial, just having a problem being consistent. I see it happening in my spiritual life too! When the connection is made and we ask the Lord for insight as the best way to tackle our lack of discipline and we can honor the Lord in our bodies that do not belong to us. I was wondering how I can print this article. I didn’t see a print icon. Thank you again and God bless you.

    • Rick Lawrence

      Sorry for the missing print icon—you could simply print from your screen. If that’s too messy, I’d be happy to send you my original (it’s a Word document). Just email me at

  8. Rick,
    I am so glad that you shared this. I agree with some of the above comments as well. While being over weight is not the only issue, it is one of the most visible and therefore something all people around us see. I feel this is an issue of being a good steward of what God has given us, our bodies included.
    If we are overweight, out of shape and unhealthy we are going to severely limit our ability to be used by God as we are tied to our food addictions, constantly fatigued, not clear minded, lacking energy, no self control as well as possibly tied down with doctor appointments and medication to offset our unhealthy lifestyle.
    I think it is crucial for pastors to set an example for their people of what a healthy lifestyle should entail and Christianity is holistic we must address physical, mental, spiritual and emotional health.
    One thing that convinced me of the importance to take care of my body was several students and even my wife and others in the church who ask, “why are so many pastors so fat!” Is that really the image we want to portray to people? I think this is an important point for not just pastors but all Christians in America where obesity and the many health related side effects are rapidly on the rise year by year.
    I have made it a point to eat healthy, even at youth events. I also work out at least 5 times a week and to ensure i do not cut into ministry or family time I go to the gym early in the morning and also spend my time as I get ready for prayer and devotions. There is a strong connection between getting in shape physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

    Josh Myers

    • Rick Lawrence

      Josh, embedded in your response is something social scientists call The Stockdale Paradox. Jim Stockdale was an officer and prisoner-of-war in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War. He was imprisoned for eight years, from 1965 to 1973 and was relentlessly and ruthlessly tortured. But he survived the experience, and the way that he survived has now been studied and taught around the world. The key to survival, Stockdale says, is this: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” Your post “confronts our brutal reality” with a certainty that we must “prevail in the end.” We need both ends of the paradox.

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[Healthy Living] The Heresy We Love

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