Should Christians prioritize bodily exercise?

by Luke Wayne
7/11/17

The Bible does not directly address the subject of physical fitness or exercise in the life of the believer, but it does provide core principles by which a modern Christian can put these things in their proper place in life. The short answer is, the human body needs a certain level of physical activity to stay healthy and useful just as it does a certain amount of food or sleep, and as such, the Christian does well to do these things. However, though these things are important, they should not be the focus of the Christian's day nor the highest priory in life. Overindulgence in food is gluttony, and this is sin,1 yet food itself is right and good and ought even to be enjoyed with a thankful heart.2 Sleep, when done to excess, makes one a sluggard and is harshly rebuked in Scripture3, yet sleep in its proper place is considered a blessing.4 God desires to give us rest and we ought to be thankful for it while not over indulging in such leisure. In the same way, an over-emphasis on bodily exercise is a source of pride and often a symptom of covetousness and sinful self-focus. Still, the Bible also condemns a lifestyle of idleness and laziness, and it is good to work into one's life a certain degree of physical activity that is necessary for the body and good for the mind.

The ancient world in which the Bible was written was an inherently strenuous place of continuous walking, carrying heavy loads, and for most people, very physical labor. The Old Testament law literally had to order the Israelites to rest one day a week. For the vast majority of people, fitness and bodily activity were built into everyday life and taken as a given. Specific physical training was related to preparation for warfare and self-defense or, by the time of the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament era, athletes in the games (which were only a tiny portion of the population). The need for physical activity purely for personal fitness as we understand it today arose primarily out of the sedentary life of the modern world. It should come as no surprise that the Bible doesn't have verses explicitly about the modern idea of abstract exercise that is purely for health and not a part of productive labor or training for war. Still, the principles that the Bible gives us help us to find the appropriate place for bodily exercise so as to be healthy and physically useful to church, family, and community while never setting aside the more noble goals of spiritual growth and discipline in the name of mere worldly pride and temporal self-aggrandizement.

Be healthy for the sake of others and so not to be a burden, and even thankfully enjoy the ability to exercise if you can, but do not use the gym as a means to honor yourself or take time away from the things that really matter in eternity.

Verses Often Misapplied in Discussing Physical Fitness

1 Timothy 4:8

"for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come," (1 Timothy 4:8).

This verse is sometimes used to argue that Christians should not exercise at all. The truth is, it has nothing to do with the modern idea of physical fitness. Instead, the passage is focused on legalism over material things. Note how the chapter starts:

"But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer," (1 Timothy 4:1-5).

What is in view here are moral regulations about certain foods and forbidding marriage (thus demanding that people abstain entirely from sex). The passage then goes on to say:

"In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come," (1 Timothy 4:6-8).

Thus, Paul is not talking to Timothy about "disciplining the body" through exercise but rather through legalistically forbidding food and sex even under circumstances that God approves and blesses such things. It is this that is based on "worldly fables." We see similar instructions elsewhere in Paul's writings:

"If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence," (Colossians 2:21).

So, while these passages encourage us to keep a healthy focus on the eternal over the temporal and deny the idea that physical fitness is a spiritual enterprise or an aid to righteousness, they do not forbid exercise any more than they do eating or getting married.

1 Corinthians 6:19

"Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?" (1 Corinthians 6:19).

On the flip side, this passage is often used to argue that physical fitness is actually mandated by Scripture. Some people argue that, just as God expected Old Testament Israel to carefully maintain and even beautify the temple, the Christian must do the same to his body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. Again, this is not what the passage is saying. We read just a few verses before:

"Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? May it never be!" (1 Corinthians 6:15).

The passage then goes on to say:

"Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body," (1 Corinthians 6:18).

Paul's argument here is not for health, fitness, or hygiene. He is arguing against sexual sin. There is nothing wrong with staying healthy, but it is wholly unbiblical to turn exercise into a legalistic mandate based on this passage.

Conclusion

Biblical principles affirm the value of bodily health when it does not conflict with more eternal considerations or with our priority of one another over ourselves, and thus bodily exercise is okay and even good for the Christian so long as it is done with a heart of humility and gratitude. The Bible even uses the rigorous devotion of the athlete in the frivolous effort to attain mere worldly accolades as an example of the far greater discipline and focus we ought to have in our spiritual discipline and devotion seeking after eternal things:

"Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified," (1 Corinthians 9:25-27).5

Still, physical exercise should no more be the driving priority of a Christian's daily life than eating should be. Both are good, but neither is a primary focus.

  • 1. Gluttony is one of the sins for which a rebellious son was to be stoned to death in Deuteronomy 21:20, and Proverbs 23:20-21 forbids even associating with gluttons.
  • 2. see, for example, 1 Timothy 4:1-5
  • 3. see, for example, Proverbs 6:9-11
  • 4. See, for example, Psalm 4:8
  • 5. See also Galatians 5:7, Philippians 2:16, 2 Timothy 4:7, Hebrews 12:1, etc.