Philosophers don’t gather in public spaces and teach like they did in the ancient Greco-Roman world, but their ideas still influence how we view our bodies. And that’s bad news.
In the ancient Hellenistic culture of the apostle Paul’s day, a good deal of religious and philosophical thought held to the idea that physical matter was of less worth than spirit, and correspondingly, that the body was of less importance than the soul. As Paul sought to share the gospel and nurture the early church, he found himself at odds with this widespread, faulty belief, because it was incompatible with the good news of Jesus.
Before I say more about that, it will be helpful to point out that this idea that matter was base and spirit was transcendent led people in two very different ethical directions.
Some believed that since the human soul and body are divided, and the soul can live forever, then indulging in bodily urges and appetites is of no real consequence. Others believed that if the soul is good and the body is not, then virtuous living required complete mastery over bodily feelings and desires.
Interestingly, elements of these same kinds of philosophical thought are alive and well today. They may come in different packaging and without as much depth of philosophical reasoning, but the core message is the same—the soul matters, the body does not. You might catch glimpses of this in the things people say and do:
The “real me” is on the inside, my body is just a body.
I only have one body, so I better take care of it. (Notice the distinction between “I” and “it.”)
Your sex is “assigned at birth,” but only you can decide who you truly are.
As long as sex is consensual, what does it matter who you’re with?
Any two people can have a baby, regardless of marriage or gender.
I want to eat better and exercise so I can have a good body.
We can see hints of ancient Stoicism in the rigid ways people try to lose weight or abstain from sex, and we can see Cynic disregard for discipline in how people drift from screens to food to drink to sex, all to gratify fleshly desire.
The early Christians held a scandalously different view of the body, and one Christians today would do well to recapture. In the Christian view, every person is comprised of both soul and body, and this is “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Far from the faulty low view of the body that ranks spirit as good and matter as ignoble, God created the physical world as a loving and joyful expression of His goodness. In fact, God so esteemed His creation of the human person, that the eternal, all-powerful Creator Himself became embodied in order to save our bodies from sin, decay, and death.
If you’ve been around Christianity for long, this may sound so familiar that it no longer moves you. If so, I get it. The message of an en-fleshed God who went to the cross for my body—a message that Jews found objectionable and Greeks found utter foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:23)—can strike my ear as rather mundane.
Might I suggest that if it does not sound scandalous to us, that we would do well to take time to recapture what this actually means both about us and for us?
You might begin by paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 6:13, one of those scandalous verses the great apostle penned to the church in Corinth (who were no strangers to faulty teachings about the body). Find a mirror and some privacy, and while looking at yourself in the mirror, repeat aloud and slowly:
The Lord is for my body,
And my body is for the Lord.
I’d also invite you to listen in to my conversation with Linda Noble and Linda Stewart, authors of Before the Sex Talk, on this week’s podcast, as we dive into the foreign (but true) concept of what it means to be a “body self.”
Question: In what ways do find evidence in your life that you may be more influenced by the world’s idea of what it means to be human than by God’s Word on the matter (pun intended).