As with any topic related to Christian living, discussing physical exercise in the life of a pastor runs the risk of twin dangers: legalism and antinomianism. Those two terms are tricky to understand and apply, but my point is hopefully simple: the antinomian pastor doesn’t think he is under much obligation to look after his body, whereas the pastor given to legalistic tendencies in this area has many commands on how to stay fit and healthy. Both pastors think of different things when they hear “six-pack.”
With these two dangers in mind, however, we do well to consider several reasons for why Christians, and pastors in particular, exercise.
An obvious and sustained lack of discipline in one or two areas of our obedience to God — such as prayer, church attendance, hospitality — very often reflects a lack of discipline in other areas of the Christian life. In chapter 8 of John Owen’s famous work on mortification, he makes the point that we must aim for sincerity and diligence in all our obedience (“a universality of obedience”) if we are going to have success mortifying our sin.
Referencing 2 Corinthians 7:1, Owen writes,
God’s work consists in universal obedience. . . . If we will do anything, we must do all things. So, then, it is not only an intense opposition to this or that peculiar lust, but a universal humble frame and temper of heart, with watchfulness over every evil and for the performance of every duty, that is accepted. (Works of John Owen, 6:41–42)
If a pastor, or any Christian for that matter, is wildly negligent in some area of life — physical health included — we rightly ask questions about whether a pattern of general negligence is present. While indwelling sin is present in even the most sanctified Christians, we should exhibit a universal (that is, total) commitment to God in all the commandments that remain upon us (John 14:15, 21, 23) — not least because keeping a particular commandment is harder if one is actively breaking other commandments.
Breaking the Sixth Commandment
What parts of Scripture might command us to steward our bodies?
The sixth commandment, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13), requires us to wisely preserve our own lives and the lives of others. And if something is forbidden in the law, the positive is also commanded (see, for example, the way Paul treats the commandments both negatively and positively in Ephesians 4:25–32). In preserving our own life, we should aim to eat well, refrain from gluttony and drunkenness (Deuteronomy 21:20), and engage in appropriate bodily exercise, such as walking, sports, or physical labor.
Obvious benefits result from aerobic and anaerobic exercise. And especially for a pastor who spends a lot of time sitting, doing both aerobic and anaerobic training may prove crucial to his long-term physical and mental health. Whether with New Testament Greek or your muscles, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.”
Paul likewise affirms the goodness of bodily training, commenting that it “is of some value” (1 Timothy 4:8). Various types of exercise can alleviate anxiety, stress, and depression. Most pastors, especially the faithful, need all the stress-relief they can get. In addition, just as exercise can release helpful hormones and neurotransmitters, obesity in men is linked with low testosterone. Low testosterone seems to be a new epidemic, even among younger men. Some of this trend can be accounted for by our poor eating and exercising habits. Obesity also leads to cardiovascular problems that can kill someone earlier than if he had remained fit.
“Regular exercise will likely lead to greater productivity, not less, in both the short term and long term.”
Did Jesus care about physical health? Anyone who has read the Gospel accounts carefully will understand that our Lord did a lot of walking, and sometimes over distances and terrains that would have required a great deal of fitness. He likely walked several thousand miles during his ministry, with frequent trips to Jerusalem for various feasts. And his own preaching shows his remarkable familiarity with God’s creation.
We can decry the lack of physical activity among children these days, many of whom are overweight even in elementary school (in part because of technological innovations that allow nonstop stimulation). But adults are not exempt from overusing gadgets and failing to exercise their bodies. Can the minister, in good conscience, speak to young people from the pulpit about their excessive use of phones and their failure to exercise if he is just as guilty?
Ministerial laziness in physical exercise, replaced with overeating, seems to be an acceptable sin in North America. Pastors are meant to be examples in our conduct — that is, in our overall lifestyle (1 Timothy 4:12; 1 Peter 5:1–3). A pastor can rail against the evils of alcohol, sometimes showing a legalistic approach to the topic, all while being practically silent on the immoderate use of food. Such ministers may be the type of person Solomon warns us to avoid: “Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags” (Proverbs 23:20–21).
Now granted, weight issues are a complex matter. While many are overweight because of self-indulgence, I do not doubt that maintaining a weight is much harder for some than for others. But then again, many sinful proclivities are greater struggles for some than for others. A person naturally skinny may have other hidden proclivities toward sins that are not as obvious. We all need to work harder than others in areas of weakness. We all have specific crosses to bear in our sanctification that, for others, are less of a burden.
Fruitful, Lively Ministry
Claiming one is too busy to exercise is a rather poor excuse. God is not a hard taskmaster. We can rightly order our lives and accomplish a great deal with some discipline. Regular exercise will likely lead to greater productivity, not less, in both the short term and long term. One can also listen to a book or podcast while going for a walk.
For pastors, we have many reasons to eat well and exercise frequently. Besides extending the duration of fruitful ministry, we will find ourselves more energized for the vocational labor God has called us to, and we will set a good example to our flock. But a life of self-indulgence will catch up with us in many ways, including possibly losing the ability to minister with energy.
As we exercise and aim to stay healthy, we also can find unique ways to enjoy God. Appreciate the beauty of his creation by finding nice places to walk, run, or bike. Meditate upon the glory of God and enjoy his goodness to us, which comes in more ways than we imagine. We are not too busy to keep ourselves healthy; in fact, to keep up with the inevitable demands of ministry, we can’t afford to overlook our physical health.
Exercise and ministry can be friends. For example, if a pastor can exercise by playing basketball, soccer, or some other team sport — as opposed to going for solo walks or runs — he may find unique ways to be part of his local community and develop relationships whereby he can share the gospel. Redeeming the time is hard to do, but getting exercise in a social context can have many benefits for a pastor.
God gives us his commands to help us, not hinder us. The sixth commandment offers us the good life — the life where we care both for others and for ourselves. And pastors who care for their bodies are caring for and loving their flock. Do not kill: that is, preserve your life, within reason, as you are able. You’ll be happier in God, and he will be magnified in your life and church by your enriched joy in him.