Yoga: a biblical response (Part 2 of 4)

(Read Part 1 to see why I’m writing about yoga.)

If we’re going to understand how a Christian should respond to yoga, we’re going to have to turn to the Bible. Of course, yoga isn’t mentioned in the Bible; there’s no command that says “thou shalt not practice yoga.” So we need to construct a biblical framework on which we can build a wise response to the practice of yoga in Western culture.

When we’re dealing with how Christians should interact with popular practices derived from another religion, an appropriate place to go would be 1 Corinthians 8–10. These three chapters teach us three principles that will help us respond to yoga.

The church at Corinth has written the apostle Paul a letter, in which they’ve asked him to settle a number of disputes within the church. One of these disputes is about whether or not a Christian can eat food that has been sacrificed to idols. Now, here in the West, we never have to face this issue, but it was a real problem for the Corinthians (and for many present-day believers in other cultures!). Corinth was a diverse and pluralistic city, filled with people from a smorgasbord of religions. Their social life often revolved around the worship of idols stationed in the temples of the city. A pagan Corinthian would bring an animal to be sacrificed at the altar of an idol. After being roasted on the altar, the meat would be eaten by the man and his friends and family at a party which he would throw in the temple. Any leftovers would be sold in the marketplace. If a Christian were to join the Jews of the city in avoiding any kind of idol meat, they would be cut off from the social life of their friends and family, and they could only buy meat from a Jewish kosher butcher. And beyond Corinth, any Christians living in a small town without a kosher butcher would be out of luck.

Principle #1: Give up your rights

Now, in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul responds to the theological arguments of the Christians in Corinth who believed it was okay to eat idol meat. They basically argued that since “there is no God but one” (v 4), idols were nothing more than empty statues. And there’s no danger in eating food offered to beings that don’t even exist. So they just roll their eyes at all the spiritual mumbo-jumbo spoken at the idol feasts, and with a clear conscience they eat the meat which their friends offer to them.

Paul agrees with their logic—or more accurately, he saves his major caveat for chapter 10. Right now, he wants to address the attitude of these self-styled theologians. Even though their theology is sound, not all of their fellow Christians are buying into it just yet. God has saved many of them out of idol-worshiping backgrounds; they can’t help but attach great spiritual significance to stone and metal images. When they watch these “stronger” Christians going to idol temples and eating meat at idol feasts, they are tempted to join in themselves. And so they are tempted to worship idols by eating sacrificial meat. Paul declares that in this way, the “stronger” Christians are sinning against their brothers by introducing this temptation; and in so doing, they’re sinning against Christ himself. So Paul concludes, “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (v 13). He’s willing to give up his right to eat meat if it will tempt other Christians to sin.

In chapter 9, Paul expands on this teaching, explaining how he has given up his rights as an apostle to be supported financially and to bring a wife along with him on his journeys. He even adapts himself to the culture of the people to whom he is preaching the gospel. Paul is willing to give up his rights for the sake of the gospel, so that unbelievers will see Christ and believers will remain in Christ.

Principle #2: Flee from idolatry

As we reach chapter 10, Paul turns back to the “stronger” Christians and begins to warn them about the road they’re walking down. They’re very willing to associate with idol worship—and they’re playing with fire. Paul reminds them that the Israelites made the same mistake. They succumbed to idol worship, and the Corinthians are no better than they were. So Paul warns them, “Flee from idolatry” (v 14).

Here’s where he turns the tables on the Corinthian theologians. They aren’t totally correct in saying that an idol is an empty statue. It’s true that gods like Zeus and Apollos don’t exist, but the fact is that demons are lurking behind the images of these false gods. The pagans at these temples don’t realize it, but they are worshiping evil spirits. So when these Corinthians sit down at the idol feasts, they are participating in a sort of “communion service” with demons. “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy?” Paul asks them (v 22).

All the Corinthian believers agreed that offering sacrifices to idols is sin. Paul is telling them that participating in these idol feasts is sin as well. Christians should not connect themselves to idolatry but rather flee from it. They must not join unbelievers in the improper worship of anyone or anything other than God.

Principle #3: Embrace what is good

Now Paul turns to the issue of meat found in the marketplace. Usually, a buyer would have no way of knowing whether the meat had been sacrificed. Based on Principle #2, we might expect Paul to say that Christians should avoid buying any meat. But he doesn’t! Instead, he reminds us that “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (v 26). God made these animals to serve as food, and no pagan perversions will be able to change the goodness of this food. Outside of the context of idol feasts, this meat is perfectly good to eat. Only if it bothers another Christian’s conscience should a believer abstain from eating (Principle #1). Otherwise, Paul urges Christians not only to eat the meat, but to enjoy it and give thanks to God for it! He doesn’t want the “weaker” Christians to remain weak forever. He wants them to embrace what God has created as good.

So, those are the three principles that we will use to construct a Christian’s response to yoga. Tune in tomorrow when we apply them to this issue!

Yoga: a biblical response (Part 1 of 4)

Al Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is a man whose biblical wisdom I respect. So it attracted my attention today when he wrote an analysis of yoga with this conclusion:

When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga. […] Christians who practice yoga are embracing, or at minimum flirting with, a spiritual practice that threatens to transform their own spiritual lives into a “post-Christian, spiritually polyglot” reality.

Now, the reason that Mohler’s article caught my attention is because I’m about a month into the popular P90X workout program. Of the twelve workout DVDs, one of them is titled “Yoga X”, which trainer Tony Horton advocates because “it gives you strength, flexibility, coordination, and balance, plus calmness of mind.” If Mohler’s conclusions are sound, I could not continue to do this workout. I’m okay with that; in fact, I was suspicious of it when I started P90X because of yoga’s origins in Eastern religions that would lead me away from Jesus Christ and a Christian worldview.

But even though I share Mohler’s concern about yoga, I can’t agree with his conclusions. The main weakness in Mohler’s approach to yoga is that he doesn’t turn to the Bible to see how God says we should respond to practices that may be “borrowed” from other religions. Like Zach Nielsen and others whom I see responding to Mohler’s article, I believe that a Christian should approach yoga with more nuance than “don’t do it.”

So here’s the (tentative!) plan: tomorrow we’ll take a look at 1 Corinthians 8–10, in which Paul talks the church in Corinth through a similar controversy. The next day, we’ll see how the principles we learned from Paul’s letter are significant to a Christian’s approach to yoga. Finally, I’ll end with an example—how I plan to respond to this teaching in my own life situation.

I’d love to read your comments on this series if you have insights into the Eastern and Western approaches to yoga or if you have thoughts on how the Bible addresses this important issue. And if you want to insult me for my yoga/yogurt pun, that’s fair too.