Sunday, August 16, 2015


Over at Cripplegate, Clint Archer kicked a beehive with a post on "Fat Secret: The Invisible Sin of Gluttony." I appreciate the fact that he was prepared to touch the third rail of evangelicalism. That said, it's the kind of post that only a thin guy would write.

So what about gluttony? Is it a sin? Is gluttony equivalent to obesity? How should we evaluate gluttony?

i) Compared to other "sins," the Bible has precious little to say about gluttony. I put "sins" in scare quotes so as not to prejudge the moral status of gluttony.

ii) In addition, interpreting references to gluttony, or equivalent usage, is complicated by the fact that the terminology may be figurative or denote something other than excessive eating. For instance:

In Deut 21:20 and Prov 28:7, the term may mean prodigal or squanderer, ISBE 2:483:a.   
In Gk. it [koilia] is found with the meanings of (1) belly, abdomen, bowels, stomach; (2) the abdomen as the site of the sexual organs, the womb; (3) the LXX and Rab. literature use it also metaphorically for the inner man, as a synonym for kardia (heart). NIDNTT 1:169.

In his commentary on Rom 16:18, Jewett suggests it has sexual connotations (p991). And in his commentary on Phil 3:19, Silva suggests it could be a synonym for carnality (sarx="flesh"); 181.

So it's actually hard to find any specific, unambiguous reference to literal gluttony, per se. 

iii) In addition, occurrences tend to be grouped with similar behavior. So it may reflect, not one particular behavior, but an associated lifestyle.

iv) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this refers to obesity (which is disputable), who was in a position to be a obese? That might seem like an odd question. For people living in a generally affluent country, even the poor can be obese. That's because even the poor have access to copious amounts of food.

But in the ancient world, and parts of the Third World today, where food is often scarce, obesity might be much rarer, and largely confined to the upper class, who had an abundance of food at their disposal. 

So it might be a condemnation of a self-indulgent lifestyle associated with "conspicuous consumption." Conversely, malnourishment might be typical of the underclass. 

v) Likewise, in times and places where famine was both prevalent and unpredictable, I suspect people would be inclined to overeat when food was plentiful, to store up fat reserves. If you don't know from one day to the next where your next meal is coming from, you might stuff yourself. That gives you a margin. 

Likewise, for people who traveled long distances on foot, who might go for days at a time without food, I'd expect them to eat as much as they could when food was available, to compensate for lack of food at other times.

Overeating in these situations would not be gluttonous, but precautionary. 

vi) So I don't think the Bible has much specifically to say on the subject. We must turn to general principles:

vii) There's a difference between obesity and morbid obesity. As a rule, we should avoid abusing our health. 

viii) If we have dependents, then we have a duty to remain reasonably healthy. Likewise, we shouldn't impose ourselves on others by a lifestyle that makes us invalids. That's different from people who are invalids through no fault of their own.

ix) You shouldn't live for food, just as you shouldn't live for sex, sports, &c.

x) Parents should discourage their kids from becoming obese. For one thing, that predisposes them to develop medical problems down the line.

In addition, fat kids are unpopular kids. That's unfair, but that's reality. It's psychologically damaging to kids to be constantly shunned and ridiculed by their peers. 

In my observation, some obese parents have obese kids because it makes the parents feel better about their own obesity. 

xi) Obesity is visible in a way that psychological vices are not. Take physically fit people who support abortion. That's profoundly evil, but undetectable unless they express themselves. 

xii) Due to their metabolism and a sedentary lifestyle (e.g. a desk job), it can take an inordinate amount of effort for some people to avoid being overweight. So long as they don't become morbidly obese, I don't think Christians in that situation have a duty to diet and exercise to the degree necessary to maintain the waistline they had at 18. Just as some people center their lives on food, some people center their lives on physical fitness. That's the alter-ego of gluttony. 


  1. In Luke 7:33-34 the Lord applies the Pharisaical accusation of gluttony to His eating habits in contradistinction to the Baptist's, so there's that at least.

    If one travels abroad much, one of the first things one notices when returning to the States is how portly folks are generally, at least this has been my experience, and it's not something I'm particularly aware of, it's just more pronounced when I've been away for awhile I guess.

    I'd say we're an obese, gluttonous society on the main, and the church doesn't seem to be any different than the world by this metric.

  2. Excellent points. Do you think Titus 1:12 adds anything to the discussion?

    "One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, 'Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.'”

    This is the famous "Cretan Paradox."

    All other NT uses of the Greek word, γαστήρ (gastḗr), seem to connote the womb/pregnancy. But it must refer to something else here, perhaps actual gluttony (or maybe it is figurative).