Secular ideas regularly influence popular Christian beliefs and practices. Recent and prominent amongst such ideas, is the notion of autonomous bodily sovereignty. An idea that suggests my body is my own private possession to use however I see fit; a thing ‘I’ have complete sovereignty over, irrespective of God’s principles/priorities, and irrespective of any real implications for other people within my sphere of influence.
This idea has recently been popularised by the feminist slogan My body, My choice. The slogan represents the popular face of an ideology which advocates the individual (especially a woman) has the right of self-determination in matters of sexual orientation, marriage, and reproductive choices. It has become especially potent as the rally cry of the pro-abortion movement. The idea has also received endorsement from prominent organisations such as Amnesty International, who, in adopting it, seek to stand up for the ‘rights of individuals against cultural discrimination regarding choices over things like contraception use, abortion, and sexual expression. Amnesty’s website explicitly states, ‘Join us in defending sexual and reproductive rights for all. It’s your body. Know your rights.’
It seems autonomous sovereignty over the body is now a human right!
Furthermore, the recent pandemic has enabled this idea to gain extra traction amongst an entirely different constituency. Many anti-vaccination protesters have co-opted the slogan, appealing to it on the same grounds as a human right, this time in relation to the Government mandated vaccinations. Interestingly, many among this particular constituency favour the conservative right, a domain traditionally shared by conservative Christians, unsurprisingly the idea has found a new home in popular Christian culture. So, what started as a mantra for the radical left has gradually become tolerable to the mainstream conservative right–accepted by all!
But, the uncritical adoption of ideas can be dangerous. In the case of this particular idea, embracing it is not without serious consequences, and in order to discover how this idea may adversely impact a Christian’s faith and life, we first need to scratch the shiny paint off its popular facade and expose the scaly underbelly.
First question: Is the my body, my choice idea really new?
Actually, no. This ‘recent’ popular idea is just the latest socialised expression of the most ancient of human ideas–independent human self-interest. Human nature, independent of God since Adam and Eve’s rebellion in Eden, has been and remains fundamentally predisposed toward ‘sinful’ self-interest. Wait a minute, is it going too far in describing it as sinful? No, because self-interest uncoupled from God’s will is, in essence, sin. Sin is desiring and doing what ‘I’ want–irrespective of God’s moral values, others people’s genuine interests, wider social implications, and eternal consequences. The sinful self usurps God’s sovereignty, claiming independent lordship over everything within its reach, consequently this sinful self views the body it bears as my exclusive possession to use however ‘I’ see fit.
Second question: As a Christian, if I am not to be sovereign over my own body, who is?
In answering this, it is important not to confuse independent sovereignty with personal responsibility. A Christian person, has responsibility over their own body, but that responsibility is set within the context of divine sovereignty. Now, this is where things get radical; for this Christian person cannot simply view their body through the lens of independent sovereignty, but through their their relationship with Christ and his lordship–no longer considering the body independently , but interdependently.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul lays the theological foundation for this view. Paul, as a committed follower of Christ, considers the idea of the sovereignty of the independent self has having no place in Christian belief and practice. On the contrary, Paul’s view of the ‘self’ is as follows, ‘I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ Galatians 2:20 (ESV)
For Paul, the Christian’s ‘self’ relationship with the body is no longer direct but mediated. That is, I must view now view my relationship to my body through my relationship with Jesus. For Paul, ‘I’ have been redeemed by Christ, the old ‘self’ has died with Christ, has been raised to a new life in Christ, is animated by an ongoing faith in Christ, and now exists for the service of Christ. The Christian person (body and soul) is no longer governed by the old independent ‘I’, but is given over to the control of the new ‘I’, the one redeemed, transformed, governed, empowered, and indwelt by Christ. The old master of the independent self has been thrown out and a new divine self has moved in, the Lord Jesus Christ (present through the Holy Spirit).
Paul also applies this principle in other pastoral contexts. In doing so he gives us a deeper and richer insight into this new way of understanding the self. In one of those situations, he discusses the Christian self’s new relationship to the body with those struggling against a culture of sexual immorality…
The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. 1 Corinthians 6:13-20 ESV
The apostle,then, is clearly outlining to the Corinthian believers, that the Christian body is ‘now’ meant for the Lord, and not to gratify the independent carnal desires. He states that our bodies, by virtue of our new relationship with Christ, are to be considered actual ‘member’s ( body parts) of Christ, which means it would be reprehensible to unite ‘them’ with another in sexual immorality ( adultery, fornication, homosexual practices etc.) Indeed, in emphasising his point, he employs the analogy of the temple, stating that the Christian’s body is to be considered sacred, the temple of the Holy Spirit; representing the dwelling place of God, this temple is a place in which no evil or sin should exist.
Perhaps, Paul’s closing sentence to the Corinthians offers the most powerful challenge of all. Through the subtle use of the metaphor of slave ownership, he boldly asserts, ‘You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body’. Those five powerful words: ‘You-are-not-your-own’, cannot be glossed over lightly. Because I (as body and soul) have been redeemed by the precious life of Jesus Christ, I am no longer to consider my body as my own possession to use however I see fit; I have a new owner, a new lord and master. Consequently, the body’s use is now conditioned by Christ’s lordship, and because my relationship to my own body is mediated through Christ, I cannot avoid dedicating myself to a lifestyle of moral purity and practical service to Him.
Of course, the idea of ‘You are not your own’ has wider applications.
For example, gluttony is a common sin that Christians ignore. Not only is this practice of excessive eating considered sinful on account of its inherent self-indulgence, but subsequent poor health and weight gain undermine the effectiveness of the body for God’s service. Another ‘body related’ sin, often ignored by contemporary Christians is personal vanity or self-idolatry. Uncritically embracing cultural norms around body image, many Christians unwittingly view the body as something to be worshipped: To be adorned with fine clothes or jewellery, to be pampered with special diets, or sculpted with obsessive exercise programs. In this instance, the body is no longer considered an instrument of holy service to give glory to God, but is transformed into an object of carnal worship, given to the glorification of the self!
Still other consequences of the idea of autonomous bodily sovereignty, manifest as material abuse or neglect of the body. Poor diets, careless habits, dangerous lifestyles, and risky or thoughtless actions, may all result in the diminished effectiveness of the body for Christ’s honour and service. Remember, as a Christian, your body is Christ’s, not yours; as such, appropriate care and nurture must ensure this body if fit for service to maximise its effectiveness for his kingdom. Of course, this ‘effectiveness’ is not merely a reference to formal religious activity, but takes into account the implications of good stewardship of the body as it relates to loving and serving family members, friends, neighbours, and society at large. A body well used and not abused, has the power to do a lot of good!
Although right treatment of the body is beneficial and God honouring in its own right, honourable preservation of the body should not be considered purely an end in itself. There is another dimension of bodily use that the Christian must carefully attend to: The courageous use of the body for service of Christ within a hostile world.
Lets for a moment consider the example of a soldier. We know that a soldier trains, disciplines, exercises, feeds, and cares for his/her body for one purpose–service of his/her country. But, as commendable as this well-trained and cared for body is, the purpose of the soldier’s body is not simply to be a perfect specimen of health, periodically exhibited on a parade ground to be admired by the public. The soldier’s body is purposefully trained and developed for the defence of a sovereign nation. Indeed, this body is crafted for one express purpose–to fight during times of war and, in doing so, risk injury and death in the service of that kingdom.
Interestingly, the same apostle that admonished the Corinthians to see their body as sacred, also exposed his own body to severe dangers and hardships…
I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 (ESV)
Was St Paul a bad steward, or was he being careless and reckless with his body?
No. In the same manner a soldier trains and nurtures their body as an instrument of war, Paul saw his body as entirely dedicated to God’s service. If that service demanded extreme danger, then he did not hesitate in rendering it in that course of service! The body exists for the glory of the Lord, no matter what that glorification may require–whether refraining from excessive eating or exposing it to extreme danger in the material advancement of the Gospel. Paul could never say to Jesus, this is ‘my body, my choice’, he would always say this is your body Lord Jesus, and I choose use it your service–no matter what the cost.
Perhaps the ultimate validation for the sacrificial use of the body in God’s service, is illustrated in the life of Jesus Christ, himself. His view on the body is most succinctly summed up in the discourse at the Last Supper, ‘ This is my body, which is given for you.‘ Luke 22:19 (NIV) Jesus, a healthy young man, intentionally gave up his body to be scorned, beaten, abused, and killed out of direct obedience to God’s will and expressly for the sake of others. In his mind, there was not even a slightest notion of ‘my body, my choice’, but rather ‘…yet not my will, but yours be done.‘ Luke 22:42 (NIV)
Of course, the Christian must view Jesus as more than an example to follow. As we have seen in the teaching of Paul, the believer must consider that the risen Jesus is now united with them, mediated through the Holy Spirit; his spiritual presence has a direct influence over the use of the body–its no longer your body, but his body! As such, the slogan ‘my body, my choice’, must be replaced with something more compatible with Jesus’ views, perhaps, ‘this is my body given for you…’