Why do conservative Christians make such a fuss about homosexuality and give everyone a free pass—most notably themselves—when it comes to gluttony?
That’s a question you hear a lot of us these days and one you should expect to hear again and again, posed in a hundred different ways, in the years ahead.
Why are we asking about gays in heaven when we should be asking if there will be fat people in heaven? How can we say “their” sin of homosexuality is terrible while “our” sin of gluttony is no big deal? Everyone’s a biblical literalist until you bring up gluttony. Besides, the Bible contains three times as many exhortations against gluttony than against homosexuality.
How should Christians think about these claims? Well, the operative word in that question is “think.” We can’t settle for gotcha headlines and arguments that are more slogan than substance. We have to be open to reason, open our Bibles, and think this through.
1. Do we really want to suggest that one sin is no biggie because we’ve been pretty lax about a different sin? If it’s the case that Christians are wrongly intolerant of unrepentant gluttony–or any unrepentant sin–then shame us. Sins separate us from God. When we choose to embrace sins, celebrate sins, and not repentant of sins, we keep ourselves away from God and away from heaven.
2. Is it really wise to equate gluttony with being fat? People are overweight, underweight, or fit as a fiddle for all sorts of reasons. Can we be sure that those with a few pounds to shed are worse sinners than the fried-food loving bean pole blessed with an amazing metabolism? If we want to draw a ramrod straight line between gluttony and corpulence, Job has three “friends” we can hang out with.
3. It bears repeating, the reason Christians are talking about homosexuality is because everyone else is talking about homosexuality. Strange coincidence that evangelicals did not become “obsessed” with homosexuality until about 40-50 years ago when the culture became obsessed with sexual freedom. If the Supreme Court finds a constitutional right to jab people in the kidneys with poison-tipped spears, we’ll get worked about that too.
4. Gluttony is a favorite vice to throw into the rhetorical mix because it is one of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins. As Will Willimon explains, the earliest formation of the list of seven comes from Evagrius of Pontus, a desert monk and follower of Origen (who was later condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in A.D. 553). It’s not surprising that an ascetic who lived in a commune separated from the world might consider the temptation for food one of his chief maladies. One can detect more than a little monkish asceticism and some Stoic disdain for the body in the Fathers’ abhorrence to gluttony.
Throughout church history, theologians have understood the sin of gluttony in different ways. For some, immoderate desire is the issue. For others, eating more than we need is the problem. According to Augustine, food was not the problem but how we sought it and for what reason.
The Catholic Catechism does not call them seven “deadly sins,” but “capital sins,” because they engender other sins and other vices (art. 1866).
C.S. Lewis, with typical insight, has the devil Screwtape note how persnickety old ladies–the kind who always turn aside whatever is offered and always insist on a tiny cup of tea–are just as guilty of gluttony because they put their wants first, no matter how troublesome they may be to others. Health conscious foodies beware: the problem of gluttony, according to Lewis, was not too much food, but too much attention to food. We might say, in the broadest ethical sense, gluttony is using food in a way that dulls us from the spiritual and distracts us from God. That’s certainly a danger for most of us, but it’s not the same as enjoying a meal, feeling stuffed, or being overweight.
5. And what does the Bible say? Some will be surprised to learn that “gluttony” appears in none of the New Testament vice lists. In fact, most of the Bible is overwhelmingly positive about food. There are Old Testament feasts and visions of heavenly feasts. Jesus finished his ministry with a meal and instituted a supper for his remembrance in the church. If the New Testament has an overriding concern with food, it is that God’s people not be overly concerned about it. Food does not commend us to God (1 Cor. 8:8), and the kingdom of God does not consist of food and drink (Rom. 14:17). No honest reader of the New Testament can deny that Jesus and the apostles were much more concerned about what we do sexually with our bodies than with the food we eat (Mark 7:21-23; 1 Cor. 6:12-20; cf. 1 Tim. 4:1-5).
In the English Standard Version, the word “glutton” appears four times and in every instance is paired with the word “drunkard” (Deut. 21:20; Prov. 23:21; and in a slander against Jesus Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34). The word “gluttonous” shows up once, again alongside a reference to “drunkards” (Prov. 23:20). Two other times we have “gluttons,” once in a quotation from a poet speaking of lazy Cretans (Titus 1:12) and the other time in reference to the company a shameful son keeps (Proverbs 28:7).
The other passages often associated with gluttony are much less than meets the eye. For example, the point of Proverbs 23:2 (“put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite”) is about not being ensnared by the deceptive hospitality of rich hosts. And the saying in Philippians 3:19 (“their god is their belly”) is either a euphemism for sexual sin (see the next phrase, “they glory in their shame”) or a reference to the Judaizer’s legalistic demands regarding Mosaic dietary restrictions.
So what does the sin of gluttony look like? When we take time to open our Bibles and read the relevant passages, we find that gluttony is much more than eating a McRib sandwich, and that partaking in food is much less of a concern than partaking in sexual sin. The composite picture from these verses suggests that a glutton is a loafer, a partyer, and a profligate. He’s the prodigal son wasting his life on riotous living. She’s the girl on spring break who thinks the pinnacle of human existence is to eat, drink, and hook up. A waistral living for the weekend. A big city high flyer who cares for nothing except for indulging in high society. A ne’er do well who takes lifestyle cues from the Hangover franchise.
So, absolutely, the church should speak against the sin of gluttony. But once we understand what the sin entails, I’m guessing most people would say they have a good idea where the church already stands on these issues.