Muscular Christianity was the ideal image for young men of faith at the turn of the century. Its origins can be traced to the New Testament, which sanctions manly exertion (Mark 11:15) and physical health (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Muscular Christianity can be defined as a Christian commitment to health and manliness. This is the concept that gave rise to the YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association) where young men were encouraged to train to be well rounded in physical, mental, and spiritual disciplines. the first (physical) and the last (spiritual) being predominant. Sad to say, the "Y" has little of the "C" left in it and is mostly a gym, but in its origin, it was to make men of God in body, mind and spirit. In some ways this ideal was personified in the life of Eric Liddell, Olympic medalist runner and missionary to China. [Editor's note: watch the 1981 movie, Chariots of Fire, for inspiration and encouragement.] Eric was a man of deep faith but athletic endeavour demonstrated that he was no wimp. In fact, faith made him more courageous, bolder, and more manly. I wonder today what image leaps to the mind of young men who consider becoming committed Christians. Is it one of a "couch potato", nerd, or muscular Christian? Which do you think is more attractive? Some churches still encourage the muscular Christian ideal to a degree by sponsoring church athletic teams or summer camps with significant physical challenges. I remember once belonging to a church team registered in a regular bowling league as the "Holy Rollers". Paradoxically when we no longer sponsored the team, some other non-church people took over the name.
Some pastors are active in hockey, baseball or other sports, endeavouring to be a witness and a model without being preachy or overly religious.
It would be wrong, I think, to promote "muscular Christianity" as a superior expression of Christianity, but to those who are able to do so, it is good to keep the "temple" of the body in which the Holy Spirit dwells in good shape. It can provide an opening to share the gospel, and it can remove a stumbling block to others.
As Paul says, our bodies are lent to us, and we will all have to give an account of our stewardship of them. "Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? And you are not your own. For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's". (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
Good exercising this summer!
Calvin Brown is the Executive Director of the Renewal Fellowship Within The Presbyterian Church in Canada