Al Mohler has caught up to a controversy that’s been talked about for years in Christendom. In a post last week at his website 1, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president — I’m sorry to say this — breathed new life into the issue.
Without outlining my own position just yet, here’s an overview of three Christian views on yoga.
- Pagans came up with yoga for false-religious reasons. Its belief basis, meditations, ideas about the human body, poses and breathing methods do not honor God. Therefore Christians should shun everything about the practice, not wanting to worship idols.
- While pagans may have come up with yoga for wrong reasons, I as a Christian should be able to do it, even the meditating and whatever, and I’m okay. What’s wrong with it?
- Yoga began as a system of exercise based on anti-Christian beliefs. Wise Christians will employ Biblically based discernment to weed out the junk, not wanting to dishonor God (and waste their time!) with false religious beliefs. However, although almost any Thing in the world (such as food) may be invented or sold with anti-God motivations (definition: any motivation not sanctified by the Spirit!), a Christian may stretch or exercise in a way that yoga practitioners just happened to popularize first, and not dishonor God.
Mohler takes a stance
This past spring I joined an anti-yoga Facebook group and participated, not because I believed in the group-starter’s beliefs (ahem), but because I wanted to stretch my mind (ahem) and take part in an intellectual exercise and learn (ahem!). That didn’t go over too well with other group “members,” most of whom were anti-Christian activists, polite and otherwise, who had more-crucial issues to complain about. But I did get a column out of it (plus a short sequel).
Still I stand by my conclusions then, that yoga poses, stretches and even breathing techniques and the like are almost direct equivalents to the “meat offered to idols” the Apostle Paul talks about in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10.
It seems Mohler doesn’t bring up that issue. To him, perhaps, not discerning yoga as a false religion is the main Problem in Christendom.
Do I agree this is likely Christians’ biggest problem? Yes.
Will I also ask rhetorically whether Mohler may be skipping over potential lesser problems? Yes.
He won’t know anyway, that I’m about to first, quote from his column:
[A] significant number of American Christians either experiment with yoga or become adherents of some yoga discipline. Most seem unaware that yoga cannot be neatly separated into physical and spiritual dimensions. The physical is the spiritual in yoga, and the exercises and disciplines of yoga are meant to connect with the divine.
… then rework it just a bit, like so:
[A] significant number of Corinthian Christians either taste-test meat offered to idols or become adherents of some pagan temple worship service. Most seem unaware that eating these meats cannot be neatly separated into physical and spiritual dimensions. The physical is the spiritual in idol-worship, and the exercises and disciplines of eating such meats are meant to connect with the divine.
This changes things somewhat — especially if we also remember that Paul did not say this or anything similar. Rather, the apostle said that while evil is real and we should not participate in actually worshiping demons, nothing is intrinsically wrong with the meats.
What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?
1 Corinthians 10: 19-30
Spiritual freedom restrictions
A Christian’s only restrictions on doing something that could look evil but is not actually evil, are not based on the possibility that they’ll actually honor a demon by accident. Instead a Christian should avoid eating because another brother, with a conscientious objection, might be hurt.
That’s the catch. Freedom is what we have in Christ, Paul says. But as he himself gave up his freedom for His sake, we should take into account a Christian brother’s honest difficulties.
As I disclaimed in my first column on the issue:
[L]et us assume you are a newer Christian, or truly a more-sensitive sister. Such a person could have experience with an actual pagan-saturated practice of yoga, and want to avoid it. Why? For the same reason that a new Christian with an alcoholic past might avoid any restaurant with a bar: He might be tempted to fall back into that sinful habit that dishonors the Lord he loves.
So if you had a background in New Age practices, paganism or religion-saturated yoga, I would not be telling you like this that certain parts of yoga might be okay. Instead, I would encourage you to think about where the real sin comes from — as I’m doing now. But then I would back off and let God and you make your own decisions and whether it would be sinful for you.
Will the real compromise stand up?
Yet what about Mohler, and other Christians — such as a pastor friend of mine — who either merely bypass another potential problem of the yoga issue (blaming a neutral Thing for sin), or else directly state that you simply can’t have yoga’s physical part without its spiritual part?
For example, Mohler seems to acknowledge an inherent neutrality of yoga-esque positions:
There is nothing wrong with physical exercise, and yoga positions in themselves are not the main issue.
… yet then immediately adds:
But these positions are teaching postures with a spiritual purpose. Consider this — if you have to meditate intensely in order to achieve or to maintain a physical posture, it is no longer merely a physical posture.
Agreed with the meditation part: any connotation, in or outside of Christendom, of meditation without a preposition (we meditate on Christ, on His Word!) comes not from Scripture but from false religion, and has no place for a Christian. It’s also a tremendous waste of time.
But how can a position of the human body teach anything, especially if it is undertaken by a Christian who can and does separate it from its pagan origins?
Isn’t this equivalent to saying “even if you don’t eat meat in a temple as part of a false religious ceremony, the meat itself would teach you to worship idols”?
Furthering Mohler’s point, a pastor acquaintance of mine — whom I much respect — asked this:
There is a difference between accidentally striking a pose and deliberately learning and imitating yoga techniques. To think that we can separate the physical from the spiritual in this matter is to not understand eastern religion.
In response I asked: “But why should we assume that what Eastern religion believes is right?”
Put another way, let’s consider only two of the yoga positions, ruling out the second, which both no. 1 and no. 3 believe is wrong (i.e., Why can’t I practice everything about yoga, it’s okay, right? and I can meditate — without a preposition — and still love Jesus!).
- We can’t separate the physical and spiritual components of yoga, so we need to avoid it all. Eastern religion says the physical and spiritual components of yoga can’t be divided.
- We can indeed separate the physical and spiritual components of yoga, and perhaps assume a yoga-esque position, intentionally, for exercise, rejecting false beliefs.
Now I ask: which view here has actually bought into Eastern religious beliefs?
As for me, I say the Eastern-religious can’t-divide claim is hokum, just like the notion that meat offered to idols automatically gives credit to idols wherever it goes. And while I don’t believe Christians who take the Eastern-religious concepts at their word do so intentionally, I have also begun to wonder whether they’re not avoiding Things not out of concern for weaker brothers, but because the Bad Guys say they’ve “claimed” them and the Christians just go along with it.
What testimony are Christians giving to others about where we believe sin actually originates?
By the way, quasi-sabbatical over. Back to work, now writing three entries three times a week.