December 5, 2016

Orthorexia and Christmas Liberty

by Clint Archer

’Tis the season to be controversial. Regrettably, Christians can be vulnerable to a form of orthorexia when it comes to celebrating or conscientiously objecting to the celebration of Christmastime.

Let’s first take a step back.

Orthorexia is when people try to eat so perfectly that they end up obsessing about their health to the detriment of their health.orthorexia

In the vegetarian—excuse me, “plant-based”—community there is wide consensus that humans should not be consuming cow-flesh. Motivation for this commitment is rooted in one of three factors, but often results in an equal-part blend of the following reasons:

  1. The undeniable health concerns (immediate improvement: watch Forks Over Knives, and/or longevity: read The China Study).
  2. The alarming environmental threats caused by cow flatulence and overgrazing (watched Cowspiracy yet?).
  3. The ethical convictions (Sir Paul McCartney’s Glass Walls stomach churning expose). Usually the motivation to go plant-based or at least plant-strong is firmly rooted in one of these factors and then blends in parts of the other two. But from that irreducible common ground the denominationalism begins its interminable divergence into branches and sub-branches of vegetarianism.

Some vegetarians who would never consume beef, pork, mutton, or poultry (notice how labels for meat distance the product from its source?) have no issue with scarfing down some shrimp and calamari with their gluten infused veggie cheese and egg burgers. Purist herbivores would label those dilettanti as pesco-ovo-lacto-vegetarian—the lowest rung of plant-strong compromisers. The class structure among eaters reflects their commitment to the cause. Orwell might say: “All animal products are equal, but some are more equal than others,” right?

If you really want to repent of your unorthodox omnivore ways you need to eschew all animal products and thus achieve the enlightened state of veganism. Eco-ethical vegans (as opposed to dietary vegans) will not even wear leather Birkenstocks, nor read from a calf-skin Bible. But vegans still gobble up grain and bread, with all its sticky gluten-rich glory. Gluten is a dietary gremlin that allegedly wreaks havoc with your gut flora, causing symptoms like bloating in an increasingly swelling segment of the population.

As you narrow the filter and strain out those pesky paleo-types you get the “glugan,” or gluten-free vegan. From there it goes down to fruitarians, raw whole food only (meaning no cooked veggies or supplements either), raw whole food juice only, and eventually to a diet plan that looks harrowingly similar to Gandhi’s guide to a successful hunger strike.

At this point of deprivation you are orthorexic. Your weekly meal plan looks as empty as a prisoner’s day planner. You might call it your John the Baptist Diet (not to be confused with its diametric opposite: the Typical Baptist Pastor’s Diet).

You get the point—there are some valid and healthy choices we should all consider making, peculiar to our own needs, context, and beliefs, which can be taken to the extreme and end up jeopardizing the very purpose we make those choices to begin with.

veganAmidst the yuletide gaiety many Christians engage in with abandon there remains a sizeable enclave of believers who choose to abstain from Christmas celebrations altogether.

Of course these diverge as fibrously as vegetarians do. Some refuse to acknowledge the holiday exists, unless they are forced to confront its reality when December 25th falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, and their pastor deviates from his series on bodily fluids in Leviticus to focus on the humanity of Christ for a day.  The Christmas story is, after all, in the Bible.

Others eschew only the commercial aspects, to differing degrees: gift giving, tinsel decor, and the like. But they still enjoy a special meal with extended family and friends while reading from Luke 2 and Isaiah 9 between meaty mouthfuls.

Still others, lower on the scale of conscience, either calloused or enlightened, depending on your perspective, go the whole hog. They play the covetous Nasty Santa game with friends, gleefully exchange gift-certificates in hopefully congruent amounts, and they lie to their kids about Santa Claus. Their nativity scene may even still have the biblically inaccurate elements present (three prematurely arrived wise men, lowing beef and bleating mutton, and maybe even the beloved little drummer boy).

This post is not meant to resolve any of those issues. I just believe that as Christians what we do this month and on December 25th should not look and feel identical to what unbelievers do.

On the other hand, I recognize that one can go overboard in the quest for orthodoxy and end up missing the point of one’s religion: that God came to dwell among us, to set us free from sin, to grant us liberty, to call us to holiness, to secure our salvation, and to do all this under the blanket of grace. To celebrate Jesus’ birth by obsessing legalistically over every minute cultural element that has become associated with the day, is to miss the point of the baby in the manger.

I don’t believe God tricks us into sin. If something is sinful, God tells us so in his word. The more you need to extrapolate a prohibition from an application of an implication, the more you need to acknowledge another believer’s right to extrapolate a different application.

Perhaps alongside our readings of Luke 2 and Isaiah 9, we should also be reading passages on Christian liberty, not judging each other, and sensitivity to one another for the sake of Christ. Start with Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10:19-33 (a particularly pertinent passage for those hosting vegetarians for Christmas!)

So, whatever you do this Christmas, whether you eat meat or drink smoothies, do all to the glory of God. (1 Cor 10:31). And don’t let your spiritual orthodoxy morph into to spiritual orthorexia.


[Disclaimer: It is not my intention to knock plant-based eating or Baptist pastors. I am one month into a vegan diet and loving it; and I am a Baptist pastor]

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Jane Hildebrand

    I allow 1 Timothy 4:4 to guide my dietary choices, “For everything God created is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.”

    I thank God for anything wrapped in bacon. 🙂

    • Jason

      I tried to think of a food that would be disgusting with bacon. I’m not even a fan of bacon and I couldn’t. Salty really doesn’t ruin anything I can think of.

      • I’ve heard heroin feels good too. 😉

    • Well, you do have Acts 10 on your side.

  • Jason

    Our family still gets together with extended family, we decorate our house, and we even get our boys a couple of gifts. The issues I have with those who celebrate the holiday are:

    1. Those who take things so seriously that they get stressed out. Seriously, if you’re breaking the bank and super stressed that everything go well it’s not healthy. It’s probably best to take a step back and try treating the day a little more like every other day (Romans 14:5).

    2. Those that try to revise history to further “Christen” the festivities.

    It’s fine to have the reason you give gifts be that you think of it as Jesus’s birthday. Historically, it seems more likely that the tradition is related to Saint Nicolas day than that people have always given gifts for the birthday reason.

    Even with the Saturnalia conversation: What are the odds that the church just happened to decide to start celebrating festivities during the exact same time that their culture was also celebrating a feast and the two are completely unrelated?

    I don’t think we need to ignore history or rewrite it to celebrate Christ’s birth in December with feasts and gift giving. We just need to make sure we have our focus right while doing those things, just like *every other thing we do* (1 Corinthians 10:31)!

    • Jane Hildebrand

      Jason, I know this wasn’t the point of your post, but here is a great link regarding the correlation between Christmas and pagan practices and how Catholocism absorbed them. I found this fascinating.

      • Jason

        It may not have been the overall point, but it was the history I was referencing in #2.

        We’re more likely to buy some cheap alternative to the faith when we either wave history off or try to change it to avoid practicing discernment when it comes to tradition (all of it).

        A lot of great theologians of the early church (even before the rule of Rome) were influenced by their pagan education and culture from time to time. The important thing is to get rid of the bath water.

      • Still Waters

        I have an appreciation for some of what the Got Questions site writes, but in this case, they did not get their history right. They would benefit, in this case, by reading the early church writers. For example, they allege that the cult of Mithras influenced the church. Justin Martyr (who died in A.D. 165) argued, in his ‘Dialogue with Trypho, that the similarities in Mithraism were actually a devilish imitation of Christianity:
        “And when those who record the mysteries of Mithras say that he was begotten of a rock, and call the place where those who believe in him are initiated a cave, do I not perceive here that the utterance of Daniel, that a stone without hands was cut out of a great mountain, has been imitated by them, and that they have attempted likewise to imitate the whole of Isaiah’s words?” ( In another of his works, Justin Martyr
        When I took a secular university course in history, my history textbook claimed that Mithraism influenced Christianity, which seemed like a subtle attempt to undermine Christianity’s claims. It is unfortunate when Christians take up the claims of secular skeptics without reading the early writings on the subject.

        Got Questions also alleges that the term ‘theotokos’ came from the cult of Isis. That is a very serious accusation, and one that is wholly incorrect. The term ‘theotokos’ was used by early church writers which all denominations appreciate for their theological work, such as Athanasius and Augustine, to argue against the heresy of Arianism, which denied that Jesus was fully God. ‘Theotokos’ was used to underscore the fact that Jesus, the son of Mary was fully God, even in the womb. In fact, the Council of Nicea, was very important in rejecting the heresy of Arian and excommunicating the heretics. It was a vitally important moment in church history. There is no Christian church denomination which does not, in some form, repeat the word of the Nicene Creed in their confession of faith, which may be read here: (The word ‘catholic’ in the creed simply means ‘universal’ and is not an endorsement of a denomination which did not then exist). There are objections to the current state of the Catholic Church, but there is no need to distort historical facts in order to do raise those concerns.

        • Jane Hildebrand

          Okay, a question. Did the early church writers refer to Mary as the Queen of Heaven and why did they convert the temples of Isis to Mary?

          • Still Waters

            The first pope to issue an official doctrinal position on Mary as ‘Queen of Heaven’ was Pius XII, who was pope from 1939 – 1958. The Catholic church did not adopt the Immaculate Conception of Mary as an official dogma until 1854. In other words, such a concept of Mary, even if used by individuals, was not adopted as doctrine in the early church. The earliest date of Mary being given an honorific title, was Origen (A.D. 184-254) using the word ‘domina’, which means ‘lady’, to describe her. Origen’s example however, isn’t an indication of idolatry creeping into the early church, since his doctrinal teachings were anathematized by the early church at the Second Council of Constantinople.

            As for the conversion of temples of Isis to Mary, what evidence is there for such a claim? There needs to be some archeological example of a temple of Isis which became a church dedicated to Mary or documentation of such a converted temple which dates back to the time period.

          • Still Waters

            So, I have tried to find an instance of a temple of Isis being used as a church dedicated to Mary. There was a temple at Philae which was closed by Byzantine emperor Justinian around 535 and then used as a church, but the defacement of the pagan images would indicate that the church was just making use of the space, in much the same way the Muslims took over the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The church was dedicated to St. Stephen, not Mary. Furthermore, as Philae is in Egypt, that would be after the split in the 450s between the Coptic church and what would become the Catholic church, meaning that the use of the temple had nothing to do with the Catholic church. Finally, there is an inscription dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the street outside another of the churches in Philae (the island had a number of churches) but the inscription is dated from 752, two hundred years after the temple of Isis was officially closed.

    • Spot on.

    • Still Waters

      The question is, who is revising history? The talk of pagan associations was raised by those in the enlightenment and Victorian eras who viewed Christianity as simply an evolution in a continuum of evolving religion – in other words, the skeptics. Why do we take their word for it?

      • Jason

        I don’t think we should take their word for it. I remembering reading evidence that the myth of Mithras that existed before the incarnation of Christ actually changed after Christianity gained popularity to invent similarities.

        Only the true faith has been delivered to mankind (Jude 1:3). It shouldn’t be surprising that the counterfeits are constantly changing to try to steal attention back. Not all ears are tickled the same way.

        However, I’m not talking here about the Christian faith, but rather the traditions that have gotten attached to it.

        Christmas is a festivity based largely on Christian principles. It is a celebration of the awesome event of the eternal Son of God taking the form of a baby in time and a time of year committed to joy, charity, and brotherly love.

        However, I do not believe that this particular tradition developed in a vacuum any more than any tradition that originates in the human mind (even the mind of a mature believer with the best of intentions).

        While liberal scholars put a lot of effort into trying to show how they can reinvent Christianity with scraps from other religions of the day completely apart from the divine revelation of God, I also find that many times we get carried away contending for something that is *not* the faith delivered to us.

        Do I think that we are practicing paganism by celebrating Christmas? Absolutely not, or I certainly wouldn’t celebrate it myself! Do I think that the pagan festivities had a part in the instituting of the festival? Yep. Similar to how Trunk or Treat outreaches would not have existed without Halloween.

        I think it’s wrong to set aside days to venerate the dead, but I don’t have a problem with giving my children a gift. I’m still not going to pretend like the tradition of gift giving at Christmas time is based on anything but the earlier tradition of Saint Nicolas Day.

        Our faith is not one that can be altered on the whims of society, but our way of expressing that faith in culture will necessarily change with the environment. We need to practice discernment to ensure that our faith is not influenced by the environment, but that doesn’t happen just because we give gifts to our children and eat a big meal with family on December 25th.

        • Still Waters

          I think that in trying to identify the ‘pagan’ origins of Christmas traditions, we fail to appreciate a phenomenon of humanity. That is, that we all like the same things and are glad of any opportunity of doing them. I can name three holidays which are characterized by going from house to house, feasting on special holiday foods, and the giving of gifts. They are the Jewish holiday of Purim, the Christian holiday of Christmas, and the West African Muslim holiday of Tobuski (a cultural form of the Islamic holiday Eid). Tobuski has no discernable connection to the Roman Empire or to Christianity, yet it has the same traditions as Christmas. Is that evidence for or against pagan origins of Christmas? We know the origins of Purim, yet the celebration has many of the same features as Christmas. It would be silly to start saying that Purim’s traditions go back to ancient pagan traditions – though secular scholars have tried to discredit Esther’s story by arguing for ancient pagan mythology – when the book of Esther records the beginning of those tradition: “the Jews of the villages…made the .. day of gladness and feasting.. and of sending portions to one another” (Esther 9:19). In other words, the tradition arose spontaneously, out of joy and celebration. We humans love greenery, and lights, and good food, and visiting with friends, and giving and receiving presents. Of course the pagans did and do those things, but that is no reason for assuming Christians had to be taught how to do those things by pagans.

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  • tovlogos

    “…the point of one’s religion: that God came to dwell among us, to set us free from sin, to grant us liberty, to call us to holiness, to secure our salvation, and to do all this under the blanket of grace. To celebrate Jesus’ birth by obsessing legalistically over every minute cultural element that has become associated with the day, is to miss the point of the baby in the manger.” Amen.

    “And don’t let your spiritual orthodoxy morph into to spiritual orthorexia.” Yes.
    I noticed this fact follows the one above, by the human habit of not assimilating the point — even if we don’t miss it.

    • Thanks for the input.

  • Karl Heitman

    Every single year [sigh], I hear of the alleged “sizeable enclave of believers who choose to abstain from Christmas celebrations altogether.” Where–O where!–are these people?! And if they be found, please send them to my church? 😉

  • Edifying post. I especially appreciate the last paragraph as it convicted me.

  • Brett Schlee

    Don’t tell me you’ve never preached a sermon on bodily fluids!!! You don’t know what you’re missing!