This is a series to further explain the articles of “A Conservative Christian Declaration.”
We affirm that manipulation of the visceral appetites is dangerous to rightly ordered worship and Christian piety (Phil 3:19).
We deny that the transmission of biblical truth can be rightly administered through the use of methods that appeal to the appetites. We further deny that holy affections may be expressed in worship employing aesthetic forms that by design stir the appetites.
We believe that God created humankind to consist of two distinct but inter-influencing parts: a body and a soul.1 Christian theologians from Augustine of Hippo to Thomas Aquinas, from John Calvin to John Owen, for nearly seventeen and a half centuries generally believed that these two parts of man had corresponding desires. The higher desires corresponded to the will of the soul; they might be called the affections (Col 3:1-4). The lower desires corresponded to the body and might be called the passions (1 Cor 7:9). The Bible neither teaches that the desires of the body are necessarily evil (John 19:28), nor that the desires of the soul are necessarily good (e.g., 1 Cor 3:3).2 But, at the same time, Christian theology insists that the soul is the seat of religion.3 This (abbreviated) background is important to all that we are trying say in this article.
When we speak of the “visceral appetites,” we are referring to innate capacities created by God in humankind to preserve health and welfare. God gave humankind these capacities because the things the body desires, such as food, drink, and sleep, are necessary to live. The Bible condemns an inordinate attachment to these appetites. Paul speaks, in Philippians 3, of those who “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.” He explains in verse 19, “Their end is destruction, their God is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” And although Paul is continuing the athletic metaphor he had been using in the verses preceding, given that he speaks of his remuneration throughout the chapter, Paul certainly has corporeal needs in view when he says in 1 Cor 9:27: “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” The things of this world are passing away, so it makes little sense for Christians to be devoted to these things. God expects believers to keep bodily appetites under control (Gal 5:16-24; Eph 5:3-20; Phil 3:20-21; 1 Pet 4:3-5; 2 Pet 1:3-4; 2:17-22).
This Biblical testimony makes it clear why we object to religious appeals directed to the visceral appetites. These appetites are easily abused, especially by the unregenerate. Too often, bodily appetites are much more “sensible” to and thereby powerful over us as corporeal creatures. Most people desire immediate pleasure over delayed gratification, lower arts over the fine arts, and self-indulgence over self-control. For instance, our very makeup as humans demands that we naturally desire leisurely entertainment over sermons that require thought and argument. To draw people in to hear God’s Word or enjoy other spiritual pleasures by promising them the satisfaction of these more immediate, sensual desires is to pull a “bait and switch” of a most sinister kind. We are trying to pique the interest of something that Christ’s Lordship essentially demands they mortify in coming to him. The pleasures Christians offer the world are first and foremost spiritual, unseen, and (in a proper sense) rational. We do not say, “Do not enjoy the world and the good things of God,” but we confess that such enjoyment in the truest sense is both eschatological and only possible in this life when the sanctifying work of the Spirit of God enables the proper use of the created order in thanks to God and for his glory.
We believe that Christian attempts to minister through methods that appeal to the appetites is akin (indeed, perhaps worse than) the kind of “eloquence” Paul refused to employ in preaching the Gospel (1 Cor 1-2). Paul clearly denounced any such ministry because it would empty the cross of Christ of its power (1 Cor 1:17). The wisdom inherent in worldly ministry is that which is “doomed to pass away” (1 Cor 2:6). The reason the natural person does not receive the things of the Spirit of God is because he does not have that very Spirit. The Spirit’s doctrines (see 1 Cor 2:6-10) are only understood by those who have the Spirit (1 Cor 2:14). Attempts at Christian ministry that try to make the Gospel attractive by exciting bodily appetites are in effect attempting to circumvent the necessary role Spirit of God. Indeed, by preaching Christ without such appeals we show the power of the Gospel and ensure that our hearers’ faith does not rest in the wisdom of men (or in their worldly appetites), but in the power of God (1 Cor 2:5).
This world has made appeals to the appetites ubiquitous and commonplace. Have you seen any commercials or billboards lately? While these methods may show results for corporations and marketing experts, they are not the ways we ought to be communicating biblical truth. By so using such appeals, the Christians who employ them are attempting to draw people to an interest in the incorruptible God by exciting the very appetites that are hastening their hearers’ destruction. Still further, we ought to abhor the thought of reducing the art forms we employ for the worship of the God who is Spirit in such an overtly earthly, sensual way. Although all worship in this life involves the body (!), the higher, holy affections of believers in worship are not carried appropriately by aesthetic forms that by design were created to manipulate and answer the basest of the body’s appetites. Indeed, as Christians, we are explicitly given this command: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8). So may we live, so may we minister, and so may we worship.
Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too.