How should the Christian think about his or her physical body? What should a Christian say to a person who has 'body issues', who is dissatisfied with their body and is contemplating possibly drastic action to change it?
The Book of Common Prayer Epistle reading for today, the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, makes an important contribution to the Christian perspective on the human body. The reading is from the Apostle Paul's letter to the church in 1st century Philippi, chapter 3 verses 17 to 21.
In this passage Paul urged the Philippians to follow his example in contrast to a group of false teachers who were seeking to impose Old Testament religious rules and regulations on the church. Because of the saving work of Christ, centrally through his death on the Cross, such rules about circumcision and the forbidding of certain foods were no longer binding on God's people.
The false teachers were therefore "enemies of the cross of Christ" with minds focused on what Paul described as "earthly things", meaning that the religion they promoted belonged to this temporal world ravaged by sin. Their religion had nothing to do with "heaven", God's eternal realm where the risen Jesus Christ reigns in glory and from which he will return to transform the world at his Second Coming at the end of human history.
"For," Paul reasoned, speaking of his own attitude and the mindset of those who followed his apostolic example, "our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself" (Philippians 3v20-21 – King James Version).
The phrase "vile body" needs unpacking. The early 17th century translators of the King James Bible, following William Tyndale's 16th century English translation, were not using the word "vile" in the modern sense, where it means disgusting. The word then meant "of an inferior rank or condition". That is the meaning of the original Greek word, which the New International Version translates as "lowly".
The human body God has designed is an amazing creation but it is inferior to the gloriously immortal resurrection body God will give every Christian believer when Christ returns.
Paul described the transformation of the Christian's mortal body at Christ's Second Coming in another of his New Testament letters, 1 Corinthians. This passage, which was read out at the Queen's funeral service in Westminster Abbey, is included in the Book of Common Prayer's Order for the Burial of the Dead:
"For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 15v53-57).
So, the Christian biblical worldview leads those who properly grasp and internalise it to be wonderfully liberated from dissatisfaction with the physical bodies they now have. Plastic surgery or other body-part alterations because of a desire to conform to a stereotype of physical beauty, and not because of injury or illness, are pointless for the Christian. He or she is going to get a new body. Their present body is due for a promotion.
Christian believers are therefore called to wait patiently for the promised promotion of their mortal, corruptible body and to endure the inevitable process of ageing it has to go through.
Clearly, professional counselling is needed when a person is struggling with their body for complicated psycho-emotional reasons. But in a Christian context the biblical belief in "the resurrection of the body", as the Apostles' Creed puts it, surely deserves to be included in such counselling.
The Prayer Book Collect for today beautifully expresses Christian faith in God's promises: "O God, our refuge and strength, who art the author of all godliness: Be ready, we beseech thee, to hear the devout prayers of thy Church; and grant that those things which we ask faithfully we may obtain effectually; through Jesus Christ our Lord."
Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist.