While in the fitness industry for eight years before seminary, I came across all kinds of fads and silver bullets loaded in the guns of many well meaning people. How does one stay in shape? How does one rid excess fat from their body? What is the best workout plan? Everything from magic pills that “block” fat to exactly what time you should work out. But my favorite was one that suggested eating mustard, claiming that it speeds up your metabolism for the next four hours by a certain percentage.

True or not, that is not the issue. Here is what I found to be fascinating: often people would take these “new discoveries,” promote it to everyone they know, and it would become the basis for their hopes of physical well-being. People would be so willing to set aside fundamentals for fads. Sometimes they would quit going to the gym altogether and just eat mustard.

I did my best to make these fads become 99% transparent. In other words, I did not want people to be looking for the easy magic cures. There were three things that I preached with ultimate conviction:

1) Cardio: People need to keep their heart rate up consistently for at least 30 minutes a day, five or more days a week. This involves running, walking, bicycle, elliptical, treadmill, or whatever you can do for a long period of time that keeps your heart rate moderately high.

2) Resistance Training: People need to keep their muscle mass up. This is healthy for many reasons, not the least of which being that it keeps your metabolism vigorous. This is accomplished through weight training. You know, lat pull downs, curls, push-ups, pull-ups, leg press, squats, and the like.

3) Caloric Intake: Simply put, if you want to maintain your weight, you eat as many calories as you burn each day. If you want to lose weight, you eat less calories than you burn each day. It is not really rocket science.

Those are the three fundamentals. So long as people were doing those, I was happy. When people left those for the fads, it was destructive.

In theology, it is very similar. There are some basic fundamentals that define Christianity. There are some things we believe that are at the very heart of our faith. As well, there are also “faddish” doctrines. And, like with exercise, these faddish doctrines have the tendency to grab people’s obsession. The megaphone of truth begins to shout “Eat more mustard! If you don’t eat more mustard, you will die!!”

Now, in exercise, there are fundamentals and there are non-fundamentals. This does not mean that all non-fundamentals are equally unimportant. Indeed, some are much more important than others. For example, concentrating on a certain muscle group each day is important. When I work out, I do back and biceps one day, chest and triceps the next, and legs the last day. This simply makes my workout more effective as it exhausts my muscles to a greater degree. As well, I change machines and routines continually. This keeps my muscles in “shock.” When eating, I try to eat the least amount of calories at night, concentrating then on more protein to keep my appetite suppressed at night (otherwise I sleepwalk to the ice cream!). These non-essentials are important in increasing the effectiveness of my physical well-being routine.

However, theories change here and there regarding the non-fundamentals. For example, when I was getting certified in the early nineties for fitness training, the science of physical fitness said that in order to lose the most weight, doing long, steady cardiovascular workouts was most effective. Now the theory has tweaked. Long is still required, but now they suggest that during your cardio, you attempt to spike your heart rate from time to time. I am not sure if or when this will tweak again. The fundamental stayed the same: cardio training is necessary. The details tweak along the way. I hold on to these second-level issues a lot more loosely than I do the fundamental. Don’t get me wrong, I do hold on to second-level issues, but I have to know that they are not as established or important as first-level details.

There are also third-level issues. These are things that are interesting, but really don’t make much difference at all. In comparison to the foundational issues, these don’t amount to a hill of beans. In exercise, eating mustard to increase your metabolism would be included. We might categorize just about every diet fad that is out there here as well. These things are fun to discuss, but need to be put into perspective.

In theology, we always need to distinguish between essentials and non-essentials, cardinal issues and non-cardinal issues, foundational issues and non-foundational issues. Some people talk in terms like this:

1. Dogma: Those foundational issues that are essential to the very fabric of the Christian faith. The existence of our eternal God; the doctrine of the Trinity; the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ; the universal sinfulness of man, etc. In exercise, these would parallel with the big three mentioned above.

2. Doctrine: Those issues that are very important to our faith, but are not so foundational (and upon which there is legitimate disagreement and “tweaking”). The inerrancy of Scripture, Creation/Evolution, Calvinism/Arminianism, the imputation of sin, etc. In exercise, this would be represented by things like the time of day we exercise, what our routine looks like, what type of calories to eat and when.

3. Discussion: Those issues which are not so important, but sometimes interesting to discuss. In theology, this would include church government, type of worship music and liturgy, and whether or not a snake actually talked in Eden. In exercise, this would be all the fads and mustard seeds.

Unfortunately, what I have found over the years, both in theology and exercise, is that people build churches and ministries around number 3s. The mustard seeds become the emphasis. Working out, cardio, and calorie-watching gets demoted to second place. One’s view about the end times or whether or not a snake literally talked becomes the dogma. This can only happen because most people don’t know how to distinguish between the weight-training and the mustard seeds of theology.

It is sad when eating mustard them becomes the only attempt at well-being people have.

Eat the mustard. Maybe it works, maybe it does not. I don’t know. But focus and teach the essentials before you get to that.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    9 replies to "Dieting Essentials and Theology Essentials"

    • Jonathan Woodward

      Very good relation and ideas. I love it! I’m into fitness as well, and distribute quality nutritional products. Sometimes our fitness goals turn into idols too, just like our ministry objectives can. It’s so easy to make an idol out of some doctrine, dogma, or philosophy of ministry.

      Thanks for sharing this. It’s a good one!

    • Jonathan Woodward

      Darn, can’t edit original comment. Was going to say that sometimes the simplest illustrations are the best ones. Everyone can get it and it hits you in the head much harder, even for the learned. Actually, simple illustrations (that work well, like this one), can sometimes put to shame those who try to philosophize out of a Biblical truth.

      BTW, I’ve noticed you’re on #15 of “Invitation to Calvinism.” How many are you going to do? I was tagging along, then I got side tracked.
      [edit: Ha! just saw that in order to edit you have to remain on the page and do it before the little timer. I’ll remember that for next time!]

    • Gary Simmons

      A very good post, Michael. There are also 4s, such as whether Adam & Eve had a belly button. Or whether one must have a white cloth over the communion (even though we’re indoors and flies can’t get to it, which is the original reason for covering it).

    • Matt

      Much more seductive is making #2’s into #1’s. Many people recognize the folly of making #3’s into #1’s, but for far too many Christians, #2’s are promoted to #1. Thank you for providing a reality check.

    • Nate

      I appreciate the post and I think I would completely agree with you. I just have a few observations.
      1. First we should be careful not to take the analogy too far into saying we can pick our #2 and #3s by what works or fits us best (like we would pick a workout routine) but rather that there is only one truth and we should seek to know that truth to the best of our ability because it does matter what we believe even if it is a #2 and not a #1. (im not saying you are saying this. Its just a warning to others)
      2. Secondly I was wondering: The determined classification of what is a #1, #2, and #3 is that a belief that is a #1, #2 or #3? And how much disagreement is there among conservative scholars over the classification of certain beliefs?
      3. Out of curiosity are there evidences of the biblical authors dividing beliefs into categories similar to this? Obviously I know they put forth the essentials very clearly but are there ever non-essentials discussed?

      Thanks again for the post!

    • David Edmisten

      Thanks for discussing this. There can be difficulty balancing by trying to understand without getting bogged down into the #3’s. One of the best things I’ve heard was from George Mueller – when asked about his preaching, he said he tried to keep it as simple as possible to have the most impact on the most people. The centrality of the gospel is the power.

    • Jon M.

      The inerrancy of Scripture is a doctrine upon which there is legitimate disagreement and “tweaking”?

      I’d appreciate further clarification on that point. I would certainly expect that to be under dogma, as a foundational issue essential to the fabric of our faith.

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