Discussion of theology of the body has long been dominated by debates concerning sexual morality. After completing a PhD in sports science, Jonathan Freeston wants Christians to consider health — their own and that of others — as a responsibility and a ministry.
Jonathan Freeston was on track to become a professional baseball player when an increasing interest in theology caused him to have doubts.
“I started to think maybe I want to do something more with my life than just being good at sport,” he said.
“It is a noble quest for many but I was starting to question the person I was becoming. It can foster an insular, self concerned outlook on the world.”
He turned instead to coaching elite athletes and studying exercise science. Bible studies at Sydney University caused him to think deeply about how he could use his skills to help the disadvantaged.
In the sports world that meant assisting female competitors who did not attract the same levels of funding as their males equivalents.
Recently it has led him to work with the visually impaired.
Mr Freeston does not just consider sport and health to be a valid social justice issue — he believes it is one that is critically overlooked by Christians.
“I would be advocating that maybe things like diet and exercise should be treated as spiritual disciplines,” he said.
“Modernity and the computer revolution mean that we’re not as active — we spend a lot of time behind desks. We are basically in an obesity epidemic which is related to all these issues.”
Commonwealth Government statistics put obesity as the cause of almost one-quarter of type 2 diabetes and osteoarthritis and around one-fifth of cardiovascular disease, and colorectal, breast, uterine and kidney cancer.
Helping prevent so-called “lifestyle diseases” — those which are preventable or greatly diminished by changes to exercise and habits — is an important way Christians can help their community and improve people’s length and quality of life.
It is also a matter of financial inequality, said Mr Freeston, as people in lower socio-economic groups have less access to exercise and encouragement as well.
That was part of his motivation in setting up Fit Church as a ministry of Leichhardt Uniting.
Fit Church opens its doors weekly to the congregation, community and the students who live in housing next door. Mr Freeston aims to provide easy-to-learn, accessible and cheap exercise for those who may struggle to fork out $20 per week at the gym.
He hopes one day to be able to help other interested churches create similar programs in their own spaces.
“The things we could be doing are limitless,” he said, “getting specific programs running, whether that is personal training or group exercise.
“Sydney Presbytery is looking into the feasibility of establishing a lifestyle modification program aimed at staff members in the Uniting Church to see if we could develop sustainable ways of helping people move toward health via small changes in diet and physical activity.”
He would also like to see the church put pressure on governments to scrutinise systematic reasons for the high level of lifestyle-related health conditions prominent in Australia.
Currently, there is little research available to suggest that Christians and church workers are comparatively less fit and healthy than the rest of Australian society. Yet the stresses placed on ministry agents and their emphasis on care of others can lead to health neglect, said Mr Freeston.
“I’ve grown up witnessing the ministerial lifestyle and it is very ‘other-focused’. You spend a lot of time looking after other people and don’t always take the time to adequately look after yourself,” he said.
“That has implications for a lot of health parameters but it can manifest in your physical body.”
As the son of a minister, Mr Freeston said he had been around churches a long time but could count the number of sermons he has heard on the body on one hand.
“It just seems to be something we don’t talk about but it’s obviously relevant to life as a Christian.”
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