A question of sport, not the popular television programme, but how should Christians respond to it? Its powerful and domineering shadow hangs over modern life. It has been said, ‘it may be that all games are silly but then so are humans. Sport is human life in microcosm.’ We may well try to avoid it but you cannot ignore its pervasive presence.
Attitudes to the question of sport within the Christian community are as varied and many as there are avid supporters of any sport. There is the indifferent Christian sports ‘fan’, who asks what the fuss is all about? Sport holds no attraction for them; they do not watch it, follow it, play it and are not bothered about it. They could happily live in a sports-free universe and therefore perhaps never question what relevance it has to their faith.
There is the questionable Christian sports fan, who asks ‘is it right to be involved?’ Society is saturated 24/7 with sport. Why would any sane Christian want to worship at the altar of the god of sport that has been raised by an obsessed media and ravenous corporate sponsors who exploit it as just another business opportunity, where the Lord’s Day is profaned with impunity and the revered place it holds in many people’s hearts reveals the banality and emptiness of their existence. Why would any spiritual-minded Christian want to be involved?
There is the ‘cannot escape’ Christian sports fan, who asks ‘what should I do? I may not be a sporty person but I am surrounded by sport every day. It is the currency of street kudos without which one is viewed as odd and it is the modern day forum where folks choose to meet. Do I hibernate during the Olympics or Six Nations? How am I to seek to be faithful to Christ as Lord and interact with people captured by the sporting event of the moment?’
Then there is the thoughtless Christian sports fan, who does not ask questions at all about how or why they should be involved but says, ‘Just do it!’ Quoting 1 Timothy 4:8, ‘bodily exercise profits little’ to justify any and all involvement but never questioning whether or not it has become too time-consuming and energy sapping and is challenging Jesus’ lordship of their lives.
The genuine fan
But what of the genuine Christian sports fan? They enjoy sport. It’s fun, relaxing, encourages genuine social interaction and is great exercise. The level of enthusiasm, dexterity and sporting prowess varies enormously amongst such folks. Just watch any church rounder’s game! Serious about doing ‘all in the name of the Lord Jesus’ (Col. 3:17) how can they honour Him as they engage in sports? Here are a few basic principles.
First, Christians need not feel guilty about enjoying sport, for in and of itself it is not sinful. Healthy exercise is not only good but desirable. We were made more than mind and soul; we have a body that needs to be cared for. Adam was to physically engage the world in which God placed him. The apostle’s principle that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness’ (1 Cor. 10:25-28) means we may engage or not engage in sport. Paul sees sport – boxing no less – as a helpful illustration of the need for discipline and endurance in Christian living (1 Cor. 9:24-27). We are at liberty to enjoy sport, the problem is not sport per se but rather how we use it. Just as eating and drinking are not wrong, sinful human beings can abuse them and make them a vehicle for sin. So too with sport.
Second, this liberty which allows us to partake demands too that we respect those brethren who hold a different view from us. Christians will disagree about sport and in fact it is extremely healthy that they do disagree. The church needs its Tim Tebows* as well as its ‘conscientious objectors’. We must not either demonise sport or over spiritualise participation in it. Paul’s argues (1 Cor. 8-10) that our liberty be tempered for the good of others. Just as Eric Liddell, strict Sabbatarian that he was refereed a sports match in a Japanese concentration camp on a Sunday.
Third, let’s never forget that all sport is only a game. Some fortunate folks do earn their living playing but for most of us it’s recreation. Thank God that life and the gospel are bigger than sport. So whether we participate or not, how much or how little we indulge is to be determined by our call to be good stewards of the manifold gifts God has given us. Let’s use ‘time’ as an example. I’m called to prioritise my time (Eph. 5:16), so do I have time to give up a Saturday afternoon to play? On the contrary, do I need to make time to participate and blow the cobwebs away? A good steward keeps sport in perspective in the whole panorama of his calling.
Fourth, we have to consider our Christian witness to unbelievers. Quite simply my playing of any sport should honour my Saviour and recommend Him to unbelievers. If my participating does the opposite I really have to ask myself if it is right for me to continue. However, we can surely use sports as a vehicle to reach the unsaved. Christians are to go into the marketplaces in order to meet people for Christ. It is more than a cliché to say sport can be a very helpful tool in evangelism and we need to ask how we can best use it for the gospel. I know of one pastor who seeking to build bridges into his community, although a complete novice, joined a local cycling club to meet people for Jesus. And got some leg muscles in the bargain too!
For God’s glory
Finally, my participating in sport is to glorify God. Paul wrote, ‘Therefore whatever you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God’ (1 Cor. 10:31). Could there be two more diametrically opposed views? Paul’s words are a clarion call to the Christian to do the most necessary and mundane tasks of life to the glory of God, as our behaviour is the mirror in which we are to reflect God’s glory. Calvin wrote, ‘there is no part of our life or conduct, however insignificant, which should not be related to the glory of God.’ We have to find God glorifying answers to such questions as: Can I be competitive and still display the glory of God? Can I engage in physical contact sports without malice or being vindictive? How do I handle confrontation, whether of an opponent or task, to the glory of God? How can I keep God’s glory paramount without being consumed by my passion when aroused in the heat of the fray? The issue for Christians who take up sport is not, ‘to play or not to play’ but why I play and how I play as Christ’s redeemed servant. A question of sport? You do not have to like the programme but you do have to think through the question.
John Woolley is the pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Gabalfa, Cardiff.
*Tim Tebow is a high profile NFL American footballer who is a committed Christian.