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By David J. Montgomery

A successful coach once said that sports were not a matter of life and death--they were much more important than that! The amount of time and energy expended by participants, the space given to sports by newspapers and broadcasters and the money paid by spectators and sponsors suggests that sports are among the most significant areas of human activity. On the surface, much of the activity appears inconsequential, even trivial: running, jumping, lifting or propelling a ball the length of a field, into a hole, over a net or between sticks. But the high level of interest taken by most people says much about the relationship of sports to basic human needs and their contribution to personal and social development.


Competitive team sports as we have them today are largely a legacy of the late nineteenth century. It was then that many rules became codified and games were incorporated into school curricula. Records in many of the current major leagues go back to this period. Horse racing probably goes back at least as far as the early sixteenth century, although, as with archery and fencing, many sports of this period are indistinguishable from military training. Individual athletic activity, however, was an ancient phenomenon. The original Olympics were founded around 776 B.C. The participants were the aristocracy with time for leisure, and the prize was simply a laurel wreath. Gradually the interests of individual city-states took over, and rewards in kind, including tax exemptions and army deferments, were offered. In a frighteningly contemporary scenario, these Olympics folded in A.D. 394 amid cries of bribery, intimidation and cheating.

The reviver of the Olympics, Baron de Coubertin, emphasized the underlying ethic of the games: "“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle."” The ensuing hundred years have left their mark on sports in several key areas. Rampant commercialism and the demand for success at all costs have made amateurism increasingly unviable; Rugby Union, the last bastion, finally fell in 1995. Vibrant nationalism has replaced the Olympic ideal of Jeux sans Frontiers, (Games Without Borders). The pervasive influence of the media, which can dictate the timing and even rules of some sports--tennis tiebreakers were introduced because of television demands. This means that, in many people's eyes, sports are no longer their own masters. Sports that were once the domain of a particular subcultural group (horse riding, skiing and boxing, to name three) increasingly transcend those groups.

The Christian response to sports over recent centuries has often taken its impetus from the Puritan reaction of the seventeenth century. To be fair, their opposition to many sports stemmed from either the cruelty involved (blood sports), the sport's association with gambling, the immorality and drunkenness among participants or the fact that much of the sport took place on the workers' only day off, Sunday. D. Brailsford is unfair when he says, "“Puritans saw their mission to erase all sport and play from men's lives"” (p. 141). Though some Puritans believed “any formof play took on the badge of tim- wasting, idleness and, therefore, vice (Brailsford, p. 127), others believed that enjoyment of good company, reading good books and appreciating God's creation were all legitimate and beneficial exercises. The contemporary sports scene is different in many ways from that of the seventeenth century, and there has been a welcome recovery of the doctrine of creation, which encourages participation and enjoyment of leisure activities in moderation as gifts from God.


Although sports and sporting contests were clearly part of life in the ancient Near East and in the Greco-Roman world, clear references to sporting activity are somewhat lacking in Scripture. Examples sometimes cited include Jacob's wrestling with the angel (Gen 32:24-26), the "contest" between David and Goliath (1 Sam 17), Jonathan's archery (1 Sam 20:20), the contest at Helkath Hazzurim (2 Sam 2:14-16), Paul's allusions to the athletic stadium and boxing ring (1 Cor 9:24-27) and the metaphor of the race with spectators (Heb 12:1-2). Most of these are tenuous and cannot act as a foundation for a theology of sports.

Jacob's experience was an earnest struggle, not a recreational diversion. The references in 1-2 Samuel deal with the realities of war and military engagement. Even Jonathan's archery fulfilled a military purpose and does not support the idea of archery as a form of recreation. The New Testament references allude to the existence of athletic contests (in Paul's case it is probably the Isthmian games, which involved the six basic disciplines of running, jumping, wrestling, boxing, javelin and discus), but the purpose of the illustrations is spiritual, and not much can be deduced from these passages about the writers' views of such sport per se. It is safe to assume that the biblical writers' attitude toward sports was governed by the extent to which core kingdom values were upheld or undermined by the activity in question.


A major problem in generalizing on the theme of sports is the seemingly limitless variety of competitive sports. Any comprehensive encyclopedia of sports will contain statistics from over one hundred individual sports--from cricket to hang-gliding, from skiing to snooker. It will include geographically limited sports such as baseball, bandy, shinty and the American, Australian and Gaelic codes of football, as well as minority sports such as real tennis, fives, pelota and petanque. While this diversity of sports and cultures makes generalized applications unhelpful, if not impossible, certain benefits and drawbacks can be highlighted that are applicable to most, if not all, sporting activities.

Physical. An obvious benefit of sports, and the most quoted reason for involvement, is physical exercise. The precise benefits will vary, but solo sports such as running, swimming and cycling will improve the participant's cardiovascular fitness, while other sports such as the various codes of football and hockey contribute more toward body toning, muscular strength and endurance. Regular participation in athletic sports maintains the body, keeping it in good condition and counterbalancing more debilitating influences such as weight and aging. Soccer and running develop the lower body more than the upper, while the reverse is true of some racket sports. Swimming has long been accepted as the simplest and most effective way of keeping all the body's muscles active, while, in contrast, a golf swing involves a series of subtle, rapid, unnatural body movements involving up to sixty-four muscles and lasting for less than two seconds. In this case the physical benefits are accrued more through the simple activity of walking than through anything integral to the game itself.

Mental and emotional. The possible connection between a disciplined and healthy body and a higher degree of mental astuteness and emotional stability cannot be ignored. It is common for psychiatrists to recommend sports for their emotional and social benefits. Temporary depressions can be eased by physical exertion, and many can testify to receiving light on some complex problem while running or how mentally demanding work such as composition or written examinations have proved much less taxing after engaging in some recreation. From a spectator's perspective the emotions involved tend to be more extreme, fleeting and unreliable and, for the partisan fan, are often completely dependent on the outcome of the game. Sports have been regarded historically as an effective means of character building. The discipline of training, playing by the rules, coping with stiff opposition, striving to achieve the unthinkable and rebounding after disappointment or defeat are all useful attributes to develop in preparation for life. A healthy attitude to the above should result in an altogether more rounded and complete person.

Social and cultural. By their very nature team sports require cooperation and a high degree of interpersonal understanding and commitment. The esprit de corps experienced by team members is due to a combination of factors: an inherent enjoyment of the game, shared goals, a sense of achievement and shared sacrifices for the sake of the team. In many Western suburban societies where neighborhood community is decreasing, a sports club can become a prime arena for the social interaction of like-minded people. Major spectator sports also play an important role in a city's or country's sense of identity. In North America a city remains inseparably linked in the popular imagination with the name of its major-league team(s). In England the historical popularity of soccer is largely due to the loyalty felt by many to their local town and the sense of corporate identity provided by its team. In Gaelic cultures sports such as hurling and shinty and their ancient precedents performed an important role in training young men of the clan for battle, and the resultant intertown and intercounty competition is still strong today. Over the years some sports have been unifying agents, bringing together participants of diverse backgrounds in places of conflict such as World War I Europe (with its famous Christmas Day soccer game), Northern Ireland, the Middle East and modern South Africa.

Spiritual. Organizations such as Athletes in Action in North America and Christians in Sport in the United Kingdom have played a part in ministering pastorally to those involved in professional and high-level sports, as well as giving the Christian message some street credibility among sports-obsessed youth. However, the spiritual dimension of sports is not limited to their usefulness as a medium for evangelism but concerns the extent to which values and morals are developed within the sporting arena. In particular, the Christian will be marked out by the way in which he or she responds to the clearly negative influences in contemporary sports, which are outlined below. Clear spiritual benefits can accrue from participation in sports as the Christian competitor grapples with the major issues of priorities, ambition, temptation and discipleship.


Physical, emotional, cultural and spiritual abuses. Each of the benefits mentioned above can be lost through overindulgence or abuse. It could be argued that in some cases the physical benefits are nonexistent or even negative. Most notably there is the case of boxing: a sport whose sole object is to inflict physical injury and where the physical benefits by way of general fitness are clearly outweighed by the inherent danger. Furthermore, the body could be prematurely damaged if, in pursuit of commercial gain or fame, an athlete pushes too hard, indulges in performance-enhancing drugs, or competes while injured--witness the common use of painkillers among American football players and the allegations of puberty-postponing steroids among East European gymnasts.

Similarly the emotional benefits of participation will be lost if the sport becomes an obsession and no comfort is derived simply from playing or achieving a “moral victory.” During each World Cup there seems to be a report from some part of the globe about the suicide of a soccer fan whose country has just been eliminated. This took a shocking turn in Colombia in 1994, when the defender Andr&eacut;s Escobar was murdered because of an unfortunate score on his own goal. The natural extremes of joy and disappointment must be kept in perspective, or all balance has been lost. It is worth noting that the demands of fame and success have not always been kind to those who have reached the top. O. J. Simpson is the most celebrated example of a gifted sportsman with extreme domestic problems, but he is by no means alone. There is, sadly, the all-too-familiar sight of a gifted but socially inept and lonely "personality" who has sacrificed many of the normal activities of life in order to achieve a particular "corruptible corwn" (1 Cor 9:25 KJV).

Socially, sport can also be used to reinforce boundaries. The Gaelic sports in Ireland were deliberately developed in ways that excluded the Protestant population, and the two codes of rugby derive from the late nineteenth-century class conflict in England. Issues of identity, loyalty and rivalry can also be overemphasized and corrupted and lead to intercommunity violence. The Stanley Cup riots in Montreal and Vancouver, hooliganism in Europe and the Honduras-El Salvadoran war of 1969 (sparked off by a soccer result) are extreme examples of the darker side of sport's appeal to nationalistic or tribal instincts.

Nor should we be blind to the mixed motives of even the most well-intentioned marriages of sports and spirituality. One commentator has remarked that the American athletic subculture is probably the most ministered-to segment in the world. Is such ministry undertaken purely out of need or because of its propaganda potential? Are lesser sports valued as much as high-profile ones? Are the big-name and less-famous stars treated equally? Are the theological opinions of sports personalities given greater authority than those of proven Bible teachers? How easily do worldly values creep into our assessments?

Commercialism. Increasing transfer fees, ludicrous wages, the advent of the player's agent, the high cost of admission to games, and strikes in ice hockey and baseball have all contributed to fan dissatisfaction and alienation. While it is partly true that the public's desire for success has contributed to the million-dollar merry-go-round, there is a limit to how much commercial exploitation even the most die-hard fan will tolerate. How ethical is it for soccer teams to exploit the loyalty of their millions of young (and often relatively poor) fans by bringing out a new uniform/strip every few months? How right is it that (in 1993) an NBA basketball star earned on average thirteen times the wage of a physician? What does it say about society when the U.S. Senate constitutes baseball an essential service by legislating the strikers back to work? Where is the morality in Mexico's spending millions on staging the Olympics when many of its inhabitants were starving? Or in Formula One motor racing, what are the ethics behind spending millions of dollars manufacturing machines that have no function outside the racetrack but burn up the earth's natural resources, pollute the atmosphere and endanger the lives of the participants?

All these have implications for the Christian, not least in the area of attachment to and stewardship of money. Christian professionals must constantly examine their motives for being involved in a high-paying sport and seek to find ways in which their privileged financial situation can be turned to the advantage of others. If it is within their power to do so, will they remain loyal to one team and concentrate on building relationships within that community rather than seeking or accepting a more lucrative move elsewhere? How often do Christians witness to kingdom values by taking the less financially rewarding option? Christian fans also must continually assess the morality of paying upwards of $1000 for a good season ticket. Can the benefits of sports be enjoyed equally through supporting a Triple-A baseball or nonleague soccer team and keeping in touch with the professional scene through the more-than-adequate television coverage? Christians can play a strategic role in demonstrating that neither money nor sports dominate them and that if the whole edifice of the professional-sports scene were to collapse, life would continue.

Violence. All competitive sports require an element of mental or physical aggression, and most team sports require physical contact. The dilemma concerns the point at which such aggression is excessive, dangerous to the welfare of other players and damaging to the aggressor's own character and psyche. Should not Christians who regularly get red-carded in soccer recognize their weakness and take appropriate steps toward counseling and accountability? The New Zealand haka is a famous rugby ritual, but how many other pregame rugby and NFL warm-ups pander to an innately violent machismo and contribute to on-field violence? In high-contact sports the potential for fighting and brawling is ever-present, but Christianity aside, the true professional has always been regarded as the one who is able to take the knocks without retaliation (see Prov 14:29 GNB).

In ice hockey, fights by the players are expected at every venue, are treated by commentators as an interesting aspect of game strategy and are cheered by the crowd. Christians surely must go against the stream on this issue and refuse to accept that this form of aggression is essential to either the game or its entertainment. In what way would this immensely skillful, exciting and highly physical sport be diminished by outlawing such fights? Since ring-related deaths in boxing continue at an alarming rate, Christian involvement in this sport is becoming harder to justify. It is difficult to understand how an activity that would be a serious criminal offense outside the ring can be regarded as sport. It is argued that boxing is a way for the ghettoized to improve financially and socially. But at what price comes the improvement, and since when was social advancement more important than opposing institutionalized violence? The skill, fitness and opportunity to escape the ghetto that boxing offers are equally available through other sports. While, for example, motor racing and mountaineering can also be dangerous, the object of these sports is to conquer the danger through skill and technique. Of course, not all sport-related violence is even indirectly connected with the sport itself. Soccer hooliganism is a social malaise that would be unaffected by banning or changing the rules governing the game.

Competition. Many Christians struggle with competitiveness. They regard competitive instincts as part of their fallen human nature--a sympton of the desire to be best and to succeed at the expense of others. Some authors, such as A. Kohn, have put forward a radical case against competition. This inevitably leads to a crisis of conscience when it comes to sports, for competitiveness is intrinsic to sports as participants compete against others, themselves, the clock or nature. The spur to improve and achieve is what motivates the participant, and the consequent excitement of the battle turns a sport into a spectacle worth watching. Removing the competitive element from sports emasculates them, stripping them of many of the benefits outlined above. The cut and thrust of competition and the discipline of performing within the confines of a strict code of rules sharpen the mental faculties, bond the members of a team together and lead to a higher level of physical achievement.

The problem is not the desire to compete but a temptation to win at all costs and to bend the rules and a distorted perspective that views all of life in terms of winners and losers. Competitiveness becomes tainted when it seeps into other areas, such as family life, church or the workplace. Competing for the affections of others, for status or power, springs from pride, and such jostling for position is explicitly condemned by Christ (Mk 10:35-45; Lk 9:46-50), who took the form of a servant (Jn 13:1-5; Phil 2:6-7) and submitted himself even to death. Professional sportspeople are usually gracious in victory, for every winner has experienced defeat, and it is accepted that the losers will have other chances to fight back. In other contexts, however, competitiveness can result in the systematic suppression of the disadvantaged and powerless. Competitive desires are no more sinful than sexual desires. To one God has given the gift of sports, to the other the gift of marriage, as the proper context for their expression. To cross the boundaries in either case is to court disaster.

Idolatry. Idolatry is the most common sin condemned in the Bible. The temptation to break the first command of the Decalogue (Ex 20:3) is so pervasive that every area of human activity has the potential to become an idol. It is not surprising, therefore, that something as fundamental to modern society as sport is vulnerable to it. For the spectator, the excitement of media-hyped events can be as seductive as any materialistic or sexual temptation. There is grave potential for addiction, and we can become preoccupied with entertainment, which demands nothing of us physically, mentally or spiritually. For the professional participant, the quest for fame, money and social status, together with the increasing demands of coaches, sponsors, clubs and the general public, mean that 100 percent commitment to sports will lead to the exclusion of other relationships and the erosion of other loyalties. The Christian, in any field of life, has to work out the vocational implications of being totally committed to Christ alone. In the sports world where it is common to hear team owners speaking of “possessing” the players, these implications are particularly relevant.

One area where some prominent Christian sportspeople have displayed their priorities is Sunday sports. The infamous case of Eric Liddell in the 1924 Olympic Games, popularized by the film Chariots of Fire, has bolstered the sabbatarians' abstentionist case. However, the impressive list of Christian sportspeople who do compete on Sunday illustrates that it is not just biblical scholars who are divided on whether the strict requirements of the Jewish sabbath can be applied to the Christian community and would lead to the conclusion that this is a case of personal conscience. On one hand, the action of Liddell and Jones demonstrated in a powerful and tangible way that there was something more important in their lives than sports, and Sunday participants must decide what alternative ways are available for them to make similar proclamations. (German golfer Bernhard Langer's worship services for those on tour is one example.) On the other hand, it is symptomatic of a particularly introspective, myopic and almost pharisaic Christianity that more importance is attached to this legal issue than to many of the broader theological implications of sports (see Mt 23:23-24).

For those who are called to exercise their God given gifts as professional athletes in a secular world, Sunday participation is probably inevitable, but alternative opportunities for worship and sabbath rest must be sought. For spectators and amateur participants who have more control over when and how often they play, enough opportunities exist to participate on Saturdays and midweek, and Sunday participation could prove to be an unhelpful intrusion into time allocated for worship. Furthermore, the all-consuming nature of a competitive event physically and psychologically, with travel, emotional buildup, participation, unwinding and reflection all built into the experience, means that although the activity may in itself be recreational, participation may leave the player more drained than refreshed, and thus an essential benefit of sabbath has been lost.


Christian professionals need to understand that a calling to compete as an athlete is as high a calling as any other. Unique opportunities and unique difficulties will be theirs, but their gifts are God-given. Sports are to be enjoyed, and they must accept the consequent privileges and responsibilities. The church should encourage and support them in their calling and not hinder them through advocating a hierarchy of callings, perpetuating a disrespect for creative leisure or being sidetracked on minor issues such as sabbatarianism.

Christian sportspeople at all levels must also (1) refuse to be drawn into a win-at-all-costs philosophy, regardless of the demands of coaches, owners or the general public, thus obeying God rather than humans (Acts 4:19); (2) recognize the potential of fair play, sporting behavior and honesty (especially when infringements have gone unnoticed by the umpire) as a powerful witness to kingdom values, thus exhibiting Christian integrity (Tit 2:6-7); (3) constantly evaluate the time spent on training and participation, determining whether it is proportionate to time spent on their other callings of family, church and community (Eph 5:15-16); (4) recognize the essential transience of sporting pursuits, that is, athletic records rarely last more than a year, and trophy winners are often forgotten within a decade; (5) ensure that they experience the physical, emotional, social and spiritual benefits of sports and avoid the temptations of body abuse, obsessiveness and idolatry.

Likewise Christian spectators should (1) keep their sporting interests in perspective and avoid allowing the understandable and human responses of jubilation or disappointment to adversely affect other pursuits and relationships; (2) regularly reassess the money and time spent on sports events, determining whether they encourage the greed of players or owners, are being irresponsible in their personal budgeting regarding travel to overseas events, mindlessly buy the commercial products put out ad infinitum by the promoters, are passing on essentially materialistic values to their children and organize their lives around sporting schedules; (3) avoid adherence to the media-supported personality cult, recognizing that these people are sports stars and not role models; (4) ensure that their loyalty to city or country does not lead to racism or ethnocentricity; (5) enjoy sports for their own sake, appreciating the beauty and skill involved, while recognizing their transience and the relative unimportance of what is at stake. This too shall pass (Eccles 3:20). It is not a matter of life and death.


P. Ballantine, Sport--The Opiate of the People, Grove Ethical Studies 70 (Bramcote, U.K.: Grove Books, 1988); D. Brailsford, Sport and Society: Elizabeth to Anne (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969); F. Inglis, The Name of the Game (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1977); S. J. Hoffman, Sport and Religion (Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 1992); A. Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992); J. W. Loy and G. S. Kenyon, eds., Sport, Culture and Society (New York: Macmillan, 1969); R. D. Mandell, Sport: A Cultural History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984); M. Novak, The Joy of Sports: End Zones, Bases, Baskets, Balls and the Celebration of the American Spirit (New York: Lanham, 1988).

Taken from The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity. Edited by Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens. Article by David J. Montgomery, assistant minister, Stormont Presbyterian Church, rmission kindly granted to Faith and Reason Forum by InterVarsity Press.