Sports and Christianity: How Should Christians Handle Competition?

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Jason Staples Substack

A couple days ago, a friend pointed me to, “Sports Fanatics,” a Christianity Today article in which Shirl James Hoffman (author of the book, Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports, from which the article is taken) argues that (mainly Evangelical) Christianity’s relationship with sports has ultimately been detrimental to the faith, with the sports culture influencing Christianity more than vice-versa. The article is certainly thought-provoking and worth the read; along the way, he makes numerous excellent points about sports gone bad or too far (such as his lead example, a couple who skipped their daughter’s wedding because it was scheduled on the same day as an Alabama football game).

At the risk of over-simplifying Hoffman’s argument (which is surely more nuanced in the book), it seems that his primary concern is with the competitiveness that fuels sports culture. Put simply, Hoffman seems to have trouble reconciling this kind of competitiveness with the Gospel and the lifestyle and values by which Christians are to live. He sees this competitiveness at odds with the sympathy and concern for enemies that Christians are to display, and he fears that sports in general have negatively affected the Evangelical Christianity that has attempted to use sports as an avenue for the Gospel. Though he concedes that sports without competition are not sports at all, Hoffman suggests that sports would be better if they were “joyous play … sport that is serious but also festive and fantastical” and far less about vanquishing one’s opponents. He protests the achievement culture fostered by sports, suggesting that this kind of influence makes Christianity into a religion more about doing than feeling. In his words: “The concrete trumps the symbolic; doing, achieving, and struggling are favored over mystery, joy, feeling, transport, and spiritual insight.” In the end, he suggests that perhaps Christians should focus more on “side-by-side” competition sports (like swimming, golf, or Track & Field) rather than contact sports (football, hockey, boxing, etc.) mainly to avoid the physical violence (dishonoring to God’s temple, he suggests) and the aggressive mindset of these sports, also suggesting that Christians should essentially forgo victory celebrations, since they suggest superiority rather than sympathy and concern for the other.

His good points about the many excesses of sports aside, I fundamentally and strenuously disagree with Hoffman’s thesis for several reasons. (Scot McKnight has also posted a few counterpoints over at JesusCreed, focusing on the fact that sports are themselves a closed continuum, and so long as the game is played with integrity, by the rules, and with respect for the opponent, competition isn’t a problem. The New York Times also just published an Op-Ed about sports culture, “The Sporting Mind,” that is well worth the read.)

1) My biggest point of disagreement is that I don’t think the sporting world has so much negatively affected Christianity as it has shown major weaknesses in the popular formulation of Evangelical theology. In other words, the problem is the weakness of Evangelical theology more than anything having to do with sports—sports are just the mirror that reveal the theological problems more clearly. One could summarize much Evangelical theology in the following manner: “We are all rotten to the core and sin every day. Fortunately, Jesus died so that our sins could be forgiven. All you have to do is believe that he died for your sins and resurrected from the dead and you’re forgiven for whatever you do. Then your job is to go spread this message to as many other people as you can so that they can be forgiven and go to heaven, too. Just make sure you give God the glory for whatever good you do, since you’re still nothing but a filthy sinner.”

This theology ignores everyday ethics—and the New Testament gospel of moral and ethical transformation—for an ethic that sees evangelism as the only real responsibility of the Christian. The shallowness of this theological perspective is reflected in many “Christian athletes,” most of whom were raised to “glorify God” with their efforts (i.e. victories) on the field, court, track, etc., and many think of this as their chief responsibility as a Christian. They need to make sure they point to the sky after a touchdown, verbally “give all glory to God” after the game, and pray before and after they play. As long as they do this, they’re “saved,” and “different” from the other athletes who are “all about themselves.” Then these “Christian athletes” leave the field of play and have extramarital affairs and generally live just like the rest of the world, with little to no difference between them and anyone else. But if you think about it, this is only a variation of the basic Evangelical message summarized above—only using sports “to preach the gospel of forgiveness.”

2) Some of Hoffman’s theology is as questionable as that which he critiques. I see more calls to serving God with “doing” and “struggling” than “feeling” in the New Testament, not just in the OT. The point of the Sermon on the Mount and much scriptural prophetic critique was precisely that the concrete trumps the symbolic—how we treat others matters a lot more than whether we can spin nice stories, give a nice gift (or sacrifice), or “feel the right way” when we pray. I’d like to see more Christian theology focus on the “doing” and “struggling” of everyday life and less focus on “feeling” in general, especially in Evangelical circles.

3) In terms of the ethics taught by sports being different from those taught by Christianity—suggesting that modern sports culture only fosters selfishness, cut-throat competition, and is a place “where self-denial is a recipe for competitive disaster” misunderstands why so many teams and individuals succeed. I would argue that the teams and individuals who embrace self-denial, self-subordination, and servanthood tend to win more often than teams that embrace their opposite. There are certainly notable examples of the reverse, but the kind of self-denial and self-sacrifice needed to work like some of these great players work is critical to their success. “Team chemistry” is just another way of talking about the self-sacrifice, self-denial, servanthood, and overall unification of the team. These are natural principles that apply to sport just as they do in every other avenue of life—again, sport is just the mirror that simply shows such principles more clearly at work. “Sympathy” is just as present in sport as anywhere else—watch winning NFL players seek out opposing players after playoff games to say something of comfort, etc. Look at how teams rally around injured teammates, watch how guys work each other, etc. Frankly, I think “sympathy” is actually seen to fill its legitimate role (stepping in to comfort, help, and support others as they move forward) in sport, as opposed to what I think is a sort of false sympathy (a sort of “bleeding-heart” notion, for the lack of another way to say it) pushed by our society at large.

4) I strongly agree with the notion of sport as a means of worship, though I don’t necessarily see it at odds with victory/defeat metaphors, etc. Keep in mind that a large percentage of Scripture uses victory/defeat metaphors (including graphic depictions of war that are far more violent than any modern sport) within the context of worship language—look at the Psalms, for example! That said, I do strongly agree with Hoffman’s antipathy towards characterizing Jesus as “always on our side”—something I’ve always hated among Christian athletes. (Why do athletes only seem to give God the glory for wins?) This is where Joshua 5 is especially significant for the Christian athlete.

5) His reminder of “sport’s temptation to pride” smacks of an unbiblical definition of pride. If the winning team exults in its victory and an outstanding player thinks himself an outstanding player, it is not pride. If this turns into a stubborn unwillingness to do anything except what one wants or be open to anything or anyone else, then it’s pride. Victory without some sense of jubilation strips sport of its passion. On the other side of the coin, I’m in agreement with dispensing with shallow post-game testimonies and gestures. If a player is a Christian, let it be obvious in the way that the player plays and conducts himself off the field in everyday life.

6) I disagree that contact sports and their increased risk of injury are inherently dishonoring to the body as the temple of God. Intentionally defacing the body is one thing, but a pursuit that carries the risk (or even probability) of some injury isn’t so problematic to me—these temples are decaying to death anyway. Plus, Paul’s injunction against defacing the temple of God was about sexual immorality, something that debases and defiles the temple, not about potential injury, etc. That passage is one of the most popularly abused passages in the New Testament (perhaps I should add it to my list for this blog).

7) At the highest and most cut-throat levels of sport, the players tend to have more respect for one another than do the fans. Players at Florida State and Miami are bitter rivals and desperately want to beat each other, but most of those teams know each other, played against or with each other in high school or all-star games, and have a high degree of respect for one another. When the game ends, the animosity tends to end. The same is true in practice, where players will even get into fights on occasion. But once they get back to the locker room, everything is fine and they go eat at the same table and crack jokes. This is less true with fans, who are often far more hateful towards the opposing team and its fans. Either way, the notion of respecting one’s opponent is critical to the sports culture, and that lesson is certainly not one that Christians should resist.

8.) So where to go with this? I think the first thing is that Evangelical Christianity is badly in need of a theological overhaul, turning away from “evangelism” (i.e. preaching the Gospel) as the core of Christianity and towards a notion of living life in and through the transforming presence of God. That is, Evangelical Christianity badly needs a “participationist” theology rather than an “outreach” theology. In terms of how this would impact sports, I would like to see Christian athletes (and Christian athletic organizations) focus on application of a legitimate biblical ethos to playing the game—respect for others, self-denial in pursuit of a goal, collective concern, etc.—and living off the field. My thinking is that if even 10% of the claimed Christians in sports actually decided to conduct themselves in this manner it would be a noticeable phenomenon.

Tags: Christianity, Ethics, Evangelicalism, Sports

13 Comments. Leave new

  • damn your good!

  • I added a NY times article I posted to my facebook last week. I took the other side though…anti MMA.

  • Jason, never a sports fan myself, I rather enjoyed your post, especially your final paragraph.

  • Brian C. Farmer
    March 21, 2010 12:26 pm

    Jason, thanks for this well thought-out response. I ran into this article on a magazine rack, looked over it, and had the same uneasy response in my mind. You’ve very succinctly and eloquently drawn out the thoughts that were bouncing around in my head.

  • Around the blogs « Christ, My Righteousness
    April 20, 2010 9:13 pm

    […] Sports and Christianity: How Should Christians Handle Competition? […]

  • greetings,
    I like the article, but I c ouldn’t disagree more with the idea that any Christian,whether you call them evangelical or by any other title needs to move away from preaching the gospel and bringing others to Christ. The #1 thing that we can do to glorify God, is to bring more people to God, and we were created to glorify God. Once you have received the forgiveness that comes from accepting Christ, the gratitude and peace that comes from it naturally overflows in a desire to bring others to God, and if anything we should be encouraging people to rise up out of a catatonic Christian state, and preach the gospel MORE. It is one thing to say we should live in such a way where our daily living honors God, but evangelizing is INDEED at the core of everything that Jesus taught, and should be at the core of our lives as well. It disturbs me to hear “I don’t need to speak the name Christ, my witness is my life”, well if people see you operating with integrity and Godliness, but do not know WHO changed your heart so you would act so differently than everyone else, what good is it? People are not going to flock to you asking you what makes you so different, yes people notice integrity and character because they are rare, but people need to know why and how we can conduct our lives with integrity and character, and His name is Jesus.

    • Stephen, I agree about sharing the gospel, but in the Holy Spirits perfect timing. So many evangelical jump in the share the good news without taking the time to ’till the soil”. By finding out eaxactly where a person is and what are their spiritual needs we then experience the Holy Spirits nudging to press for ‘conversion’. I was working on a major sports event – a World Championship for Table Tennis. Being a ‘good’ christian I volunteered to do the last duty of the day – sitting with the athletes who had just competed in the semi-final and where required to be drug tested. My mind and body were screaming out ‘why are you here. You could be at home – having shower, eating a warm meal, etc.’. I didn’t want to be there. I met a player off the court, escorted him to the lo, where he provided a urine sample, then went to the lounge to wait two hours for the testers to complete their testing. The player could not speak english, but his coach could. After introductions he opened the conversation by saying ‘ My auntie is China has become a Christian. As I’m in a christian country what does this mean’? My spirit leapt. I knew why I was to be there. Over the next two hours I laid out the full gospel to him (and his coach), but did not feel the Holy Spirit pressing me to get him / them to make christian commitment. One year later, at the same event, he saw me on a corridor, probably 130 metres away. He ran along the corridor, threw his arms around me, and in broken english said. I am christian – I full Holy Spirit – yes?. He had returned to his aunties church, and made christian commitment (and so did the coach). He has not yet told the world about his conversion. His church are wisely descipling him, befor he says anything. When he does 20 million plus chinese people will hear what he has to say. Thats the number of people in China who every month play table tennis, and venerate this player, as if he were Paul McCartney (of Beatles fame), Madonna or President Obama. How many will become christians will be how the Holy Spirit works out this mans witness and testimony. If I had pressed for conversion on that saturday evening he may not have responded and I then may have become an hindrance to the Gospel. But by listening to the Holy Spirit this mans testimony will be fruitful for the gospel. Parable of Sower 30x, or 60x, or even 100x’s!

  • You should take a look at the latest Anvil journal (28.1), 2012. Lots of articles on sport, and free on line if you don’t want to buy the paperback copy.

  • I have watched too many God-fearing Christians idolize the manufactured stars of the sports entertainment industry. They waste their time watching when they should be doing something to build His Kingdom. Fools watching pawns in a children’s game. GROW UP AND GET OFF YOUR ASS!

  • Really enjoyed this. I wrote a review of Hoffman’s book for my MTh earlier this year and came to fairly similar conclusions to you. I am a bit confused at your reference to Joshua 5 – or rather I would love you to expand on it because I just don’t know what you refer to.

    With regards to evangelism; I believe that, as Christians, we have a duty to proclaim the Gospel clearly and in a way people will understand and then to witness that Gospel in the transformation of our lives (including, and perhaps especially, our behaviours) and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. We sew the seeds, he waters the soil. I suppose in a sporting context this means having normal and honest conversations about faith and then playing our sport and living in a way that reflects our faith and places us above reproach – and being completely open about our humanity when we do get that wrong.

    • Regarding Joshua 5: When Joshua confronts the stranger and asks him to identify whether he is a friend or foe, the stranger replies: “Neither!”

      I think Jason is suggesting that based on this text, God may not necessarily be on “our side.” Which makes sense when those on opposing sides in a combative situation could both be believers and yet there can only be one “winner”.

  • I do not know when this was first posted, but I am writing in March of 2019. I believe that God loves to see us compete. I believe he wants us to be the best we can be at anything we do. In order to do that we must put every ounce of energy into that activity. If the opponent is bigger, stronger, and faster than I, I must use all in my power to defeat that opponent. As long as whatever I do is clean and fair, it is good. If I need to utilize my dislike for the other person because of who he is, what he does, where he comes from, or anything else, to help motivate me to practice hours upon hours so I can be successful, that is good. I am a Hoosier, and the meaning of Hoosier Hysteria is that Indiana is God’s country, Indiana residents are God’s people, and basketball is God’s game. That may not be true, but that is not what is important. You play like you believe it. Victory helps everybody who is on the winning side, and defeat hurts all on the losing side. I believe God loves great competition, I believe He wants us to be our very best. GORDON SIMONS

  • Thanks for this article. Some I agree with, some not. I do not think that harming ones body through aggressive and violent sport aligns with the gentleness of the Holy Spirit. Jesus told peter that if you live by the sword then you die by the sword. Essentially if you participate in an aggressive sport, expect to get injured. Jesus says not to harm the temple because it’s God’s creation and to harm another is to harm oneself. Attitude is imperative and in any competitive sport ones heart easily becomes flesh… the flesh and spirit are at war and to find a spirit filled person actually demonstrating the fruit of the spirit during intense competitiveness is rare indeed. Sport in recent times has almost become a God and idolatry is a real problem. We all need the check our own hearts before the Lord.


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