‘Sport should never become a religion, but true religion does have something to say in the world of sport’ (Derek Cleave).
Sport is an area of modern human culture that has received little attention from adherents of the Christian faith. True, in recent years there has been a plethora of biographies and autobiographies of sports stars who profess to be born-again Christians.
Some of these have focused on sportsmen of the past such as Eric Liddell — arguably the subject of more biographical studies than any other Christian sportsperson. Others relate to recent athletes such as Jonathan Edwards, world record holder for the triple jump.
But such publications have inevitably focused on the sporting careers of the men or women in question. Very little has been written to initiate a distinctive Christian assessment of sport as an aspect of human culture.
Some secular books have appeared on sports ethics or sports philosophy, but so far nothing has appeared from a Christian perspective. These articles represent a preliminary attempt at a Christian evaluation of sport and the ethical questions it raises.
In view of the imposing prominence of sports and sporting events in the modern world, it seems surprising that there has been so little reflection on this area from a biblical perspective. As to why that should be the case, there are probably two main reasons.
One reason is that organised popular sport is a relatively modern phenomenon. It is true that sporting events such as Olympian Games go back to the pre-Christian era, but the phenomenal growth of sports in modern society appears to relate to four main developments.
Firstly, the rise of urbanisation in an industrial society from the beginning of the nineteenth century created a thirst for entertainment and leisure-time activities. This led in turn to the development of playing fields and other sporting or play areas.
In tandem with such urbanisation was the development of mass-communication, through improved transport and the development of the media. This allowed wider participation beyond local areas and created an increased interest through press reporting of sporting events.
Thirdly, there was the development of organised sports and games-playing in the great public schools in the United Kingdom — with the subsequent export of such games and sports through British colonisation. Sport in the public schools was well developed in the early part of the nineteenth century, well before the organisation of national or international sporting bodies in main-line sports.
Fourthly, and crucially, there was the rise of the modern Olympic movement in the late nineteenth century. This stimulated both interest in, and development of, various main-line sports — and the growth of international sporting events.
This has all meant that the church, or Christians, have had little to draw on in evaluating this area of life, and its development has been largely left to secular interests. Except for the issue of the use of the Lord’s Day, there has been little critique and little advocacy of sports by churches or Christians.
Another suggested reason for the lack of attention by Christian thinkers to this area of modern culture is that the reaction of Christians and churches to sports has often been ambivalent if not negative.
Some Christians have been uncomfortable with such a ‘trivial pursuit’ and have tended to distance themselves from allegedly ‘worldly’ activities of dubious legitimacy for a godly person. On the other hand, some professing Christians have accepted sporting activities readily without being too much concerned to establish a distinctive Christian approach — except perhaps on the question of the use of the Lord’s Day.
Yet the importance placed upon sport in modern society surely calls for an urgent and effective examination, from a Christian perspective, of the cultural, social, political and ethical impact of sport.
Biblical world view
A biblical world view posits the universal and pervasive fallenness of man. His sinfulness, therefore, produces a tendency to abuse or pervert even lawful pursuits. This is clearly an important aspect of a Christian analysis of sport.
However, a biblical world view also posits the Lordship of Christ over life and the need for all aspects of life and culture to be brought under his dominion. Christians, at any rate, will seek to bring every thought and all their actions into line with the Word of God. Their ethics will be determined by Christ speaking through the Scriptures. They will not be conformed to this world but transformed by the renewing of their minds (Romans 12:1-2).
We have a wonderful illustration of this attitude in the world of music. The baroque musician Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a devout Lutheran. It is said that ‘from boyhood onwards until almost the day of his death, Sebastian headed each composition with the letters J. J. for Jesus Juva — Jesus help me — and ended it with S.D.G for Solo Dei Gracia — to God alone the praise’.1
Bach also said of music, ‘All music should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the soul’s refreshment; where this is not remembered there is no true music’. Such an attitude ought to be true for all areas of human life and culture, including sports and recreations. This, at any rate, will be the basis for a Christian perspective on sport.
An incident in the life of the great Scottish athlete and rugby player Eric H. Liddell (1902-1945) also illustrates this point of an essentially Christian approach to cultural activity. A missionary colleague in China once asked him whether he ever prayed that he would win a race.
To this the ready answer came, ‘No, I never prayed that I would win a race. I have, of course, prayed about the athletic meetings, asking that in this, too, God might be glorified’.2
The purpose of these articles, then, is to provide a critique of modern sport from a biblical perspective — and to outline a Christian approach to sports and recreations, including competitive sport.
Readers may properly ask what qualifications the writer has to address such a subject. To some degree I will answer this question in the next article, which is of the nature of a ‘personal pilgrimage’ in the matter of sport.
I hope and pray that these reflections may be used in some small measure to inform and help Christians in formulating their attitudes to sport — and provide the basis for a healthy and God-honouring approach to sports and recreations.
After all, it is only through the diversities of gifts and opportunities provided by their Maker that men and women have the ability to achieve excellence — in sport or any other area of temporal human endeavour.
1. Jo Manton, A Portrait of Bach (Abelard-Schuman, New York, 1957) pp. 38-39.
S.D.G. in point of fact more likely stands for one of the Reformation watch-cries, Soli Deo Gloria — to God alone the glory!
2. Sally Magnusson, The Flying Scotsman (Quartet Books, New York, 1981), p.104