The disappearance of so many playing fields in the United Kingdom in recent years may mean that fewer young people now engage in active sports. Nevertheless, in general terms, sport is ‘big business’ today and assumes a prominent place in many people’s lives.
Sport makes some of its participants millionaires – a few of its nouveaux riches have greater annual incomes that the Gross Domestic Product of some poor nations! Sport is prominent in the newspapers (whole supplements are given over to it) and in the media (some TV satellite channels are devoted entirely to sport).
At its highest level, sport increasingly looks like a new religion. Stadia resemble churches – with crowds like worshippers and participants like idols. This is pretty well what it was like in the original Olympian Games, and sport-religion seems to have reared its head again with the demise of true Christian faith in Western society.
It is understandable, then, that Christians are cautious about associating with modern sport. However, excesses at some levels does not mean that sport should be written off as unlawful or unhelpful for the Christian.
In all our cultural activities the professing Christian will desire to glorify the Lord. That must be the ordering principle – ‘Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God’ (1 Corinthians 10:31). The Word of God will determine the Christian’s approach to cultural life.
What is sport?
Is sport legitimate for the Christian? How do we justify it? It may seem a strange thing to say, but sport does not need justification. It cannot be considered a sinful pursuit in itself.
Of course, there are aspects of sport in any given society or generation that would cause the Christian to pull out – for example, when it involves gambling, corruption or other compromise with sin.
Where the lines are drawn, of course, is not easy. For that reason discernment is necessary. Yet at a basic level, sport simply arises from the ‘play element’ in human culture. This play-element is clearly something that the Lord has planted in man’s nature.
‘Play’ is basic to the development of children. There are not many reference to children playing in the Bible, but of the restored Jerusalem Zechariah 8:5 states, ‘The streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets’, while in Luke 7:32 Jesus comments, ‘They are like children sitting in the marketplace, and calling one to another saying, “We have played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we mourned to you, and you did not weep”’ (see also Isaiah 11:8).
Play, of course, may be expressed in different ways – sport, music, table games, or recreations (walking, swimming, ball games). In one way or another they all aid physical health, development and co-ordination. In some sense, at their best, they enrich relationships and camaraderie.
Anything can be taken to excess – like eating, drinking or sex. But these things are not in themselves sinful. They only become sinful when eating becomes gluttony, drinking becomes drunkenness and lawful sex becomes adultery.
So sport does not in itself need justification. It is simply an extension of a legitimate play-element in our human lives.
The Bible on sport
But how does the Bible view sport? On the one hand it says very little directly about sport, but on the other hand it provides principles that apply to all our cultural activities – allowing us to separate the lawful from the unlawful, the legitimate from the sinful.
But first notice that athletics ‘races’ are referred to in the Bible. In the Old Testament David speaks of rejoicing ‘as a strong man to run a race’ (Psalm 19:5). In Ecclesiastes Solomon declares that ‘the race is not to the swift’ (a verse similar in meaning to 1 Timothy 4:8, of which more anon). But allusions to sport are most common in the New Testament.
Secondly, the Bible encourages us to take care of our bodies – something that necessitates a measure of physical exercise (Romans 12:1; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20; 1 Timothy 4:8).
Of these verses perhaps the most pertinent is the last – ‘Bodily exercise profits a little’ or, ‘for a little (time)’. This is contrasted, of course, with the far more important matter of ‘godliness’ which is ‘profitable for all things’.
Nevertheless, physical exercise does profit and must be viewed as an aspect of our stewardship in this life. Keep your body exercised. That of course does not require participation in sports, but it is perfectly consistent with such participation as a means of exercising the body.
The Christian life
Thirdly, sports provide a good tool to illustrate the Christian life. It is remarkable how many times Paul’s letters refer to sports. The most obvious of these is 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.
‘Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.
‘Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified’.
There are references here both to track running and to combative sports. It is not surprising he should write to the Corinthians in these terms, since the Olympian Games were held periodically at Corinth and Athens.
Indeed, such is Paul’s knowledge of these things that he may actually have witnessed them himself. And it would be strange for him to liken the Christian life to such sport if he believed that the sport was unlawful in itself. For other NT allusions to sports or games see Galatians 2:2; 5:7; Ephesians 6:10; Philippians 3:14; Colossians 1:29; 1 Timothy 2:2; 6:12; Hebrews 12:1-2.
This brings us to the heart of the matter – What principles apply to a Christian’s practice of sports?
I have to admit that the answer is not as clear as it could be – more work needs to be done by Christians to provide practical guidelines as to the principles by which sports may be pursued.
These principles would have in view sport as it should be played – while at the same time recognising that in a sinful world people will tend to distort or abuse such principles. Certainly the Christian attitude to sport will be distinctive. What, then, can be suggested?
Next month we shall try to answer this question, exploring some ideas as to what these Christian principles might look like