Sports Participation, Do We Have A Christian Perspective?

It’s such a neutral subject, why take time to think about it? I had never faced the topic any other way and I was not about to do it now. It had just been brought to my attention at our Spring Retreat in a discussion about fitting topics for THE BEACON LIGHTS. Ironically, I gave this particular subject the least of my sober attention. The topic was useless for discussion. Truly now, could this seminarian find something wrong with, say, a basketball team at Covenant? What? It was, well . . . almost pietistic. The very idea of someone having serious problems with such an activity, typified narrow mindedness. Thinking about it later, I realized such a response should have been an indication to myself that it was high time that I did give the subject some critical thought.
Young People’s Society gave me several occasions to participate in discussion about Sports. There were no serious misgivings about participation in them, because they were taken for granted to be right. (This was also my view.) Charges had to be brought against their unquestionable character. The question was always, “What is wrong with sports?,” never “What is right with them?” The points in their favor were firmly embedded and irrevocable. It was always, “Are the negative charges valid?” I would like to know if the positive reasons are valid! It is my contention that we should again evaluate the unspotted character of sports.
What really woke me up and started me thinking was an incident at Calvin College. During my German course, two exchange students from Germany visited the class. They compared the governments of our respective countries, the educational systems; differentiated between the general national character; and gave us their first impressions of the U. S. When asked what predominant characteristic of the American student had struck them, they both exclaimed, “The Sports Craze. Everywhere you turn it is ‘Our football team this, our basketball team that. Let’s beat so and so. Clobber then.’ Big deal. What does it amount to besides antagonism? Win, and it makes everyone’s day. Lose, and it is a calamity.”
Neither one could understand it, or figure out what it had to do with school spirit. I would like to have said that this was understandable because they were attending a secular high school, but was not able to. I realized how much I myself set in store by sports. If they had gone to my old high school, certainly how we had talked about and behaved towards sports would have impressed them the same secular way. Our pep rallies were the same; Fire up for victory. There was not anything distinctively Christian about them or our attitude at the game. Possibly we could have pointed to a bylaw in our athletic constitution that said it was different, but that would be of no importance. It is the outward behavior, which shows our inward attitude, that makes the difference. Perplexingly, from the cheers my sister practices, the news which I hear, and the games I have attended, Covenant offers nothing better. I am continually hearing about Covenant’s sports teams and personnel in connection with scorn for the whole school. Perplexingly, I say, because our reason for having our own high school is that we are different.
Truthfully now, if someone asks you what school you go to, what do you say? Do you dare say “Covenant Christian”? Well, possibly with a sheepish grim? “What, that P.R. place?” But imagine if to your same sheepish response, he would say, “Oh, you mean the school that won the Class D State championship!” The recognition turns our sheepishness into instant pride. (So this is what school spirit is.) Why the sudden reversal in feeling? Something is not quite right. Namely, our emphasis.
The question then that is of utmost importance is why there is this wrong emphasis. Why do we not question the validity of sports or at least examine it.
In addition to the emphasis placed on them by the world, I find three other reasons why we as Christians accept them so unreservedly.
First: In this world cluttered with all of its pleasure spots which entice both mind and body, there seem to be such few activities that we as Christians can participate in or go to. Movies, dances, much music, and many books: all blatantly revel in the lusts of the flesh and tastely present them to the mind. But by sports one can actively fill his time without exposing himself to these depravities.
Secondly: In all our Physical Education classes, the necessity for physical activity is emphasized by the text: “What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost . . .?” and by the theory that a sound body makes for and aids a sound mind. The body is not mine to willfully misuse or neglect, but to be kept fit and healthy so it can be used as an instrument in God’s Kingdom.
Last but not least: ‘Our parents and others in authority set few boundaries, if any, on sports. Any anyone who does have misgivings is considered “off the deep end.” Just because this seems a simple reason, does not mean it is. Remember, they are the ones who set the boundaries, according to God’s Word, on movies and dances, and hopefully led us to be of a similar mind.
But do not make these reasons say more than they do. It does not of necessity follow that sports have an unquestionable character. The first is a “basis” only so far as the other activities fail as CHRISTIAN activities. Nor is the second an actual grounds for them. Although Paul penned the proof text, he certainly did not participate in sports. He had no time. And as for the third, our parents and those in authority could be in the same rut as we are. That is, they have never taken the time to examine and analyzed sports as they should.
To give any worthwhile evaluation of them, one must not look merely at the physical benefits obtained. It is not the fitness of the body that makes it the temple of the Holy Spirit. To participate correctly in sports, there must be a correct attitude, so that the physical benefits aid mental alertness for use in God’s Kingdom. This was aptly shown by Professor Hanko, when he spoke at the dedication of Hope School’s new gym on I Timothy 4:8, “Bodily exercise profiteth little” (for a man’s salvation). Only when viewed and used as a means, not an end or goal (trophies, wins, championships), can they avail for man any benefit. But it is so simple to fall short of this. Could a spectator view our Christian school activities or our recreation leagues, and say we succeed where the others fall short? I myself cannot conceive that the two exchange students would be able to say this.
More seriously, if regarded incorrectly, sports can come under the heading of two of the three vices St. Augustine lists in his little book Of True Religion. Namely the seeking of pleasure, and the desire to excel. The value of sports is entirely contingent on the Why? A person takes part in them; either for mere amusement or for recreation. Amusement is a seeking of pleasure used as an escape from the reality of a more important task before us. If so used, sports are hindrances. When the time comes that the work can be put off no longer, we will wish we were back playing sports instead of facing this “chore”, and be daydreaming instead of concentrating on homework, the sermon, or Young People’s discussion. They have become then too much part of us. Only when viewed as recreation can they be aids. They are then temporary divergences from a chore that is fogging our brain and draining our energy. They strengthen us so that we can enter into our task again with vigor and renewed interest.
There is also the second vice, the desire to excel. Excelling not only because of a certain talent, because we desire to defeat and humble the opponent, and in order to bask in praise. Pride. So we see if we have the wrong attitude even sports can be labeled as lusts of the flesh, just as movies, dances, music, and books can present these lusts.
I think that it is these shortcomings joined to our over emphasis that “justifies” our entering into athletic competition and recreation leagues with other secular teams and schools. Yes, you say, but we can never do anything perfectly, and the same attitudes are prevalent in our intramural programs and our own Young People’s activities. I agree. But, remember, a criterion for entering into competetive sports with the world is being able to give a distinctively Christian witness. In intermural sports we reap the same physical benefits and can strive for the correct Christian attitude without the world watching us fail time and again. As it is now, we give them occasion to say against us and therefore against God. “They are Christians, pilgrims, Strangers?! If that is all the difference Christianity amounts to, it cannot mean much.” This is exactly what they always say when we tell them we have a separate school because we are called to be a separate people. “So, you are better than us heh? Well, I don’t see anything better or different. You act and behave the same as we do, and are worse because you are hypocritical. Different? “You just think so.” Sure, they would say this anyway, but let us not give them seeming proofs that we are similar. Competitive sports with the world may be lawful, but, as such, are they expedient? If not, as the evidence indicates, we had better cease from our fraternizing with the world in leagues and games. Is there an unbeliever who is a Good Sport for the right reason? No, it is always, we will show those Christians that we can out “sportsmanship” them. We will prove they are not so holy, holy as they think.
By not entering into competitive sports with them, we prove our belief that we are different, that none but a child of God can perform good works. They are not netural even when on the basketball court. We preach this, let us practice it also. It is in this way that we will give a witness.
Of course, to such a witness, they will take offense. The truth is always a rock of offense to them. Their very act of not taking offense when we play them, should raise doubts about the effectiveness of our witness, for a good testimony never leaves a worldly man unprovoked. At least the fault them lies with them only, and not with us also.
In conclusion let me say that it is high time we give serious consideration to the place of sports in our lives, and deal with its overemphasis. Are we going to continue to be one with the world in this seemingly harmless and neutral past time? They are in need of a Christian perspective and inspection.

Originally Published in:
Vol. 31 No. 2 April 1971