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*This is part 1 of a three-part series. Part 2 expands upon the bodily consequences of a misaligned allegiance to sports, which subvert the holistic well-being of participants, thus warping the imago Dei in both the enactors of recipients of physical injustice. Part 3 offers theological insights into how orthodoxy and orthopraxy related to the body might shape a more robust Christian approach to sports.

Karl Barth reminds us, when giving voice to Paul’s ethics in chapter 12 of Romans, in his Romans commentary, that if we desire to get beyond false thinking, we must relate our thinking about everyday living and concrete matters to God. “And if we are to think about life, we must penetrate hidden corners, and steadily refuse to treat anything—however trivial or disgusting it may seem to be—as irrelevant.”1 Harry Blamires, disciple of C.S. Lewis, said something similar in The Christian Mind when he asserted that “There is nothing in our experience, however trivial, worldly, or even evil, which cannot be thought about Christianly.”2 This series, as a mini-theology of sports, seeks to help us re-think and renew our perspectives about sports by attempting to hear, translate, speak, and enact the thoughts about God specific to human bodies in the context of sports.

Do Not Conform To: Bodies are Expendable Means to the Ends of Sports

Mark Oppenheimer, in the 2013 Super Bowl issue of Sports Illustrated,3 writes about the complexities and difficulties of reconciling certain elements of big-time football with Christian teachings. From an interview, he reports how a former NFL coach, who later became a major sports ministry leader, defended, and promoted hazardous tactics such as cut blocking while coaching. Cut blocking by design exploits a defender’s vulnerable position by targeting the lower extremities of a defender, while the defender lacks the awareness of the incoming hit, making it an unforeseen collision and jeopardizing player safety. It can physically maim opponents’ bodies, breaking their ankles and legs, and tearing knee ligaments and resulting in career or season-ending injuries. When asked if he had any regrets, the sports ministry leader indicated that he did not. Why? The Christian leader reasoned that “God loves us just the way we are but at the same time He does require excellence. And in the NFL, performance is ultimate.”4

If we are to think Christianly about what we read in this Sports Illustrated piece, we should be troubled by that response. This leader’s explanation in the first clause emphasizes the self who God unconditionally loves and accepts. That is, he begins his answer with God, who certainly gives freely since our starting place as humans is not that of self-sufficiency but as sinners who are in desperate need of forgiveness which no amount of human work can earn or merit God’s grace and mercy.

This notion is synonymous with the doctrine of “justification by grace through faith.” So far so good, right? Yet, in the same sentence, he goes on to contrast the unreserved and complete gift of acceptance with the notion that God expects something in return. We might initially think he is alluding to a gospel of works righteousness. I do not think that is a charitable interpretation. Rather, I think he is getting at the idea that there is some kind of reciprocity, not as the basis of our relationship with God, but as an obedient response to God’s grace. Human response follows (and derives from) divine initiative. We might say it is the logic of our covenant relationship with God, for promise and obligation are two sides of the same coin of the Christian life. Or, in theological terms, sanctification arises from justification.

However, if I am being nitpicky as a theologian, I would have preferred for the adversative conjunction “but” to be replaced with the cumulative conjunction “and.” Why? God’s in the details. Principally, the grammar of his answer carries a major theological consequence. If grammatically we connect God’s love with the obligation of excellence rather than contrasting the two, we maintain the paradox of the moral life as a dialectic of gift and task regardless of the sphere of life in which we find ourselves operating. Therefore, we avoid setting up two different ways God relates to us: as individual Christians on the one hand and in the world of sports, on the other hand.

Certainly, there is a distinction between the two; but God’s call of grace originates from the same God who stands over all areas of life as our Lord. Who we are before God in church and in sports and life should be in equilibrium with God’s loving call as Creator and Redeemer. Instead of living with this tension, this Christian leader conflates the norms and values of the NFL with God’s moral vision of excellence. Excellence in sports performance has become equated with excellence in the kingdom. How we ought to live in football is the normalizing concept, which then easily gets rubber stamped as the conduct that God approves. Herein lies the conformity ailment and temptation specific to bodies in football or sports in general.

This questionable theological move means that who we are and our quests in sports function as the moral standard. Sports can catechize us to agree with its stated and unstated expectations, patterns of behavior for making meaning, and value system. When in sports (Rome) do as sportspersons (Romans) do. Players and coaches can get enrolled in a system of thinking and acting that takes on a life of its own and out of the interest of stability group members comply.

This same former NFL coach, in response to his own players, who hesitated at doing cut blocks because they knew that their opponents have careers too, said, “Well, they’re trying to take your career away from you.”5 This Christian leader has been taken captive by the “hidden curriculum” of football which educated his affections and actions in ways that maintained morally objectionable social arrangements and rituals. Subsequently, this construal of humans translates into the ends as justifying the means of harming bodies. Moreover, that means, by inference, God not only accommodates “this age or the world” of sports (12:2), but God also bilaterally opts for the kind of excellence that the NFL approves of in its drive for ultimate performances.

This script comes right off the pages of Richard Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture in which he catalogues five definitive ways that Christians have historically engaged with culture. One of his ideal types is the “Christ of Culture.”6 For this type, Christ and culture do not exist in conflict for there is a “fundamental agreement” or close affinity between the two. In this example, what is learned and valued as excellence are cut blocks which, when accepted as good, join to achieve the way and will of God’s standard of excellence. The use of cut blocks witnesses to and glorifies God because cut blocks are acts of excellence and God requires excellence. The NFL’s aspirations of heroic performances as evidenced in such tackling techniques are baptized and sanctified as an example of what God’s “good, pleasing, and perfect will” looks like in football (Rom. 12:2). No doubt that the ideals of sports and God’s will can coincide, but we should not assume that the two are equal and capitulate without further reflection. With renewed minds, we should test and inquire about possible compromises in given situations when seeking the norms of God’s kingdom and be willing to resist harmonizing the (objectionable) tactics of the powers that be with God’s excellence.

The integration of faith and sports is not a matter of accommodation. Our allegiance and belonging are to God and not to the world of sports. If we let our guard down, we surrender our bodies to the malforming influence of the “spirit of this age” and therefore, we do not surrender sacrificially to the service of God. When bodies become instruments of sports, the subculture of football determines the praiseworthy perspectives and practices, with Christians willingly (or unwillingly) submitting to this powerful enculturating force. And sadly, sometimes Christians extol in their post-game interviews, where moments before, vice had run roughshod over virtue, that they did this all to the glory of God. The glory of God language noxiously becomes a cover for deeds opposed to God’s excellence.

{Published previously in Christian Ethics Today 33.3 (Summer 2023): 21-26.}

Footnotes

  1. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th edition, trans. by Edwyn C. Hoskyns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 425.
  2. Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Michigan: Vine Books, 1963), 45-46.
  3. Mark Oppenheimer, “Does God Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?: In the Fields of the Lord,” Sports Illustrated, Feb. 4, 2013, 38-43.
  4. Oppenheimer, “Does God Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?: In the Fields of the Lord,” 38.
  5. Oppenheimer, “Does God Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?: In the Fields of the Lord,” 38.
  6. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Cultur (New York: Harper & Row, 1951).

John B. White

Baylor University
John B. White, Practical Theology, Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary

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