Skip to main content

*This is part 3 of a three-part series. Part 1 utilized a salient real-world example to demonstrate the theological dangers brought about by the tendency for athletic performance to supersede Christian, moral excellence within the context of sports. 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 and 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.

Be Transformed: Bodies are Given and Claimed by God as Sacrifices of Worship

A cursory look at Christian doctrine and practices illustrates the essential place of the body in Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy: 1) Bodies are gifted to us and created by God (Creation); 2) We are exhorted to recreate and rest our bodies (Sabbath); 3) We are to break bread with other bodies (Hospitality); 4) We immerse or sprinkle bodies (Baptism); 5) We share life with other bodies (Fellowship); 6) God became a human body (Incarnation); 7) We gather as the body of Christ (Church); 8) We are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices (Worship); 9) We are called to serve and advocate for other bodies (Mercy and Justice ministries); 10) Jesus healed bodies (Miracles); 11) Spouses are joined as bodies (Marriage); 12) We commemorate Jesus’s passion and death by partaking of the consecrated elements of Jesus’ body and blood (Lord’s Supper); and 13) We will be resurrected with glorified bodies in the new heaven and earth (Eschatology).

In Romans 12:1-2 Paul connects his appeal to God’s grace and mercy to his exhortation of how we ought to live in our bodies as sacrifices to God. Paul’s body ethic is deeply incarnational and echoes what he already said in Romans 6 about presenting bodies as alive “to God as instruments of righteousness” (v.13). Paul did not say to present your souls or spirits but your bodies, which refers to our entire historical selves, all of the outside and inside or material and immaterial aspects of our personhood.

Sometimes Christians have erroneously placed a premium on the soul, heart, or spirit—an inward take on what they prioritize, value, and give dignity to. This accounting of the image of God means that specific attributes or capabilities such as reasoning are definitively privileged. At first glance, this eliminates people who lack or who are losing specific reasoning abilities or have severe cognitive impairments. Pinpointing human characteristics or properties to determine human dignity has been used historically to justify some of the most egregious actions from infants to elders and to marginalize and oppress women and minorities because they are viewed as inferior or less than those in power. The ideal of white men has regularly been the privileged placeholder for status and worth in the West, overtaking the sanctity of every particular human as a theological fact declared by God with certain subjective human declarations and personal beliefs. 

The image of God pertains to who we are in relation and connection to God, since as creatures we all distinctively belong to God. As Martin Luther King, Jr. boldly asserted, the image of God gives humans uniqueness, worth and dignity and “there are not gradations in the image of God.”1

Although God does not have a body, God vocationally calls all humans as image bearers to care for and steward the earth, representing God as “little lords” (Gen. 1:28; Gen. 2:15) with Jesus realized as the true image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). This call is often referred to as the cultural mandate. This mandate given at creation in Eden is the first commandment in the Bible, which, according to different theologians, has never been rescinded and it is permanent, stretching from the past to the present and on into our future with God in the new heaven and earth. That means this calling is universal and extends to all people.2

In summary, I say all of this about who we are as humans because our bodily identity and service relate to our ordinary affairs and callings whether at work or sport and we must elevate bodily dignity versus deprecate it.

What does it mean to disparage God-given bodily dignity? What often happens, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is that Christians in sport allow their community loyalties to sport or the powers and authorities of the institution of football to supplant their ultimate loyalty to God and Christian convictions about bodies as spelled out in the Bible. What ways of thinking about bodies have trapped us in pseudo-thinking and helped to justify abuses to bodies in sports and life?

First, implicit at a popular level for some Christians is an inferior or negative view of the body rooted in the belief that the physical is less important than the spiritual. There is often uncertainty about bodies because the physical is viewed with suspicion. This view professes that the spiritual is what is of primary importance and good, based on the false belief that our future state means that the physical world will burn up and expire and we will eternally commune with God as spiritual selves or disembodied souls. Bodies are seen as part of the earth conceived as a temporary weigh station, making salvation deliverance from all things physical. Looking back at Niebuhr’s Christ of Culture type, this idea of religion deals only with the soul and does not lay a commanding claim on a person’s entire life. Jesus is a spiritual redeemer for personal piety but “not Lord of life.” That means participation in ordinary life and matters of the body are morally indifferent.

If the body is bereft of theological meaning, this thinking invalidates that the body is meant for the Lord and the dwelling place of God, as the temple of the Holt Spirit, which Paul further explains in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. In Paul’s context, his theological points are addressing the moral matter of sexual immorality, namely, prostitution.

The Spirit of God should connect us more deeply to the moral and physical health of our bodies, preventing us from divorcing our bodies from God’s earthly residence. However, although our bodies are to be rightly esteemed, they should not be made gods, for their value is linked to God’s Spirit who inhabits them. How radical would it be if Christians in sport reckoned how bodily acts of harm and violence in sports are just as reckless as sexual immorality because they show disrespect toward the Holy Spirit who now resides in our bodies? Our bodies are not Spiritless packages of muscle, cartilage, tendons, and bones; rather God has taken up shop in what God created as good. If we abuse our bodies, we call into question our Creator and Redeemer’s value of our bodies.

Finally, Paul adds another doctrine for us to consider when thinking about matters of the body. In 1 Corinthians 6:14, he states that just as God raised Jesus, he will raise our bodies (v. 14). Christ’s resurrection should renew our thinking about how we do sports because the resurrection vindicates that bodies matter.

Singing hymns like “This World is not My Home” and “I’ll Fly Away” in our Sunday morning church services can practically indoctrinate false views of bodies and the future of heaven and earth. This same outlook about material stuff lends itself to depreciate ethical matters related to and stances toward the environment or nature. If the physical will not ultimately matter, then why care either for the planet or bodies? I wonder how many Christians who are anti-environment also hold to anti-body sentiments in the arena of sports and thus, they are unconscious of how an undervaluing of the body undergirds the two separate moral issues. 

Second, practical matters in sports like cut blocking, concussions, CTE, and eating disorders demonstrate how our interests and justifications are shaped by mentors and models. The use of body-denying, harmful practices to achieve a team’s goals rubs against the Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy of bodies. Injuries and risks to bodies are accepted as part of doing business in the rough and tumble world of sports. The culture of risk makes pain and injury a necessary part of the game and not a moral or spiritual issue.

For some Christians in sports, spiritual matters are limited to Bible studies, evangelism, and chapels— not something that pertains to the schemes, strategies, and objective acts chosen during a game or practice. With my opening football example, the good intention of striving for excellence is singled out as the sole determinant of what makes actions acceptable or unacceptable in the eyes of God. I believe the coach genuinely believes that his motives are good and that justifies defeating a defenseless opponent. The good of his team outweighs the potential bad outcome to one player.

However, a good intention does not excuse Christians for a morally wrong act. As the old proverb says, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Christians need to examine the raw material of their bodily actions in sports to see whether bodily dignity is affirmed or not. If we start the process of our moral reasoning with how our acts should be ordered to God as a first principle, it can and should challenge the coach-turned-Christian leader whom I cited at the beginning of this article. It should disturb the Christian leader’s thought processes and arrest his mistaken belief that his pursuit of excellence was justified in instructing and doing harm to an opposing player. When witnessing observable acts like cut blocking, body shaming, or anorexia, harm is being done to bodily integrity and dignity which makes the acts morally wrong.

Presenting our bodies to God means that they find their proper meaning, blessing, and purpose in conformity to God. We are summoned to glorify God with our bodies in all of life as a worship offering. When this truth is disregarded, players and coaches often think that what they do to their bodies is their own prerogative and they are free to behave as they want with their bodies. For Christian living, freedom is not simply the capacity to freely exercise our choice. Freedom, more importantly, is about directing our choices toward God, and in the case of our bodies, it is a freedom for excellence that corresponds to the truth and goodness of God-given bodily dignity.

Practically, this means that, if you are injured, the team trainers, physicians, coaches, and administrators do not own that body. Even parents do not own that body! One must be honest about the injury while respecting others’ expert opinion and advice. Playing with pain, however, is never justifiable if it puts one solely in custody of what is done with the body. At best we are granted secondary charge over our bodies for they are on loan from God with the Lord possessing ultimate authority over bodily dignity and integrity.

When bodies are mastered by others as expendable tools for athletic goals, they are adapted to the scheme and structures of this world (Rom. 12:2), denying bodily integrity and excellence which are not in keeping with God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will. When we conform to such patterns in sports—which we all have been guilty of at some time in sports and life—we can return to Romans 12:1-2 with the hope of Paul’s encouragement to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Mind renewal is part of the ethical surrendering of our bodies to God in worship. Karl Barth sees the change of mind as a kind of repentance. Primary to true worship is repentance, which consists of renewing our minds which “is the act of rethinking.” He says that the act of repentance brings us back to the thought of God which is “the prelude to a new action,” that is, behavior that is well-pleasing to God.3 May our actions in sports be disturbed by the thought of God so that our way of inhabiting sports is a consequence of God’s grace and mercy, resulting in bodies that sacrificially and truly praise God.

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

Footnotes

  1. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The American Dream,” Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA, July 4, 1965.
  2. See John G. Stackhouse, Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).
  3. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th edition, trans. by Edwyn C. Hoskyns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 437.

John B. White

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

3 Comments

  • Ty Cobb says:

    It’s interesting to see this just as the Kansas City Chiefs star kicker Harrison Butker, a devout Catholic, is excoriated by the Woke for his criticisms of the Rainbow Reich at a Benedictine College commencement speech.

    https://pagesix.com/2024/05/15/entertainment/harrison-butker-slammed-for-sexist-anti-lgbtq-commencement-speech/

  • Joseph Wallace says:

    Dr. White, thank you for your courageous and thorough treatment of this topic in your three part series. It will be more and more difficult to train our children and youth to keep sports in their proper perspective when youth traveling teams have taken over entire weekends for the families involved (and often the kids playing are children).

    Similar to a university having its graduation services on a Sunday morning, the mixed messages we’ve sent our young people for a while now continue to erode the importance of separating our secular traditions with deep rooted fatih practices.

  • Matthew Vos says:

    Dr. White: I echo Joseph Wallace’s comments. Thanks very much for your work in developing this important topic. I’ve taught sociology of sport at the college level for more than 10 years, and I’ve found that the chapter on violence is the most difficult to teach, and for students to talk about. In my class I show part of a YouTube video of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting. Both fighters have deformed cauliflower ears, and in the clip I show, they call the fight after one fighter opens up the forehead of the other so deeply that the blood impedes his vision. I have difficulty getting any student to take a position that there is something theologically problematic with this. (Of course, it may be that some students are reticent to take a minority stance on an issue like this.) One of the questions I probe is whether a Christian is permitted to suspend care for the other in particular activities like sport. Another is “what is the spiritual meaning of various practices within sport?” What is the spiritual meaning of dominating the other? Of pushing to be first? What is “spiritual” excellence in sport, and so on? Big sport is right at the center of where we live as a culture. I find that a number of things unpalatable to historic Christianity become accepted, and even sought after by Christian people when enfolded into big sport. In an age when we have no end of hand-wringing over gender, I find it somewhat curious that we rarely talk about the ways in which sports define the ideal type man or a woman, and so frequently manhood is tied to the ability to dominate others and to bend them to your will. You’ve given us much to think about, and I appreciate your efforts.

Leave a Reply