Toward a Theology of Sport and Competition

Can an individual follow Christ and their dream of being an elite athlete?

[This post is the first in a series exploring the above question. We often assume those two pursuits are complementary … but are they? If you’ve been an athlete, are an athlete, desire to be an athlete, or know someonewho fits into one of those categories, I pray this series will help us in thinking through some of the theological implications of the “competitive spirit.”]

Culture & Competition

North American culture often assumes the positive influence of athletic training and competition on its participants. We might say, “It prepares us for life!”

During World War I, Walter Camp, a man partly responsible for the development of modern football, claimed the “grand do-or-die spirit that holds the attack on the one yard line was what made Chateau-Thierry” (Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 113). 

In other words, it was character developed in sport that secured military victory. Competitive sport has been credited with holding society together and being the essential catalyst that ushers “wet-behind-the-ears boys” into manhood (Lasch, 113–14). Statements like these may be hyperbole, but the sentiment remains. 

Our culture is fascinated with competition and sport, and, as it is with the majority of strong cultural elements, this relationship has touched the pews and pulpits of evangelical churches. 

The assumption that competition encourages personal growth often fuels the assumed complementarity of competition and Christian growth. In other words, not only does competition provide opportunities for an individual to become a more prepared adult, but also for a believer to become a more Christlike disciple.

Is this understanding about sport and competition biblically defensible?

A Personal Story

I spent about eighteen years of my life saturated in the culture of athletics. Starting out as a distance runner but quickly finding my way to freestyle wrestling, I set lofty goals and sacrificed much to obtain them.

During these same years, I also felt God calling me into vocational ministry.

At first, these two paths seemed to run alongside one another seamlessly. I was growing as an athlete and as a Christian. 

However, as my level of competition and success increased as an athlete, sport demanded more of me. I began to realize that, while my development as an athlete and as a Christian seemed largely compatible, tensions were starting to develop that I couldn’t reconcile. To wholeheartedly pursue one meant releasing the other.

Can You Relate?

Maybe you’ve experienced a similar uneasiness. Perhaps you’re raising an aspiring athlete who might yet stand at a similar crossroad, or maybe you already see it developing now. Here are some questions we should honestly think through as Christians who desire to do all things to God’s glory (1 Cor. 10:31):

  • Do sport, specifically, and competition, generally, encourage spiritual maturity? If so, how?

  • Does the Bible speak explicitly about these issues?

  • Is a “competitive nature” an attribute of the imago dei (the image of God) or a manifestation of sin?

  • Are the demands of sport and the demands of Jesus compatible?

Let’s explore the tension of following Jesus (Luke 9:23) and other passions in life. I pray these posts will be helpful and thought-provoking—perhaps even deepen a pre-existing conviction.