ATHLETICS - WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?
(Taken from "Shelter in the World" - Jan/Feb 2000)
by Norman Edwards
Christian parents frequently have questions about school or
community athletic programs:
1. Should Christians be involved in athletics at all?
2. Are there certain sports that are "acceptable" and others that
3. Are there certain coaches and teams that are "acceptable" and
some that are not?
4. How does a parent deal with conflicts between athletics,
schoolwork, and family activities?
5. How does a parent deal with conflicts between athletics, the
Sabbath and other religious activities?
The very fact that parents have these questions is a good
sign. The existence of these questions shows that the parents are
neither using athletics as a "babysitter" nor regarding them as
the most important thing in their lives. If parents are glad to
see their child spend as much time as possible in athletics
because they cannot get along with their child at home, they
urgently need to examine their relationship and change it. On the
other hand, if Christian values, schoolwork, family activities
and religious activities always take a back-seat to athletic
priorities, sports may have indeed become a false god in your
Should Christians Be Involved In
Sports at All?
The Bible contains no clear statement telling believers to
either avoid or participate in athletics. History teaches us that
athletics played a very minor role in ancient Hebrew society
compared to the fairly prominent role it had in Greek and Roman
societies. The "top" Greek athletes competed in the nude, and
were nearly worshipped by their countrymen. The situation was far
from righteous. Some sports today are almost as bad, but most are
Books are available that make a great effort to link modern
sports to Egyptian, Babylonian or especially Greek and Roman
religions. There is no doubt that some connection exists. The
modem-day Olympics certainly descended from the ancient Greek
Olympics. Other modern sports may have borrowed certain elements
from ancient sports that may have had religious significance in
that day. Some anti-sports people will go as far as to say that
since balls (spherical objects) and hoops were used as ancient
pagan sex symbols, that God-fearing people should not use them at
all today. But the truth is, the Creator of the Universe made
spheres and hoops (the planets and their rings) long before there
were any pagans. Just because a certain naturally-occurring thing
was used by non-Christians does not mean that it is forever
unusable by Christians.
The Eternal commands His people not to worship other gods
(Deut. 3) or to try to worship Him with the practices used in
false religions (Deut.12:30-31). However, there is no command in
the Scripture to avoid the use of words, ideas or inventions of
pagans in everyday life. For example, the ancient Israelites were
told not to worship the false god, Baal, but they conquered many
cities that have the word "Baal" in them. God never commanded
them to rename the cities, so the "Baal" names continued to be
used - even by the Bible writers. Both the Bible and archeology
show many similarities in architecture, farming, pottery,
language, etc., between the Israelites and the surrounding
heathen nations. The Israelites were not condemned for these
things, but only for actually engaging in false worship and for
mistreating their own countrymen.
Nearly everyone involved in sports today does not see them
as part of a religion. Virtually, no one prays to sports figures
or believes that they have immortality or supernatural power. Few
people will claim that "God is on the side" of a particular team.
Indeed, the players of any one sport almost certainly hold a wide
variety of religious beliefs: Christian, Muslim atheist,
Do sports sometimes absorb the time, enthusiasm and zeal
that God wished people would dedicate to Him? Yes! That is
probably the most important issue to deal with. Throwing a ball
or running faster than the next person is not an "evil act of
false worship", but sports can take the time and energy we should
devote to the true God. In that sense, it can become a "false
god". We will address that issue in a couple of sections. But
first, let us simply see what the Bible says about athletics in
Bible Verses About Athletics
About the only verse that directly talks about believers
being involved in athletics is this one:
1.Tim. 4:8, "For physical training is of some value, but
godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the
present life and the life to come."
While this verse is very short, its message is extremely
profound: There is "some value" in athletics, but "godliness" is
much more valuable. If there is any one lesson someone can learn
from this article, it is in this verse. This principle applies to
many other things we could strive to obtain: additional
education, better personal hygiene, better clothes, more frequent
house cleaning, new tools, an addition to our home, etc. All of
these things have some value, but are not as valuable as
"godliness." When we plan to do these things, we should plan to
do them in a way that will help us and others live more
The Bible contains many references to races and other types
of sports - mostly as comparisons to the struggles we face as
individuals. Notice these three references in the Old Testament.
The first one actually compares the heavens that the Creator made
to a champion racer:
Psalm 19:1-5 "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies
proclaim the work of his hands.
Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends
of the world. In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,
which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a
champion rejoicing to run his course."
Eccl.9:11 "I have seen something else under the sun: The race is
not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food
come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the
learned; but time and chance happen to them all."
Jer.12:5 "If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn
you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe
country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?"
If there are other verses mentioning athletics, this writer
cannot find them. When compared to the size of the Old Testament,
sports is mentioned only minimally.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul frequently uses
athletics - especially racing - as a comparison to the Christian
life. Ten passages follow. It may be a lot of reading, but if you
read through them all, you will have read nearly all that the
Bible says in regard to athletics.
Acts 20:24 " However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if
only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus
has given me - the task of testifying to the gospel of God's
1 Cor.9:23-27 "I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I
may share in its blessings.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one
gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.
They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get
a crown that will last forever.
Therefore I do not nut like a man running aimlessly; I do not
fight like a man beating the air.
No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have
preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the
Gal.2:2 "I went in response to a revelation and set before them
the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this
privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was
running or had run my race in vain."
Gal.5:7 "You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept
you from obeying the truth?
Philip.2:16 "As you hold out the word of life - in order that I
may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for
Phil.3:14 "I press on toward the goal to win the prize [the Greek
'brabeian' means a prize from an athletic competition] for which
God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."
2 Tim.2:5 "Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does
not receive the victor's crown unless he competes according to
2 Tim.4:6-8 "For I an already being poured out like a drink
offering, and the time has come for my departure.
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have
kept the faith.
Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which
the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day --
and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his
Heb.12:1-2 "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great
cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and
the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with
perseverance the race marked out for us.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our
faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning
its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."
From the above verses, we cannot conclude that Paul is
promoting sports. On the other hand, it is hard to believe that
he thinks all athletics are evil - he seems to expect his readers
to know about them. I, the writer of this article, can honestly
say that Paul's writings have much more meaning since I actually
participated in high school football and cross-country running.
Knowing the many hours of practice and training required to
be ready to compete, and knowing the utter determination and
exhaustion required to see an event through, is simply not the
same as just watching a sport or reading about it.
It is certainly not mandatory that one be an athlete to
understand Paul - Paul makes many other analogies and explains
himself in many other ways. But learning lessons from sports can,
if properly applied, be helpful in understanding what is required
of a believer.
Where Do Athletics Fit In Our Lives?
We do not think we can over-emphasize what Paul said too
much, so we will print that verse again:
1 Tim.4:8 "For physical training is of some value, but godliness
has value for all things, holding promise for both the present
life and the life to come."
Any manner of athletics should never replace the two great
Matt 22:37-39 Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all
your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind'
This is the first and greatest commandment.
And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"
Also, athletic talent is not one of the "spiritual gifts"
mentioned in the Bible (Rom 12:6-8; l Cor.12:711; 28-31; Eph.
4:11-15; 1 Pet.4:8-11). It is a physical gift. "Giving liberally"
is a spiritual gift (Rom.12:8). If someone earns a lot of money
from athletics and gives liberally to support something God is
doing, then it could be a spiritual gift. But a young person
hoping to "make a lot of money" in a sport some day needs to be
realistic about the possibility of actually doing that.
A person who is "one of the better players" on a high school
team still has a relatively low chance of playing on a college or
semi-professional team - and a very low chance of playing
professionally. A person in a larger high school that is "one of
the most skilled that ever came through that school" has some
chance of earning a lot of money some day, and if they are so
motivated, using it to help others serve God in some way.
No matter how much money one makes or gives to a worthy cause,
everyone must realize that God is not "bought off." Individuals
cannot neglect living a Christian life, helping and serving
others as God directs. If this is true for all jobs, how much
more true is it for school athletics with only a slight
possibility of a job in the future?
Nevertheless, athletics can be a great personal learning
experience and preparation for the future.
The positive aspects of sports are the self-control, skill,
strength, drive, teamwork, organization, humility, compassion and
other attributes needed to be successful at many of life's tasks.
The physical conditioning is also of value. A body "in shape"
lives longer with less illness and is able to accomplish other
tasks much better than one "out of shape."
The negative aspects of sports include aggression,
over-competition, injury and time taken away from other good
things. Injuries can come about in a great variety of ways and
can be short term or last a lifetime.
Are Certain Sports Unacceptable?
Sports vary greatly in just about every way, and it is not
really reasonable to "lump them all together." Some sports, such
as track, golf, bowling, diving, etc. are not directly
competitive - the athletes compete against time and physical
challenges, then simply compare scores. Each participant focuses
on doing the best job he or she can - not on making the other
players do worse. Sometimes, those who compete in these sports
are the best of friends and deal with each other in an
encouraging manner even while they are competing: they want to do
their personal best, but also want to compete against the very
best that others can do.
At the opposite extreme are combat sports, such as boxing
and some types of martial arts, where each contender hopes to win
by injuring or disabling the other. Some people (usually men)
just seem to have a desire to play rough games and risk personal
injury for a chance to win a game by injuring somebody else.
Worse yet, there is a much larger group of people who seem to
enjoy watching this kind of thing. Unfortunately, this idea is
not at ail new:
2 Sam 2:12
Abner son of Ner [a military general], together with the men of
IshBosheth [trying to make himself King] son of Saul, left
Mahanaim and went to Gibeon.
13 Joab son of Zeruiah and David's men went out and met them at
the pool of Gibeon. One group sat down on one side of the pool
and one group on the other side.
14 Then Abner said to Joab, "Let's have some of the young men get
up and fight hand to hand in front of us." "All right, let them
do it," Joab said.
15 So they stood up and were counted off - twelve men for
Benjamin and Ish-Bosheth son of Saul, and twelve
16 Then each man grabbed his opponent by the head and thrust his
dagger into his opponent's side, and they fell down together. So
that place in Gibeon was called Helkath Hazzurim.
These verses are part of a larger story describing a war
when Ish-Bosheth, the son of the deceased King Saul, rebelled
against David. Abner and Joab were generals on opposite sides,
but knew each other well. Rather than talking about a peaceful
way to end the conflict, they agreed to this organized "sporting
fight" and killed 24 young men.
The Romans became famous for their arenas, gladiators and
"fight to death" sports - sometimes man against man, other times
man against animals. (Paul was actually forced to fight "wild
beasts" - 1 Cor.15:32). "Fight to the death" sports still exist
today, but are usually illegal, so they are not well publicized.
Obviously, these sports that are designed to kill and injure
violate the sixth commandment: "You shall not murder" (Ex.
Most sports fall somewhere between the lone diver trying to
make the perfect dive, and the boxers in the ring trying to knock
each other out. Tennis, volley ball, and other sports involve
direct competition between players, but not direct contact.
Basketball and soccer involve quite a bit of physical contact,
but only as is necessary to control and shoot the ball. Penalties
are assessed for unnecessary or dangerous physical contact.
Sports like ice hockey and football border on the dangerous side.
They have rules designed to make the games safer and to avoid
injury, but their very nature makes injury likely. It is
frequently a "game objective" for one player to run into another
player at high speed, knocking him over. A player that "hits the
other guy twice as hard as necessary" is probably considered a
"good player" and will not be penalized. While the injury and
disablement of other players is not a publicly stated objective
in these sports, game insiders know in that injury sometimes is a
method whereby teams hope to win.
Most Christians realize that they should not be involved in
boxing. and martial arts sports where the contenders are supposed
to win by injuring the other person. Participation in the
"in-between" sports mentioned in the previous paragraph probably
depends upon the playing environment. A certain good football
league may be safer than a bad basketball league. The good versus
the bad of a sport has to be weighed just like any of life's
other decisions. Working as a clerk in a store is probably better
than sitting at home doing nothing in most cases. However, if a
store is frequently robbed and its clerks have been killed and
injured in the process, then staying at home might be better than
taking the job. Everyone probably knows at least one true story
about someone who was severely injured in a sport. If they think
about it, everyone probably also knows a story of someone whose
life changed for the good when he or she began participating in a
sport (he or she lost weight, stopped bad habits, organized their
life, made friends, etc.).
Are Certain Coaches or Teams
While the rules for various sports are almost always
documented in great detail, the methods used by different coaches
and the atmosphere found among varying teams can be as different
as night and day. These are things that a Christian should
evaluate before participating in a sport. There are several
Play To Your Potential vs. Win At All Costs.
This concept relates to the previous section. There are
coaches and players who want to win so badly they will gladly
break the roles or do anything that they "can get away with" in
order to win - including injuring opposing players. A basketball
team can sometimes win by out-shooting and out-defending the
other team, and can sometimes win by disabling the best players
on the other team by intentionally sticking elbows in their faces
when they jump for rebounds. On the other hand, there are coaches
of potentially-violent football and hockey teams who teach, "we
want to play well and we want to win - but only if we can do that
without injuring anyone on either side." That is the attitude
that athletes should have.
Toasting and Boasting.
Some teams, players and coaches spend far too much time and
effort proclaiming their own greatness, which is in conflict with
the humble, serving approach taught in Scripture. This is
especially true for younger, more impressionable athletes. It is
natural to cheer when games are won and be sad when games are
lost. But when spectators, coaches and players tell the victors
that "they are the greatest" to the point that they begin to
believe it, athletics has lost its way. Sports is something to
help prepare people to do worthwhile things - not the ultimate
Philip. 2:3 "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,
but in humility consider others better than yourselves."
Morality and Language.
Some sports teams, have a reputation for clean conduct and
language. Some teams pride themselves on "taking young people out
of the gutter and cleaning them up". They may use biblical
principles in their coaching. On the other hand, some coaches and
players think that foul language and immorality make them "tough
guys" and actually encourage it as long as it does not get them
"in trouble." League rules prevent most amateur athletes from
being paid - so some coaches will clandestinely arrange sex
partners to "reward" their best players. And finally, there are
sports organizations have a "hands-off" policy to morality that
goes something like this: whatever a player does outside the
practice and playing fields is his or her own business.
All of these areas must be evaluated when one is considering
participating on a team. The character and approach of the
coaches and other players can make all of the difference. Asking
"should I join this team?" might be compared to asking "should I
take this construction job?" Construction work can be dangerous,
but does not have to be. So can sports. Either experience can he
beneficial or awful based on the other people involved.
Dealing with Time Conflicts
One of the biggest problems with competitive athletics is
the amount of time consumed. For example, basketball was invented
as a non-boring way to stay in good physical shape while
remaining indoors. Later, some people found this exercise
exciting enough to watch. Today, people go, even pay, to watch
others play at all levels; from junior high to college to
professional. Entire books have been written on small aspects of
the game such as dribbling or free-throw shooting. What started
as recreation and conditioning has become a finely-tuned science,
and art - which essentially consumes as much time as is humanly
available for those involved.
Jokes abound regarding college athletes who major in,
"general studies", "basket weaving" or some other simple subject
because they are spending nearly all of their life practicing or
playing their sport. Even at the junior high level, students may
practice for several hours every day after school, and are
encouraged to practice "on their own" more at other times.
Indeed, strategies of some team sports may exceed the
complexity of anything else a young person learns in school. Yet,
only a tiny percentage of those who spend thousands of hours in
pre-college athletics will ever play in college or earn
significant money from their efforts.
If one finds an acceptable coach and team for a sport that
he or she wants to participate in, balancing time priorities is
likely to be the major issue.
For a person in high school or junior high, joining a team
for the first time can be one of the biggest commitments they
will make - comparable to taking a job for the first time. It
will impact the entire family. This in itself is not bad, but how
the matter is handled is important. A lesson from Jesus is in
Luke 14:28 "For which of you, intending to build a tower, does
not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to
finish it" (NKJV).
Time to be on a sports team will require less idle time, a
more organized approach to school work, and possibly the
discontinuing of other activities. All of these things are good.
On the other hand, meals and other times that families spend
together may become more difficult to bring to pass because "Jane
or Joe is always at practice." This can be especially difficult
if there are several family members in different sports leagues.
Parents in some areas can spend hours per week just driving to
and from practices. On the other hand, it can be difficult if
some family members are on sports teams and others are not - the
ones at home may complain that others are too often gone when
there is work to be done.
There are no easy answers to these questions. But answering
them is excellent training for the rest of life. They need to be
openly discussed, and the person involved in sports needs to
"count the cost" - all of it. If certain family tasks are divided
among the family members, they need to understand they must do
their share when practice is over. If certain family times are
deemed by the parents to be more important than the athletic
practices or events then the participant needs to realize that
they may miss some and tell their coach up front.
One or the greatest lessons that can be learned is to keep
commitments that one makes, and to not make commitments that one
Commitments to God are very similar to family commitments.
The purpose of athletics should always be to make one more
effective for Christ, not to crowd out one's commitment to
What should a person do when games or practices take place
at the same time as a church service or activity? Some people
simply set priorities. For example: church services, Bible
studies, and certain other activities are more important than
sports and always take priority over sports games and practices.
On the other hand, church entertainment activities are less
important than the commitment to sports. Coaches should be
informed of these priorities in advance. It is not fair for them
to find out part way through the season that a player they have
invested a lot of time in never planned to be available for
The situation can be further complicated by families that
follow the Biblical example of resting one day per week:
Ex.20:8-10 "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh
day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any
work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant
or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your
Matt.12:8 "For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."
Many professional trainers recognize the benefits of resting
one day - it gives muscles and tissues a chance to mend and
strengthen. But sporting events don't always take into account
Sabbath-resting, so there is often a need to miss some events.
There are the other questions of: Should I travel to an
event on the Sabbath? Should I get dressed for it on the Sabbath?
Can I go over the game plan in my mind?
The Bible does not give specific answers to each of these
questions. But it does teach:
1 Cor.10:31 "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do
it all for the glory of God."
Rom 14:23 "... for whatever is not from faith is sin."
There is a tremendous desire, when one is a part of a team,
to put the team first. But God wants us to put Him first. Our way
of life should be evident to others. Attending a Bible study on a
rather dry subject may seem less important (and certainly less
exciting) than helping the team win a "big game". Nevertheless,
in a few years, everyone will probably have forgotten about that
"big game" - but knowledge of God endures forever.
The Role of the Parent
Parents often wonder: "How much should I 'make' my child to
do and how much should I let them decide?" Some parents would say
that they should never let their child do anything that would be
against their rules or against God's way. But all a parent can
control is outward actions. A parent cannot stop their child from
thinking about their sport - even when the child is in a church
service, God wants our hearts and minds.
The job of a parent is to take a baby, for which they must
do everything, and within about 18 years, train that child to
learn to make decisions for his or herself. Some parents try to
make every decision for their child until they leave home or
rebel. Others let children do what they want before they have
enough knowledge to make a decision. Parents need to set their
children a good example, teach them from the Bible, then let
their children make decisions that will not be disastrous, but
ones that they can learn from.
Look at the way God deals with the people who call
themselves Christians. It is obvious that He lets them make a
great many mistakes and suffer for it.
In all these things, children need to be taught to pray
about important decisions and ask God what they should do:
I John 122 "And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we
keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in
I John 5:14 "This is the confidence we have in approaching God:
that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.
It is much better that parents let children participate in
athletics with the promise that they will keep up family and
church commitments, than it is for them to tell the children, "No
you could not possibly do that". Young people need safe doses of
reality, not to be told that they cannot even try.
The Paradox of Athletics
At its worst athletics can 1) encourage fighting and
violence in people, 2) take their time away from worshipping God
and doing more important things and 3) actually replace God in
At its best, it can be a wonderful training tool and energy
outlet for energetic young people - pre-paring them to make life
decisions and to work with all their might. It can instill a
sense of diligence and accomplishment that otherwise might not
occur until much later in life.
The paradox enters in when we consider the public expression
of God in our secular society. As far as our mass media is
concerned, God seems to exist only at religious events and in the
minds of "church professionals." If God is to have an influence
in one's life, it apparently must happen at church or other
religious gathering, through a Christian radio station or
bookstore, or in some other "Christian" fashion. Public
Prayers are virtually.. always uttered by a religious
professional. It seems nearly unthinkable that the president of a
secular company or college could open an important meeting by
praying himself with his own words.
Our Supreme Court has eliminated prayer of all kinds from
public school. Politicians no longer personally pray before their
speeches, most musicians and entertainers no longer pray before
their performances. Yet some popular sports figures regularly
pray before and after games. This is not an official part of the
program, but it is something that some Christian athletes have
decided they will do. The TV cameras focus in on them, and they
go on without fear. Their job is strenuous and they know that
they need God's protection.
Will our nation or world begin to follow God as a result of
the public prayers of athletes? Probably not. But it has helped
many impressionable young people realize that even the strongest
and most capable people still need God. Furthermore, these
praying athletes are setting an example that most of our other
public figures need to follow. Do all of our government leaders,
business leaders, entertainers, and other role models need to
fearlessly and publicly seek God's will in what they do? Yes.
Col.3:17 "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it
all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the
Father through him."
23 "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working
for the Lord, not for men,
24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the
Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving."
The Bible has little praise for the person who does nothing
with their life in order to avoid doing anything bad. When Christ
was on the earth, He healed and spoke to the rich, the poor, and
even prostitutes and known sinners. Jesus was not afraid to be
among these people because He was firmly committed to God and not
about to become like them. He hoped that His teaching and example
would rub off on the others.
In some ways, this is the standard for knowing whether one's
participation in athletics is beneficial or not. One cannot
continually think of oneself and introduce oneself as "Jane the
tennis player" or "Joe the runner." We are people made in the
image of God, and we choose sports as one of our many life
activities because we can accomplish things that are pleasing to
God. Each person needs to ask:
Am I an athlete who also believes in God? Or am I a servant of
God, who is also an athlete?
Entered on this Website September 2007