Volume 40 - Issue 3

More than a Game: A Theology of Sport

By Jeremy R. Treat


Sports have captured the minds and hearts of people across the globe but have largely evaded the attention of Christian theologians. What is the meaning of sports? There seem to be two polar responses: some dismiss sports as merely a game, while others worship sports as nearly a god. This essay argues that when viewed through the lens of Scripture, sports are more than a game, less than a god, and when transformed by the gospel can be received as a gift to be enjoyed forever.

Whether in the pub or in the pew, there is one question you can always count on hearing: “Did you see that game?” Sports are prominent in culture and relevant to life, which is why the average sports show often spends as much time talking about ethics, racism, crime, and sexuality, as it does athletics. In many ways, sports are a microcosm of life.

And yet, while sports have captured the minds and hearts of people across the globe, they have evaded the attention of theologians.1 Finding a scholar who has thought deeply and critically about sports from a distinctly Christian perspective is as likely in the church as a triple play on the diamond. This is a surprising phenomenon considering not only the prevalence of sports globally but also that historically many sports began and developed in overtly religious settings.2 Thankfully, there is a budding field of scholarship on religion and sports emerging today, and Christian theologians are finally getting into the game.3

What is the meaning of sport? There seem to be two polar responses: some dismiss sports as merely a game, while others worship sports as nearly a god. The first response minimizes sports as a childlike activity, good for passing time but largely insignificant for the deep matters of life. The second response deifies sports, expressing religious devotion and offering sacrifices of money and time at the altar of winning.

When viewed through the lens of Scripture, however, we will see that sport is more than a game, less than a god, and when transformed by the gospel can be received as a gift. Since the discussion of theology and sport is rather new (at least for Christian theologians), this essay aims to provide a broad overview of a theology of sport, grounded in the unfolding narrative of redemption as revealed in Scripture. But first, let us acknowledge that we are not the first to talk about faith and sports, and therefore locate ourselves within the broader conversation by surveying the history of the church’s attitude toward sports.

1. Faith and Sports in the History of the Church

The church has always struggled to rightly understand the role of games in God’s greater purposes. The Apostle Paul seemed to appreciate sports, or he was at least familiar with them, using athletic metaphors such as running the race (1 Cor 9:24), fighting the good fight (1 Tim 6:12), and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16).4

In the first few centuries of the church, however, Christians were largely against the sports of the day, albeit for understandable reasons.5 The early Olympic games were dedicated to pagan gods like Zeus and Nike and athletes usually competed in the nude. Moreover, the most popular sporting event—the gladiator games—involved throwing Christians into the ring with wild bears and lions.

Broadly speaking, throughout history the church has had an overall negative or dismissive view of sports—the devil’s workshop at worst and a secular means to an evangelistic end at best.6 John Calvin played a bit of bocce ball, Dietrich Bonhoeffer a little tennis, but in the early years of America the serious-minded Puritans put sports almost completely outside of God’s will.7

Up until the late eighteenth century, sports were for the most part recreational. The industrial revolution, however, laid the railroad tracks for the professionalization of sports, with the train pulling into the station in the latter half of the twentieth century. With the professionalization and popularization of sports today, Christians have jumped on board, to say the least, seeing sports as a potential classroom for morality and a platform for evangelism.8

How, then, ought followers of Jesus think of sports today? Athletes or fans regularly invoke the name of God as an expletive of frustration in sports, but rarely think about whether God has anything to do with the game at all. Does God care about sports? Does his word offer insights for athletics? The way one answers these questions is largely dependent upon their understanding of the broader narrative within which we live. The narrative of the American Dream that culminates in individual happiness offers a starkly different framework for sports than the story of God’s kingdom as told by the Jewish messiah. To that narrative, we now turn.

2. More than a Game

As a child growing up in the church, my pastor had a small rotation of canned jokes, his favorite of which went something like this: “The Bible does talk about sports, you know? It’s actually in the very first verse of the Bible: ‘In the big inning God created the heavens and the earth.’ ” The notable feature of this (bad) joke is that the punch line is dependent on the assumption that God’s Word does not, in fact, address the world of sports, and especially not in the opening—and therefore very important—chapters of the Bible. No—the line of thought goes—certainly sports are “just a game” and part of the “secular world” which lies outside of God’s eternal purposes. Scripture, however, presents a different story.

2.1. Created to Play

The biblical story begins in the garden, where God placed Adam and Eve. But contrary to popular opinion, God did not give Adam and Eve a vacation, he gave them a task: God’s image bearers were to work and keep the garden and to fill the earth and develop it on God’s behalf (Gen 1:28; 2:15). This is often called the cultural mandate, because the command to work and keep the garden is essentially a command to create culture. As John Stott says, “Nature is what God gives; culture is what we do with it.”9 What, then, were Adam and Eve supposed to do with it?

First, God’s stewards are called to develop his creation. God did not create the earth as a finished product but rather as an unfinished project. It was made with potential that needed to be developed. Adam’s task as a gardener was a prototype for all culture-making: take the raw materials of the earth and cultivate them for the good of society. Furthermore, the son and daughter of the Creator-King were not only called to cultivate the garden, but also to extend the order of the garden and the blessings of God’s reign to the ends of the earth. Eden was a lush and beautiful garden, but the rest of the earth was untamed and wild. Adam and Eve were called to Edenize the world.

Second, Adam and Eve were not only commanded to develop God’s creation, they were also called to delight in it. God says, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Gen 2:16–17). Unfortunately, many have focused so much on the prohibition of the one fruit that they have overlooked the invitation to feast upon all the other fruits. The God who abounds in love and kindness created a world of delights and placed his beloved image bearers in it with an invitation to enjoyment. Creation is not merely a resource to be used for productivity, it is a gift to be received and enjoyed.

This is where the idea of “play” comes in, which is implicit in humanity’s calling to develop and delight in God’s creation. To play is to creatively enjoy something for its own intrinsic good. Building upon Johan Huizinga’s classic definition of play, Erik Thoennes says, “Play is a fun, imaginative, non-compulsory, non-utilitarian activity filled with creative spontaneity and humor, which gives perspective, diversion, and rest from necessary work of daily life.”10 At the core of the definition of play is that it is autotelic; it is for its own purposes. Play need not be justified by its effects, be it psychological (peace of mind), physical (better health), social (learning teamwork), etc.; it is simply creatively delighting in and enjoying God’s good creation for its own sake.11

In short, we are created to play. Like a father who builds a sandbox for his children, God is honored and takes joy when his sons and daughters delight in his workmanship. The world is—as it has been said—the theater of God’s glory12; but it is also the playground of God’s goodness.

2.2. Play, Sport, and Competition

Of course, playing in the garden of Eden is a long way from the playoffs in Madison Square Garden. God did not give Adam and Eve a court and a ball, but he did give them a natural instinct to play that would inevitably develop into something more.13 So while technically one does not find sport in Genesis 1–2, we can speak of play with the potential and even intention toward sport. We must remember that a biblical doctrine of creation is not merely about what happened in Genesis 1–2, but about the way the world was meant to be.14 In other words, creation is not just about what God did “in the beginning,” but also about what God intended from the beginning.

There is a trajectory to Genesis 1–2 and when we take that playful instinct, add competition and rules, then we have sport. However, we must be careful and precise with definitions of play, games, sport, and competition; and how one relates to the others.15 Play, as noted above, is the unstructured, autotelic activity that creatively enjoys the gift of creation. Play turns into a game when rules are added and teams are formed (in some cases). Sport, then, is when the rules of a game are universalized and there is the added element of agon, moving it from a mere game to a contest.16 Robert Ellis defines the jump from play to sport in the following way: “Sport gathers up elements of the definition of play and adds to it that it is a bureaucratized embodied contest involving mental and physical exertion and with a significant element of refinable skill.”17 C. Clifford and R. M. Feezell offer a similar and yet more concise explanation: sport is “a form of play, a competitive, rule-governed activity that human beings freely choose to engage in.”18

Competition has often been one of the most difficult aspects of a Christian understanding of sport. Can one love their neighbor while trying to block their shot, tackle them behind the line of scrimmage, or check them into the boards? The etymology of the word “competition” is helpful, for the Latin com-petito literally means “to strive together,” rendering sport a “mutually acceptable quest for excellence.”19 As iron sharpens iron, competition enhances play. Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew rightly argue that it is cooperation, not rivalry, that is at the heart of competition: “In sports, teams or individuals agree cooperatively to oppose one another within the stated goals, rules, and obstacles of the game.”20

In sum, God’s image bearers are called to develop God’s creation for the good of others and to delight in God’s creation because of its intrinsic good. Within this context of playfully developing and delighting in God’s creation we can say that sports are part of God’s intention and design for creation.

2.3. The Intrinsic Good of Sports

Building upon the above argument that sports are a part of God’s intended design for his created order, I will now argue more specifically that sports were intended as a good part of God’s design. Claiming that sports were created good might not sound like a revolutionary statement, but it goes against the grain of the way most Christians think about sports. There are two common views that oppose the goodness of sports in God’s design for creation, both based on dualistic thinking. First, an ascetic body/soul dualism portrays sport as bad. Second, a sacred/secular dualism portrays sport as merely neutral, neither good nor bad.

The ascetic view is based on a body/soul dualism that understands anything spiritual as good and anything physical as bad (or at least inferior). The word ascetic comes from the Greek ἄσκησις, which is often translated exercise or training. The ascetic mindset, generally speaking, seeks to abstain from worldly pleasures and to discipline the body for the pursuit of spiritual and heavenly fulfillment.

The ascetic view rightfully emphasizes the call of Jesus as one of self-denial, but often wrongly confuses the denial of the sinful nature with the denial of God’s good creational gifts. As we saw above, God made the world good and is to be received for the enjoyment of his people (see Titus 1:15; Col 2:20–23). Denial of the “flesh” (σάρξ) is not a denial of our physicality, but a denial of our sinful nature. This dualism, rooted in Greek thought and inherited in part by the monastic movement of the early church, has endured into evangelicalism and often been the foundation for a view of sports as “worldly” or a distraction from religion.

The second enemy of the goodness of sports in God’s design for creation is the type of dualism that divides God’s creation into two categories: sacred and secular. According to this view, God cares about prayer, Bible studies, and church, but the activities of work, sports, and art are neutral and only matter to God if they are used for higher spiritual purposes such as evangelism. While common in Christian thought today, this way of thinking resembles a type of otherworldly Greek dualism more than God’s will being done on earth as it is in Heaven.21

Scripture clearly says that after God finished his work of creation, he proclaimed that it was all very good (Gen 1:31). This declaration of goodness does not merely pertain to the physical matter of creation (dirt and trees) but also to the cultural fabric of creation (developing and delighting). God cares about baptism and business, redemption and romance, sabbath and sport. Playing sports was not meant to be a neutral activity, but was designed as a good part of the broader vision of humanity cultivating and cherishing God’s creation. Although sin and the fall certainly have done their damage to sports, one thing is clear: sports were made good and were part of God’s plan for human flourishing.

This leads to a significant point regarding whether and why God values sports. The common view is that sports are neutral in and of themselves but they have the potential to be good if they are used for higher spiritual purposes such as moral training or evangelism. This is the world where the end-all be-all of faith and sports is thanking God after the game (usually only when they win). According to this view, sports only have instrumental value; they are good if they are used as an instrument for evangelism. But as we learned from the doctrine of creation, God’s image bearers are called to develop God’s creation for the good of others, but are also called to simply delight in God’s creation itself. Sports can be used for many good things, but they are also made good in and of themselves. In other words, sports do not only have instrumental worth, they have intrinsic worth.

It makes sense that sports would be instrumentalized in cultures—like American culture—that assign value to something based largely on its productivity or utility. For this reason, Protestants in the West often have a great work ethic but lack a play ethic. When a culture identifies value with utility then it assumes that if something is not productive then it cannot be meaningful; it does not even have categories to talk about such an activity. But that is precisely the category that play fits into. As Huizinga argues, play is “meaningful but not necessary.”22 Play and sport matter to God and have value for society regardless of whether they meet a need or produce a cultural good.

This raises the important question of whether sports only have intrinsic good or whether there is also instrumental good. Lincoln Harvey works hard to protect the intrinsic value of sport, but I would agree with Johnston, who argues for “non-instrumentality which is nevertheless productive.”23 Sports can be a platform for evangelism or a classroom for morality, but they are first and foremost a playground for receiving and enjoying the goodness of the Creator.

3. Less than a God

Sports are more than a game; they are a part of God’s good design for the flourishing of his image bearers as they develop and delight in God’s creation. But, of course, things are not the way they are supposed to be. In a world ravished by sin, sports are not outside of its devastating effects. Sin not only fractures our relationship with God, it shatters the goodness of God’s created order, including God’s design for play and sports. But how does sin affect sports? The answer is twofold because all sin amounts to either taking a good thing and twisting it into a bad thing (sin as immorality) or taking a good thing and making it an ultimate thing (sin as idolatry).24 Both aspects are crucial to understand how the fall affects sports.

3.1. The Immorality of Sports

First, the effects of the fall on sports can be seen through the destructive behavior of athletes. Sports are good, but when used for sinful purposes can become very bad. Ethical problems in sports have grown as quickly as Mark McGwire’s arms before the 1998 season and seem to be more prominent each year. In a world marred by sin, sports become a playground for violence (bench-clearing brawls), cheating (corked bats, deflated footballs, etc.), injury (especially life-threatening and brain-damaging injuries), and performance-enhancing drugs (haunting whole sports such as baseball, cycling, and track).

The effects of sin, however, are not limited to the individual immorality of athletes, but also extend to the systemic brokenness of sports teams, cultures, and industries. Modern professional sports are a powerful engine in the machine of American consumerism, greed, and narcissism. In many ways, modern professional sports simply represent the cultural brokenness of the society at large, but they also further shape the society as well. Sin shapes sport culture in a variety of systemic ways, such as the win-at-all-costs mentality that leaves in its wake broken families, compromised integrity, and wounded friendships.

3.2. The Idolatry of Sports

Talking about immoral behavior, however, is only scratching the surface. There is a deeper problem yet. Sin is not merely doing bad things, it is making a good thing an ultimate thing. The Bible calls this idolatry. People are made to love God, be satisfied in him, and find their identity in him. An idol is anything that seeks to take God’s place in fulfilling those very needs, whether it be a physical object or an idol of the heart. As John Calvin says, “Scarcely a single person has ever been found who did not fashion for himself an idol or specter in place of God. Surely, just as waters boil up from a vast, full spring, so does an immense crowd of gods flow forth from the human mind.”25

So how does idolatry relate to sports? As we saw from Genesis 1–2, sports are a good thing. But in a fallen world, rather than enjoying sports as a gift from God, sports are often used to replace God or even, ironically, compete with God. In other words, many look to sports for what is meant to be found in God: identity, meaning, and even salvation.

3.3. The Religious Nature of Sports

My claim is not that sports are an organized religion, akin to the major world religions. Rather, many today look to sport for that which people traditionally found in religion. Sports are religious in nature; they are a vestige of transcendence in what Charles Taylor has called “the malaise of immanence.”26 Peter Berger argues that in the face of such a secularized, disenchanted society, play can function as a “signal of transcendence.”27 When a player is “in the zone”—what sociologists call “flow”—they are having a spiritual experience that begins with their physical body but connects them to something beyond the physical realm. And this is true not only for the athlete, but for the fan as well. As Allen Guttman says, “many sports spectators experience something akin to worship.”28

Ellis finds historical evidence for sports competing for religious fervor by observing that the year 1851 marks the decisive moment in both the decline of organized religion and the emergence of modern sport;29 a trend which has also been noticed recently within the United States.30 Surely there are more factors at play in these studies, but Shirl Hoffman is right to conclude that “sports . . . compete for our religious sensibilities.”31

If not fully convinced yet that sin can turn sports into an idol—a God substitute—then one ought to consider the overtly religious overtones that pervade professional sports today.32 It is not figurative to say that fans today have a type of religious devotion to their favorite teams and players. It is easy to look back to the Old Testament and scorn Israel for worshipping a golden calf, but are people really that different today? Modern people would never worship a golden image with such religious fervor. Or would we?

Imagine a modern religion where people worship a golden image (in this case, the NBA Finals trophy). They gather regularly at the temple (The Staples Center), where they take up an offering (ticket purchases) and worship with emotive expression (cheering fans). Of course, as with any religious service, they make sacrifices (their time, their money, and often their families). The high priest (the coach) oversees the activities, and those involved have a series of rituals they perform to prepare (team huddles and chest-bumping), all beneath the icons of the saints of old (retired jerseys in the rafters). There are strict programs of discipleship, learning about the gods so they can become like them (which is why they wear their jerseys and buy their shoes).

Maybe, just maybe, it is not that far-fetched that sport can function as a religious idol, a God-substitute to which people turn for identity, meaning, and salvation.33 The hard truth, however, is that sport is not a good god because it, like all idols, always lets its worshippers down. When a good thing becomes an ultimate thing it eventually turns into a destructive thing. Sports are more than a game, but they are certainly less than a god.

4. Transformed by the Gospel

There is hope for sports; God has not given up on his creation. Sports are more than a game and less than a god, but when transformed through the gospel can be received as a gift—a gift to be enjoyed for its intrinsic worth and stewarded for the glory of God and the good of others.34

To have a gospel-transformed perspective on sports, however, one must have the right understanding of the gospel itself. The good news is not merely that Jesus is saving souls but that he is renewing his entire creation as its king. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus is restoring his design for the world and his purposes for his people. Goheen and Bartholomew rightly demonstrate the relation between one’s understanding of the gospel and their view of sports:

If one embraces a narrow, world-negating view of the gospel, one will have little place for sports and athletic competition. But since the gospel is a gospel about the kingdom of God, sports and competition cannot so easily be jettisoned from a Christian view of things, for these too are gifts of God in creation, to be richly enjoyed with thanksgiving.35

How, then, does the gospel relate to sports? The gospel will not necessarily increase one’s batting average or their vertical leap, but it will give the sportsperson a new purpose, a new identity, and a new ethic.

4.1. A New Purpose

Why do people play sports? On the one hand, men and women play sports because they are created to play and want to use their gifts to glorify God. On the other hand, people often play sports as a way to justify themselves; to prove themselves to the world. Many can identify with the scene in Chariots of Fire where the Olympic runner Harold Abrahams, while preparing for the 100m dash, says that he has “ten lonely seconds to justify my whole existence.” Just as sports were created good but can become twisted by sin, many people begin playing sports with a love for the game but then turn to using sports for a deeper love of fame, money, or accomplishments. Sports begin as a gift but can easily evolve into a god.

Thankfully, Jesus saves not only from forensic guilt but also from false gods. When sinners understand that they are justified by the blood of Christ, this frees them from having to justify themselves through their accomplishments. Sports then become a gift; they no longer bear the pressure of being the way that we prove ourselves to the world. Because of grace, God’s people are motivated not by guilt but by gratitude. Through the gospel, athletes can stop looking to sports to justify themselves and play sports as they were designed to be, as a gift to be enjoyed for their intrinsic good and to be stewarded for the good of others.

4.2. A New Identity

Second, the gospel gives the sportsperson a new identity. Sports go deeper than what we do, they speaks to who we are. The identity-shaping power of sports is evident, for the sport that one plays often shapes the way they dress, the music they listen to, and the friends they spend time with. None of these are bad in and of themselves, unless they have worked their way into the center of a person’s identity. It is fine for one to identify themselves by the sport they play, but a sport cannot bear the burden of defining the core identity of a person.

The core identity of a Christian is that he or she is “in Christ” by the work of the Spirit. This truth flows from the fountain of the gospel: the Christian’s identity is based not on their performance but on God’s grace. One is not a soccer player who happens to be a Christian. He or she is a Christian who plays soccer. The follower of Jesus does not need to build an identity through their accomplishments, for they have been given an identity because of Jesus’s accomplishment. Sports matter, but they must be understood from the right perspective. Because of the gospel, we are not defined by our sin nor by our success, but by our savior.

4.3. A New Ethic

The gospel gives the sportsperson a new purpose, a new identity, and lastly a new ethic. The win-at-all-costs mentality of modern sports (where winning is an idol by which the athlete is willing to sacrifice anything else) comes at a high price to the integrity of sports. Sports ethics plays out on the field and off the field.

On the field, steroids and performance-enhancing drugs have cast a shadow over the last two decades of baseball. In other sports, players have bullied their own teammates and even been paid by coaches to physically injure their opponents. Off the field, the stories are endless: dog fighting, sexual promiscuity, spousal abuse, and even murder. But the temptation to sacrifice integrity is not only true of players at the highest level.

Bob Goldman, a physician from Chicago, asked 198 athletes if they would take a banned drug if they were guaranteed to win and not be caught. 195 out of 198 said, “yes.” Goldman then asked if they would take a performance-enhancing substance if they would not be caught, win every event they entered in the next five years, and then die from the side effects? Over half said, “yes.”36

The Christian approaches sport with a different ethic, and as Oliver O’Donovan demonstrates, “Christian ethics must arise from the gospel of Jesus Christ.”37 Those who are justified in Christ are called to seek justice and righteousness, on and off the field. And as O’Donovan rightly emphasizes, the bodily resurrection of Christ is God’s reaffirmation of his creation and his purposes for his people. Just as God intended play (and sport) to be in harmony with his design for human flourishing, the gospel restores God’s people into those very creation purposes. The church does not need more athletes who cut corners so they can get to the top and thank God, but rather athletes with integrity who are unwillingly to compromise their conduct because they care more about what God thinks of them than what the world does.

5. Sports in the New Creation

In the classic sports movie Field of Dreams, John Kinsella walks onto an idyllic baseball field and asks his son, Ray (played by Kevin Costner), “Is this Heaven?” “It’s Iowa,” responds the son. And John, still with a glimmer in his eye, retorts, “I could’ve sworn it was heaven.” John’s awe at the heavenliness of his sports experience not only made for a classic movie scene, but it raises an important question: will there be sports in the new heaven and new earth?

5.1. Salvation as the Restoration of Creation

The answer to the question of whether there will be sports in the new creation all depends on one’s view of salvation. If Jesus is tossing his fallen creation and saving souls into a disembodied heaven, then the shot clock is winding down on our sport experience. But the story of redemption in Scripture is not one merely of rescuing souls from the fallen creation but rescuing embodied souls and renewing all of creation (Col 1:15–20; Rom 8:18–25). The final vision of salvation is the enthroned Jesus declaring “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5). Salvation is the restoration of creation, and if creation included God’s design for play and sport, then there will certainly be sport in the new creation. As Herman Bavinck says, “The whole of re-creation, as it will be completed in the new heaven and the new earth, is the fruit of the work of Christ.”38 Certainly the re-creation will include recreation.

It is no surprise then that when Scripture wants to prophetically stir up the imagination of God’s people for the consummated kingdom that it appeals to images of play. The prophet Zechariah says, “And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets” (Zech 8:5). Isaiah prophesies that when the earth is finally full of the knowledge of God, “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den” (Isa 11:8). Harvey is right: “Though the heavenly city may have no temple, Christians can be confident that it will have a stadium where we can continue to chime. Sport is here to stay. We can enjoy it forever.”39

What will sports be like in the new creation? This is a question that can only lead to the most fruitful kind of speculation. One can only begin to imagine a volleyball rally between players with glorified, resurrection bodies. Although it is somewhat speculative, 1 Corinthians 15:35–49 does provide some guardrails for such dreaming. Those raised to eternal life will receive a glorified, resurrection body that will have both continuity and discontinuity with their fallen bodies. The analogy of sowing a seed is appropriate. Play and sport as we understand them today will blossom in the new creation to be something beyond what we can imagination and yet will feel exactly the way it was supposed to be.

5.2. Sport Foreshadows the Playful Joy of the Consummated Kingdom

Jürgen Moltmann once asked whether it is appropriate for Christians to be playing games while war is ravishing the nations, children are starving, and the innocent are being oppressed.40 It is a weighty question, but I concur with Moltmann when he answers with a resounding “yes,” because in playing we anticipate the eschaton, a time when there will be no war, a time when sin will not corrupt the goodness of which we are to delight, and a time when we our longing for freedom and childlike joy will be satisfied. Play foreshadows the joy of the kingdom when Christ reigns over all, and decay, disease, and death will be no more. This is not merely a glimpse of the future; it is the in-breaking of the future. As Ben Witherington says, “The foreshadowing of better times is itself a foretaste of better times, and this is in part the theological function of play.41

6. Conclusion

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once sat in a prison cell and wondered whether the church could regain its position of providing a robust understanding of activities such as play, friendship, art, and games. For far too long the church (and specifically its scholars) have passed on such an endeavor. Thankfully today Christian theologians are seeking to regain such a position. Hopefully, the church will be able to fulfill its theological task with the confidence with which Bonhoeffer expressed, for he concludes that for such meaningful activities, it is “only the Christian” who has the resources to provide a robust view.42 I agree that Scripture and the Christian theological tradition provide an overwhelming set of resources for followers of Christ to think deeply and critically about God’s intention for sports and their current role in society today. Sport is more than a game, less than a god, and when transformed by the gospel, can be received as a gift to be enjoyed forever.

[1] According to Nick J. Watson and Andrew Parker, there is a “general agreement that academics outside the traditional social-science sports studies disciplines, such as theologians and philosophers of religion, have been slow to recognize the cultural significance of modern sports” (“Sports and Christianity: Mapping the Field,” in Sports and Christianity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Nick J. Watson and Andrew Parker, Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society 19 [New York: Routledge, 2013], 9).

[2] For example, the Mayans and Minoans played ball near their temples sites, tennis began in a French monastery, and a Presbyterian minister in the Young Men’s Christian Association invented basketball. For an insightful and concise summary of the history of sports, see David G. McComb, Sports in World History (New York: Routledge, 2004).

[3] Michael Novak’s seminal work, first published in 1967, was the first systematic study of the sport-faith interface (Joy of Sports: End Zones, Bases, Baskets, Balls, and the Consecration of the American Spirit, rev. ed. [Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1994]); For an excellent introduction to the field of sports and faith, and an overview of the recent scholarship, see Watson and Parker, “Sports and Christianity.”

[4] Scholars disagree, however, whether Paul supported the sports of his day or whether he was merely using sports terminology as part of a rhetorical tradition. For a brief overview of the debate, see Victor C. Pfitzner, “We Are the Champions! Origins and Developments of the Image of God’s Athlete,” in Sport and Spirituality: An Exercise in Everyday Theology, ed. Gordon R. Preece and Rob Hess (Adelaide, Australia: ATF, 2009), 49–64.

[5] Tertullian, for example, was vehemently against the games, claiming that they “are not consistent with true religion and true obedience to the true God” (Spect. 1 [ANF 3:79]).

[6] According to Robert Ellis, while the ancients viewed sport as a vehicle for communion with the divine, Christians from the early church to the Reformation understood sport as a distraction from religion, and after that, as a mere instrument with potential for religious purposes (The Games People Play [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014], 1–33).

[7] Ibid., 24; cf. Lincoln Harvey, A Brief Theology of Sport (London: SCM, 2014), 49–53.

[8] The key moment in the coming together of faith and sports was when Christians began using sports for moral training, a movement that became known as Muscular Christianity. For an introduction to this movement, see Donald E. Hall, Muscular Christianity: Embodying the Victorian Age, Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[9] John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, ed. Roy McCloughry, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 222–23.

[10] Erik Thoennes, “Created to Play: Thoughts on Play Sport and the Christian Life,” in The Image of God in the Human Body: Essays on Christianity and Sports, ed. Donald Deardorff and John White (Lampeter, Wales: Mellen, 2008); Huizinga’s work on play has been foundational for discussions on sport. He defines play as “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life . . . but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it. It proceeds within its own boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner” (Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture [Boston: Beacon, 1955], 13).

[11] While Huizinga and others have made the anthropological point about play, Jürgen Moltmann rightly grounds it theologically. Humans are homo ludens because they are made in the image of Deus ludens. Moltmann points out that God did not create the world out of necessity or obligation, nor is there any purposive rationale for why something exists rather than nothing. Creation, therefore, must have its ground in the good will and pleasure of God. “Hence the creation is God’s play, a play of groundless and inscrutable wisdom. It is the realm in which God displays his glory” (Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Play, trans. Reinhard Ulrich [New York: Harper & Row, 1972], 17).

[12] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, LCC (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 1.6.2.

[13] McComb calls this natural instinct the “athletic imperative” (Sports in World History, 9).

[14] Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew demonstrate that “‘creation’ had a much broader scope of meaning for Old Testament Israel than it often does for us today. Creation includes the cultural and social endeavors of human beings and thus covers the whole of human life—personal, social, cultural” (Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008], 39).

[15] In the following paragraph I am drawing especially from Ellis, The Games People Play, 2–3, 125–29.

[16] I need to clarify at this point that by “sport” I do not necessarily mean what we think of with modern professionalized sport. It is debated whether that counts as “play” by definition, and in many ways modern sport is more about entertainment and business than about playful delight. The complex issues of sport and economics, culture, and sociology are not easily detangled from the games themselves, and engaging these aspects of the professional world of sports is beyond my scope.

[17] Ellis, The Games People Play, 129.

[18] Quoted in Nick J. Watson, “Special Olympians as a ‘Prophetic Sign’ to the Modern Sporting Babel,” in Sports and Christianity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Nick J. Watson and Andrew Parker, Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society 19 (New York: Routledge, 2013), 169.

[19] Stuart Weir, “Competition as Relationship: Sport as a Mutual Quest for Excellence,” in The Image of God in the Human Body: Essays on Christianity and Sports, ed. Donald Deardorff and John White (Lampeter, Wales: Mellen, 2008), 101–22; See also Watson and Parker, who add, “Etymologically, sport competition can be understood as a ‘mutual striving together for excellence’ (Greek, arête) in which opponents honor their opponents and cooperate to bring out the best in one another” (“Sports and Christianity: Mapping the Field,” 32, cf. 53).

[20] Goheen and Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads, 154. Ellis adds an important point regarding competition: “If competition is an evil that Christians should avoid or discourage such a judgment would place a ban on a great deal more than our sporting activity. It would affect business (and the creation of wealth) and education very clearly, but its impact would have much wider reverberations” (The Games People Play, 198–99).

[21] “The Greek dualistic philosophy of Plato, as used especially in the writing of church father Origen (c. 182–251), have been extremely influential in denigrating the worth/sacredness of the body and thus sport and physical education . . . in the last two millennia.” Watson and Parker, “Sports and Christianity,” 17.

[22] Huizinga, Homo Ludens, 9.

[23] R. K. Johnston, The Christian at Play (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1997), 42. Here I clearly disagree with Harvey’s thesis, “Sport is understood to be the only thing that is not worship” (A Brief Theology of Sport, 96).

[24] I have benefited much in understanding idolatry as the root of sin from Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters (New York: Dutton, 2009). Keller himself has been greatly shaped on the topic of idolatry by Martin Luther and John Calvin.

[25] Calvin, Institutes, 1.5.12.

[26] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 308.

[27] Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970), 64–70; Novak, The Joy of Sports, 20.

[28] Allen Guttman, Sports Spectators (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 177.

[29] Ellis, The Games People Play, 82, see pgs. 104–5, 122.

[30] Recently Chris Beneke and Arthur Remillard have argued that there is a direct correlation between the decline of traditional religion in America and the rise of devotion in sports (“Is Religion Losing Ground to Sports?” The Washington Post, January 31, 2014,

[31] Shirl Hoffman, Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010), 273.

[32] There is a vast amount of literature on sports as religion. See, for example, Joseph L. Price, From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2001).

[33] For a general explanation of the religious nature of “secular” liturgies, whether in the mall or the arena, see James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Cultural Liturgies 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).

[34] It is important here to acknowledge the distinction between common grace and saving grace, both of which apply to sports. I understand common grace as preserving in part the goodness of creation and restraining the effects of sin, whereas saving grace is the restorative grace that flows from the gospel and brings in advance the effects of God’s renewal of creation.

[35] Goheen and Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads, 153.

[36] As told in McComb, Sports in World History, 107.

[37] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 11.

[38] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 380.

[39] Harvey, A Brief Theology of Sport, 114.

[40] Moltmann, Theology of Play, 2.

[41] Ben Witherington III, The Rest of Life: Rest, Play, Eating, Studying, Sex from a Kingdom Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 57.

[42] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 198.

Jeremy R. Treat

Jeremy Treat is pastor for preaching and vision at Reality LA in Los Angeles and adjunct professor of theology at Biola University.

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