The Rio Olympics are on, and I heard a joke yesterday: what’s the number-one sport in Brazil? Volleyball; because football is a religion!
Can we really say sport is god and stadiums its temples? The Olympics has ceremonies and rituals, such as reciting an athlete’s creed and the priestesses of Olympia lighting the torch. We call sporting grounds like Lords or the MCG ‘hallowed turf’. There’s language of redemption after a loss. Some people see transcendence in a top performance such as a perfect ten in gymnastics. Many find their identity as a player or spectator, in a search for purpose and pleasure. Yes, for many sport is god and their team or favourite code is their religion.
But let’s go no further without considering God’s word, starting with the most famous sporting verse in the Bible. 1 Timothy 4:8 says “bodily training is of some value”. There it is, the justification sports fans everywhere have wanted! But surely there’s more to it than quoting half a verse out of context.
Even before we get to verse 8, the first five verses of 1 Timothy 4 tell us everything God created is good. But the actual topic they introduce is false teaching. Basically, people were trying to create an air of extreme ethical excellence by going further than what God’s Word said.
For example, Paul said singleness was a good way to serve the Lord. But these legalists took it further and insisted no one should marry. Wrong! Marriage is good—a central part of God’s creation for humans. Jesus and Paul both praised marriage. So it’s a free choice; it’s not somehow more spiritual to stay single, and it’s devilish to forbid marriage.
Maybe you can see the parallel between marriage and sport. As part of his good creation, God has given us bodies that can play sport as well as get married. But, like sex, sport can be an idol.
I’ve heard it said our most-watched television shows identify our non-religious idols. If you look up the figures, they are the Super Bowl in the US, State of Origin Rugby League in Australia, European Championship football in the UK, and whatever World Cup or Olympics are on in a year. They’re what many live for, what gives them meaning and pleasure.
Sport can cause people to wander from the faith. Some are more loyal to their team than their church. They’d never miss a game, except for the worst injury, but many of us feel free to skip a few Sundays at church, if we don't quite feel like it or if something else is on.
Of course, it’s not just sports that rival church for loyalty. Concerts, family birthday parties, and retail jobs often occur on a Sunday. This is partly why some churches developed Sunday evening family and youth services. But even so, the other commitment leaves some of us too tired to come and others too tired to make the most of coming.
In 1 Timothy 6:11, Paul tells Timothy to flee idolatry like the love of money. If your idol is sport, you need to give it up.
But some Christians go too far: “We shouldn’t get caught up with such frivolity.” Many Puritans wanted to ban sport. The idea is that some kind of physical self-denial makes you more spiritual. Sounds godly. But it’s wrong. The Bible rejects it. We are not saved by our spiritual works but by grace. We are justified in God’s eyes only by trusting Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, not by being more religious than other people.
There is nothing wrong with abstaining from sport, any more than being single. But that does not give you the right to forbid what the Bible does not forbid.
So the first plank in our theology of sport is to receive it with thanksgiving. That’s how Paul generalises about creation in 1 Timothy 4:4-5. One big emphasis here is the goodness of God’s creation—every bit of it. Things like sex and marriage can be received with thanksgiving. Things like our ability to swim or run can also be received with thanksgiving.
God created us with human ingenuity to dream up a game and to make rules and to cooperate in competitions. I’m told John Calvin played bocce, and Bonhoeffer had a hit of tennis! To play a game is to enjoy something creative for its own intrinsic good.
The other emphasis here is on God as the giver. Thanksgiving means we recognise God’s purposes in giving. He is providing for human needs. When used in lawful ways, these gifts are meant for our joy.
Paul was probably a sports fan. He often used sporting illustrations. Fight the good fight of faith. Run the race. Wrestle in prayer. But what of his comment in verse eight that “bodily training is of some value”? The way he phrases it could be dismissive, possibly taking a swipe at sports-crazed Ephesus, where much effort was spent training men for sporting contests at pagan festivals. But given his love of sporting analogies, and the fact he just said the physical creation is to be received with thanksgiving, I think he is saying that physical training has real value. It’s limited rather than little value.
Sport can teach teamwork, perseverance, and respect for the rules. It can provide community, a way of connecting with others. It’s good for health. Professional sport provides entertainment for millions. And it's great when a Christian sport-star models prayer, not for victory but for protection from injury and contentment regardless of the result.
But sport is not eternal. Train for the life to come. The implication in verse 8 is that physical training only holds promise for the present life, not the one to come. But we train in the gospel. We are spiritual fitness fanatics. As verse 10 puts it, we toil and strive, literally ‘fight’—like an athletic contest—because we’ve put our hope in God who is the Saviour.
And that note of eternal hope puts all your sporting efforts into perspective. Don’t hope in sport. The best fitness regime in the world will not stop you dying in the end.
The world seems to have gone crazy. The news lurches from terror to crime to disaster. We need a Saviour! No amount of sporting entertainment can hide that. Paul writes earlier in 1 Timothy 2:3-6 of “God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” Jesus redeems it all.
And quite likely, the “training in godliness” in 1 Timothy 4:7-8 refers to "training in religion”—Christianity! The word translated ‘godliness’ often just refers to religion, especially its doctrines and practice. The same word is used in 1 Timothy 3:16, where the mystery of godliness is a poetic list of key truths about Jesus: his appearance in the flesh, his vindication by the Spirit, and his angel-endorsed, glorious preaching among the nations as the great object of faith.
The parallels to “training in godliness” or “religion” here in chapter 4 are “the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed” (verse 6). So “training in godliness” probably doesn’t mean learning how to say your prayers or doing good works like visiting the sick. They are good things to do. But we are saved by Jesus, not by good deeds. Rather, training in godliness means steeping yourself in the doctrine of Jesus. That’s real hope. That’s how you get the promise of the life to come. Sticking with Jesus. Do you know the gospel of Jesus as well as you know the stats of the Australian cricket team? Do you know the teachings of the Bible better than you know the football rulebook?
Protestants in the West often have a great work ethic but lack a play ethic. But understanding the gospel of Jesus can help us relax, as free forgiveness in Jesus gives us salvation now and hope for the future. Through the gospel, athletes can stop looking to sport to justify themselves and play sports as they were designed to be—a gift to be enjoyed for its own intrinsic good and for the enjoyment of others. And through the gospel, a Christian’s identity is based not on their performance but on God’s grace.
You are never a basketballer who happens to be a Christian. You are a Christian who plays basketball.
(I am indebted for ideas in this article to ‘More than a Game: A Theology of Sport’ by Jeremy R Treat, Themelios, vol. 40, no. 3, 2015.)