Volume 9, Issue 1: Childer
Children and Athletics
The subject is a dangerous one. When a ball gets involved in anything, emotions easily run high. Some Christian parents get fired up on behalf of their Little Leaguers, while others get spiritually stressed out at the very thought of competition.
We should first consider the lawfulness of athletic competition itself. Once that is addressed, we can go on to evaluate how our children are to participate in sports, if they do.
The first question concerns the lawfulness of athletic competition--is it right or wrong in itself? We must never forget that the Bible alone determines the boundaries of sin. Not once in Scripture is there a hint that athletic competition should be considered as immoral or sinful. The Bible determines the definition of sin, and not the traditions of men. We have no more ground for saying that athletics are sinful than we have for saying that blue curtains are sinful. The defender of athletics does not have to prove from Scripture that sports are lawful; he must simply show that Scripture does not prohibit it. If God had wanted His children to stay away from balls in motion, He would have said so.
With this understood, we can then let the common athletic metaphors and similies of Scripture come to the argument in order to pile on. "Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified" (1 Cor. 9:24-27). We are not told to attract nonbelievers to the faith the way a hooker attracts customers, or to exhibit the persistence of a serial murderer. Paul here obviously appeals to an ordinary and lawful part of human life in order to teach us about the Christian life.
However, too many Christians assume that once the lawfulness of something has been established, then we are free to pursue that thing in just the same way that the world does. However, the world has enough money to place all kinds of hooks in the lawful bait. And they do.
Three obvious examples of this should come immediately to mind. The first would be the entire problem of athletic competition and the Lord's Day. Granted there is no problem with a game of catch in the backyard on Sunday. It is said that Calvin loved to go bowling on Sunday afternoons, and more power to him. Still the world of professional sports, elevated as it has been to mythic proportions, now has a religious cultus which is in direct conflict with the worship of God. Not every child becomes a professional athlete, but multitudes of them want to. As parents instruct their children, this is a very important point of instruction.
Second, another obvious problem is that we have somehow assumed that the interests of speed, or some other function of athletic performance, somehow set aside the requirements of propriety and modesty. In the ancient world, athletes competed naked, and in the modern world, in some events, they might as well be. One question that should come to mind is, "Where is that girl's mother?" We can tell that "athletics" has become a false religion because it has begun to dictate norms of behavior which contradict what the Bible says. Christians are to be modest, and if that slows them down, tough.
Third, as Paul's use of sports imagery indicates, athletics are rich with didactic images. We should not be surprised that the world rushes to teach false doctrine through athletics. In many athletic programs, especially the "parks and rec" kind, egalitarianism is rampant. "Winning and losing are not important. What matters is that every child comes out of the game feeling good about himself." What should distress us all is that this kind of paganism is taken by many Christians as the "spiritual" and "non-threatening" approach. It is quite true that a competitor should not care about winning more than he cares about glorifying God. But although it may sound crass, the point of playing a game is to win it.
Another doctrine inculcated by means of athletics is that of feminism. Parents who allow their girls to participate in athletics must insist that their daughters never forget their femininity for a moment. They also must not allow their daughters to participate in events which are inherently masculine, or to participate in a program which does not adequately distinguish between boys and girls. Boys should learn to compete and strive like men. Girls should learn to compete like ladies. To take an obvious example, girls should not play tackle football. The differing rules between men's and women's lacrosse are honoring to God. If we understand how God made us, we should look for developing distinctions between male and female versions of the same point, not a blurring of those distinctions.
Another false doctrine is that of self-worship. The recent Olympics paraded scores of interviewed athletes who had learned their catechism well. "I discovered that I could only get here by reaching down and believing in myself." To which the Christian should be able to respond, "Pish. And tosh."
Nothing is neutral. Parents are to instruct their children to live as believing Christians when they rise up, when they lie down, when they walk along the way. And when they run the bases.