This year, 2019, is going to be a big year for New Zealand sport. Our leading rugby, cricket, and netball teams – representing three of our major sports codes – will each be contesting a world cup. Many New Zealanders will be spending a lot of time this year watching and thinking about sport.
In recent years I’ve been thinking a lot about sport, and its relationship to Christian faith and practice. As disciples of Jesus living in a sports-mad country, what should be our attitude or posture towards sport?
Historically, the church’s attitude toward sport has tended to oscillate between two poles: opposition and coalition. From pulpits, councils, and imperial thrones, the church has often denounced sport as an enemy of true religion. The early church fathers, for example, opposed the games because of their long association with pagan religious rituals. “The mother of all games,” wrote Novatian, “is idolatry.” The medieval Catholic Church banned jousting tournaments, largely because of the drinking, gambling, and cavorting that accompanied them. The English Puritans like John Bunyan and Richard Baxter vigorously opposed recreational sport because the concept of leisure was alien to the true Christian.
More recently, Evangelicals have often seen sport as a rival, an enemy of vital religion. In 1896, for instance, the deacons of Linanus Baptist Chapel in Treherbert, Wales threatened excommunication to anyone connected with rugby. Sport was condemned as an idolatrous practice inconsistent with Christian faith or, at the very least, a dangerous diversion—a frivolous distraction—from the serious business of Christian discipleship.
Alongside this pattern of opposition, the Christian church has often also tried to co-opt or use sport as an ally, a tool of religion. The very same church fathers who denounced the sporting arena as an idolatrous temple and “the seat of plagues” were quite prepared to use imagery from the arena where it served to enhance their preaching. The medieval Pope John XXII willingly overturned the ban on tournaments when it became evident that it had reduced the number of knights available for the crusades.
Puritans like Baxter argued that vice only gets a foothold when pleasure becomes its own end. If exercise served a higher purpose, such as increasing one’s capacity for work or prayer, then the fun and pleasure of sport could be tolerated. And from the late nineteenth century Evangelicals embraced a form of Muscular Christianity: sport became a vehicle for developing Christian character or communicating Christian faith.
Historians, therefore, identify a double helix pattern in the church’s posture towards sport. The church has either denounced sport as an evil to be avoided, or it has deployed sport as a tool to be used.
When you trace the history of Christianity in Aotearoa, this double pattern of opposition and instrumental use is strikingly evident. On the one hand, Evangelicals consistently opposed certain sports wherever they were entangled with sinful practices or systems. Horseracing, for example, was condemned because of its association with the “unclean passion of gambling.” Cricket was critiqued whenever it was played on a Sunday or threatened to displace more important Christian commitments.
Even rugby, the national sport, was opposed when it was seen to reinforce apartheid in South Africa. Several students here at Carey were, for example, deeply involved in protests against the 1981 Springbok tour. One of them, Mike Riddell, was arrested three times, for leading protestors onto the Auckland airport runway, for obstructing traffic on the Southern motorway during one of the tour games, and for trying to hang a protest banner on the building where the Springboks were staying. On this last occasion Riddell was charged with being in a building illegally without the intention to commit a crime. When his lawyer discovered that it was illegal to hang banners on buildings without permission, he argued that Riddell did actually have the intention to commit a crime—and got him off.
While they sometimes denounced sport as an enemy to be resisted, Evangelical churches also often viewed sport as an ally to be embraced, an instrument to be used. And the greatest use to which sport could be put was evangelism. Colonial Baptists often talked about the evangelistic value of sport.
For one thing, it demonstrated to a sceptical world that Christianity and manliness were not opposites. Participation in “clean sport” like rugby proved that “a virile and robust piety can be developed in these days when irreligion abounds.” It showed that “a full Christian manhood is neither pinched nor narrow.” This, perhaps, explains why Baptists sometimes took pains to describe the muscular appearance of athletic and sporty pastors. The Rev. W. White was introduced to the 1911 Baptist Assembly in these terms: “He has a fine physique; he broke two men’s collarbones during one season’s athletic sports in West Australia!”
From the early twentieth century a number of churches set up sports clubs to attract young people to their Bible class programmes. After World War II churches often used leading Christian sports personalities to present the gospel at evangelistic youth rallies, “Sportsmen’s Services,” and open-air beach missions. Since the 1980s New Zealand’s evangelical community has developed a range of excellent interdenominational sports ministries, mostly with an evangelistic objective in view.
New Zealand churches, then, have always seen sport as both an enemy to be fought and an ally to be embraced. By the twenty-first century, however, this second posture has clearly come to dominate. Sport is a tool to be used in the cause of mission. The voice of critique has largely fallen away.
I believe, however, that the church needs to recover its prophetic voice. It’s not enough for us to use sport. We must seek to redeem it. Salvation means both the redemption of individuals and the renewal of cultures or systems. And sport, as a system, certainly needs renewing. Shirl Hoffman has described the culture of the modern sporting world as “narcissistic, materialistic, self-interested, violent, sensational, coarse, racist, sexist, brazen, raunchy, hedonistic, body-destroying, and militaristic.”
Rob Ellis argues that one of the primary challenges for sports chaplaincy today is to broaden the concern of chaplains beyond an individualistic focus on pastoral care and evangelism to also address bigger structural issues. He writes, “To ask awkward questions might be a quick way to the exit, but a Christian concern for sport does not stop at instrumentalizing the game for the purposes of evangelism.”
I agree. The culture and structures of modern sport are fallen, and we need to rediscover our prophetic posture. I wonder, though, if we need to recover something else too: a sense that sport is not just a fallen system that needs to be redeemed, and not just a useful evangelistic tool that needs to be exploited, but a good gift from a gracious God that can simply be enjoyed.
New Zealand Evangelicals have not generally talked about sport as a gift from God to be enjoyed and celebrated on its own terms. Bringing with them from Britain a strict Protestant work ethic, they believed that “nothing is more enervating and relaxing to the moral fibre of national character than an over-heated, diseased, longing for pleasure just for pleasure’s sake.” So when one young Baptist woman asked, “Can we think that sport was designed merely to tantalise and tie [people up with] enjoyment?” the obvious answer was, “no!” The playing ground was “a school in elementary morals,” a place to “fit ourselves further for [Christian] service.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by contrast, once expressed his hope that the church might recover a spiritual sense of play and freedom in the area of art, music, games, or sport. “Only the Christian,” Bonhoeffer said, has the resources to do this. Most people tend to use sport as a way to justify themselves. They try to prove their worth or establish their identity through winning, through their performance. That’s why winning is so important. It “often serves as an objective and external validation that we are right.” That’s why losing can feel like death.
The Christian gospel, however, is that we are not justified by our own efforts on the sports field or anywhere else. We do not earn our worth or identity by our own performance and achievements. Rather, our worth is given to us by a Creator who made us in his image and loves us without condition. Our true identity is found in Christ, who by his performance—his victory on our behalf—has put us right with God. Knowing this, Christians can play (or watch) sport free from the desperate need to prove ourselves. And it is this joyful freedom in play that constitutes, perhaps, our most compelling witness to the truth and beauty of the gospel.
 Novatian, The Spectacle. Quoted in Lincoln Harvey, A Brief Theology of Sport (London: SCM, 2014).
 Harvey, A Brief Theology of Sport, 28-29.
 So John Winthrop, leader of the American Puritans, encouraged moderate physical exercise because without it one became “melancholick and uncomfortable” and increasingly distracted during prayer. See Harvey, A Brief Theology of Sport, 51.
 For a good brief summary of this two-fold pattern see Robert Ellis, The Games People Play: Theology, Religion, and Sport (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 1-34.
 New Zealand Baptist (NZB), April 1914, 73.
 NZB, August 1984, 8.
 Mike Riddell, interview by author, digital recording, Auckland, 25 November 2009.
 NZB, April 1903, 49; May 1917, 68; July 1917, 107.
 NZB, December 1912, 223.
 NZB, July 1931, 205.
 NZB, November 1911, 213.
 See, for example, NZB, July 1920, 107.
 NZB, November 1944, 265; October 1956, 260; June 1967, 25; January 1976, 8; April 1988, 12.
 Harvey, A Brief Theology of Sport, xv.
 NZB, November 2011, 7.
 Ellis, The Games People Play, 264.
 They sailed to New Zealand from a society in Victorian England “still groaning under the masochistic burdens of a Protestant work ethic, rising early and ‘redeeming the time.’” Dominic Erdozain, “In Praise of Folly: Sport as Play,” Anvil 28:1 (2012): 2-34 at 1.
 NZB, May 1889, 71.
 NZB, July 1937, 213.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (ed. Eberhard Bethge; New York: Macmillan, 1971), 198. Quoted in Jeremy R. Treat, “More than a Game: A Theology of Sport,” Themelios 40:3 (2015): 392-403.
 Francesco Duina, Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 192.