Whoa! Sports and idolatry in the same title? That’s weird.
This is exactly what I thought on a night two summers ago. I had just gotten back from going to an evening baseball game with a friend, and it was late. I faithfully brushed my teeth for all of 30 seconds, swished a draught of mouth wash, and stumbled for my bed ready to collapse in it, too weary to even bother taking off my clothes. That’s when I saw it. Resting on my pillow were three sheets of paper, stapled together in the top left corner. On this paper was an article, and the article’s title read “Professional Sports—Idolatry.”
I must confess that I blinked like an owl for several seconds as my brain tried to reengage enough to comprehend what I was seeing. I picked the paper up and, after reading the title again, glanced at the top right corner of the first page where a note had been scrawled out in red ink:
I’d like to get your thoughts on this article.
I love you,
So I read the article . . . and read it again. I have been struggling with a right balance to sports ever since. As proof, I still have that same article, more than two years old now. It is right before me on my desk as I write this, the pages crinkled, their edges worn.
You must understand why that article was such a big issue for me before I continue. You see, I love sports, professional and otherwise. At the age of five I knew I wanted to play baseball, and many hours were spent in my back yard swinging away at whiffle balls to practice my home run swing. I soon learned of the Diamondbacks, Arizona’s one and only professional baseball team, and I became a very avid young fan. I remember being able to quote each player’s jersey number by heart at the age of six. As there are twenty-five players on a team, that was quite an accomplishment at such a young age.
I soon got my wish to play baseball on a team, and even when we moved out here to rainy Wash-ington, my love of baseball only grew. I was (by far) one of the most serious players on my team every year. Whereas half my little teammates were drawing stick figures in the dirt (or conducting “cup checks” on each other), I was crouched in a defensive position, legs bent, glove down, eyes on the ball. I was there to play ball, nothing else. And neither did I stop rooting for the Diamondbacks. I was known as “Arizona” by my teammates for my fervent arguments that the Diamondbacks were the best team on Earth (far better, at least, than the “paltry” Seattle Mariners).
My baseball craze was eventually curbed slightly by my parents, who recognized that it was consuming too much of my time. They set limits on the amount of baseball I took in, and as I look back now, I am grateful for it. I even quit playing organized baseball when I was thirteen to start working more. That has been to-date the toughest decision of my life. I still followed the Diamondbacks, but perhaps a little less avidly.
Then I read that article. Hopefully now you can see why it put me in such a state of distress. I had never thought that sports could be an idol. But as I look around me now at our sports-crazed culture, I can’t help but at least consider that conclusion. What follows are the thoughts of a young man who is not completely decided on this issue yet. Bear with me.
Is professional sports an idol?
A few days from now, the nation will be captivated by the biggest sports event of the year: the Super Bowl. As the Seattle Seahawks are in the Big Game this year, you can’t go a block in any Washington town or city without seeing “go Seahawks!” posted in bold letters. Quite literally, our state is caught up in football fever. The Seahawks’ icon is everywhere you look; the “Twelfth Man” flag flutters from homes, buildings, and even cars! I can’t help but be reminded of what Douglas Bond wrote in his book Stand Fast:
Super Bowl worship happens to take place on Sunday when real Christian men will be worshiping God in church. On the lowest church-attendance Sunday of the year, many churches capitulate to the cult of sports and entertainment by modifying or cancelling services; some pastors wear their favorite football jersey in the pulpit. It’s only once a year, some say, a concession that leads many men permanently out of the pew and into the bleachers—or the more sinister posture of slouching on the couch with a six-pack, bloodshot eyes glued to the television.
Though maybe Mr. Bond might be taking it a little far when he says that Christian men sitting out church to watch the Super Bowl might end up as beer-chugging, sports-addicted couch potatoes, he definitely has a point. For many men, the Super Bowl takes precedence over anything else that usually falls on Sunday—like church. “Super Bowl worship,” as Mr. Bond puts it, is a real thing.
And the Super Bowl may not be the only sports event that is idolized. All professional sports, be it the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, or whatever else, has its droves of worshipers. If you don’t believe me, just look at the money involved. Clayton Kershaw, undoubtedly one of the best pitchers in major league baseball, makes 30.7 million dollars a year! Yes, that’s $30,700,000. This is just one player on a twenty-five player team whose annual salary is above $250,000,000. This money comes from the millions of Dodger fans that follow their team more than anything else, devoting their time and resources to watching the sport.
So yes, I cannot argue that professional sports can never become an idol. Clearly, for the millions of Americans who couldn’t imagine going a week without their sports, it is an idol. When you devote your time and resources to something other than God, that thing becomes an idol. No excuses. No arguments. As Jesus said:
"No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.” (Mathew 6:24a NASB)
With this in mind, I would challenge any sports fan reading this to take a serious look at how much time you devote to following sports. Would you rather spend an afternoon watching a game then going to a Bible study? Do you find yourself more apt at memorizing the stats of your favorite player than Bible verses? Do you neglect to read your Bible and grow in the knowledge of God’s will because you are too caught up in some sports fantasy or another? Let me break it to you this way: if you were at all offended by the title of this post (as I was with that article a couple of years ago), it is probably because you think too highly of sports. Be honest with yourself.
Folks, this is serious. Our culture as a whole doesn’t see any problem with spending mass amounts of time taking in sports. We have taken a blind step into a cavernous drop-off of addictive obsession and idolatry. I regret that I too plunged off that cliff and am still trying to climb back out. Don’t make the same mistake.
Guilty by participation?
But is it wrong to ever watch sports? Must we disavow our support of our favorite teams and be completely illiterate in all things sports related? The answer for me at least is, no. We definitely need to be careful lest professional sports becomes more than it should be in our lives, but I do not think anyone is imediantly committing idolatry for sitting down to watch a ball game some rainy afternoon.
A distinction must be made. Anything can become an idol in your life—entertainment, money, your job, your car, and even your family can become more important to you than God, making it an idol. None of these things are bad, but when you begin to place more worth in them than you should, than they become an idol. Such is the same with sports. Though I think it is very good for us to distance ourselves from becoming avid fans of any sports team—it is just a game, after all—going to watch a game at the ballpark once or twice a year can be harmless fun and even a good way to build relationships with family and friends!
Allan Halton, the fellow that wrote the “Professional Sports-Idolatry” article, would disagree. He adamantly believes professional sports is idolatry, so he would sight the verse below and then condemn any Christian for partaking in professional sports:
Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, "I WILL DWELL IN THEM AND WALK AMONG THEM; AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE. Therefore, COME OUT FROM THEIR MIDST AND BE SEPARATE," says the Lord. "AND DO NOT TOUCH WHAT IS UNCLEAN; And I will welcome you. (2 Corinthians 6:17 NASB)
In response, I would say that Mr. Halton misapplies this passage in using it to condemn any involvement in professional sports. Many things can be called idols. For instance, for some people food is an idol. Does that mean we must abstain from eating food, because it is an idol to some people? Of course not! We need a healthy balance to this issue. Yes, for many people professional sports is an idol, but for some it is just a fun recreational activity that does not take them any further (though admittedly no closer) to God.
Paul faced a similar issue to this one when he addressed the area of meat sacrificed to idols in his first letter to the Corinthians. You see, there was a big debate in that day among the Corinthian church on if it was okay to eat meat that had been sacrificed to the false idols of the polytheistic Greeks. He affirmed that those who ate the meat were not subjecting themselves to idolatry or impurity at all, for as he put it:
But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. (1 Corinthians 8:8 NASB)
However, for any giddy sports fans who are relieved to find that I am not condemning professional sports, take note of what Paul continues with in the following verses:
But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol's temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. (1 Corinthians 8:9-12 NASB)
Yes, though we can watch professional sports without sinning, we must be careful not to create a stumbling block for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. As an example, If a Christian who struggles with finding a right balance to professional sports hears that you are skipping church to watch this (supposedly) “big game”, he just might feel justified in also skipping church to watch the game. “It’s just this one time,” you explain, and maybe for you at least that is the case. However, for the Christian who struggles with professional sports, it may be so much more than “just this one time.” Perhaps this struggling Christian backslides into staying home to watch the full slate of NFL games on Sunday instead of going to church, all the while justifying this decision by remembering that “you did it that one time, so it must be okay.”
It is clear that if something akin to that scenario above plays out in your life, you are sinning against Christ. We must be careful in engaging in professional sports. Though it is all well and good to relax and watch a game now and then, always keeping our focus on Christ, may we readily say about professional sports what Paul said about sacrificial meat:
Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:13 NASB)
It is, after all, just a game.
One Quick Note
So some of you at this point might be wondering what my opinion is on sports we personally play. Is it okay to be involved in athletics? The simple answer is found in this verse:
Train yourself to be godly. 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. (1 Timothy 4:7b-8 NIV)
Athletics have some value—key word “some.” I really enjoy playing baseball still, along with most every other sport. However, keep in mind that training yourself to be godly has much more value than toning your muscles for sports. Godliness lasts, sports do not. Never let your sports playing encumber your walk with God.
A few days from now, I will be rooting the Seattle Seahawks on in the Super Bowl. However, this will be after I go to church and read God’s word. Though it is but a meaningless game, the Super Bowl is a fun time to get together with family and friends. I will never idolize any sports event, but neither do I believe it is wrong to be somewhat engaged.
Professional sports do not have to be an idol. You have a choice. For a while, the Arizona Diamondbacks were my idol, and I am still trying to find a proper balance to enjoying a game now and then while not idolizing the team. So bad was my infatuation with the Diamondbacks that I went so far as to watch games on the computer during the middle of vacations! Time I should have spent with family was wasted.
Don’t make that same mistake. If you want to follow a team, fine. We all have hobbies and things we do for fun and recreation, and I do not think those things are unhealthy for us. Keep in mind, though, that professional sports are just games. It doesn’t really matter much who wins the Super Bowl. The majority of the population won’t remember who won it a few years from now, anyway. Furthermore, if engaging in sports causes a weaker brother or sister in Christ to stumble on account of you, you are sinning. When encountered with a situation like that, we must abstain from watching professional sports.
So, if you feel no pull towards professional sports, God bless you! If you are like me and enjoy sports, find a healthy balance. Don’t be consumed with sports. Rather, keep God as the one you devote yourself to!