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What Kinds of Sports, Games and Related Activities Are Appropriate and Inappropriate for Christians? (Part 2)

In the first part of our series, we addressed in general the biblical teaching requiring God’s disciples to abstain from intentionally seriously injuring or killing another human being, including in self-defense. We should also mention that the negligent killing of another human being is likewise prohibited.

Quoting from our free booklet, “Should You Fight in War?”:

“A perpetrator who ‘accidentally’ brought about the death of another person (Numbers 35:15), without hating the victim, was allowed to flee to a city of refuge to escape the wrath of the avenger of blood. He was only allowed to escape death if he acted ‘unintentionally’ or ‘ignorantly’ (Deuteronomy 19:4). For instance, he might have killed a person by throwing a stone at him, not realizing that the victim was there (Numbers 35:23). Or, he might have killed the victim without wanting to (Deuteronomy 19:5; Numbers 35:22). If, on the other hand, the perpetrator hated the victim in the past, or if he struck him intentionally with a stone, an iron implement or a wooden hand weapon, even though he might not have hated the victim, he was still to be executed (Deuteronomy 19:4, 6, 11; Numbers 35:20-21, 16-18)…

“The Scriptures tell us that the killing or ‘smiting’ of another human being is wrong in God’s eyes and in violation of the Ten Commandments. The ‘accidental’ manslayer, who did not hate his neighbor whom he killed, was not considered innocent, as his conduct, albeit unintentional or unknowing, led to the death of a person. With proper precautions, such a death could have been avoided. The accidental manslayer still had to flee to a city of refuge and stay there until the high priest died…”

Considering all of these principles, it is becoming obvious that certain sports and games might have to be avoided which are designed to injure a competitor. But even games or other activities which might involve action causing serious injuries or even death may need to be avoided, even if the sports per se are not designed to cause such harm.

A clear distinction can be made between, on the one hand, sports or other activities which purposefully harm—or teach to harm—other human beings and, on the other hand,  conduct which is not directly or indirectly focusing on others.

Let us take shooting ranges as an example. We would reject firing exercises within the military or the police, because to a large extent, the purpose of those firing exercises is to train soldiers or members of the police to hate, shoot and kill others. It is different to shoot a rifle at the fair or to use a gun for hunting animals. The same conclusion would apply to the use of bows and arrows. (However, a distinction must be made between “needed” hunting for the purpose of the control of wild life and the acquisition of food, and trophies hunting for “fun” and “entertainment.” Examples would be fox hunting in Great Britain and killing animals on a safari in Africa. In an audio-recorded sermon on the Biblical World of Animals, we explain that senseless killing of animals is wrong.)

As we can see, the motivation for the use is very important. While we must be careful not to condemn others for their actions, we should stand by our personal decisions and convictions without fear of condemnation. If one has strong convictions not to use guns, bows and arrows under any circumstances, including at the fair or for the purpose of hunting animals, then one shouldn’t do it.  This would also apply to our children if we feel they could or shouldn’t do it.  In any event, parents need to properly educate their children so they understand the distinction between what is a “game”, and what is “war.”  The use of “water pistols” in a swimming pool must never instill in a child the idea that it is alright to use a real gun against another human being.

Another example of a harmless game, which we feel to be very appropriate, would be chess. For example, some say that playing chess is wrong since it is a game of war.  We have never taught this in the Church, and many Church members are or were very good chess players. Even though world chess champion Bobby Fisher was never a member of the Worldwide Church of God, he showed some interest at one time and volunteered to play chess with many Ambassador College students. (He was an extremely talented chess player, and he played simultaneously numerous games with different students. At the same time, his fascination with chess caused him to be unbalanced.)

On the other hand, extremely violent games and those with demonic themes must be avoided! This especially applies to the computer generated games that so easily captivate children’s interest.

When reviewing sports which involve competing with or fighting competitors, the distinctions may become more blurry.

For example, we would not recommend the avoidance of soccer (football for our British friends), because soccer, as designed, is not played with the intent of hurting someone, although one can get hurt playing it. If, on the other hand, it becomes obvious that the opposite team members are attempting to intentionally hurt someone, or playing so violently that injuries are the inevitable consequence, then it would be advisable to abstain from such matches.  The same principles would apply to other sports such as volleyball, basketball, baseball and softball; and of course, no problem would exist with sports such as golf, surfing, cricket and tennis, as well as other racing sports such as bicycling, running or swimming, even though they are of a competitive nature. In addition, no problems would exist for individual performance sports, such as gymnastics or figure skating. As we explained in our previous installment, there is nothing wrong with playing competitive sports, as long as we don’t do so with ungodly motives.

This principle would include laser tag. As the Wikipedia Encyclopedia explains: “Laser tag is a tag game played with lasers. Infrared-sensitive targets are commonly worn by each player and are sometimes integrated within the arena in which the game is played.. [It] may include simulations of combat, role play-style games, or competitive sporting events including tactical configurations and precise game goals… laser tag is painless because it uses no physical projectiles…”

When focusing on sports with the potential of intentionally “hurting” someone, the distinctions become even more blurry. Using dodgeball or paintball as examples, these are games which are not played for the purpose of war, even though it is their purpose of hitting the other person with the paint ball or other devise.

The Wikipedia Encyclopedia describes paintball as follows:

“Paintball is a game… in which players eliminate opponents from play by hitting them with dye-filled, breakable, oil and gelatin paintballs, or pellets, usually shot from a carbon dioxide or compressed air (Nitrogen) powered ‘paintball marker’… Game types in paintball vary, but can include capture the flag, elimination, ammunition limits, defending or attacking a particular point or area, or capturing objects of interest hidden in the playing area… In most areas where regulated play is offered, players are required to wear protective masks, and game rules are strictly enforced.”

Regarding dodgeball, the Wikipedia Encyclopedia writes:

“Dodgeball is a game in which players on two teams try to throw balls at each other while avoiding being hit themselves… There are many variations of the game, but generally the main objective of each team is to eliminate all members of the opposing team by hitting them with thrown balls, catching a ball thrown by a member of the opposing team, or forcing them to move outside the court boundaries when a ball is thrown at them.”

It is very important that the players understand the nature of the game; that they are not trying to injure another person; and that everybody plays with proper protection so as to avoid serious injuries. With these precautionary remarks, even playing American football or rugby might be appropriate, even though some or many Christians would probably avoid playing those games, given their violent appearance.

A boundary could be drawn where the intent of the sport is clearly to hurt someone (for example, boxing), even though it may not be wrong to watch boxing matches. Paul makes reference to boxing in 1 Corinthians 9:26, when he says: “Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air.” The Ryrie Study Bible explains: “This does not refer to shadowboxing but to wild misses during an actual boxing match.” This seems to be correct. Paul makes his statement in the context of competitive sports (running a race) and combative fighting; not, as some erroneously write, in the context of the preparation for a fight or sparring in the school in sham-fight, wherein they struck out into the air as if at an imaginary adversary. The fact that Paul draws this analogy of a real boxing match (even though improperly fought) with the Christian spiritual fight shows that he was familiar with–and had watched– boxing matches, even though this Scripture cannot be used to show that Paul would have participated in boxing matches, or that he wished the injury of one of the boxers.

Another sport which is mentioned in the Bible and which was engaged in by godly people is wrestling. We read that Jacob wrestled with God—the second Member of the God Family, Jesus Christ  (Genesis 32:24; Hosea 12:2). After wrestling for a long time, God struck the socket of his hip which became out of joint, causing Jacob to limp for a while. One might conclude that it is therefore appropriate to injure an opponent in sports, but this would be a wrong assessment. In this case it was God—not a man—who acted in such a way in order to teach Jacob a particular lesson.

The Benson Commentary writes: “This was to humble him, and make him sensible of his own weakness, that he might ascribe his victory, not to his own power, but to the grace of God, and might be encouraged to depend on that grace for the deliverance [from Esau] he was so much concerned to obtain. It is probable Jacob felt little or no pain from this hurt, for he did not so much as halt till the struggle was over… If so, it evidenced itself to be a divine touch indeed, wounding and healing at the same time.”

The Matthew Poole Commentary agrees, stating that this “was done that Jacob might see that it was not his own strength, but only God’s grace, which got him this victory, and could give him the deliverance which he hoped for.”

Another distinction needs to be drawn between those sports and activities which one may be engaged in for the purpose of bodily exercise (including in workout programs) and those which one might want to do for the purpose of learning how to defend oneself against an attacker and to fight another person. We read in 1 Timothy 4:8: “For bodily exercise profits a little”—that is, in comparison to the development of godliness in our lives. Barnes Notes on the Bible states: “The apostle does not mean to say that bodily exercise is in itself improper, or that no advantage can be derived from it in the preservation of health.” It is also stated that an alternate reading would be: “For bodily exercise profits for a little while.”

Applying these principles to sports which are commonly associated with the intention of defending against an attacker and harming him, such as karate, Jujitsu or kickboxing, great caution should be applied. When someone decides to participate in classes which teach such sports, or let their children take them, it is very important that the motivation is godly, and that the children clearly understand why they are participating in those classes. It is easy to deceive oneself. For instance, Jujitsu can be very brutal, and it is possible, when “defending” oneself, to break the “attacker’s” arm or leg. But as we explained before, it must never be our motive to seriously injure another person, including in self-defense, and in the heat of a moment, one may not have the self-discipline and self-control to use a weapon, including one’s own body, in such a way as to avoid inflicting serious injury. Also, the very knowledge of having acquired these kinds of “powers” and “abilities” might tempt someone to use those powers in a given moment. Even though one may think that Karate or Jujitsu classes may help an aggressive person to control his or her emotions, the opposite result may be achieved.

This is not to say that we can never physically defend ourselves or our loved ones, when we are attacked, but great caution is in order, as we are not to seriously injure, let alone kill an attacker. For instance, the use of pepper spray could lead to blindness of an attacker; so, again, it is important to consider the potential consequences before using specific defensive devices or engaging in certain defensive activities. It would be advisable to review again our comments on self-defense in our previous Q&A, and what the best ways are of protecting ourselves against violent aggressors.

In many cases, we are called upon to make personal decisions based on our own conscience and conviction. After educated analysis of the issues at hand, based on the Bible and the explanations in this and the previous Q&A, we must become fully convinced in our own minds as to how to act and what to do (Romans 14:5), because whatever is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23).

Lead Writer: Norbert Link