Onward Christian Athletes

qanda_header_1by Rod Wilson

Some Christians in professional sports are very outspoken about their faith, but others keep their faith quiet. Why don’t all athletes use their public platform to talk about Jesus?

It is interesting to watch a post-game interview and hear an athlete expressing thanks to Jesus for giving him/her the gifts and the opportunities to play sports. I often wonder how non-religious people respond to this. Do they ignore it? Does it make them mad? Does it heighten their curiousity? Christians, on the other hand, can turn these testimonies into criticisms of other less outspoken athletes.

I remember talking to a well-known sports figure who had professed faith in Christ but was struggling because another Christian athlete was critical of him for not being more public about his beliefs. This was hurtful because he felt that his personality, which was more reserved and shy, was being criticized and an assumption was made that personality and spirituality are one in the same.

In Scripture we are introduced to people like Joseph, Abraham, Sarah, Daniel, Peter, Andrew, John, Priscilla and Paul. They all sought to follow God’s direction but they expressed it through different styles and personalities. Andrew was a lot quieter than Joseph. Priscilla stayed much more in the background than Paul. Some biblical characters led by being outspoken, others by acting. Daniel had a political platform to speak of his faith, while John was not afforded the same opportunity.

One of the frightening and reassuring things about God’s final judgement is that the things that were done in secret will be revealed and acknowledged for what they are. Frightening, because hidden sin will no longer be hidden, yet reassuring, because good, done in quietness, will be rewarded.

I get cynical when I see football players kneeling to pray at the end of a game. I don’t understand how they can go from being violent toward each other to bowing together in prayer. Does my cynicism make sense?

It is odd to see opposing players in a football game hitting each other with tremendous force only to gather on bended knees in prayer together as soon as the game is over. The activity and engagement of the former is quite a contrast to the serenity and contemplation of the latter. Does it warrant cynicism?

Cynicism results when we doubt whether someone’s motives and actions are sincere. Often our cynicism is even greater when one behaviour seems to contradict another. This is one of the reasons many people are cynical about athletes who bring their Christian faith into the public realm. It seems inconceivable that a linebacker taking the feet out from under a running back and catapulting him into the air can be someone who is committed to prayer at the end of the game, even prayer with the player that he hit earlier.

Why are we suspicious of the motives of athletes? What would motivate someone to pray at the end of the game? Might it be a genuine expression of thanks to God for the gifts and abilities they have been given to play the game? Might it be repentance for inappropriate behaviour during the game? Might it be a way to express Christian solidarity with brothers from the other team? Might it be intercessory prayer for other teammates who do not know Jesus?

If we are honest, might it be that our cynicism can be traced to an underlying belief that Jesus is not Lord of all of life and that the so-called secular and sacred should never be linked?

My church is in a big debate about whether women can be in leadership or not. I don’t understand why there is a debate. Isn’t the Bible clear on everything?

In my experience, most churches embroiled in debates, divisions or debacles are usually dealing with one of the three w’s—wealth, worship, women. Obviously there is nothing inherently wrong with women, worship or wealth, but most of us seem to have strong convictions on all three.

The God-breathed, authoritative Word of God, known to us as the Scriptures or the Bible, provides a rich array of literature that teaches us about God and His work in the world. It functions as a mirror in our lives, showing us what we look like, as well as a light, shining on the right path forward. It is written about real-life experiences of saints and sinners, of good churches and bad, and shows us that seeking to live the Christian life in a Christian way is no guarantee that our inner lives will be pain-free or our relational existence without conflict.

The more you study the Bible the more you realize that it is not exhaustive on every subject and many topics are imbedded in particular contexts that we do not understand completely. The result is that on some subjects—women in leadership being one of them—there are godly men and women who have different convictions, convictions that are based on careful study and reading of the text.

If the words of the Bible were completely clear on everything we would not need the Holy Spirit to be our teacher. We would not need love and grace to help us navigate differences in the Christian community. And we would not need to ask for wisdom that can only come from above.

Rod Wilson is president of Regent College in Vancouver, where he also serves as professor of Counselling and Psychology. He is the author of How Do I Help a Hurting Friend: Practical Help for Leaders and Laypeople (BakerBooks, 2006).

The article above was featured in the January 2010 issue of SEVEN magazine.