5 Quick Thoughts on Manhood and Sports

by Owen Strachan June 1, 2016

I recently had the opportunity to publish an essay with The Gospel Coalition on football, “warrior culture,” and manhood. It’s stirred the pot, because I make the argument that warrior culture and biblical manhood are not the same thing. They do not lead to the same result.

The article’s drawn a heated response from some. I understand that. Sports are embedded in the life of America. Questioning them from almost any angle invites a strong reaction. My desire, though, is not to stir up controversy. It’s to recover, as best we can, what manhood means and is according to Scripture. (I think some readers might be surprised by my perspective given my work with CBMW and my desire to promote biblical manhood. Never a bad thing to play against type when you can!)

Along those lines, and drafting off the TGC essay, let me give you 5 quick thoughts on manhood and sports. I go a slightly different way below than in the TGC piece. That’s on purpose, though what follows definitely overlaps with that article.

1. Sports can be useful in developing godly character.

As I say in the piece, it’s good for boys to learn to work hard and to take on challenges. It’s good to be able to handle setbacks and pain. Perseverance in the face of opposition is necessary for full-throated faith.

2. I know these benefits personally.

I played three sports all the way through high school. I was recruited to play college basketball. It is undoubtedly true that sports helped shape my character in certain ways.

3. Spiritual things are far more important than athletic things.

Have we forgotten Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 4:7-8? I wonder if we might have: Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. As I make clear in the TGC piece, “bodily training is of some value.” Yes. Amen. But I affirm the second part, too: “godliness is of value in every way.” It’s far more important than athletic training. Spirituality is more important than sports.

I recognize that there are likely some readers who are chomping at the bit to turn this around. They want to spell out all the ways that sports help form character. I get that impulse. But I wonder if we’re tempted, as modern Americans, to fail to take Paul at his word. Sure, we know sports aren’t super-meaningful. But if you look at our lives in a minute-by-minute fashion, does our practice match our theology? Do we, in other words, affirm Paul’s point but then spend tons of time on our favorite sports?

It is well and good to enjoy sports as a hobby, a pastime. I certainly do. But I think many of us allow sports to be more than a hobby. We let them be an almost continual reality in our day-to-day lives. I do not think that is healthy. You know what’s revealing, though? I can’t recall a sermon where I was really, seriously challenged about addiction to sports. That is problematic (especially because I used to be way over-committed to basketball).

4. I’m going to train my son that sports are by no means a necessary part of godly manhood.

I hope my son plays sports. I would guess they might be a fun way for he and I to connect. Play catch. Shoot baskets. That’s terrific. I would love that. I’m hoping to take him to different games when he gets older. Sounds really fun to me. 

But overall, I want him to understand that godliness is of value in every way. He may be great at athletics or he might be terrible. Really, that won’t have any bearing at all on his ability to please the Lord as a man. He can show godly manhood by leading, protecting, and providing in spiritual and physical terms. The example of biblical masculinity I want him to follow is Jesus Christ. I want Ephesians 5:22-33 and its mindset to seep into every aspect of his conduct and faith.

If he never starts in basketball, catches passes in football, scores goals in soccer or turns an unassisted double-play in baseball, but serves the Lord, pursues him wholeheartedly and sacrifices his comfort to make Christ known, he’s a man. I want him to risk everything for Christ, and to gain everything in Christ, living fearlessly to advance the kingdom of Christ. I want him to swim through water with a Bible in his teeth to make Jesus known. He can like and even look up to athletes. Fine. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. But I want his understanding of godly manhood far more shaped by and oriented around the apostles, missionaries, and other faithful Christians.

5. If I do conflate biblical masculinity and warrior culture (or athletic identity), then I run the risk of him becoming an idolater.

I often hear preachers thunder about idolatry. But I never hear them apply it to sports. In many cases, the pastor preaching loves sports. The danger with this situation is that the pastor would scorch the idols of people unlike him, but never consider his own. What a dangerous place for a man, and a church, to be.

I play sports. I enjoy sports. I watch sports. I look forward to playing catch with my son, and to us watching games together, and inviting others over to hang out with us. I think sports and exercise are of “some value.” But I think godliness has far more value. I hope that readers will not hear my thoughts, imperfectly expressed as they are, and immediately respond in derision. I hope that they’ll think hard with me about how, in a sports-mad culture, to value them, but not too much. It’s a tricky balance that I myself want to strike.

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