One can discern a lot about the spiritual culture of the Church during any given age by the heroes she embraces. It is a sure sign of trouble when rank-and-file churchgoers admire secular celebrities. Esteeming a gifted athlete isn’t wrong, per se; but it is an ominous sign of the times when such people are paraded as role models simply because they happen to be superstars who profess Christianity. Such is the sad case in the post-modern Church of America where the National Football League—that (often) bloody, violent arena of sporting games—has become a breeding ground for inspirational figures church members can laud and emulate.
Consider the player who said, “I have three Super Bowl rings, but nothing compares to knowing Jesus Christ… I still experience ups-and-downs in life, but in Christ I have peace, joy and true happiness.”
That sounds like a wonderful testimony until one considers his demeanor on the football field. In a sport where violence is so commonplace that there are penalties (personal foul, unsportsmanlike conduct) prescribed for behavior that goes beyond acceptable limits, to be ejected from a game and fined by the League for violent behavior is usually tantamount to a criminal assault. Yet, this happened on three separate occasions during the span of three seasons to this player who professes Christianity.
Then there’s the NFL coach known for screaming at his players along the sidelines. His temper tantrums recently crossed into the media when he became furious when a radio show host mentioned an article that questioned his competence. “It really p—-s me off now that I sit here and think about it.” This same man, in a more pious moment, stated that his life “totally changed” when he began “serving God for the right reasons.”
At best, these men are immature believers, but their failures and weaknesses really are not the point of this article. The more important issue at stake here is the current spiritual culture within the American Church that lauds such men simply because of their worldly prestige.
Perhaps the best way to make my point would be to contrast their lives with the life of a Christian athlete from another era. You might already know Eric Liddell’s story—at least the Hollywood version of it—through the movie, “Chariots of Fire.”
If you’ve seen the movie, you know that he was a young Scottish track star who competed in the 1924 Olympics. To the utter disgust of the British public, he refused to run in the 100 meter race—his specialty and the best opportunity for him to win a gold medal for his nation—because that race would be held on a Sunday.
One can only imagine the enormous pressure and personal pain he experienced when day after day he read the newspapers ridiculing the stance he had taken for his faith. As it turned out—and this is the only reason Hollywood highlighted his story—he entered and won a different race that was more difficult for him.
But true believers of his day appreciated the fact that he was willing to stand behind his convictions—whether he won another race or not. Theirs was a faith of a different sort, probably reflecting what that man of God of the First Century wrote: “…while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18)
And I suppose it came as no surprise to them that a man of his character lived and died a true hero of the faith. For, you see, a year after his great victory—with all the world’s glories lying at his feet for the taking—he chose to walk away from it all and to spend the rest of his life in obscurity as a missionary to China.
On the mission field, it wasn’t an unruly temper or a carnal outlook on women that distinguished him but a kind of chivalry I fear many Christians of our day don’t comprehend—let alone esteem. When World War II broke out and the Japanese army was committing terrible atrocities throughout China, Eric Liddell resisted his government’s insistence that he come home, and instead, remained at his post quietly serving the poor people of his area. In 1943, the Japanese sent him into a deplorable internment camp where he was known-not for being a famous athlete-but for his unselfish concern for others. Winston Churchill managed to work out a deal for his release, but, in spite of the fact that his wife and three daughters were anxiously awaiting his arrival back home, he gave his spot to a pregnant woman instead. In 1945, five months before liberation, he succumbed to the hardships of the camp and went on to receive his heavenly reward.
The point of this article really isn’t to compare his exemplary life to the lives of “Christian” sports stars; it is to point out a church culture that has so intertwined itself with the godless culture around it that it considers worldly fame to be more important than godly character. The truth is that a very large segment of the 21st Century Church holds more in common with the values of secular society than with those of the God it claims to follow.
That is the apostasy.
Christianity NFL Style,