Are youth sports a friend or foe of Christian discipleship?

July 3, 2014

“I believe that God made me for a purpose. But he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

That memorable line is from the 1981 British historical drama film Chariots of Fire. It is the response Eric Liddell gives when he’s confronted by his sister for neglecting his responsibilities before God to focus on competitive running in preparation for the 1924 Olympics. His response is powerful because he doesn't see his athletic pursuit as neglecting God but as a means of glorifying God. Since sports were a means to a greater end of delighting in God, Liddell, a strict Christian Sabbatarian, refused to bow to international pressure to compete in the 100-meter race in the 1924 Olympics because it was on Sunday.

You do not have to be a strict Christian Sabbatarian to appreciate and learn from Liddell's example. I believe that the Lord’s Day should be set aside for corporate worship and gospel rest in celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In my understanding, the Sabbath principle is already fulfilled in Christ—who is our rest. But the Lord's Day is a gracious gift to remind us that our lives are “in him” and should be honored until he consummates his Kingdom and ushers in eternal rest in the new heavens and earth. Whether you are a strict Christian Sabbatarian or believe the Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ, Liddell’s example is instructive for Christian parents as they think about their children's participation in sports.

Sports in Scripture

Eric Liddell’s sister considered all sports to be a waste of time. That notion is still around; a seminary professor recently commented to me, “Sports are not necessary, so why waste time on it—time that could be better spent advancing the gospel?” But, the Bible paints a different picture and is far from silent on sports and athletic competition (Gen. 30:8, 32:24, Ps. 19:3-6, 2 Sam. 2:14, 1 Cor. 9:24-27, Phil. 3:13-14, Gal. 2:2, Eph. 6:12, Heb. 12:1-4). In fact, the apostle Paul uses the language of sports as one of his three primary metaphors, along with warfare and agriculture, for talking about the Christian life (2 Tim. 2:4-7). I consider sports to be a gift from God, a competitive manifestation of the performing arts, capable of displaying truth, beauty and goodness.

Sports gone wrong

But, as Christian parents, our responsibility is to teach our children to take every thought captive to obey Jesus (2 Cor. 10:5)—including sports. Paul made it clear that there is something far more important than winning a perishable wreath on an athletic field (1 Cor. 9:25). Some Christians simply pull their children out of sports altogether because they do not want to face the decisions that will inevitably arise while navigating athletic involvement and a commitment to church and Christian service. One of the problems with this shortsighted approach is that the kids playing on these teams will one day have jobs, children and other responsibilities as they serve Jesus and his church. Showing them how to navigate these matters while faithfully committed to the supremacy of Christ is not a problem but a wonderful opportunity for discipleship.

Nevertheless, like all of God's good gifts, sports can be easily corrupted. Some Christians make the mistake of prioritizing sports over church by reasoning that the youth sports opportunity is for a limited period of time and church will always be there. Clearly, teaching children that sports are a valid reason to neglect God is disastrous. Some parents fashion themselves as victims in dealing with these issues as though they cannot set boundaries on their children's participation. They reason as if the only options are not participating in sports at all or acting like the sports team’s practice and game schedule is in charge of their children's lives.

Shepherding in sports

The solution is simpler than many Christian parents want to believe, but it involves parental leadership, direction and conviction. The bottom line is, sports are never the problem, inadequate leadership in the home is the problem. Sports are often made scapegoats for parental failure of leadership. Liddell’s excellent Christian example is instructive. He was passionately committed to excellence in athletic competition, but it was for the glory of God, and therefore his Christian conviction led him to set boundaries and gladly endure the consequence. When a Christian family is involved in sports, they should be committed and diligent participants, but they ought to draw whatever boundaries are needed up front on their child's participation. As the father of eight children who loves sporting competition, I have had to lead my family in this way many times.

When you register your children to compete on an athletic team, you should clarify any boundaries that you have on their participation. For instance, all of my sons have played youth sports and we have told the leagues when we sign up that we do not play or practice on Sundays, so if a coach did not want one of our children on their team because of that, we wanted them to know beforehand.

Also, when my sons made All-Star baseball teams, we told the coach that we know most of the championship games are on Sunday and my child would not participate on Sunday, so if they did not want him to be on the team because of that, we would certainly understand. It is good to teach your children that Christian convictions have consequences and that you will gladly face them. Too many parents are rearing their children in Christian sentimentality, which wants them to have convictions for which they never suffer.

In our home, we do not treat other church activities as if they are the Lord's Day. We have biblical-theological convictions that demand setting aside Sundays, but we do not have the same approach to general church programming. We are not victims of the sports team’s schedule nor are we victims of the church program schedule. Parents have the primary responsibility to disciple their children and a major part of that involves watching the choices we make. For instance, if one of my children has practice or a game during the time of a youth event, then they usually go to their practice or game because we want to glorify God with the commitment we've made to the team. In other words, we do not want to use general church activities as an excuse to be lax on our commitments. We also view participating on the team and being involved as parents in the league or school as a unique mission opportunity of which we want to take full advantage.

I have found that if you are honest and straightforward about what you will and won't do based on your Christian convictions, people's respect for you is not diminished—it is strengthened. Sports, rightly understood, are but a means to a greater end of delighting in God. Though, like all good gifts, sports can be corrupted and become an idolatrous competitor with God instead of a means to glorify him.

I believe that God made me for a purpose. But, he also placed me in a home that enjoyed sports, and when I played baseball, I felt his pleasure. And I unapologetically hope my children feel his pleasure through sports, too.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24