By / Oct 28

When I hear someone say, “War Eagle,” or see someone wearing Auburn sports gear I almost reflexively feel obligated to respond, “Roll Tide!” In fact, it seems like a duty, a moral responsibility even.

Years ago, Bill Clinton’s campaign guru and LSU alum, James Carville was asked by the Wall Street Journal to explain the fanatical devotion of legions of fans who never took a step inside a classroom at the schools they follow. He quipped, “Half the people in that stadium can’t spell LSU. It doesn’t matter. They identify with it. It’s culturally such a big deal.”

As a son of Alabama, the heart of Dixie, and the buckle of the SEC football belt, I would suggest this is one of those rare occasions when James Carville was understated. To call football in the South culturally a big deal is akin to saying the Grand Canyon is a big hole.

I am an unabashed football fan, but I do not write this article as a fan—rather, as a Christian pastor and a seminary professor. This discussion of football fandom begs the question, is this good or bad? My answer is an unequivocal yes. It all depends on whether sports are summed up in Christ or abstracted from him.  

Forward-looking rootedness

There is a sense in which affinity group allegiance to a particular sports team, especially when geographically based, is simply a cultural manifestation of the importance of place and rootedness. Our transient, globalized culture often feels awkward about our rootedness, but we must remember that when the cosmic Lord came in human flesh he was known, even by demons, as “Jesus of Nazareth” (Mark 1:24). Some saw his rootedness in an ordinary family and a modest town as a liability (John 1:46, 6:42, 7:27). But Jesus was from somewhere, and it mattered. The same is true for us.

Our rootedness in this fallen world should serve our longing for rootedness in the world to come (Heb. 11:16). We have already had the opportunity to experience family, fellowship, camaraderie, love, and place, however imperfectly. To act as though we come from nowhere is a prideful commentary on our understanding of the past as well as the future.

We all long to be a part of a community, an entity greater than the individual, and one that will help provide a sense of belonging, identity and unity. These longings are only ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ and his unshakable kingdom community, the church. Nevertheless, it is most natural that these longings be reflected in limited but genuine ways in our lives.

Sum up all things in Christ

Many years ago at a pastor’s conference I attended, someone asked, pastor and theologian Sinclair Ferguson if he had one piece of advice to offer about parenting what would it be? His response, the best I can remember it, was something like,

Based on who is in this room I would suggest you tie more than one string to your children. Teach them about God, teach them the Bible, but also have other interests with them as well. If you are into sports then connect with them through sports. If you're into construction then connect with them through construction. Use those interests to connect with them, and teach them about God through those as well.

His admonition has always stuck with me. I would guess that his comments reflected a failure he had witnessed among pastors and seminarians to teach their children to sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10).

A seminary professor recently commented to me, “Football is not necessary, so why waste time on it — time that could be better spent advancing the gospel?” The comment represents a tragically false secular/sacred dichotomy. The gospel transforms every category and every activity in the believer's life. Too many Christians have been led to believe that outside of directly sharing the gospel the rest of life amounts to twiddling our thumbs and waiting for eternity.

This kind of compartmentalized understanding of Christian living renders admiring beautiful art, spending time reading an engrossing novel, or watching ballet-like choreography meet brute force in a football game as wasting time. It represents a woeful and inadequate expression of the Christian worldview.

I consider sports to be a competitive manifestation of the performing arts, capable of displaying truth, beauty and goodness. Abraham Kuyper’s dictum should shape our interest in sports, “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'”

Idolatry: Enjoyment gone wrong

Herein lies a pervasive problem. It is not only those who consider sports a waste of time who sever it from Christian living, far too often, those Christians who enjoy athletics do the same. Our responsibility is to take every thought captive to obey Jesus (2 Cor. 10:5) — including sports. In many ways sport fandom and team loyalty is a lot like patriotism for one's country. To despise one's country is an act of rebellion against the providence of God but to blindly idolize one's country is an act of rebellion of another sort. Patriotism, rightly understood in a Christian worldview, is a natural recognition of God’s good providence and his sovereignty in determining our place, rootedness and story. We come from somewhere, and we are a part of a family line whose sacrifices in generations past have shaped our story. Our country and our families are not ultimate, but they are important, and showing them honor is a way we honor Christ (1 Pet. 2:13-17).

For many of us, our cultural story, our family story, includes allegiance to certain sports teams. I don't have to sit around and wonder how I became an Alabama football fan or Atlanta Braves fan. I am both because my father cheered wholeheartedly for both. My mother made special meals on big game days, and we celebrated the victories of the teams with which we identified. It is a part of my story, my place.

Finding idolatrous excesses in the devotion to a particular sports team is not difficult, tragically, even among professing Christians. In my home state, the Alabama-Auburn rivalry has been connected to incarceration, divorce, violence, and recently, the poisoning of majestic trees that were a part of one of the grandest traditions in college football. For such people, allegiance to a favorite team is not enjoyment of God’s good gift of athletics, or a cultural identity marker but an obvious idol.

Most who read this article will never contemplate such atrocious acts; however, idolatry that is more subtle is no less an act of rebellion. If a man cannot delight in God with thanksgiving for a hard fought contest when his team loses, he is perverting God's good gift of athletics, and teaching those around him to do the same. Christian father, if you cannot root like crazy with your children for your favorite team — only to see them lose — and afterward laugh and play in the yard with your kids, you have a problem; it's called idolatry.

Modeling self-sacrifice and self-discipline

The apostle Paul seizes the metaphor of sports as a key image to explain Christian living because success in athletics demands purposeful self-sacrifice and requires self-discipline for a cause greater than the individual (Heb. 12:1-2). A Christian approach to sports as a spectator is to be inspired by the honed physical gifts and the determination of those who participate on behalf of his or her favorite team.

Christians should be challenged to offer a similar purposeful, sacrificial devotion and discipline in their vocation and endeavors. How many Christian fathers rigorously critique the job performance, dedication, and work ethic of the coach of their favorite team while simultaneously complaining about their job and excusing their own lack of work ethic and dedication?

Where this is happening, the love of sports has become detached from the Christian life and transformed into a barrier rather than a bridge to worshipping Christ. Fans watch and enjoy the beauty, effort and action the contest brings out in its participants. Christian fans should be challenged to agonize in similar fashion for the glory of Christ in their own vocation (Col. 3:17).

The Christian with a rightly ordered, Christ-centered worldview is uniquely in a position to enjoy athletic competition as a good gift from God, and his or her sports loyalties as a demonstration of our providential rootedness in time, place, family and community. Of course, we can make an idol out of country, family or allegiance to our favorite sports team. But the gospel does not obliterate these cultural connections. It reinterprets them in light of the gospel story and our responsibility to seek first the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33, 1 Cor. 2:2).

I'm thankful that I was taught as a child to say “Roll Tide,” but believe it or not, I'm equally thankful that others say, “War Eagle.” But, I am most thankful that — whether we are Aggies or Longhorns, Cats or Cardinals, Buckeyes or Wolverines, Ducks or Beavers — in Christ we all say, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).

By / May 26

Where did feminism start? ERLC's Lindsay Swartz sits down with Courtney Reissig to discuss her newest book The Accidental Feminist: Restoring Our Delight in God's Good Design

By / Jan 28

“You can’t legislate morality,” the old saying goes, a statement that purports to be common sense, until you begin to realize you can’t not legislate morality. All legislation is passed within a moral framework of ethical ideals and moral considerations.

Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion lays out six moral foundations of politics. For each foundation, Haidt explains how the left and the right diverge on political applications.

1. The Care/Harm Foundation

This foundation makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need. In order to maximize care and minimize harm, we enact laws that protect the vulnerable. We punish people who are cruel and we care for those in suffering. The left relies primarily on this foundation (and the next one), while the right positions it within a broader matrix of concerns.

2. The Fairness/Cheating Foundation

This foundation leads us to seek out people who will be good collaborators in whatever project we are pursuing. It also leads us to punish people who cheat the system. People on both the right and the left believe in fairness, but they apply this foundation in different ways. Haidt explains:

“On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality – people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes” (161).

3. The Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation

All of us, whether on the right or left, are “tribal” in some sense. We love the people on our team, and loyalty makes our team more powerful and less susceptible to our failure. Likewise, we have a corresponding hatred for traitors. Those who betray our “team” for the other side are worse than those who were already on the other side.

Though Haidt sees both left and right as being tribal, he recognizes “the left tends toward universalism and away from nationalism, so it often has trouble connecting to voters who rely on the Loyalty foundation” (164).

4. The Authority/Subversion Foundation

Authority plays a role in our moral considerations because it protects order and fends off chaos. Haidt explains:

“Everyone has a stake in supporting the existing order and in holding people accountable for fulfilling the obligations of their station” (168).

Not surprisingly, the right values this foundation, while the left defines itself by opposing hierarchy, inequality, and power.

5. The Sanctity/Degradation Foundation

No matter the era, humans have always considered certain things “untouchable” for being dirty and polluted. The flipside is that we want to protect whatever is hallowed and sacred, whether objects, ideals, or institutions.

People on the right talk about the sanctity of life and marriage. People on the left may mock “True Love Waits” and purity rings, but they frequent New Age grocery stores, buy products that cleanse them of “toxins,” and warn against human degradation of the environment.

6. The Liberty/Oppression Foundation

This foundation builds on Authority/Subversion because we all recognize there is such a thing as legitimate authority, but we don’t want authoritarians crossing the line into tyranny. Both the left and the right hate oppression and desire liberty, but for different reasons.

The left wants liberty for the underdogs and victims (coinciding with their emphasis on Fairness/Cheating). The right wants liberty from government intrusion.


Haidt believes the left relies primarily on the Care and Fairness and Liberty foundations, while the right appeals to all six. I think he’s right.

On a somewhat related note, one of the fastest ways I can tell if someone leans right or left is by asking a simple question: “What is the bigger threat to our country today: big government or big business?” Those on the left almost always see the government as protecting against big business, and those on the right almost always see the big business as fighting governmental overreach.

Originally published at The Gospel Coalition

By / Aug 8

“In the future, it seems, there will be only one ‘ism’—Individualism—and its rule will never end,” said Ross Douthat as he summarized the Pew Research study on the millennial generation—those born between the early 1980’s and 2000. The study revealed that millennials are generally distrusting and increasingly alienated from all major American societal institutions, including the church.

No evangelical Christian should be surprised at this data. We taught the millennials who grew up in our churches to be anti-institutional with slogans like, “Christianity is not a religion it is a relationship,” “Jesus hates religion,” and “Religion says, ‘do’ but Christianity says, ‘done.’” No one can deny such assertions are good marketing strategy to skeptical millennials. Proponents of slogans like, “it’s a relationship not a religion” are attempting to rescue us from religious formalism and dead orthodoxy—a noble cause.

But what if the approach is simply delivering people over to an empty and superficial religious individualism?

Jesus doesn’t hate religion

The major problem with saying Jesus hates religion is that it is not true. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines religion as, “The belief in a god or in a group of gods: An organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods: An interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.” That is pretty consistent with the way the word is used in the Scripture. It is a neutral word that can be used either positively or negatively.

In Acts 17, Luke writes, “So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22)—using the term in a neutral way. Later Paul asserts, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23b) pointing them to genuine religion that is only found through faith and repentance in the risen Christ (Acts 17:31). Elsewhere Paul condemns “self-made religion” (Col. 2:23) and James says a man who has an unbridled tongue may be religious, but his “religion is worthless” (James 1:26). Nevertheless, in the next verse James avers that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

People who have an anti-institutional worldview want a Jesus who hates religion, but they need the real Jesus who established the church, “which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The existence of organized local churches with corporate worship, singing, praying, preaching, pastors, deacons, ordinances and discipline is the work of Jesus Christ. Local churches, “the household of God,” are gospel lighthouses in a dark world and serve as “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Isolated individuals are not described as a pillars and buttresses of the truth. The church as the corporate body of Christ supports the glorious truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ—the exalted head of the church. Trading dead religious orthodoxy for superficial individualistic spirituality is no gain.

I could hardly control my desire to laugh one time at the irony of a preacher’s total lack of self-awareness. He began his sermon with a predictable tirade that “Jesus hates religion and came to abolish religion and call us to a relationship with him,” and moments later he affirmatively read a quote from what he referred to as John Calvin’s classic, Institutes of the Christian Religion. I am fairly certain that Calvin never considered naming his magnum opus the Institutes of the Christian Relationship. Religion can certainly be empty, formal, and dead but so can a relationship.

“Me and Jesus”

I thank God for the fact that Christianity is a religion because it demands that I stop thinking in unhealthy individualistic terms about my personal faith. A “me and Jesus” approach to Christianity leaves us with a privatized and unaccountable faith that views the church as secondary and simply an outlet for me to express my personal faith. So much of the spiritual impotence we see in evangelicalism is the result of catering to the notion that each individual is the center of his own personal faith. The reality that Christianity is a religion that did not begin with us and has historic confessions held by local churches with pastoral leaders is a gift of accountability to the Christian.

The “it’s a relationship, not a religion” approach to Christianity bears a striking resemblance to a couple that says, “We do not need a legal piece of paper to say we love each other. In fact, that would cheapen our relationship and love.” When love is defined emotively and in terms of personal self-fulfillment, then the self-giving formal commitment of a marriage license and the attendant public accountability may very well get in the way of your momentary passions. But genuine love does not focus on receiving, but giving, and it longs to formally commit, because marriage vows and a marriage license represent a pledge of self-sacrificial future love. Likewise, our love for Christ is lived out in a covenant relationship to a local church where we are discipled in the Christian religion.

The doctrine, commands, rituals, structural authority and discipline (religion) Jesus has given us in the institutional church calls us beyond momentary passions to faithful permanence and provides us a binding framework to express and nurture our love for Christ. Marriage is a covenantal and communal act, and so is our faith in Christ. Christianity is not “me and Jesus.” It is better than that. We owe millennials an apology. We allowed marketing and sloganeering to trump truth in trying to get them in our churches. It is time we tell them the gospel truth. Jesus loves religion and they should, too.