Should Christians Participate in Combat Sports?

When we started our church plant for Resurrection SD, we hoped to create a balanced environment where we celebrated the beauty of both masculine and feminine elements of the church. As part of that goal, we decided to host an outreach event around an upcoming UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) mixed-martial arts competition. Many of our church attendees were either fans or practitioners of mixed-martial arts, and it seemed to be a perfect way to invite friends to a church event that wasn’t “churchy.”  Or so we thought.

Almost immediately, we received pushback from both men and women in our congregation. Some wondered how physical violence and aggression could ever be profitable? Some (not all) of the men in our congregation who struggle with same-sex attraction helpfully pointed out how the competitions reinforced certain cultural stereotypes of masculinity that they had lived under and battled against all their lives. In light of this feedback, we had to reevaluate our position. Was there any place in the Christian life for combat sports? After much reflection, this is what we learned.

A Matter of Law—A Training Ground

Jesus, speaking against retaliation, said, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:38). The Westminster Larger Catechism, one of the great documents of the Protestant Reformation, went to great lengths to understand exactly what we are obligated to do under the sixth commandment, “Thou shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13). It taught that the biblical command goes beyond just the bare requirement to not murder, but also prohibits any unnecessary violence against our neighbor—including “striking” and “wounding” (WLC Q: 136).

Are combat sports “unnecessary violence against our neighbor”? The Ten Commandments, however, are comprehensive in that they encompass both the negative and positive elements exhibited in each command. In other words, just as the sixth commandment requires that we not destroy life (the negative element), it also commands that we do whatever is in our power to preserve life (the positive element), and therefore the Law requires us to be prepared to make “just defense against violence” (WLC Q: 135). This preparation happens with combat sports. Let me explain.

When I was in high school, I trained at one of the leading karate dojos in San Diego. One night, two of our black belts were attacked by street thugs outside a movie theater and badly beaten. How could this happen to black belts? Simple—all of our training revolved around practicing forms and simple no-contact sparring. We had no idea if what we were learning could offer up a “just defense against violence,” since it had never been tested. And this is exactly what full contact combat sports offer—a proving ground for testing real life combat situations.

Law enforcement agencies—and all those who protect us—rely on the experience gained from full-contact combat sports to know what will work, and what won’t work, when it matters most. Combat sports are therefore a training ground and resource for real life emergencies. Therefore, combat sports are a necessary part of being prepared to make a “just defense against violence” in a fallen world. For those who understand this aspect of the sixth commandment, and value and appreciate the art and discipline involved in training, the practice of combat sports can be good and profitable.

A Matter of Wisdom—Retaining the Good While Rejecting the Bad

Sometimes, however, the problem with something good isn’t the thing itself, but what the thing is packaged in. Never has this been more apparent than in the recently shady shenanigans surrounding the so-called “Money-Fight” between boxing champion Floyd “Money” Mayweather and mixed-martial-arts star Conor “The Notorious” McGregor. What could have been an equally entertaining pre-fight promotion campaign that focused on the perseverance, stamina, integrity, dedication, and skill of the individual fighters turned out instead to be a media-driven bacchanalia of unfettered testosterone overdose—pride, profanity, promiscuity, violent threats, racist comments, and emasculating slurs. And the worse part of it? All of it was done as theater to entice, enflame, and exploit the weakened moral constitutions of sin-suffering men.

It is not the sanctified spirit that delights in the swagger of Conor McGregor or the rampant greed of Floyd Mayweather. It is the lust of the flesh and the pride of life seeking to live out vicarious fantasies of supremacy through them. The heart is not able to immerse itself in these secret temptations without being transformed into their images. As Christians we must be careful. We can easily let the love of a sport lead us into uncritically defending the snares of sin set in place to sell out arenas at the expense of souls.

A Matter of Love—People Are More Important Than Our Rights

We also need to admit that combat sports are not for everyone. They are aggressive. There are injuries. And even though combat sports are no worse than some other professional sports, bleeding from the face looks a lot worse than a torn knee ligament. In retrospect, the biggest mistake made with our UFC outreach was to announce it as a church-wide event. By doing so, we were asking everyone in the church to approve the event, when we should have realized that some people would have real, principled objections.

What then should we do when a brother or sister in Christ has a conscientious objection to something lawful that we enjoy? Should we demand our rights at their expense? By no means! The apostle Paul said that rather than demanding our rights, we should voluntarily limit our freedom in Christ for the sake of our brother’s conscience. To paraphrase Paul from the book of Romans:

Do not, for the sake of [combat sports], destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he [approves]….We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. (Rom. 14:20, 15:1-2)

And why should we do this? Why should we voluntarily limit our freedom in Christ for the sake of our neighbor? Because Christ did the same for us: “For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me’” (Rom. 15:3). Jesus, the strongest of all, didn’t have to take upon himself the consequences of the insult of our self-serving pride directed at God, but he voluntarily bore our sins so that we could be free.  If Jesus was willing to do this for us, certainly we can bear with the sensitive consciences of others by not asking them to approve what they find offensive. This is our duty—and our joy—as God’s children.

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Robert Novak is the organizing pastor of Resurrection SD, a church plant in downtown San Diego.

This article was originally published at Beautiful Christian Life on October 17, 2017, under the title “Combat Sports and the Christian.”

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