2008January3, Thursday

North Is OK, But Football I Hate; Or, How Sports Beat the Church at Its Own Game

Posted in Uncategorized at 21:29 by Trey Austin

So, my very good friend, Tim, has invited my comments about an article by Gary North about how sports mania has a certain covenantal aspect to it.

First of all, i do hate football, but not Gary North. I don’t mind North’s tone; i just figure he’s writing as if he’s correct in what he says, even if he’s not. I’m a late-date Revelation guy, and an Amillennialist, so we’re not going to agree on all those things, but i still appreciate much of what he has to say, including much of what he said in the article.

One of the main points which i think is at the heart of North’s article—even if he just mentions it tangentially—is the fact that liturgy is inherent. There is no such thing as a church that has no liturgy—not even the completely atheistic churches that worship sweaty men that jump all over each other and chase air-filled, oblong, laced, leather balls. There is always a tradition, a certain way of doing things, a ceremony, and, of course, a core symbolism to everything that is done in one’s worship. This is important precisely because this is how the people are drawn into and participate in the corporate, Covenant reality of that which you worship and that which you recognize as your representative.

It is important for us to understand the reality of representation, or as we say, Federal Headship. In a certain sense, sports fans recognize representation better than many Christians do. I have often poked fun at people (including my wife, who is an avid Giants fan) who say things like, “We’re going all the way this year!” or “We’re about to score again!” They internalize and personalize for themselves everything that goes on in the games, because all the fans are represented in the players in their minds and hearts. This really is a religious fervency that is at the heart of the Christian message, but is given to another object of worship, with, as North said, different sacraments as well.

It is important, though, to point out what i believe to be an important distinction in the term “Covenantal.” What is it to be “Covenantal”? Is this whole thing about Federal Headship the heart of what we call “Covenant Theology”? There are some who claim so, and downplay any other aspect of Covenant Theology as irrelevant. If that is the case, though, then the so-called “Covenantal Baptists” are just as Covenantal as Presbyterians who hold to that kind of “Covenant Theology.” I don’t agree, though, that our Calvinistic or Sovereign Grace Baptist brothers are Covenantal, and that is clearly demonstrable in how they regard the Church and how they regard, especially, children of belivers. This thing about the Covenants in Adam and in Christ, however, is a different thing from what we typically speak of when we speak of Covenant Theology; it is what, through the time of the so-called “Second Reformation,” became known as Federalism, Federal Theology, or “High Federalism.” Those who are strongly devoted to the Puritans (as many Calvinistic Baptists are, as well as many Presbyterians who follow the same vein) would see this as the heart of Covenant Theology, and that’s because many of the Puritans so emphasized it, along with a view of the Covenant that was strongly contractual and legal in its language and understanding, downplayed the personal, communal, and corporate aspects of the Covenant—not completely, but it was far less—in relation to this grand idea of Federal Headship.

Now, i personally believe that the idea of Christ’s Federal Headship goes right along with the Federal Headship of households and churches, which is that other, less emphasized aspect of Covenant Theology—and most likely Gary North does as well—but there is clearly a distinction that Calvinsitic Baptists emphasize, and also that many Reformed Presbyterians emphasize as well. In this respect, though, North’s article is absolutely right that sports mania is a real replacement for a theocentric kind of religion (though, not the only one, as i am seeing just this hour watching C-SPAN the Republican Iowa Caucuses, there are overt and real religious overtones to the political process today, as well). 

So, he is right to emphasize the representative nature of this religious phenomenon, but what he doesn’t emphasize is the communal aspect of it as well, which comes with the representative nature of things. In other words, when you have committed yourself to a particular representative in such activities as major league sports, you also commit yourself to a group of people who also have made that very same commitment. That means that you have people to identify with in the ritual (face/body painting, gatherings around the big-screen “altar” with tailgating or beer, pizza, and hot wings sacraments, &c.) that draw those people closer to one another into a cohesive community against a common enemy. These lines of demarcation are firm and fast, again, often forged in childhood based on the allegiances that one’s fathers and grandfathers had to teams they were devoted to from their own childhoods.

So, when it comes to sports, and football in particular, the “Covenantalism” that it engenders among its adherants is more than just which “Messiah” or representative whose exploits they wish to claim and extol, but, i would say, moreso, the real Covenantalism that we see is with the generational nature of such manic fans for certain football teams and, especially, the community that it engenders, for which Americans, steeped in the individualistic and selfish mentality, are so starved. They find fellow “believers” to be their “brothers,” and they have common enemies (with an even greater commitment from many people when their team is the underdog and perceived as being persecuted and put down) whom they are serious about opposing.

There are lots of points we could bring out about the implications of a real Covenantalism that we really are lacking in the Christian faith and that people crave so much that they are willing to find it anywhere—even in an innocuous and trivial place like professional sports. After all, people put their money into that which is important to them, and the fact that professional sports is such a high-dollar enterprise shows that they treasure it. If people gave their money to the Church in the proportions that they do to sports franchises, and if they respected and revered faithful pastors and theologians the way they do sports stars, this would be a different culture, nation, and civilization as a whole. But the people won’t change their devotion until they see something more fulfilling somewhere else. In other words, this is a problem with the way Christians have showed the world who and what the Church actually is. Until we begin to be a community that rivals the surface and trivial communities people devote themselves to today, we will never be successful in changing the fabric of our culture and world.



  1. Mike Spreng said,

    “If people gave their money to the Church in the proportions that they do to sports franchises, and if they respected and revered faithful pastors and theologians the way they do sports stars, this would be a different culture, nation, and civilization as a whole.” This is not said enough within the church! I love sports…for playing with my kids.

  2. […] UPDATE: Trey has posted a response here. […]

  3. Steve H said,

    I am glad God has gioven both religion and sportsd in this world. Much can be taught about the faith through sports analogies as we have seen within scripture.

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