From Eric Liddell to Tim Tebow, Christians have long made connections between the world of faith and the world of sports. Even Paul in the New Testament connected the Christian life to a series of Olympic events (race, marathon, wrestling, boxing). So it’s no surprise that if you’re a Christian and an athlete, you’ll have a platform in churches and other faith groups. On my shelf I still have a Fellowship of Christian Athletes Bible with testimonies from Christian NBA stars. These connections are made with good reason. In a Christian’s life there will be adversity, opposition, difficulty, and all of these need to be met with the same perseverance, dedication, and endurance that an athlete needs to achieve their goals. This is well and good, until we reach a point where we begin to create a hero-worship culture.
What do I mean by that? Instead of admiring athletes (or other known people, actors, musicians, pastors, etc.) for their faith in their Savior, we begin to base our faith on these celebrity Christians. It’s a subtle shift, but it’s a dangerous reality. When we pedestal these men & women, we do so not only to our harm but also do harm to the cause of the Gospel. If you don’t believe this is true, try telling a die-hard Tebow-maniac that he just doesn’t have the tools to make it as an NFL quarterback. When we put athletes or other celebrity Christians on a pedestal and platform only worthy of Jesus, we run the risk of setting ourselves up for an unavoidable train collision when we realize that the hero we have celebrated and worshiped lets us down because s/he is just as fallen as we are.
Case in point: Recently news broke of Adrian “AD” Peterson struggling with the loss of a son at the hands of an abusive man. The story is tragic and demands for us as Christians to pray not only for AD, the mother, but also for the abuser that he finds Jesus and receives the forgiveness for a horrific act that only Jesus can give. Twitter blew up with support from fellow athletes, but also from churches. AD has publicly worn his faith, and Christians have rightly admired his athletic ability. Check this out where he blows up William Gay of the Steelers.
But as the story unraveled, the hero was found to be fallen. A Christian Post article interviewed a former girlfriend who acknowledged she also has an out-of-wedlock son with AD, and that she knows of at least six others. While we must use discernment and not jump to conclusions, we are confronted with a sad story: another pro athlete who isn’t quite as Superman as we’d thought, who struggles the same way we do, and who has to watch his fall from grace on national TV. Sadly, there have been far too many Christian celebrities who were elevated to a place only fit for Jesus, only to discover the fall from the top hurts worse than any linebacker hit.
How do we avoid falling into this vicious cycle of celebrity Christian disappointment? I want to propose three ways.
- Enjoy sports, worship Jesus – Worship is more than a service or song, it’s a condition of the heart that pledges unyielding allegiance, whole-hearted devotion, and the placement of supreme value to someone. Only Jesus is worthy of that. Every Christian celebrity, no matter how protected or seemingly flawless, cannot satisfy the deepest longings of the heart.
- Christian celebrities point to Jesus – Sometimes we use Christians in the spotlight to show that not all of us are Ned Flanders. It’s fine and good to point out the public faith that these men/women exhibit, but it can’t stop there. Any time we use a Christian celebrity as a reference point, we have to go the extra step and point people to Jesus. It’s not enough to admire the faith of Tim Tebow or Josh Hamilton, but we have to point people to the object of their worship – Jesus Christ. Only He is worthy of our affections, loyalty, devotion, and worship. Any other celebrity we elevate to that point (whether we realize it or not) is an idol.
- When they fall, learn – Notice that I didn’t say if they fall, but when. The Bible teaches us that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We also see from Scripture that even as Christians we wrestle with the flesh until the day we die (cf. Romans 7:7-25). So when we see our Christian celebrities fall from their platform that we put them on, the only right and godly thing to do is to repent & learn. We must repent of our idolatry to expect fallen people to be & do what only Jesus can. And we must learn from these examples that none of us are exempt from sin. Our sin struggles won’t lead Sportscenter but they will have an effect.
Christians in the spotlight occupy a tight scrutiny, and are under a microscope to the highest degree. We must be mindful to pray for those who have this platform, that in everything they do their Savior would receive the glory only due Him. And when they fall, we must resist the urge to pile on like a loose football. The beauty of the Gospel is that it is just as much for the church kid who grew up in Sunday school as it is for the pro athlete with multiple baby mommas, the actor dealing with a drug addiction, or the famous pastor struggling with hidden sins. And in that Savior, the real Hero, is found the freedom, joy, and grace that cannot be found anywhere else.
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