Most Christian sportspeople are aware that respect for the officials, whether as a player, coach or spectator, is expected of them. It’s never easy to remain calm when we feel there’s been an injustice on the pitch and yet Simon Peter, impulsive and energetic, cautions us to ‘get a grip’:
“Dear Friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2 v 11-12).
This is quite a challenge! We are on the pitch as a player and yet again the decision goes against our team and we start to get caught up in the general chorus of complaint. What do we do? We are the coach of the team and ‘yet again’ the hockey umpire ignores the stick-tackle by the big centre back…the football linesman has seemingly missed the offside which leads the opposition to score…the rugby referee looks the other way when there’s an ‘off the ball’ incident against one of our star players…We fume, we start to boil over in what we feel is righteousness indignation (didn’t Jesus get angry in the Temple with the money changers?) and yet we remember that we are called to ‘turn the other cheek’ (Matthew 5 v 39) and to tame our tongue – ‘a fire’ in the body which, as James argues, needs controlling before, like a spark in a dry land, it causes a forest fire (James 3 v 5).
It’s not at all easy to control our emotions when we are passionate about our sport, and especially when we feel there’s been some wrong committed. Peter was writing at a time when the Romans were starting to clamp down on this Jesus-cult and when Jewish leaders continued to speak out against the so-called Galilean heresy. These early Christians experienced real heat, opposition and persecution for their faith. Despite all of this, Peter urged fellow Christians to live ‘good lives among the pagans’ (1 Peter 2 v 12) so as to bring God the glory. Moreover, he argued they should submit themselves to the secular authorities – ‘fear God, honour the King’(1 Peter 3 v 17). By reacting in a way that was unexpected, even contrary to the norm, they would direct attention away from themselves and to God. ‘For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the talk of foolish men’ (1 Peter 3 v 15).
It’s not just outright, even vocal, criticism of the match officials that Peter’s teaching should address. It’s also applicable to ‘playing the ref’; that odd word here and there, the menacing look, the calculated dive or complaint designed to win over the referee or umpire?
As Christians we are called to be like Jesus in all that we do. Later on in 1 Peter 3, we are reminded that despite insults hurled at Him, Jesus did not retaliate. When He was made to suffer, He did not threaten His oppressors. Our actions as sportspeople, on and off the field of play, should be distinctive. We can be passionate about our sport but radically different in the way we react to the decisions of officials, no matter how wrong they appear to have been. Our calling is to point others to our Lord and Saviour, to bring glory to God and honour to His Name. Let’s not rush to criticise the referee in the post-match analysis and let’s not coach players to see what they can ‘get away with’ on the field of play. If you haven’t been an official for a match yet, give it a go and see what it’s like being on the other side. Remember, too, that without a referee, umpire or official, there’s no game!
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