Why lists of Christians in the public eye aren’t always helpful

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The Olympics are well and truly upon us. America leads the medal table while Great Britain, at the time of writing, seems to be putting on a credible show. As with every Olympics, now is the time to begin a brief, but highly obsessive, relationship with an otherwise obscure sport you never watch. Yes, we can all be “experts” in Equestrian Dressage, Handball and Race Walking now, only to forget all about them in a fortnight for another four years.

Along with newfound interest in sports that were never on our radar, now is also the time for various organisations to wheel out their list of Christian Olympians, presumably for other believers to especially cheer on (yes, truly ours is a higher citizenship than that which corresponds to Team GB). You can see one from The Gospel Coalition and another in Christianity Today. Not entirely sure about the legitimacy of cheering on a Christian athlete as opposed to the one representing your country. Which kingdom takes precedent? Alas, there is no medal table entry for the Kingdom of God.

Which leads me to my question, what is the point of such lists of believers in sport? I in no way want to denigrate the particular athletes who are living out their Christianity in the public eye. In fact, not only do I not want to denigrate it, I actively applaud it. For sure, there is no value in a Christian witness that isn’t witnessed.The Bible is pretty clear about the phenomenon of “secret Christians” (cf. Mat 10:32f) and equally clear about those who profess faith with it having no bearing on their life (cf. Jm 2:14-26). So for those athletes who are believers, it follows that they should be public about their belief.

But, with that said, what are we supposed to do with these lists? If they’re not offered for the purpose of cheering on Team Heaven, what are they there for? I suppose some might say the platform afforded sports stars offers a great chance to witness. We may even point to such stories as that of David Boudia (see here) and their witness to Christ. And whilst I applaud the openness of Boudia in his interview, and really do think his comments were precisely the sort of thing someone whose hope is in Christ really ought to be making under such circumstances, there is a world of difference between such comments being the natural consequence of real belief in Jesus and this being a genuine opportunity for the gospel. That is in no way to belittle Boudia or his comments – I really do think they were honest and spoke to the nature of his real faith – but, though we do know the Lord can use all sorts of means to save some, I suspect his words of themselves will not lead to hordes of people clamouring to find churches to answer the burning question what must I do to be saved?

I am all in favour of Christians talking naturally about being Christians. And what could be more natural than a Christian who wins an event giving thanks to the God they believe gave them the ability to win it? And it seems perfectly natural to be clear that one’s identity is found in Christ, not in the number of medals won. Yet I fear we overstate the value and impact of that as witness. That’s not to say it’s valueless, for under the auspices of an almighty and sovereign God, very little is. But it doesn’t strike me as an overt gospel opportunity nor as terribly likely anybody is going to be saved by such things. These sorts of things seem to be the natural thoughts and views of a Christian person being stated in a natural and ordinary way. And while there is value in that – as there is value in any Christian doing so – I’m still not sure how these lists of Christians in sport, asking us to look out especially for them, add to this.

I guess if that’s all there was to it, it would be no big deal. Pointing out that someone is a Christian, who already publicly says they’re a Christian, is not in itself a problem. But there are two potential problems. The lesser issue, which is nonetheless an issue, is when those who profess faith have a spotlight pointed upon them as “Christians to watch” who then seem to bear no fruit. Often, those desperate to find Christians in the public eye, are too quick to consider those who make professions of faith – or who publicly cross themselves before races – as definitely, one hundred per cent, bona fide Christians. Of course, such thinking causes problems for the everyday witness of ordinary Christians when such people show by the fruit of their lives that such claims were baseless.

But that’s surely a problem we encounter anyway? I hear you cry. Well, to some degree, yes. But that hardly gives us carte blanche to add to the problem. It doesn’t mean we should never ever suggest sports stars and celebrities are Christians, but it should make us a little more circumspect about desperately seeking to claim those in the public eye as our own. Surely better to say nothing at all than to co-opt to the cause of Christ one who ultimately undermines it.

But that really is the secondary, lesser issue. The much bigger issue comes when, seemingly for no other reason than being famous, such people are given platforms that they perhaps ought not to have. I wonder if you remember this man?

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That’s right – one time world record breaking Triple Jumper, Jonathan Edwards. You may also remember that Edwards professed faith in Christ and had a real conversion story. You may also recall that Edwards, by virtue of his celebrity, was called upon to write a number of Christian books, beginning with his conversion story and even being given opportunity to write bible study notes and the like. He now says he no longer believes in God and does not miss his faith (see here and here).

Leaving aside his now open atheism, one must ask what on earth qualified him to write those books? Offering a testimony of your conversion, sure, we’re all qualified to write our own story. But bible study books and/or commentaries? Really?!

And, unfortunately, I fear this is often where these sorts of endorsements lead. A sports star or celebrity identifies as a Christian. Let’s say, by God’s grace, that is a real and genuine result of regeneration. Does being in the public eye qualify one to write Christian literature? I do not recall ‘famous’ or ‘has far-reaching platform’ as a criteria laid down in either 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1. It is usually the allure and potential of a celebrity to reach both their fan base and others who know of them that leads others to ask them to write books and try to use their platform for the gospel. Now, as I said earlier, the likes of David Boudia speaking as a Christian in the public eye in a normal way is quite legitimate enough. But to move beyond that into the realm of commentary and teaching for which you are utterly unqualified on the basis of your platform seems odd at best and totally misguided at worst.

So, by all means, let the Christians in the public eye speak as Christians. Let them witness to Christ’s work in their own lives through the normal things they say and the perfectly natural way in which a Christian might give thanks to the God in which they believe. But let’s be a little circumspect. Let’s not assume every one who points to the heavens or crosses themselves truly know Christ or understands the cross. And perhaps these lists are best left to one side. Let those who witness to Christ do so on their own terms and these lists be anathema.

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