Currently, there are more than 700 evangelical churches in the U.S. that integrate mixed martial arts into their ministry programs. The phenomenon has been featured in a 2014 documentary called “Fight Church.”
Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a combination of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, kickboxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, and Thai boxing. Fighters face off inside a cage, brutally inflicting pain on one another by punching, kicking, elbowing and kneeing each other into submission.
The intensity of the violence of the sport caused the late Senator John McCain to call for a ban on MMA in the U.S. He referred to the sport as “human cockfighting,” a “blood sport,” and a “blood bath.”
The idea that MMA and Christianity are compatible is based on the ideology of Muscular Christianity, a predominately male, Victorian-era movement that linked the gospel with physical and mental toughness.
Two leaders of the movement – Charles Kingsley, a clergyman and a scholar and Thomas Hughes, a Victorian-era author and boxing coach – sought to counter the perceived feminization of church and attract men to the faith.
In the late 19th century British public schools, the muscular Christian ethos was instrumental in the birth of the modern sport. Nevertheless, there was a marked decline in an institutional sport-faith link, which lasted until the 1950s. Protestant Christian leaders like Billy Graham saw sports as an evangelical took and rekindled the church’s promotion of sports.
Since the mid-20th century, multiple sport ministry organizations have been created, such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the U.S. and Christians in Sport in the U.K.
These organizations follow in their Victorian forefather’s footsteps in that they champion sport to attract young men to the faith in an era when the decline of male church membership has been well documented. However, MMA religious communities have refashioned Muscular Christianity to a new level of “high-octane biblical masculinity.”
They proclaim, “Jesus Didn’t Tap.” This refers to the act of submission.
It is the perception of Jesus as a fighter that is the heart of the Christian MMA ethos. This is eagerly embraced by Mark Driscoll, who is a well-known U.S.-based evangelical pastor and supporter of MMA events.
“I don’t think there is anything purer than putting two men in a cage… and just seeing which man is better. And as a pastor, as a Bible teacher, I think God made men masculine… Men are made for combat, men are made for conflict, men are made for dominion,” according to Driscoll.
However, core Biblical teachings challenge the justification and uncritical acceptance of MMA. According to scripture, humans were created in the image of God – imago Dei – and therefore, in the sight of God, human personhood has incredible grandeur and dignity. Secondly, there is the centrality of the call to non-violence in the Bible, which seems to be incompatible with MMA fundamentally. Finally, 1 Corinthians 6:19, the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. What would be the theological basis for the acceptance of intentional and brutal violence against the body and soul in an MMA competition? (Matthew 6:22-23).
Additionally, there is a multitude of medical evidence that shows the risk of traumatic brain injury, concussion, psychiatric conditions, irreversible neurological dysfunction, and possible death. The American Medical Association and the British Medical Association have called for a ban on boxing and MMA repeatedly.
In response, proponents of MMA and boxing focus on the “character-building” qualities of the sports. They suggest they can foster discipline, respect for self and others, a strong work ethic, and offer therapy for anger management for young men who are alienated.
Those who promote MMA and boxing are quick to state that deaths, in absolute terms, are higher in other high-risk sporting activities, such as rugby, skydiving, horse racing, and American football. Nonetheless, what makes boxing and MMA stand out is the principal aim in the rules is to inflict pain and violence to win over an opponent. In other sports, the intention is to merely stop the opposing player from advancing into one’s own territory.
Contradictions abound. When considering the theological and medical evidence and the principal objectives of MMA, how can scripture justify the actions of a Christian MMA fighter? Many other sporting activities are physically demanding, can build character, involve physical contact but do not involve intentionally beating another fighter/player into submission. How do these men reconcile their faith and the health risks?
Scott “Bam Bam” Sullivan conceded, “fighting just didn’t jibe with my prayer life; MMA bouts foster a brutal mind set.”
Professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College and professional boxing coach, Gordon Marino has written extensively about boxing and recently MMA. He interviewed Manny Pacquiao, who is a boxing champion and devout Christian. He asked about the theological dilemma: Is boxing and MMA sinful?
Pacquiao replied, “I think it is wrong that we try to hurt one another, but I also think that God will forgive us because it is our calling.”
Pastor John Renken, a modern-day muscular Christian and the founder of Xtreme Ministries in Nashville argues, it is a place “Where Feet, Fists and Faith Collide.”
By Jeanette Smith
Urban Faith: MIXED MARTIAL ARTS AND CHRISTIANITY: ‘WHERE FEET, FIST AND FAITH COLLIDE’