As a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Submission Grappling competitor, a training partner of many fighters, a Christian and a preacher of the Gospel, I feel equipped to answer this question fairly.
When the Ultimate Fighting Championship started in the early 90’s it was promoted has having “No Rules” and being “No Holds Barred”. Images were quickly circulated around of bloodied and injured competitors and there was a fear from many that someone could be permanently injured or possibly even killed in the Octagon. Because of this bad publicity many lobbied against the UFC organization and other “Tough Man” type tournaments and pleaded with legislators to impose strict regulations on this seemingly barbaric spectacle.
Fast forward almost 20 years you find a sport that has changed a great deal, no longer is it a no holds barred free for all, but instead it is a highly regulated form of competition where skilled athletes test their abilities against each other. Even with the great changes in the sport of MMA it has had a hard time shaking the stigma of it being “Human Cockfighting”. Many now equate most martial arts such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Muiay Thai, Submission Grappling and forms of Boxing with the troubling images of the early UFCs, such as Tank Abbott mocking John Matua while standing over his brutally KO’ed body. If one spends time researching what actually takes place in most dojos and gyms, they would find places of friendship and respect and not the brutal violence depicted in the early MMA promotions.
Putting all false perceptions aside, what does the Bible teach on the the topic of the Christian and Combat sports? The Bible does not explicitly deal with this question, although there are some clear principles that should be applied.
First and foremost, let’s determine what is not under consideration in this article. This is not an article about self-defense. There are some Christians who promote an idea of extreme pacifism under the guise of “turning the other cheek” that the Bible does not encourage. Through my study I can find no passage of Scripture that would condemn a person for defending themselves or protecting another person from an attacker. In fact, I would say that a Christian has an obligation to protect those who cannot protect themselves.
Second, this is not an article about street-fighting or vengeful violence. The Bible in numerous places condemns being a “brawler” or a “reviler” (Titus 3:2, Gal. 5:19f, 1 Cor. 6:9f). A Christian is never to be one that provokes fights, a Christian should be characterized as being gentle and levelheaded, a Christian should not be easily provoked to anger and should be known as one who is always willing to “walk-away” from an ungodly altercation.
Third, this is not an article about the negative environment of many mma events (half-naked ring girls or dancers, wanna-be tough guys with attitudes, drunkenness etc.) Certain items are clearly sinful in Scripture. I have made the personal choice after attending an mma event live myself I don’t feel right going to certain events or taking my family to them. I came to the personal conclusion that it was not an environment I wanted to be in. This is not to say that all MMA events are this way, but many are.
What is under consideration in this article is mutual combative sports such as boxing, wrestling and mma. Is it wrong for a Christian to engage in these sports? This writer would say that it could be wrong at times, but it does not always have to be the case.
When two individuals agree to engage in wrestling, BJJ or any sport, they should come to the competitive arena with no animosity toward each other. A Christian should not step on the mat with the desire to harm his opponent or seek some sort revenge. The competitor should do all he can to compete fairly and not employ any sort of illegal or “dirty” tactics to inflict unnecessary harm on his opponent. His opponent should be treated with care, consideration, and respect. It is often common for fighters to make comments before a fight along the lines of “I am going to destroy or kill him” or “I am out to hurt him!” If this is one’s attitude toward this competitive venue, they have no business competing and I would say what they are doing is sinful in such a case.
This line of reasoning would apply toward all sports with injury may occur. In football your task may be to tackle the one with the ball, (tackling is an act of aggression and it does hurt). If you go on the field with the goal to tackle a person in a way that causes permanent injury, you would be in the wrong.
I cannot speak for everyone else, but when I compete in BJJ or Grappling tournaments I do not have the desire to harm anyone, but instead to emerge victorious in a sport or even a “game” that I love. This may require a painful submission hold, but my intent is not to injure or hurt out of strife. I shake hands with my opponent before and after the match, if an injury occurs I am concerned for my opponent. Often times I even compete against friends or even teammates, this would not be possible if it was a sport of hate, animosity and violence. God knows the hearts of those who compete.
As for Bible verses that may apply, I believe the Apostle Paul’s illustration of hard work from (2 Timothy 2:1-5) applies.
“You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”
The “crown” in this passage would be an illusion to olive crown given in the ancient Olympic games, which pankration (ancient mma) was a part of. Although this is not an commendation of the sport it is not a condemnation of it either, and it would be strange for Paul to use something that is inherently evil to illustrate a good point. Another passage to note would be (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
It appears again that the dedication, self-control and purpose of a highly trained athlete is commendable from this passage. Note: Paul also mentions the combat sport of boxing.
What can be concluded? Ultimately it is a choice that an individual must make on there own. If participating in a martial arts contest bothers you, don’t do it. If you are one who is prone towards anger and think that you might want to “hurt” someone, don’t compete. If you are one who likes to trash talk or provoke your opponent, don’t compete. If you are disrespectful and like to employ illegal or unfair tactics, don’t compete.
On the other hand, if you have no ill will toward your opponent, if you have treated him with the up most respect and you carry yourself with gentleness and humility I would say it is ok to compete in an agreed upon way. This would include wrestling, boxing or even mma as long as you are not out there to inflict unnecessary harm on your opponent, break the rules or fight out of anger or vengeance.
image from twitter.com/fight_videos