Referees: It's a question of authority

Date posted: 19/10/18



Referees are rarely out of the sports news. Take last year's Champions League quarter-finals for example. Beforehand, two things seemed inevitable: Firstly that there would be some fantastic football, secondly that there would be at least one instance of refereeing controversy. 

Cue Real Madrid versus Bayern Munich and no fewer than three controversial moments, a dubious penalty for Bayern, a Ronaldo goal that looked offside, and a red card (second bookable offence) for a seemingly clean tackle by Vidal. As the players surrounded Hungarian referee, Viktor Kassai, airing their protestations the fans (both sides) took to social media to express their frustration, posting pictures of referees with white canes. It was all strangely predictable. 

So what does the Bible say about referees – and officials in general?



Most Christians have a sense that they should at least respect the referee, even if in the heat of the moment they forget themselves and join in the chorus of dissent. But what about ‘playing the referee’? Aren’t professional fouls, and getting away with what you can, just part of being a ‘savvy’ player? 

A good place to start is with our attitude to referees. Jesus said: “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6 v 45 NIV). So, if we get frustrated with the referee or in the heat of the moment say or do things that on reflection we regret, it is worth looking at our hearts  . 

It is so easy to react without thinking on the sports field, especially when a decision goes against us. It is hard to do in practice, but we need to think first before we consider criticising the referee or umpire. Indeed, how we respond to authorities, on the sports field and elsewhere, can be a significant witness to those who don’t yet know Jesus.


What does the Bible say about?

In 1 Peter 2 v 12-16 Christians are urged to live ‘good lives’ that cause people to glorify God - that is our goal. Part of this is submitting to ‘every human authority’ and for Peter’s original readers this included the emperor Nero.

The reason this is worth noting is that whilst in the first century under Nero’s rule there was not state-wide persecution of Christians (which came later), Roman authorities were pretty scathing of this small Galilean cult (as they saw it) and Jews and Christians alike were shocked at the emperor’s extravagance and immorality. So, to call Christians to respect and submit to such a person would have been very counter-intuitive to say the least.

This is not to compare referees to an immoral Roman emperor but it is to make the point that if Christians were called to submit to the authority of such a person then surely we should gladly submit to referees who with a few very rare exceptions are people trying to do their best for the good of the sport. 

Submission to a referee must impact the view of ‘playing the ref’. If by playing the referee we mean responding to their calls in the game then that is fine, but if we mean trying to manipulate the referee to get him or her to favour you in some way or getting away with as much prohibited behaviour unnoticed as you can then this clearly isn’t ‘submitting’. 



Our attitude to the referee and umpires as well as our actions should be very different. We should not be looking to get away with as much as we can without getting caught - this is hardly distinctive or God-glorifying - instead we should be seeking to act in a way that affirms their authority and promotes the good of the game.

That will mean things like not rushing to criticise the referee in the post-match changing room discussion, praising him or her when they officiate well and encouraging your teammates to do the same.  After all - (apart from ultimate frisbee) if there’s no referee then there’s no game!


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Pete NicholasPete Nicholas, Inspire Church, London
Pete is one of the pastors at Inspire Church in London and works part-time for Christians in Sport. He is also the co-author of 'Virtually Human', a book about the impact of technology in our digital age.