When Church Meets MMA (a review/reflection on “Fight Church” by Nate Pyle)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

On the blog, we often talk about women in the Church, but obviously, religious views on gender affect both women and men. So when I had the opportunity to review Fight Church (created by the same team that made the thoughtful, well-produced documentary Holy Rollers about a group of card-counting Christians), I asked my friend Nate Pyle for his take on the topic. 

Nate is ordained in the Reformed church of America and is the lead pastor of Christ’s Community Church in Fishers, Indiana. He blogs at www.natepyle.com and is also a writer for A Deeper Story. Nate is also the author of the forthcoming book Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood, which is due out in the Fall of 2015. 


“Can you love your neighbor as yourself and then, at the same time, knee him in the face as hard as you can?”

This is the question that mixed martial arts (MMA) instructor Scott Sullivan asks during an interview featured in the new documentary, Fight Church.

Fight Church documents the growing number of churches, upwards of 700 by some accounts, that are incorporating mixed martial arts into their ministries. The documentary, which was produced by Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel, follows a number of pastors (yes pastors) who not only promote MMA ministries at their church but are also fighters themselves. 

When I was asked to review the film, I’ll admit my left eyebrow went up. High. The idea of two grown men climbing into a caged ring in the name of Jesus seems absolutely ludicrous to me.

Throughout the movie you regularly hear some variation of the refrain, “I fight for the glory of God.” For these men, the idea that God has given them the ability to fight sanctifies their efforts to bloody the nose of the other guy. There seems to be little question as to whether they should fight or not, it is simply taken for granted that, because they are a fighter, God wants them to fight. Only now, rather than fighting for their own personal glory, they fight for God’s glory.

Listen, I get that the Bible says, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him,” (Colossians 3:17) but I highly doubt putting someone in a choke hold and simultaneously punching them in the temple is what was intended when that was written - especially considering that the verse follows the commands to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.”

...My lack of objectivity is showing.

Thankfully, the directors were much more objective than I. They present both the opinions of those who are positive about MMA ministries and those who wrestle with it (pun intended)  in such a way that allows the story to tell itself. The viewer is not led to any conclusions, but is left to decide for himself or herself if MMA and following Jesus are compatible.  Should churches promote fighting? How does one reconcile fighting, even regulated fighting, with following Jesus? These are the questions raised by the film, but rather than answering them for us, Storkel and Junge skillfully tell the story and then seem to ask: What do you think?

So here’s what I think.

I think the incorporation of MMA into church ministries is part of a pile of evidence that suggests American Christianity has been impacted by American ideals more than we like to admit. Strength, success, courage, individualism, sticking up for yourself, and victory are deeply ingrained into the American psyche. These values are especially strong for American men. If we want to be perceived as men, then we have to prove ourselves and our manliness by embodying these values. Every man feels it whether they voice it or not. We must, as men, prove ourselves. And so we are cajoled to “man up,” “don’t be a girl,” or “be a real man.” Any sign of weakness--physical or emotional-- is evidence that one is less than a man.

There is a scene in the film where a young boy prepares himself to fight another boy. The boy, who is 12, thinks “fighting is fun” and confidently looks forward to the fight because the boy he is fighting is a year younger and weighs 90 pounds to his 110 pounds. As he looks at the person interviewing him he smiles and gleefully says, “I’m going to go in there and rip his head off.”

Any discerning person will begin to wonder about the message we are communicating to our kids when we teach them to fight. In church. With the blessing of God. 

With rampant bullying and violence in schools, is fighting really something the church should be teaching our kids? 

As troubling as that may be, it is what comes next that really troubles me.

The two kids get into the ring and the 12 year old loses. Badly. After the fight, he is with his trainers, in tears because he was just humiliated in the ring by a kid who was a year younger, a couple inches shorter, and 20 pounds lighter. My heart went out to this poor kid. His tears weren’t tears born out of physical pain, but out of shame. I know those tears. I’ve cried those tears. And despite the axiom, they didn’t build character in me, but left a gaping wound as I wondered about my masculinity. This young boy was being taught that real men fight and real men beat their opponents and now he just lost. What does that imply about him? 

He’s not a man.

Shame born out of an emasculating wound can result in an anxious masculinity where one constantly worries about whether or not people see him as a man. When this happens to you, you work diligently  to prove you are a man by engaging in hyper-masculine activity so that no one dares to question your manliness. You never back down from a fight, you don’t let any one disrespect you, and you see a fight where there is none all so you feel secure as a man.

I can’t help but wonder if putting kids into the cage sets them up to forever misunderstand masculinity, to always question if they are enough, and to embrace a definition of manhood that demands they be a shell of the human God is calling them to be.

In our culture, the combination of MMA and church happens because the warrior is valued and put on a pedestal. Real men prepare for battle. Real men don’t back down. Real men don’t tap. But all this talk of “real men” makes following Jesus look weak. Turn the other cheek? Do good to your enemies? Submit yourself, willingly, to another person? These are foreign ideas for an American male who is taught to fiercely compete against other men for their place in the world. In the case of MMA, the whole goal is to get the other person to submit to you, to tap out, so that you can be victorious. The last thing you want to do is submit to another person. And so we dismiss the words of Jesus and cherry pick the verses about Peter getting a sword and the Lord training our fingers for battle so that we don’t have to question our current understanding of masculinity.

Following Jesus just might make men appear less than manly in the eyes of the American culture. When people complain that the church is too feminine, I always want to ask, Compared to what? Compared to John Wayne? Yes.  Compared to the cheap seats at a NFL game? Duh. Of course the church is going to be more feminine than other areas of American society. Half the people in the church are female! The church better have a feminine and masculine feel because both genders are a part of the body of Christ and both genders are to be represented as the church lives out her mission to be salt and light.

For hundreds of years people, particularly men, have been bemoaning the overly feminized state of the church. Fight Church highlights the effort of so many to give Christianity a masculine feel, hoping to attract men to church. “Tough men need Jesus too,” says one pastor.

And, yes, they do. But they don’t need Jesus to make them tougher, or to sanctify their pre-existing aggressive disposition. They need Jesus to redeem their whole person, transforming them into a new creation.


Follow Nate on Twitter. And be sure to check out Fight Church. Looks like a good conversation-starter! 

Anyone else seen it? Thoughts? 

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