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April 27th, 2014
07:46 AM ET

Punch thy neighbor? 'Fight church' doesn't turn the other cheek

Opinion by Paul Burress, Special to CNN

(CNN)– As I sat backstage, I could hear the sound of thousands cheering as they waited for me to enter the ring.

“Lord put your covering over me,” I prayed in a whisper. “Use me as a witness. Use me to be a billboard for you."

I’m a pastor by trade, and the next morning I was set to preach the Easter sermon.

But on that night, I was preparing for something else entirely. This wasn’t the normal, churchgoing crowd.

I was about to enter the cage and compete in a mixed martial arts bout.

When I tell people I’m a pastor and a mixed martial arts fighter, I usually get some puzzled looks.

“How can you preach the Word of God participate in such brutal activity?” people ask. “Didn’t Jesus teach us to love one another?”

People are right to ask these questions, but wrong to assume that the sport of mixed martial arts isn’t compatible with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Quite the contrary.

Like many competitive sports, mixed martial arts can be considered violent, but it’s not hateful or destructive. It teaches us how to contain and control our most violent impulses through strength, discipline and perseverance—none of which are at odds with Christianity.

When I step into the cage, I do so to compete, not to kill; there is not an ounce of spite or ill will in my heart.

More importantly, my job as a pastor is to help lead people to Jesus, to set them on a better path. To do so, my ministry needs to be relevant, to speak to people on their own terms and in their own language.

As the Bible says: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:21-22)

God has put me on this earth to fight and to save. And though on the surface those two missions—spreading a message of peace and teaching people how to throw hard right cross—seem to stand opposed, they can work hand in hand.

Growing up, I wrestled and did martial arts with my father who was also a pastor. When I went to college, I connected with a man named Glenn Cozzens who was running a fight school at the time in the basement of a church.

We trained like beasts back then, traveling from gym to gym, fight school to fight school, fighting anyone and everyone to share our knowledge of the art and learn from theirs.

This was long before MMA was cool or even close to acceptable, but we were Christians and quickly saw the opportunity to minister to men and women about Jesus and the Bible.

Some of the people we met would otherwise never have learned about faith. They were drug addicts and gang members, and generally a rough crowd.

We shared the simple word of the Bible: That we are all messed up and flawed as human beings, but that God doesn’t care where we’ve been - what’s important to him is where we’re going, that we’re headed towards Jesus.

A scene from the upcoming documentary "Fight Church."

Our ministry was really able to point people in the right direction—not just towards loving Christ, but also towards loving their fellow human beings.

Mixed martial arts gave these young people a place to focus their energies, let out frustration and build real, lasting relationships with people who would help them grow.

More importantly it gave these them a chance to establish a life-long relationship with Jesus.

I went on to become a chaplain with Good News Jail and Prison Ministry, where I also taught members of law enforcement how to defend themselves.

Today, I am the pastor at Victory Church, where we have an MMA gym actually in the church.

That might seems strange to some, but Victory isn’t just a place where people go to train, it is a family, united by God.

We reach out to people seeking to find their way in life without passing judgment, we strive to foster an atmosphere where everyone can feel comfortable and everyone can relate to one another. I believe this is real love in action.

I’m forever in awe of the incredible things God does through our church. I’ve seen men who were street brawlers now living structured, loving lives. And I’ve seen drug addicts overcome their addictions.

All of this is because of mixed martial arts—and Jesus—working in tandem. There is no conflict in their combination.

Faith and fighting saved my life and those of many others in my ministry, and whatever preconceived notions some people may have, the results speak for themselves.

I am not a phenomenal fighter nor am I a phenomenal preacher. I’m just a regular guy trying to do the best I can with what God has given me—both from the cage and from the pulpit.

Editor’s Note: Paul Burress is the pastor of Victory Church, in Rochester, New York, and is featured in the new documentary Fight Church. The film was directed by Bryan Storkel and Daniel Junge. The views expressed in this column belong to Burress.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Church • Faith • Movies • Opinion • Sports • Violence

soundoff (98 Responses)
  1. codenine75a

    Yes, punch thy neighbor. Kick thy father and slap thy mother. Honor thy devil as the golden rule and the devil will give you golden praises too.

    May 19, 2014 at 3:05 pm |
  2. joeyy1

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZeedE8vH1FQ&w=640&h=390]

    May 10, 2014 at 1:15 pm |
  3. idiotusmaximus

    How can you preach the Word of God participate in such brutal activity?” people ask. “Didn’t Jesus teach us to love one another?”

    Don't tell the EVANGELICALS that...they believe they're in a war with the rest of the world....BECAUSE THEY WON'T BECOME EVANGELISTS AND BELIEVE AS THEY DO......that makes them all SATAN'S CHILDREN, that includes all other Christians too and must be converted or eliminated.

    May 8, 2014 at 11:09 am |
  4. hearthetruthonline2014

    Online at http://www.Hear-The-Truth.com

    http://HearTheTruth.imgur.com

    May 4, 2014 at 1:03 pm |
    • thomtrue

      what bible is that from.? its not the truth at all. no where in rev does God ever said All the people of the world have satan in them. its a filthy lie and you know it.

      May 8, 2014 at 9:40 am |
  5. unsername1

    churches have been fighting for generations, nothing new...remember a war between protestants and catholics in Northern Ireland!!!!

    May 3, 2014 at 1:20 pm |
  6. jbhollen

    God throws plagues and famine at unsuspecting populations and commits indiscriminate slaughter of those who displease him. I think a church that passes out a good beating now and then is more textually appropriate than those where people sing songs and hold their hands over their heads.

    April 29, 2014 at 12:17 pm |
    • idiotusmaximus

      God throws plagues and famine at unsuspecting populations and commits indiscriminate slaughter of those who displease him.........MAKES SENSE TO ME.....

      LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL........so that's why all the TORNADOES, FLOODS AND RAIN in the BIBLE BELT.....well shut ma mouth!

      May 8, 2014 at 11:13 am |
  7. calvinbobbs

    "Like many compet.itive sports, mixed martial arts can be considered violent, but it’s not hateful or destructive."

    Wrong. Mixed martial arts bouts are destructive. Every time a punch is landed, brain cells are destroyed with lasting consequences.

    April 28, 2014 at 6:54 pm |
  8. burtward

    A local Tulsa pastor and his church tried holding fights in the church fellowship hall. He said it gives character and takes kids off the streets in a way that he couldn't get them to attend any other way. Tiny winy problem though. One of his prize parishoners got into the ring, got his chocolate knocked out if him and died right there in the ring in the middle of the fellowship hall. That started a chain reaction of events that my bankrupt the church. First of all, he really did think holding public fights in the church building was exempt from all state and federal law. Wrong bucko, dead wrong. Not only did he bring the wrath of OSHA, he brought the wrath of the state boxing board and health department. You see, to run a public fight program in the state, you must file for a license to do so. He did not do that and that's a fine right there. SO, because none of his fighters had got a medical certificate, that brought the health department. But that's just the start of his problems. Because of the lack of medical certificates, the family of the dead guy plans to sue the church. That means the church hires an attorney to fight the possible total loss of their church.
    Is it worth it?

    April 28, 2014 at 11:07 am |
    • igaftr

      Sounds like criminal negligence. He's Lucky if they don't hold him responsible for the death and put him away. I'm not saying he doesn't deserve it, just saying he's lucky if they don't charge him with the death.

      April 28, 2014 at 11:23 am |
  9. Alias

    The #1 rule about fight church is YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT FIGHT CHURCH.
    You are all in big trouble now!

    April 28, 2014 at 11:02 am |
  10. huhhmm

    No, fighting is not compatible with the gospel of Jesus. On many occasions the loser gets his face bloodied, hospitalized, sometimes barely able to move. Think about what the wife and kids have to go through seeing their father beaten to a pulp. Sometimes this doesn't happen and its all fun and games. But I've seen a lot of fighters in all the fighting sports who get beaten time after time because they are mid-tier fighters who cannot get another job due to significant brain damage.

    April 28, 2014 at 10:29 am |
    • Alias

      " I've seen a lot of fighters in all the fighting sports who get beaten time after time because they are mid-tier fighters who cannot get another job due to significant brain damage"

      Well that sent the BS meter right off the scale.

      April 28, 2014 at 11:13 am |
  11. jonathanlk

    I don't imagine that 'loving thy neighbor' and 'turning the other cheek' works well in a boxing ring. Is he demonstrating hypocracy? Preach one thing and doing another. But I guess hypocracy is Godly. The lord claims to be a jealous god and then command 'though shalt no envy' in old english. Also he says 'thou shalt not kill' in a deep voice in old english, yet he hath killeth many, drowning babies and mommies and daddies alike during the great flood, also he said 'thou shalt not commit adultery' and then making Josephs fiancee pregant. I guess 'do as I say, not as I do' must be a very old religious tradition.

    April 28, 2014 at 10:29 am |
  12. Dyslexic doG

    you have to love religion.

    First: imagine your own fantasy world with all its own rules and then Second: add the magic ingredient ... "god" said that this is what he wants. Suddenly your fantasy world is the truth and the way. It's god's word. Come sheeple! Come and listen to god's instruction and do exactly what I say!

    what a giggle.

    April 28, 2014 at 9:42 am |
  13. tallulah131

    First rule of Fight Church: You do not talk about Fight Church

    April 28, 2014 at 2:41 am |
  14. holacem

    Preacher preach the Word! He preach on Sunday and also when he fight, great for him.

    April 27, 2014 at 10:27 pm |
  15. Vic

    [
    "I am not a phenomenal fighter nor am I a phenomenal preacher. I’m just a regular guy trying to do the best I can with what God has given me—both from the cage and from the pulpit."
    ]

    That says it all. This is not about being out of the ordinary, this about reaching out to people with the Good News of Jesus Christ while being a regular person.

    Christians are every day people, like every body else, they could be of any discipline, vocation or profession.

    Now, regarding MMA itself, to me, it is much like kickboxing, fisticuffs/boxing, and cage fighting, which I find to be sort of blood sports, like cockfighting, that I personally don't care for.

    p.s. This effort reminds me of the Missions for the homeless and Alcoholics Anonymous.

    April 27, 2014 at 9:00 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      Non-believers are normal people too. "Reaching out to people with the good news", (or what IN YOUR OPINION) happens to be what you happen to think, is the "good news" is *militant proselytizing*. Christians call out atheists for being "militant", even while doing EXACTLY the same thing, couched in "pious" words.

      April 27, 2014 at 9:43 pm |
      • sam stone

        i agree with buckyball. we are reaching out with good news that sin, heaven and hell are hoaxes. there is no boogieman who wil torture at the end of your life.

        April 28, 2014 at 5:30 am |
    • Garet

      the gospel is literally the 'Good News'. and it's good too.
      i agree with Vic on his views of this preacher.

      while i disagree with the aethiest view, i never thought of ya'll as particularly militant. on the contrary, christianity is very much a spiritual war and that view is there on purpose, sooooo yea. no one tryin' to hide it ;p

      May 15, 2014 at 7:41 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.