Should Christians Participate in the Martial Arts?
The following material is used with permission and clearly highlights the complexities and delicacy of Christian participation in the martial arts. While it does not alter our fundamental conclusions, it provides some very important information that needs consideration.
Three Personal Testimonies
Bill Rudge is the founder of the Christian Martial Arts Association (CMAA). He acknowledges that there are many committed Christians who feel justified before the Lord to remain in the martial arts. However, he also realizes that many others clearly feel led by the Lord to discontinue involvement. In 1994, he published information about his background in the martial arts and the specific reasons he decided to forsake all involvement with these methods. He says that one reason for writing was due to the large number of Christians around the world, both students and instructors, who had been contacting him to discover why he had left the martial arts, or who were struggling with the issue of their continued personal involvement. Budge had traveled throughout the country and had “spent considerable time researching and interviewing” a significant number of martial artists, Christians and non-Christians, involved in a diversity of martial art styles. He cites five personal reasons for leaving the martial arts and, subsequently, in their own words, he offers the explanations of three other former martial arts experts who are Christians. What these testimonies reveal is that different Christians have different experiences in, and responses to, the martial arts. The testimonies also reveal that for many, perhaps most, it may be difficult to tell just how an experience will turn out.
The first reason Rudge gives for leaving the martial arts is both psychological and spiritual. He refers to particular attitudes easily developed by martial arts practice: egotism, self-sufficiency, pride, a desire for power and control, and even arrogance. These:
…are often developed by adherents. Many claim humility, but I believe it is usually a false, deceptive humility. I began to think I was god and almost invincible. I became haughty and egotistical and had an air of superiority when dealing with people. And I saw the same attitude in almost every student and instructor (even Christians) I met. Many impressionable students (even many advanced practitioners) idolized and practically worshiped their senseis and masters.
His second reason surrounds the violent nature of the practice. He notes that while self-defense and the use of force are scripturally justifiable, “many of the techniques being taught transcend self-defense” and are offensive, aggressive methods “designed to maim and cripple one’s opponent. These tactics are not as much defensive as they are retaliatory…. One time before I quit karate, a man got so obnoxious with me that I actually considered taking his eyes out.” 
A third reason is the physical dangers that may be involved, and how this relates to the Christian’s body being the temple of the Holy Spirit and, as such, to be treated respectfully. “I frequently had black-and-blue marks all over my arms, legs, and chest from being an uke or from sparring and training…. I have injuries that can be traced directly to those days of rigorous conditioning, training, sparring, and breaking wood and cement blocks. Many practitioners eventually develop arthritis, joint injuries, and various other debilitations and health problems because of martial arts involvement.”
His fourth reason involves the martial arts connection between Eastern mysticism and the occult. He observes that many people who begin innocently, using the martial arts merely for self-defense, physical discipline, health benefits, or sports competition, eventually become involved in occult practice and philosophy.
The fifth reason he gives for leaving the martial arts concerns his changed conviction about his personal testimony before others. Rudge first points out that during many years of martial arts demonstrations to Christians, he believed that he was giving a wonderful testimony for the Lord. But he started noticing that Christians being introduced to the martial arts as a physical discipline still became involved with mysticism. And some seemed to be transferring their allegiance from Christ to the martial arts:
I thought I could (and many Christians claim to be able to) remove the mystical/occult elements and limit my training to only the physical aspect. But those following my example (and yours) might not be able to maintain that separation.
I tried to justify teaching karate classes and doing self-defense clinics and demonstrations in churches, schools, and detention centers because of the tremendous impact I was having and all the fruit I was bearing for the Lord. But now I realize that far more people got into the practice and philosophy of the martial arts than were genuinely led to Christ. People would respond to the altar calls, but a few days later they would also sign up at the local dojo. As I evaluated many of the people influenced by myself and other Christian martial artists, I discovered they were becoming more and more committed to the martial arts and less and less committed to Jesus Christ.
Even Christian students and instructors are often not aware of how affected they are by the Eastern/occultic practices and beliefs that are the basis of the martial arts. In fact, when first asked, most will initially indicate that they are not involved in any questionable practices nor have they been philosophically influenced. But after a more thorough consideration, many admit that some of their involvements were Eastern and occult in nature and the philosophy has had some effect upon them. It is alarming that most of them honestly do not recognize the potential danger of some of their practices and how their world view is being subtly influenced.
He also points out that many professing Christians who were his karate associates later took up: “Yoga, meditation, or TM, and some even consider themselves Zen Buddhist or Taoists.” And perhaps more significant:
It also became apparent that Taoist and Buddhist overtones cannot be conveniently separated and discarded because in reality they are the foundational principles of martial arts training and philosophy, whether the practitioners and instructors realize it or not. In some styles it is very visible, while in others it is more subtle and covert. Nevertheless, in every style I researched—even those practiced only for physical fitness and self-defense purposes—there were definite Eastern/occult influences.
Rudge also recalls a particularly tragic and frightening incident that was apparently related to the occult aspects of the martial arts. He interviewed a fifth-degree black belt in Poekoelan, an Indonesian style, whose father was a ninth-degree black belt who, at the time, was one of the highest-ranking martial artists in the country. The father went berserk and attacked his son with a samurai sword. The son had to fight with his father to prevent his father from killing him and, he feared, his family as well. The gruesome battle lasted almost an hour. In the end, the son “had some 40 cuts on his body and had his throat ripped open. Finally, he killed his father with a pair of nunchucks. The son was tried for murder but released on the basis of self-defense. Investigations revealed that his father had voodoo dolls with pins stuck in them. He had a black candle which he used when meditating and he was involved in other occult practices.” The son’s explanation for this horrible tragedy was that his father had become demonized through the martial arts.
Rudge also confirms the spiritistic potential of martial arts. He refers to a man he met who had been involved in a particular Chinese style for numerous years. They got into a discussion about the mystical energy chi, and Rudge noted that both this man and his instructor could, allegedly through chi, move objects “with their minds. Supposedly, his instructor could extend his arm and point his finger at someone, and by concentrating on extending his chi, he could knock them down without touching them—and do many other seemingly superhuman feats.”
This same individual noted that the spirits of the dead could also become involved in assisting one’s martial arts performance. Rudge recalls, “He told me that sometimes as they performed kata (prearranged patterns of fighting imaginary opponents), if they were totally yielded, the spirits of dead masters possessed their bodies and controlled their movements—greatly increasing their skill, performance, speed and power. He also said they can put hexes and spells on people, and told of other occult powers and phenomena….”
Rudge’s own practice was fully accepted by Christian parents, students, and teachers, who all told him to remain in the martial arts and to warn others about its occult aspects. In particular, a Bible college professor and a minister whom he respected, as well as several other Christian leaders, encouraged him to continue “teaching [martial arts] at the Bible college and at churches.” In other words, Bill Rudge was involved in what most Christians would consider a distinctively Christian use of the martial arts:
After graduation from Bible college, I founded the Christian Martial Arts Association (CMAA). I developed some impressive demos for churches and schools during which I demonstrated and shared numerous biblical principles: balance, commitment, courage, self-control, discipline, and determination. I also illustrated through demo and message the evidence for biblical Christianity and how to grow in Christ, be available to God, glorify Him with every aspect of our lives, overcome peer pressure, and be proficient in spiritual warfare, as well as many other biblical truths. I explained why I, as a Christian, was involved; I warned about the Eastern/occult teachings associated with the advanced stages of the martial arts. I also developed innovative and total fitness and defense clinics that became very popular.
If his use of the martial arts was Christian, why did Rudge finally leave the discipline? Basically, it was the result of his own research and critical reflection upon how he had used the martial arts even as a Christian. Because of its impact upon him, he eventually felt convicted by the Lord that he could no longer continue:
But the more I researched, the more I became convicted and the more Christ’s Lordship in my life became threatened by my continued involvement. So began the gradual discontinuing of all my karate involvement—a process that took several years. At first I was convicted about developing the power of ki and mental powers, so I discontinued that mode of training. Years later, in one of my file cabinets, I discovered some of the old training materials I had used for my classes. Before destroying them, I read them. I was shocked to discover what I had innocently taught my students years before when I was a new Christian. I realized I had begun to teach occult techniques to develop mental powers and the power of ki… all in the name of Christ!
And few, if any, ever questioned what I was teaching. Nor did any Christian leaders I consider credible rebuke me. In fact, most loved it and encouraged me.
It was difficult for Rudge to break off from what had become a love of his life. Even after having quit his personal practice and having stopped teaching classes, “For several more days I continued to pray about it because it was a difficult decision—I loved these things—they gave an excitement and credibility to the ministry.” However, in Bill’s case, one result of leaving the martial arts was “that instead of being less effective, my speaking engagements had even more power.”
We included Rudge’s testimony because it reveals several things: 1) how easy it is for new Christians to become sidetracked through the ego-boosting or mystical or occult aspects of the martial arts; 2) the lack of discernment of many Christians in this field, who continued to encourage his involvement; 3) that even Christian experts and leaders in the martial arts may be led by the Lord to discontinue all involvement.
The above illustrates that there are indeed subtleties involved, and that Christians need to think through this area very critically, especially if they are considering personal involvement. Spiritual maturity and much prayer are required and, hopefully, discussion with those on both sides of the issue before anyone starts training. Our concern here is twofold: 1) how the Christian church generally reflects largely uncritical attitudes toward the martial arts; 2) how the degree of spiritual maturity at the individual level is essential to making the right decision about involvement.
The following two testimonies point out several other issues involved. The first is about Bob Brown, who had 20 years’ experience in the martial arts, including black-belt ranking in three separate systems. He received his first-degree black belt in Shoto-kan karate. During his military service in the Army he was trained by a third-degree black belt who ran a Shoto-kan Karate Do school that was associated with the Nippon Kobudo Rengokai of Japan. After military service and attending college for a year, he accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior. He immediately went to Bible college and afterward began training with a seventh-degree black belt in Kwon Mu Do Taekwondo. He received a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do from the founder and president of the Central Tae Kwon Do Association. He then began studying under a sixth-degree black belt, who subsequently became the master of the Goshin Jutsu Karate system following the death of the previous master. After this he took lessons based on Escrima, Jeet Kune Do, and Wing Chun Kung Fu, in which he received his third black belt degree in 1990. Brown also conducted martial arts tactics training for several police agencies, and he is certified as a Defensive Tactics and ASP Tactical Baton instructor with the Oregon Board on Police Standards and Training.
The significant point concerning Brown’s experience is the apparently negative influence of the martial arts on his spiritual growth in Christ. Even though he had accepted Christ as His Lord and Savior in 1975, he continued martial arts training until November of 1991. He recalls:
The years slipped by. My martial arts skills were developing, but my life in Christ never got off the ground. There were many recommitments to Christ which would last about a month or two, but no lasting relationship.
During the final years of my training in the martial arts, several things happened that I feel God used to bring me to a point of decision. I was intensely working out to develop skills in the use of sticks and knives (escrima). The movements involved in this training put a serious strain on my joints, primarily my knees and shoulders. To overcome these debilitating developments I began to spend more and more of my training time in visualization techniques…. My skills improved dramatically as a result of this type of training. But as I became more adept at the technique and as my objectives in escrima became more defined, I began spending greater amounts of time practicing mentally. It was not uncommon for me to sit in a chair and visualize defending myself against several attackers for one and a half to two hours twice a day.
These images became increasingly violent…. [M]any people claim that they have become more peaceful as a result of their training. On the contrary, I found my visualizations taking a very morbid turn…. In the end, the issue that brought me back to God was that I came to a place where I could not distinguish between training and real life, between visualized actions and reality. Training and visualization of self-defense situations dominated my life. I had fits of rage for no reason. Patience was nonexistent, and I became unable to “turn or the visualizations, especially when I needed to sleep. The visualization would start the moment my head touched the pillow and would not stop for three or four hours, even though I was exhausted. In the end I became suicidal.
Brown’s testimony reveals that not only did his Christian life suffer as a result of his martial arts training, but that his martial arts visualization practices became a destructive influence.
The martial arts, therefore, can be a substitute for spiritual growth in Christ. Brown recalls, “If anyone had asked me if I believed that Christ was Lord, I would have answered yes! Is He Lord of my life? Yes. Was I yielding to Him? Yes. But in fact, I was not yielding and I had not yet died to the old life of sin. I had held on to a god I had found in my former life that I was not willing to be without.”
Michael Allen Puckett
The third testimony comes from Michael Allen Puckett, who was a national free-style and Greco-Roman wrestling champion. He had won numerous trophies for competition in the martial arts, was a brown belt in Kajukempo Karate, and close to a third-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He also ran two Tae Kwon Do schools that enrolled over 100 students.
After receiving Christ as his Lord and Savior, he made a public confession of this to his students in an attempt to make his martial arts school Christ-centered:
In all my years within the system, I explained to them, no one had ever approached me about Christianity…. The reality of the martial arts training was that the God of the Bible was not a priority, and the instruction was contrary to the Scriptures. In order to be a higher ranking belt, a study of Eastern philosophies was required. All of my spare time was spent keeping up on karate skills. I didn’t go to church, I didn’t spend time in prayer. But now I wanted to put Christ in His proper position, as the only Truth worth knowing.
The result of his speech was that many of his students boycotted the class, but he began to get calls from Christians who had heard of his idea to begin a Christ-centered dojo, and who wanted to join. He thought he could build up his previous practice perhaps even bigger than before. “Then a strange thing happened. When I tried to practice my karate skills, a weakness overcame me. I felt like praying instead. Something was still wrong.” After three days of prayer and fasting, he said the Lord spoke to his heart, “You must lay down your martial arts because you covet them and put them above me.”
These testimonies reveal that there is more that inhibits the spiritual growth and more self-deception of Christian practitioners of the martial arts than many people might think. Again, we are not saying that Christians should never practice the martial arts. We are saying that this is a complex issue, and that Christians who are interested in this field, as well as the church as a whole, need to take it more seriously in terms of critical evaluation. Clearly, God has led these and other instructors and students to forsake involvement with the martial arts. In such cases, the primary issue seems to be that the martial arts became a substitute for the Lordship of Christ, or that it has in other ways hampered spiritual growth. This also indicates that Christians who want to join the martial arts should make absolutely certain that their spiritual life does not become compromised. Maybe Jesus is not leading them to involvement or to retain involvement.
On the one hand, we cannot say absolutely that some Christians should never practice the martial arts. If they do this wisely and are sufficiently informed, it could be useful. On the other hand, it seems that for many Christians it is not right to get involved. One issue, then, is, what is God really saying to the individual? Another issue is one of how much wisdom the individual Christian and church currently has on this issue.
How much spiritual wisdom do pre-teenage, or even teenage, Christians have? As a parent, are you willing to shoulder the possible spiritual or physical risks involved in having your son or daughter trained in the martial arts? The trainer may be a Christian, but does he really know what he is doing? What has been his own experience in the martial arts? Is your child going to be trained by other instructors at the dojo who are not Christians? What happens if your child begins to enjoy the excitement and power of the martial arts more than his love for Jesus or the discipline of Christian living?
To conclude this chapter, we asked a Christian mother who had read the chapter for her thoughts about whether she would let her son join a martial arts program at a Christian school if he became interested:
As far as I can see, a martial arts program with the Eastern philosophy supposedly removed is represented by proponents as an opportunity for a child to develop physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. As a parent who wants her child to enjoy life and be successful, the martial arts appear to allow a child the capacity to advance and improve on an individual level, unlike being involved in team sports. However, the testimonies we have just read disturb me. Even for Christian adults, who have researched this area, and who know first-hand what involvement in the martial arts entails, it was still difficult and even impossible for them to keep the priority of their relationship with Jesus Christ where it should be.
So, if my child had a strong desire to become involved in a martial arts program, we would first consult personally with the instructors and/or leaders of the program. We would study the background of the style being taught and ask the instructor pertinent questions. Just because something is labeled “Christian” or offered at a Christian school does not necessarily make it biblically correct. We would also read their literature critically and not just accept what they claim they will be doing. Further, we would speak with parents whose children are currently enrolled in the program, and personally observe training sessions at several different levels.
As a parent it is my God-given duty to look after my child’s well-being and, with prayer and study, to help him make wise and informed decisions. With so many different other sports and ways for a child to develop in all areas, should I take a chance on damaging or inhibiting his spiritual growth—which is and will be the most important area of his life? Why should I intentionally risk my son’s involvement in something that could be to his detriment? So, unless the martial arts program we investigated proved to be one with no Eastern or questionable connotations whatsoever, I would seek another avenue of physical development for my child.
- Bill Rudge, Why I Quit Karate (With Testimonies by Bob Brown, Bruce Johnson, and Michael Puckett) (Hermitage, PA: Living Truth Publishers, 1994), p. 1.
- Ibid., p. 2.
- Ibid., pp. 2-3; cf. Romans 12:19.
- Ibid., p. 3.
- Ibid., pp. 4-5.
- Ibid., pp. 5, 7.
- Ibid., p. 8.
- Ibid., p. 10.
- Ibid., pp. 10-11.
- Ibid., p. 13.
- Ibid., p. 14.
- Ibid., p. 15.
- Ibid., p. 18.
- Ibid., p. 20.
- Ibid., pp. 22-23.
- Ibid., p. 24.
- Ibid., p. 33.
- Ibid., p. 34.
- Ibid., p. 35.