Honoring the Lord’s Day in An Age of Sunday Sports

Ministers and officers who take confessional vows should think twice before publicly commending activities and choices that contradict the teachings of our standards.

Ministers and officers who take confessional vows should think twice before publicly commending activities and choices that contradict the teachings of our standards. No two officers or church members approach the Lord’s Day in exactly same way. No one believes that they keep the day perfectly or maybe even well. But certain actions and words actually steer others away from our standards’ teachings. We wouldn’t want to do this with any other commandments — the first, the tenth, or any of the rest. Why would we do it — implicitly or explicitly — with the fourth?

 

I drive past a megachurch on the Lord’s Day on the way to worship at my own more modest congregation. There are two things neither I nor any other motorist on the expressway can fail to notice — that the church has its own off-ramp, and that the church employs off-duty sheriff’s deputies in police cars to effect rolling roadblocks to ease ingress and egress for those attending attendee the three morning services.

Motorists probably grind their teeth at having to slow down on the roadway for the church crowd. I’m not a big fan of it, but what occurs to me is that the church is causing police officers to work on Sunday. The deputies may appreciate the extra pay, but it’s hard not to think that this work prevents them from resting and worshiping on the day that Christians have historically believed is for rest and worship.

Now, in the case of non-denominational or garden-variety evangelical churches there is no violation of doctrinal scruples here — most of the churches in the United States have lost the concept of setting aside the Lord’s Day as a day for worship. We all know that for most people — Christian and non-Christian — Sunday is now as much (or more) a day of commerce, work, and entertainment as any other day. Presbyterians (whose confessions and catechisms have a high view of the Decalogue and address the Lord’s Day) ought to have a different regard for the first day of the week. That’s why the reaction of some prominent Presbyterian Church in America officers to a recent Gospel Coalition article about one man’s job is so interesting, since it may indicate a shift in how confessional Presbyterians view Lord’s Day work.

The answer to Shorter Catechism question 60 summarizes what the Westminster Confession and Larger Catechism teach on the Lord’s Day:

The sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.

Anyone who has attended a few PCA presbytery meetings knows how common it is for teaching elders and candidates to take exceptions to what the Westminster standards teach and exhort concerning recreation on the Lord’s Day, which the standards call the Christian Sabbath. Many believe a strict reading of the Standards is simply too restrictive to their personal and family recreation and leisure activities on the Lord’s Day.  These exceptions are usually granted, but you don’t hear of men taking exception to what the Standards teach concerning worldly employments on the Lord’s Day.

The case of Frank Reich, as described by the recent Gospel Coalition article, is notable because it involves the collision of recreation and worldly employment, and the reaction of Presbyterian churchmen to this collision. Reich’s career path is by no means common: college quarterback, up-and-down NFL quarterback, part-time Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte, NC) student, RTS Charlotte campus president, Associate Reformed Presbyterian pastor, NFL intern, assistant coach, offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, and now head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. By all accounts he is a wonderful man and a committed Christian.

The question, in my mind, is whether churchmen who have taken vows concerning the Westminster Standards’ teaching on the Lord’s Day ought to promote and extol one whose profession demands Sunday work, albeit connected to recreation. This is exactly what happened in the last few days as the Gospel Coalition article about Reich was recommended on social media by PCA teaching elders and others. Some have had personal and professional relationships with Reich. That’s fine. He is admired and well liked. That’s fine.

But there are pastoral questions here. Everyone knows that most NFL games are on Sunday and that the NFL is a 7-day-a-week job for at least part of the year. Every church has members who struggle with the issue of Sunday work. Some do not see the importance of avoiding worldly employments on Sunday. Others do not wish to work but may be required to do so. Sessions have to help members decide if their work is that of necessity or mercy. Members may seek counsel in job scheduling and in navigating career paths that make it possible for them to worship and rest on the Lord’s Day as they should. Will the commendation of Frank Reich’s chosen path make this easier or more difficult? Reich is talented, educated, and capable of any number of career choices. Some of our members are not blessed with such a range of options.

Apart from the fact that some jobs require Christians to work on the Lord’s Day there is also the fact that some of our choices require others to work. This is surely the case for anything associated with the NFL — the players, legion of support personnel, police officers, vendors, media members, and coaches do not show up minutes before the usual 1 pm Sunday start times. All involved work long, full days. Does the case of Frank Reich make it easier or more difficult for church officers to convince members that they should consider how their own Lord’s Day recreational and commercial choices affect the abilities of others to worship and rest on that day.

Lastly, there is the issue of consistency. Ministers and officers who take confessional vows should think twice before publicly commending activities and choices that contradict the teachings of our standards. No two officers or church members approach the Lord’s Day in exactly same way. No one believes that they keep the day perfectly or maybe even well. But certain actions and words actually steer others away from our standards’ teachings. We wouldn’t want to do this with any other commandments — the first, the tenth, or any of the rest. Why would we do it — implicitly or explicitly — with the fourth?

Maybe the most surprising aspect of the attention on Reich is how little controversy it caused. Neither the Gospel Coalition article nor the secular media articles about Reich even mentioned the tension between Christian convictions and Sunday work. This shows that this issue has fallen off of the evangelical radar. And the reaction, or lack thereof, from Reformed churchmen may indicate that the long-held conviction that Sunday work should be avoided is waning.

Brad Isbell is a ruling elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Oak Ridge, TN and co-hosts the Presbycast podcast.

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