Reformed Churches, Frank Reich, and the Sabbath

Confessional churches have understood the Fourth Commandment not as the least of the Ten Commandments, but the very lynchpin (or the bridge) of the moral law.

The issue is especially important when one realizes that, contrary to our own generation, earlier Presbyterians and Reformed, confessional churches understood the Fourth Commandment not as the least of the Ten Commandments, but the very lynchpin (or the bridge) of the moral law, addressing both love for God as well as love for one’s neighbor.

 

[As I’ve been in the PCA for 31 years and an elder for 15, I’ll focus my remarks on my own denomination although they apply broadly to Reformed churches also].  As I write this on the 19th of January 2019, it was one hundred ninety years ago today that the U.S. Senate issued to the nation’s citizens what was perhaps the most destructive statement from any government regarding the Christian Sabbath (Lord’s Day) seen in the post-Reformation West.  That is, with the lone exception of the short-lived abolition of the weekly Sabbath on the part of French revolutionaries in 1793.

In the 1829 report, Christians across the country who had advocated for a redress of grievances regarding the congressionally-mandated transportation and delivery of the mails on the Sabbath day (viewed as a Fourth Commandment violation) were charged with pursuing “the foundation for dangerous innovations upon the spirit of the Constitution, and upon the religious rights of the citizens,” a code phrase for the attempted union of church and state.  Led by an ambitious Jacksonian Democrat, Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky – whose popularity soared over the issue and assisted him to the vice presidency in 1837 – the committee perverted or willfully misread the hundreds of petitions from concerned, law-abiding citizens, labeling them a nascent “religious despotism.”  The sad spectacle represented the beginning of today’s familiar practice of atheistic, ideological attacks upon Christianity and its adherents in the public square.[1]

While in 1829 churches and churchmen who regarded the Sabbath bemoaned the ill-informed or ill-intentioned actions of the U.S. Senate, they were equally concerned for the poor Sabbath example set for citizens in communities across the land.  If the postmaster – a respected local figure and in most towns the only representative of the federal government – was seen by the people as violating the Sabbath on a regular basis (by opening his post office), what was to be the likely effect on that community?

Two centuries after those seemingly obscure events, a quite similar question must be asked by those in Reformed churches who may have lauded the career choices of a respected figure, Frank Reich.[2]  What is the likely effect upon churches and members of the widespread celebrating of the business decisions of a Christian leader like Reich, when everyone realizes that the very reason for his highlighting is inseparable from the NFL’s weekly trampling under foot of the Christian Sabbath?[3]  To ask the question is to answer it.

I greatly appreciated the excellent piece in The Aquila Report by Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) ruling elder Brad Isbell, who focused on the apparent drastic transition within Reformed, confessional circles illustrated by the widespread acceptance of Mr. Reich’s career choice, one so clearly in violation of the Fourth Commandment as well as the Westminster Standards to which all officers in the PCA, and certain other Reformed churches, subscribe.  RE Isbell asked a critical question for Westminster-subscribing churches who struggle with decisions regarding Sabbath day labor or recreational activities: “Will the commendation of Frank Reich’s chosen path make this easier or more difficult?”[4]

The issue is especially important when one realizes that, contrary to our own generation, earlier Presbyterians and Reformed, confessional churches understood the Fourth Commandment not as the least of the Ten Commandments, but the very lynchpin (or the bridge) of the moral law, addressing both love for God as well as love for one’s neighbor.  In 1830, the Presbyterian Church in the United States declared unashamedly, “The Sabbath is the great institute of God’s government in this world,” just one of countless similar expressions in that era.[5]

Lest anyone think that earlier Presbyterians (or some today) have gone beyond the Scripture on this issue, nearly 2,500 years ago, under the godly Nehemiah’s governorship, the religious leaders of Judah spoke to God’s covenant people of His compassionate dealings with them, saying, in Neh. 9:13-14:

Then You came down on Mount Sinai,
And spoke with them from heaven;
You gave them just ordinances and true laws,
Good statutes and commandments.
So You made known to them Your holy sabbath,
And laid down for them commandments, statutes and law,
Through Your servant Moses.

Notice that the moral law undeniably is in view here, but the only commandment explicitly mentioned is the Sabbath commandment – an excellent example of God’s using a part to represent the whole.  As Brad Isbell rightly asked, if we don’t want “to steer others away from our standards’ teachings” when it comes to any other of the Ten Commandments, “Why would we do it – implicitly or explicitly – with the fourth?”

As Presbyterian pastor and the president of East Tennessee College, Dr. Charles Coffin, wrote in a sermon from Jeremiah 17:27, “When the profanation of the Sabbath and the neglect of the Bible have brought a country to experience the moral evils which they introduce, and the distresses inseparable from them, the land is full of the judgments of God.”[6]  May God grant our churches ears to hear.

Forrest Marion is a Ruling Elder in Eastwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Montgomery, Ala.


[1] “Sabbath Mails,” The Western Luminary, Lexington, Ky., Feb. 25, 1829.

[2] I have not searched exhaustively, but the earliest example I have seen is Art Stricklin, “Former RTS President, ARP Pastor Is Now Coaching Peyton Manning,” Aquila Report, Feb. 5, 2010.

[3] For an interesting and apt phrasing of the profaning of the Sabbath, see Isaiah 58:13-14, the favorite Old Testament passage of earlier Presbyterians regarding the Sabbath.

[4] Brad Isbell, “Honoring the Lord’s Day in An Age of Sunday Sports,” Aquila Report, Jan. 17, 2019.

[5] “Narrative of the State of Religion,” Calvinistic Magazine, July 1830, 217.

[6] Charles Coffin, “On The Sabbath, Sermon II,” Calvinistic Magazine, July 1830, 212.