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Taking Exception to an Exception

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Date May 5, 2004

Recently a Presbyterian Church in America ruling elder posted a blog stating his stance on an earlier discussion regarding the Pope’s comments on Sunday sports. He made these points: (1) Though he is an elder who has subscribed to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms as “the system of doctrine” taught in Holy Scripture, He has taken an “allowed exception” to the “Puritan Sabbath position.” (2) He has the sense that it is important for Christians to worship together. (3) The “traditional” time for this to occur is Sunday morning, so (presumably) Christians should not neglect gathering for Sunday morning worship (though he does grant an exception to pro athletes). (4) The Sabbath command is primarily about work, and sports are play (here he seems to be talking, not about the family backyard ball toss, but organized sports leagues), and play of this kind can help one to appreciate God’s gifts. (5) But the problem of professional sports remains. Since God has given a high level of athletic ability to professional athletes, we despise God’s providence if we disallow their work/play. (6) The Baseball Chapel is a wonderful solution, since it allows Christian baseball players to “worship” on Sunday morning and then go out to glorify God in another way as they play the games in the afternoon.

Let’s examine our elder friend’s arguments. (1) If one wants to know to what he takes exception from his church’s Constitution, consult the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Questions 57-62 (“Beliefs” at But note three things. First, one who takes exception is not really taking exception to the “Puritan Sabbath” but to the present Confession and Catechisms of the PCA. Second, there is no official “allowed exception” to the position. Apparently the elder’s local body of elders allowed him this exception at his ordination. Though it is not unusual for ministers being examined to state they do not believe the commandment disallows “familial recreation,” there has never been an attempt to amend the documents to teach or allow for the ruling elder’s exception.

(2) His “sense” is that Christians should worship together. It is more than a “sense”. It is a Biblical command. The church is the “assembly” (the gathered community of baptized believers expressed primarily in public and communal worship) and believers are commanded not to neglect this assembling (Hebrews 10: 25).

(3) The traditional time for gathering is Sunday morning. What the brother does not address in his comments is whether he believes in the principle of the Sabbath command, which is that one day out of seven is to be set aside as holy. We trust he does not mean by “traditional” that observing a holy day on the first day of the week is merely “traditional.” In addition, the principle as stated in the PCA documents is that the one day of seven is set aside as a day of worship, while the number and times of the services is left to the wisdom of the local elders. However, our friend does not mention the historic Presbyterian practice of having morning and evening worship. One of the great benefits of this practice is that it “frames” the day by beginning and ending it in worship and so reminding believers that the day is the Lord’s and giving them the benefit of twice receiving the ordinary means of grace (public reading and preaching of the Word, sacraments, and prayers).

(4) The Sabbath command is primarily a work command and does not really speak to the matter of play. This is not an adequate expression of the nature of the day. The day is set apart (holy) for rest, forbidding non-necessary labour (the negative) and commanding the worship of God (the positive). But is play consistent with the day? The PCA position is based upon the Confession’s authors’ understanding of Isaiah 58: 13,14. Even if one allows for “familial” recreation, there seems to be a difference in organized sports that requires athletes to put aside any thoughts of the holiness of the day, family home life to be disrupted, officials to be gotten and sometimes hired, people to come together in an atmosphere appropriate to the other six days, but inconsistent with meditating on God’s creative work, the resurrection of Christ, and the future eternal Sabbath. It also discourages participation in the closing worship service of the day. BTW, our oldest son was no great shakes as an athlete, but when he was about nine years old was the starting third baseman on his little league team, and the coach called a Sunday practice. Calvin did not attend, and he sat the next game. In my view not a bad lesson to learn early – that obeying God can cost.

(5) But what about the professionals? The argument seems here to be that God’s providence overrides God’s commandments. This is an interesting form of hierarchical ethics, which usually argue that a “higher” commandment trumps a “lower” one. Moreover, this reveals a kind of evangelical schizophrenia. We applauded the subject of Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell. But what did he do? He refused to compete in an organized, but non-professional, sport on the Lord’s Day (an Olympic track event that was played to his providentially granted abilities). Many admire Sandy Koufax for refusing to pitch the first game of a World Series because it fell on the Yom Kippur. But somehow we approve of professional athletes who ply their trade on the Christian Sabbath. Why cannot we say that in this sinful world sometimes Christians will have to forgo using certain gifts because to do so requires neglecting the commandments of God? And, has it ever been otherwise for those who die to self, take up the cross, and follow their Lord?

(6) Baseball Chapel is a great solution for baseball players (one assumes there are other such “chapels” for other professional athletes). Here our elder friend seems to forget another great principle of Reformed (and other forms of) Christianity. The means of grace belong to the Church exclusively and worship, in which the means are practiced, is the province of the Church alone. “Chapels” are conducted by para-church organizations and attendance at such meetings does not meet even the elder’s low threshold of Lord’s Day observance, the gathered assembly of believers for morning worship.

For those who may be interested in the outline of the Reformed argument for the Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath, it goes as follows: (1) Sabbath observance is a creation ordinance (thus a universal and non-temporal part of God’s plan for life in His creation) that is established (Genesis 2:1-3) long before there is any Law of Moses. (2) The Law of Moses (Exodus 20:8-11) applies the principle to the life of Israel as the covenant people of God living now as redeemed but struggling sinners in a fallen world. The Ten Commandments are at the heart of this covenant and are the abiding expression of God’s will until the end of the age. There are ten, not nine, of them. The Sabbath command in particular forbids work and gives space for the specifically religious form of rest God gives to (but also expects from) His people. (3) The Lord Jesus did not set aside the Law (Matthew 5:17-42), but reinforced obligations and deepened our understanding of what the Law requires. He specifically did this with regard to the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-3:6), declaring it to be a blessing to man and claiming His own authority as the Son of Man to correct misinterpretations and misuses of the Sabbath command and to set the Law free from man and man free under the Law. (4) It is not the specifically Jewish Sabbath we observe, but the Lord’s Day that is the Christian Sabbath. The Ten Commandments are binding on us, for what they say is God’s will is that was written on the heart of man created in the image of God. But it is the peculiarly Jewish Sabbath observance against which Paul warns in Colossians 2:16,17. In Romans 14:5,6 Paul is not dealing with the Sabbath at all but with the observance of the Jewish feasts by some Christians. (5) The Christian Sabbath, while looking back to the creation order and to the Law of Moses, also takes into account the accomplishment of redemption in the death, resurrection, ascension of our Lord. Hence, for instance, the change of the day of observance. This change to observing the Sabbath on the day of resurrection is clearly the practice of both the Apostolic church (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2, Revelation 1:10) and the churches of the age of the Fathers. As J.I. Packer observes this practice most likely was instituted by our Lord during the 40 days between His resurrection and ascension. (6) The observance of the Lord’s Day also looks forward to the Sabbath rest that awaits the people of God. Then, what we now get a foretaste of on the Christian Sabbath we shall experience fully and permanently. We shall rest eternally from sin, its consequences, and the trials and hardships believers experience on their difficult journey to the Promised Land. Then we shall be whole – sinless souls, immortal bodies, one person. And then at long last creation’s groans and ours shall end and heaven and earth shall be one.

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