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............."Oh, the gallant fisher's life, It is the best of any 'Tis full of pleasure, void of strife, And 'tis beloved of many." ..........[Piscator's Song, "The Compleat Angler" by Izaak Walton] "The fishers also shall mourn,and all they that cast angle into the brooks shall lament, and they that spread nets upon the waters shall languish." [Isaiah XIX:8]

Friday, September 4, 2009

Of Football and the Christian Sabbath

A recent inquirer wrote,

Recently we have been studying "Celebrating the Sabbath" by Bruce Ray. In our discussions the matter of professional athletes came up. Often their schedule would inhibit them from attending church during the season of their sport. Some of whom may commit themselves to regular Bible Study. This issue did not seem to be addressed in the book and it created quite a controversy at our study as to whether they should give up their vocation because of being unable to attend regular church service in season?

To further complicate matters one of the members gives Golf Lessons on Sunday but still attends the evening service. The difficult economic times have led to him undertaking this.

Any guidance on this matter would be greatly appreciated.

My answer follows:
Your question is one that has occupied my thinking for a long time. In elementary school, I had visions of becoming a professional football player. Lack of talent, however, coupled with knee and ankle surgeries in successive years of high school football, pretty much was God's providential answer that such a career was not going to happen.

But as I came to deeper Christian convictions, the matter was settled on principle as well.

The OPC's doctrinal statement in the Westminster Confession of Faith is quite clear on the matter. Chapter XXI, section 8, reads as follows:

This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.

The Confession understands the Scriptures to teach that the first day of the week is to be kept as the Christian Sabbath and to teach us to keep a holy rest that day from our own "works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations."

That, however, does not disqualify duties of 'necessity' and 'mercy'. The OPC has adopted the following proof texts (citations from the King James Version, without prejudice to other versions) to provide the Scriptural support for such works of necessity and mercy:

Isa. 58:13-14. If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

Luke 4:16. And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.

Matt. 12:1-13. At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day. But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; how he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests? Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless? But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple. But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day. And when he was departed thence, he went into their synagogue: and, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him. And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days. Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other.

Mark 3:1-5. And he entered again into the synagogue; and there was a man there which had a withered hand. And they watched him, whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him. And he saith unto the man which had the withered hand, Stand forth. And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill? But they held their peace. And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other.

We recognize Jesus and His disciples putting forth their hand to pluck some grain for their daily bread on the Sabbath was not a violation of the Sabbath. The picture is that of the Son of Man and his followers as the poor of the earth gleaning from the field of another, which had been mercifully left available to them (cf. Leviticus 23:22). It is certainly not the picture of the
farmer harvesting his field on the Sabbath.

We recognize too the propriety of Jesus' merciful healing of the man with the withered hand, and of His implied approval of releasing one's sheep or son or ox that fell into a pit (well) on a Sabbath (cf. Luke 14:5).

Thus, we can certainly think of similar acts of goodly service and mercy that would be in keeping with the heart of the Sabbath commandment to do good and to show mercy and to enter into the worship of the living God and to encourage others to do the same.

The question then is, "Do professional sports and other such employments and activities qualify as either works of necessity or mercy?"

As Christians we called to stand for Christ and to confess Him before men. The prevailing culture has little or no respect for the Sabbath. Should we? Should we be willing to suffer loss in worldly goods as those who whose hearts are set on an eternal inheritance in the heavenlies?

Am I saying that Christians should be willing to look for jobs that will enable them to keep the Sabbath? Am I saying that Christians should be willing to express their convictions about the Lord’s Day in job interviews? Am I saying that we ought to trust God to provide for us as we seek first the kingdom of our heavenly Father and His righteousness? Yes, I am.

Blessings to you,
in Christ,

R. Daniel Knox, Pastor
Grace OPC in Sewickley, PA

P.S. What follows is an open letter I recently sent to Ben Roethlisberger, the star quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers:

August 8, 2009

Pittsburgh Steelers
Attn. Ben Roethlisberger
3400 South Water
Pittsburgh, PA 15203

Dear Mr. Roethlisberger,

Greetings in Christ.

My heart goes out to you in the face of the civil suit currently before you.

Like others, I listened with great interest to your public statement. In what I heard in the media presentation, you rightly expressed concern for your own name and reputation, and for your obligation to preserve the respect and reputation of your family, your teammates, the Steelers organization, and your fans.

The one thing I did not hear was a concern for the glory and honor of the name of your Savior. Whether you have committed immoralities or not (I trust as a Christian that you believe sexual union outside of marriage is a sin), your reputation as a Christian athlete, as one who professes Christ, is at issue. Your conduct in public and in private is a reflection upon Him and His good name. Thus, I would hope that you would take that to heart. Many, including many children, look up to you and to your example.

While I am writing, I would take opportunity to express an ongoing concern for you and others. How is a professional athlete able to maintain a right relationship with Christ and His church when he or she is continually being put in the situation of compromising the Lord's Day and the public assembling of the saints? As much as I like football and many other sports, as much as I might enjoy watching you or others play, I cannot see professional sports as either a work of necessity or a work of mercy in reference to the Fourth Commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy. I remember a former Pittsburgh Pirate, Vernon Law, who refused to pitch on a Sunday, and of course, there is the example of Eric Liddell (Chariots of Fire), who refused to run a particular race on the Lord's Day. What is a football player to do? Our culture has little concern for such things as Sabbath-keeping, but you must answer to the Lord. You must face the dilemma, and thus I say again, my heart goes out to you. But the nagging question of Jesus remains, "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul?"

I truly do hope the best for you. That is why I write.

Yours in Christ,

R. Daniel Knox, Pastor
Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Sewickley, PA

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