Chariots of Hire

Chariots of Hire

There are still presbyterians around whose consciences are pricked by the prospect of thousands of people (Christians and pagans alike) working on the Lord’s Day for the sake of “recreation.” For them, obvious violations of the Second Commandment take all the fun out of America’s biggest Sunday.

We are reliably informed that this is “Super Bowl Week,” a promotional publicity-fest that is something like Advent for the USA’s greatest holy day. That this holy day falls on the first day of next week—the Lord’s Day if you are a confessional presbyterian—may have something to do with professional football’s relatively late arrival on the American sports scene. That some churches and elders who ought to know better embrace this mega-event as an appropriate occasion for church activities may indicate the diminishing regard presbyterians have for their historic standards.

By the time burly bruisers began to get paid for playing football, Saturdays were taken—already the domain of high school and college football.1 Professional football arose in the 1920s when Blue Laws prohibiting many commercial activities on Sundays were fading away. All over the country local and state governments were greenlighting Sunday contests. By 1967 TV viewers were ready for some football and the TV networks were ready for increased revenues so when 65 million people watched the first Super Bowl the die was cast. Every Super Bowl since has been played on Sunday. The NFL owns Sunday now from fall through winter. A few cranky protestants pose no threat to the new lords of the old Lord’s Day.

American churches generally accepted the ongoing relevance and application of the Ten Commandments until about the time professional sports went wild in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By then the glories of Revivalism were fading and pragmatism called evangelicals like a siren. The doctrinal underpinnings of Lord’s Day observance were largely lost on both the fundamentalist right and the progressive left. The right was running on the fumes of Calvinistic doctrine (see the early Southern Baptists). The 1925 Baptist Faith & Message reflects an almost-Westminsterian understanding of the Lord’s Day. The 2000 revision showed the loss of this understanding by the end of the 20th century. While evangelicals may have fallen prey to pragmatism, the mainline loved respectability. The old ways of honoring the Lord’s Day were just…weird. And no one wanted to be weird. (Witness the baptists’ Lord’s Day declension.)

But back to the 1920s: by then waves of European immigration brought the freer, so-called “Continental Sabbath”2 to American cities where Sunday freedom became a political issue. Cultural resistance to a commercial Sunday crumbled and many evangelicals and confessional protestants forgot why they had ever cared about the Fourth Commandment. And they kept forgetting. Christians loved the courageous example of sabbatarian conviction portrayed in the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire, but there was no resurgence of regard for the Christian Sabbath. Scottish athlete Eric Liddells’s sacrifices for the sake of his convictions in 1924 were inspiring but already seemed quaint and out of date.

In the middle of the 17th century the Westminster Divines believed the Christian Sabbath was too important to forget, and their warnings against such forgetting seem almost prophetic. In Westminster Larger Catechism 121, they wrote: “Satan with his instruments much labor(s) to blot out the glory, and even the memory of (the Christian Sabbath), to bring in all irreligion and impiety.”

In 2024, after about 100 years of professional Sunday sports, it’s common to see evangelical pastors wearing football jerseys on their church stages (or even behind rare vestigial pulpits) to promote “Super Sunday” events. Whether conceived for outreach or fellowship, these events are always billed as FUN! Less common are confessional presbyterian churches engaging in February football hijinks. Less common, I say, but not unknown.

A PCA church somewhere in the southeast is having a big, public, commercial Super Bowl party this year. Surely it is not the only such church to do so, but we are persuaded that such events are still quite rare. Now, informal gatherings of church families or small groups to watch what we (for legal reasons) are supposed to call the BIG GAME are not unheard of, and neither are youth events centered around the advertising-entertainment festival to which a football game has been attached. Sunday evening worship services, since they have almost disappeared in the PCA, are no hindrance to such gatherings. Neither, it would seem, are the doctrinal standards of the church.

The PCA church in question is meeting not at its building but at a brewpub, though prospective attendees are assured that non-alcoholic drinks will be available. And the victuals for the viewers will be provided not by church ladies or warmed-up Costco pizzas, but by a food truck. And speaking of food trucks (chariots of hire, if you will), we’ve noticed a churchy trend in that regard: churches contracting with food trucks to vend on church campuses on the Lord’s Day after worship. This at least serves to render the old “Should we go out to eat on Sunday?” controversy moot. Now the restaurant comes to you. Dinner on the grounds just ain’t what it used to be. Who ever got great street tacos at a potluck anyway?

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