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Blog: Should Sunday be a day 'set apart' for God and church?

Date posted: 31/03/15



According to a recent study published in the Review of Religious Research, when pastors of 16 US congregations with declining attendance were interviewed, the most common reason cited by them for the decline was children’s sport on Sunday.[1] The research did not establish whether the pastors’ perceptions are what is really going on, but the very fact that the headline has such traction implies that it is a fear many share. 

Take here in the UK for example. It was in the early 1980s that driven by the commercial push to televise football but not to affect the match day attendance, Sunday afternoon became a key time for televised games. Other sports soon followed suit, and swiftly on the heels of Sunday games at the elite level the mid to late 90s started seeing children and youth sport being moved to a Sunday morning. Suddenly your average youth worker at a church started noting that their Sunday club attendance was a bit lower, and not just the youth workers. Parents were required to drive the children to the game and they also wanted to watch and so many started alternating church attendance - taking it in turns to take their son or daughter to Sunday sport and so adult church attendance was also impacted. 

In response to this debate there have been some that have wanted to reaffirm the importance of keeping God as no.1 and not relegating church to merely that which fits around the gaps left by sport, others though have recognised what they see to be an avoidable clash and so want to seek models that allow sport and church to co-exist. Then hanging over the whole debate is the issue of whether or not Christians should keep Sunday as a Sabbath day or not. How can we see a way forward in this complex web of competing claims?

First to speak into the Sabbath issue, should Christians keep Sunday as a day ‘set apart’ for God and church. It is important to recognise that there are differing opinions on this and that the gospel gives room for people to disagree on such an issue. However, it does seem that when the Sabbath comes up in the New Testament ‘keep the Sabbath day holy’ is not a command that is binding on Christians. Paul writes, ‘Therefore let no one pass judgement on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath’ (Col 2:16). It is highly unlikely that Paul would write that no one should pass judgement if it was a binding moral command to keep the Sabbath. After all, nowhere in the New Testament do we get such flexibility on other Christian moral requirements such as sexual purity, or not lying? Therefore Christians are not disobeying God if they do not keep a ‘Sabbath day’.

However, this does not mean that the Old Testament principle of the Sabbath day has nothing to teach us. In Deuteronomy 5 as Moses expounds the law he articulates three important aspects of the Sabbath. 

-  First, it is a day of rest from work. Deuteronomy 5 emphasises that even working animals (like an ox) can’t labour all the time and it seems God has ingrained a need for rest throughout creation (hence fields are to be ‘rested’ one year in seven in Leviticus 25). In the same way there is just something healthy about taking a day to appropriately rest. 

-  Secondly, rest is linked to devotion to God. Sabbath was a day ‘to the LORD your God’ (Dt 5:14), and therefore rest is not just the absence of work, but it is also about the peace that we find in Jesus Christ, ‘Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I shall give you rest’ (Mt 11:28). It is worth asking ‘what do we do when we rest’ - the word ‘recreation’ carries the idea of renewal (literally re-creation), and so our leisure time should be (at least in part) a time of spiritual renewal and refreshment. 

-  Thirdly, rest is linked to freedom from slavery. The Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy continues, ‘You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the LORD your God brought you out from there’ (Dt 5:15); therefore having a rest day is an expression of being a liberated person! This is particularly important because so many people feel they ‘can’t’ take a day of rest; “I have to work/study/train” they say, when the reality is they don’t always have to, they just feel like they do because they are enslaved to their career/degree/sporting achievement or something else. 

Where does this leave us then? Well we have not yet solved the practical tension in sport on Sundays but we have started to unravel some of the principles. Keeping the Sabbath is not a binding ethical norm for Christians, but there does seem to be something in the principle of having a day of rest (whenever that may be). Seeing this day not just as ‘leisure’ but as having a devotional aspect to it and watching for the danger of feeling like I ‘can’t’ spare ourselves a day off are important parts of this principle. This is significant because Christian sports people often play sport on top of everything else (family, church, work etc.) and so our diaries can be very full. There is then a sense in which we have to trust God with taking appropriate time off. God is the one who apportions time and so we can trust him that if we stick to good biblical principles of rest, not only will we still be able to fit everything in, but we will better maintain our physical and (more importantly) spiritual health. 

Pete Nicholas, Christians in Sport

([1] McMullin Steve. The Secularization of Sunday: Real or Perceived Competition for Churches.)


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