I am among the strictest Sabbatarians at Covenant, so I often have questions about how some in our college community spend their Sundays; however, I find the ideas expressed in the opinion article, “Observing the Sabbath: A Matter for the Heart, Not the Administration,” by Jessica Florey to be particularly troubling. I am grateful to the editorial staff for granting me the opportunity to respond to her essay.
First, the title and tenor of the essay reveal a misunderstanding of the administration’s intent behind instituting policies that eschew participation in intercollegiate athletic events on Sundays. In doing so, the administration does not intend to micromanage our spiritual lives, but rather promote the values that ought to be embraced by our community of believers as they are informed by Biblical truths. These values and how they are expressed are not decided by a majority of members, as one might think should be the case; instead, they are determined by the leadership of the community — the Board of Trustees, the president, the administration — who are guided in their decision-making process by the foundational documents of the institution — most significantly the Bible, the Westminster Confession, and the Statement of Community of Beliefs. Of course, the policies of a community have a tangible impact on those who belong to it, and faithful membership necessarily involves assenting to abide by them.
Second, I find it difficult to swallow Ms. Florey’s assertion that Sabbath observance is extra-biblical, particularly when the primary justification provided is that the Sabbath was not an institution until after the Fall of man. On the contrary, the day of Sabbath rest was instituted before the Fall by God Himself when He rested on the seventh day of Creation. Being God, He certainly did not need the rest, and theologians have traditionally understood His resting on the seventh day to serve as a model for His children.
Furthermore, where in Scripture does God invalidate all of His laws that apply to practices subsequent to the Fall? In fact, Jesus said that He came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, subsequently adding a grave warning that, “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:17-19, ESV). This hermeneutical approach is also inconsistent with other historical practices within the Church; for example, private ownership of property was not established before the Fall, and yet Christians still identify stealing and coveting the belongings of others as sin. Should these obvious sins be disregarded because they are attached to a practice that succeeds the Fall?
It is important to note at this point the Church’s acknowledgment that God did set aside the ceremonial law given to the Old Testament Israelites (i.e. ritual sacrifices, cleanliness), which He authorized in His vision to Peter in Acts 10 (and not in Acts 15, the passage referenced in the original article). His purpose for doing so, however, has nothing to do with its post-lapsarian institution and everything to do with its fulfillment in Christ. The ordinances of the ceremonial law were types and shadows that prefigured Christ and His atoning work, so upholding the ceremonial law on this side of the Cross would constitute a denial of the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement. On the other hand, the moral law, which was given as the perfect rule of righteous living rather than as an anticipation of the Messiah, remains our standard for faithful living that informs us of the will of God. Although we no longer live under its curse, God still calls His people to be holy and to live righteously in gratitude to Him, and Scripture clearly indicates that His Law serves as the guide. (Chapter XIX of WCF explains this distinction far more completely than I do here.) Most alarming is that Ms. Florey bases her understanding of obedience upon “where one’s heart is at and their choice in it” — very shaky ground upon which to stand, given how faithless and rebellious we know sinful human hearts to be according to Scripture.
Third, if the college were to sanction athletic events on Sundays, student-athletes might have the freedom to choose whether or not to participate in athletic events on Sundays, but their coaches and trainers would not have that same liberty. Athletic staff are required at all intercollegiate events, and agreeing to work on the Sabbath would therefore become a necessary condition of their continued employment.
Do we really desire that the willingness to discount the fourth commandment be a litmus test for our athletic staff, so that those who maintain a traditional, orthodox perspective on the Lord’s Day are disqualified from serving in such roles? To perpetuate this standard would do serious violence to Covenant’s system of thought, which is founded upon the Bible as it is explicated in the Westminster Confession of Faith, and which has been upheld by the college throughout its history.
Lastly, it is a rather dangerous line of thought to conclude that the Sabbath policy should be considered null and void simply because students ignore it anyway. I lament the observation that “the posture of our hearts” does not embrace the blessing of Sabbath rest, and I am saddened by the recommendation that our community should simply accept this reality rather than engage in some much-needed self-examination and repentance.
If it was observed that most Covenant students regularly worship a golden calf, I hope that the college would not adjust its policy to accommodate idolatry, and I certainly hope that it would not make participation in such worship a condition for employment in the Chapel department! As ludicrous as this may seem, the same logic utilized to rationalize adjustment of policies toward Sunday activities would also allow for community idolatry, so long as students typically ignore policies regarding faith in God alone.
I rejoice in the witness borne by our college community in the ways we seek to honor the Sabbath, regardless of how inconsistently and imperfectly we do so. With last season’s forfeiture of the conference tournament by the women’s tennis team, Covenant signalled to everyone who noticed that we are serious about living for Jesus, so much so that we gladly forsake the acclaim of the world — including tennis championships — for the joy of faithfully following our Savior.