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Is it Okay to Watch Football on the TV on Sundays?

Bill Edgar

How did the big Presbyterian church “go liberal?” The question came back to me when a friend asked me to write about watching TV sports on the Sabbath. Until recently I believed that the explanation for Presbyterian liberalism was simple: preachers and professors simply betrayed the church. Wolves disguised as shepherds lured naive flocks away from green grass to chase mirages in a spiritual wilderness. But sheep themselves have a natural tendency to wander!

Recent historical research suggests that Presbyterian laity in this century adopted a “lay liberalism” that has little to do with seminary theologies and much to do with simple indifference.1 While the clergy did not effectively oppose the trend, erosion of commitment to traditional Presbyterian practices and beliefs began with the laity. For example, memorizing the Shorter Catechism and daily family worship well-nigh disappeared after World War II, and “standards for Sabbath observance were widely ignored by 1940.” 2 The official church confession remained orthodox and ethically rigorous, but church members refused to take it too seriously.

What does observance of the Sabbath Day require? Does the question make you impatient and evoke muttering about legalists and Pharisees? Hear what the Westminster Confession of Faith has to say.

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. (Chapter 22, paragraph 8)

Hear next the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Q. 60. How is the Sabbath to be sanctified? A. The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.

What place should watching your favorite professional football team play on TV have in your Sabbath Day observance? None. It is a worldly recreation lawful on other days, but it is not worship of God, it is not necessary, and it is not a work of mercy. (Neither, parents, is playing on a school or a club sports team on the Sabbath Day worship of God, necessary, or a work of mercy.) Anticipating the pleasure of watching a game, wondering who will win, can only distract you from the worship of God while you are in church; the game itself will take your mind away from works of mercy and the worship of God. It is “rest” in the sense that it is not your job, but it is not keeping the Day holy to the Lord. Indeed, you may in time come to “Remember the Sabbath Day” more because that is the Day the Eagles (or the Steelers, or the Chiefs) play than because that is the Day you keep holy to God.

As a youngster, I sometimes wanted to watch TV on the Sabbath Day. My mother would explain that the Sabbath was different from other days. It was a day to remember God and not be distracted by TV programs or by advertisers trying to make me want one more thing. My response that I had already been to church was met with this: “One difference between Catholics and Protestants is that we try to keep all of the Lord’s Day holy while Catholics think that if they go to Mass, that is all they have to do.” No TV was allowed in our house on the Sabbath Day.

In the Reformed Presbyterian Church I have heard no elder propose that we should change the Westminster standards regarding Sabbath Day observance. But I have heard that watching NFL games on Lord’s Day afternoons and evenings is not altogether unknown. The love of sport can easily get out of hand and escape its lawful place. Our church needs to be careful that its teaching is sound, and it needs to be careful that our hearing and obeying is faithful. “Lay liberalism,” indifference, can erode a church just as surely as heretical teaching. Careful Sabbath Day observance reminds us each week that the Lord demands our entire loyalty and obedience. On the Lord’s Day, turn off the TV and forget about football.

If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot
From doing your own pleasure on My holy day,
And call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable,
And shall honor it, desisting from your own ways,
From seeking your own pleasure,
And speaking your own word,
Then you will delight in the LORD,
And I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
And I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 58:13-14)

1 Benton Johnson, Dean R. Hoge, & Donald A. Luidens, “Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline,” First Things, March, 1993, pp. 13-18. 2 ibid., p. 17