Several years ago the Brazilian soccer team was in the World Cup. Now I’m sure you’re aware that soccer is very big down in Brazil, just like college football is big here in the South and professional football is big in other parts of the country (but for those of you who weren’t–you are now). And I’m sure you’re also aware that Brazil is a heavily Catholic country (again, if you weren’t–you are now). Well, a key World Cup match for Brazil just happened to fall on Good Friday that year. The Catholic bishops in Brazil knew how big soccer is there, and they were afraid that church attendance would be low because of the soccer match, so they got on the radio and issued bulletins throughout the country that anyone who missed Mass on Good Friday would be committing a very serious sin. (The Catholic bishops were not making this up. It is an actual part of Catholic belief that church attendance on Sunday and certain other days of the year is compulsory.)
At any rate, my first reaction upon hearing this was, “Thank God I’m not Catholic. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that.” Now I get that there is a lot of rigor and structure in the Catholic system of things–that they are strict about such things as when you must attend church, the conditions under which you may receive Communion, and when you must sit/stand/kneel during the course of the service. And I respect that. But I find it hard to believe that in the final analysis Jesus cares about such things. That is a significant part of the reason why I am now Protestant.
And then I find the same thing happening here, right smack in the heart of evangelical Protestant-dom. One of the discernment watchblogs castigated a church in Arizona and a church in South Carolina for canceling Sunday evening services on the weekend of the Super Bowl, saying that “the gods of the NFL take precedence over the God of the Bible” and “man-centered churches worship man!” Other discernment watchblogs are saying similar things; here is an example. As I scroll down through the comments on this one, I see that these churches “don’t follow the true Jesus anyway (as much as they think they do)”, that they are “treating His Word, His Son, and His House with…contempt”, “servants of the Word [who] are submitting to their own will to fill a fleshly desire.” You should read these for yourself; there is plenty of juicy material here.
Here’s the thing: Everyone knows that real Christians are in church every opportunity that they can possibly be there. We are all slaves to the Word and are under a deathly compulsion to preach the Word, or to be in a place where the Word is preached, at every possible opportunity. Thus everyone knows where to find us, whether on Sunday morning or Sunday evening. Especially on Sunday evening. And if some lost person is out there who desperately needs to hear the Gospel and who wants to hear the Gospel and be saved, they know where we are on Sunday evening and are fully expecting us to be there–and by God we had better be there for them!!! If this hypothetical lost person were to show up on the doorstep of our church one fine Sunday evening and find it all shut down because–heaven forbid–we were all at home watching some football game, what a terrible tragedy that would be, both now and for eternity!!!
This reminds me of the evangelist who preached a revival in Chicago in the fall of 1871 (I think this was Charles Finney, but I couldn’t swear to it). One night he preached a service and then forgot to give the altar call. He didn’t think anything of it at the time, but the very next day the Great Chicago Fire broke out. His first thought was about the lost people who were at his service the night before who didn’t have the chance to receive Christ because he didn’t give the altar call and then died in the fire the very next day, and about how their blood would be on his hands in the sight of God. Needless to say, he never ended a service thereafter without giving an altar call.
Here’s another thing: Real Christians choose God over everything–every chance they get. We need to make as many opportunities as possible for believers to choose church over other things. This choice is what defines us as Christians. When we choose church over any other possible distraction it sends a message to the entire watching world that we are truly serious about the things of God and that we have our priorities straight.
In light of this, perhaps we need to rethink our understanding of Galatians. We evangelicals have traditionally been very hard on those people in Galatia who demanded that believers be circumcised in addition to professing faith in Jesus Christ. We need to reassess this–those Judaizers may have been onto something.
And perhaps we have been too hard on Islam as well, because of its emphasis on submission to God’s rule and accumulating good works for yourself by keeping God’s rules. We need to reassess this, because Islam is far more effective at showing the world that its adherents are serious about the things of God. Certainly they don’t have to deal with any sort of compromise with worldly distractions such as the Super Bowl.
Come on, people.
When we think of legalism, we think of subtle things that creep in and sneak up on you without you ever knowing what hit you. But the example that I mentioned above is nothing like that at all. This is overt, in-your-face legalism, the kind that even the Pharisees of Jesus’s day would take immense pride in.
When you get up and tell yourself and others that you and your group are the only true Christians because you are the only ones who are sitting in church and being preached to on Sunday evening while all the rest of the world is at home watching a football game, you have become a proud-hearted legalist. Don’t even try telling me or anyone else that what you are doing is all about God and about taking God seriously, because it’s not. It’s about you. It’s about you taking God seriously. It’s about you maintaining the illusion that you are the only ones who take God seriously while all the rest of the so-called Christians out there are wallowing in the pit of apostasy. It’s about you placing yourself and your efforts to take God seriously right there at the center of this thing and giving yourself a huge pat on the back because others aren’t as sold out as you are.
And we set ourselves up as the ones whom the world must come to to learn about grace, about a God who is gracious, who saves us because of nothing we could have done on our own to deserve it.