In one sense, Eric Liddell had been training for the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris his whole life. When confronted by his sister that he was spending too much time training and not focusing on his future missionary endeavors to China, he told her: “Jenny, Jenny, you’ve got to understand it. I believe that God made me for a purpose – for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.”
That relationship between running and divine delight was challenged suddenly when Eric learned that the qualifying heats for the race for which he had been training, the 100 meters, were scheduled to take place on a Sunday. Eric refused to run. When confronted by the Prince of Wales, the future king of England, to change his mind, Liddell replied: “God made countries, God makes kings and the rules by which they govern. And those rules say that the Sabbath is his. And I for one intend to keep it that way.” Despite the promise of an Olympic gold medal, Eric withdrew from the race.
I love Christian sports associations. In areas of recreation, the two national athletic ministry networks, Upward Sports and Sports Reach, not only train our Christian youth in the character and comradery that comes from team sports, but also provide social spaces that foster genuine Christian community and evangelism.
However, as the father of young competitors in these organizations, I have been disappointed and perplexed by the willingness of the organizers, coaches, parents and athletes to participate in sports events scheduled on Sunday mornings. There are a number of reasons given to justify missing church in order to compete. It seems the primary reason is that without competing in secular athletic leagues, our young people will not have enough teams to play. And competing in secular athletic leagues involves the inconvenience of playing on Sunday mornings.
Fair enough. But I think we have to step back and ask: what is actually happening when Christian athletes are asked to choose between sports competition and corporate worship?
What we have to understand is that how we think of time contributes to our sense of a meaningful reality. Cultural anthropologists are in broad agreement that ‘time’ is in fact a social-cultural construction, such that the way we organize time affects the way we perceive reality. Calendars don’t simply tell time; they create and recreate cultural life and human experience in terms of a meaningful order.
For example, you will notice that youth sporting events are not scheduled for 9:00am Monday morning. Now why is that? Why do we not schedule our high school basketball tournaments for mid-morning Monday? Because that is a time that we in the modern age designate as a ‘business day,’ which constitutes a formal day in what we call the ‘work week.’ You may notice that we increasingly measure time in relation to this cultural construct. For example, Amazon might send me a package in ‘2 business days’ which, if ordered on a Friday, means that it will arrive on a Tuesday; and that’s if Friday or Monday were not ‘holidays.’ Weekday mornings comprise the calendrical space of the professions, and this of course includes school, which is the space of the teaching professions.
What is key here is that by not scheduling youth sports events at 9am Monday morning, we acknowledge tacitly the social sanctity of the professions and the cultural importance of the work week. These are social practices that our culture considers sacred. This industrialized identity marker of modern American culture even comes with a creedal statement, codified in Calvin Coolidge’s famous postulate: “The business of America is business.”
Then, let’s consider what we are saying when we schedule athletic games to begin, say, at 10am on Sunday morning. Such a practice reveals that Sunday morning is part of two recreational days designated as the ‘weekend.’ And so we have our ‘work week’ and the ‘weekend.’ It is essential to understand that the logic of these days is characterized by our practices – what we do – during these time frames: labor and leisure. By not scheduling the basketball tournament at 9am on Monday we are indicating that such a time is incompatible with recreation; by scheduling the volleyball game to begin at 10:30am on Sunday, we are perpetuating the perception that Sunday morning is a recreational period of time.
This secular ordering of time stands historically in stark contrast to a distinctively Christian temporal organization. Sunday morning was marked as the dawn of what Christians called the kyriakē, the Lord’s Day. As Patristic scholar Alexander Schmemann has observed, the Lord’s Day was understood by the early church in relation to the Jewish Sabbath, or Seventh Day (our Saturday), the day of rest. The Sabbath (Saturday) commemorates the creation of the world and the rest God took having made everything ‘very good.’ However, Sunday, the morning of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, represents the Messianic fulfillment of the new creation. This is the day which the Jewish imagination designated as the ‘Eighth Day,’ the day of redemption from the cosmic tyranny of sin and death.
Thus, as David Clayton points out, the very time we worship, Sunday, is simultaneously the first day of the new seven-day week and the eighth day that has liberated us from the previous week. Sunday is not merely a day of recreation in relation to a work week; rather, Sunday is the day of recreation, the very day by which all days are ordered and understood. It is the day of resurrection. It is the day for gathering together and corporately realizing and manifesting the reality of Christ’s redemption into which the entire cosmos has been incorporated.
Again, the important point here is that such a day is set apart by what we do during this time period. When Christians across the globe gather together in song, sermon, and sacrament, they sanctify socially Sunday morning as a witness to the world that Christ is risen and that God’s inextinguishable love has in fact poured out into our world.
But what happens when contemporary Christians forego such worship, and instead compete in athletic events scheduled during this time? What do such practices reveal? When we participate in sporting events on Sunday morning rather than church, we are in fact reducing Christian corporate worship to the activities of recreational life. Such a practice perpetuates inadvertently the notion that our worship life, which is supposed to be the foundation of the Christian week, is in fact merely one of innumerable recreational options scheduled in accordance with a secular conception of time.
But if our temporal practices change our perception of reality, then there are very real consequences for this: we cannot relativize Christian worship without relativizing Christian truth. We can’t relativize the church without relativizing the truth it proclaims. Indeed, such competitive practice does little more than affirm the secular notion that church is just another weekend option, nothing more.
To be clear, I am not advocating Eric Liddell’s Sabbatarianism. He was theologically convicted of how one was to keep the Sabbath day. I, on other hand, am concerned by the social and cultural ramifications of Christian families choosing competitive sports over church services, since such a choice, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot but shape adversely their perception of the order of a meaningful reality. And that reality is being defined inexorably in distinctively secular terms.
And so, I believe it is time for the church en masse to say: no more sports on Sunday mornings! If Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox sports programs come together and form their own leagues, I don’t see how this is even remotely an impossibility. And as such sporting events revolve around a distinctively Christian conception of time, they will in turn become social spaces that foster the kind of Christian community for which our secular age is craving.
Eric Liddell had known about the 100 meters race scheduled for Sunday several months before the Summer Olympic Games. Having made his decision to withdraw, he trained instead for the 400 meters race. Unfortunately, he consistently turned in subpar times. And so, when the day of the 400 meters finally arrived – July 11, 1924 – he was not expected to win. As he stepped toward the starting blocks, a trainer from the American Olympic Team, inspired by Eric’s faithfulness, handed him a piece of paper that read: “It says in the Old Book: He that honors me I will honor” (1 Samuel 2:30). With paper folded in hand, Eric ran the 400 meters race.
His time was 47.6 seconds, a new world record.
Make sure to sign up on our email list and get your free eBook, blog posts, and my latest research in your inbox!
Download your FREE ebook on how to overcome stress and anxiety with prayer!
 David Clayton, “The Path to Heaven is a Triple Helix,” available at http://thewayofbeauty.org/2010/04/the-path-to-heaven-is-a-triple-helix/.