Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Sabbath Public Transport

Every so often the vexed question of Sabbath public transport raises its head. It's not always clear why since it is very clearly contrary to the fourth commandment to engage others to work on our behalf. A clear provision and consequence of the fourth commandment is that we cannot employ someone or make them work on the sabbath, 'the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates' (Exodus 20:10).

The use of public transport on the Sabbath is against Scripture because it is a commercial transaction taking place on the Sabbath requiring someone to work for a purpose other than that of necessity and mercy. The traveller is effectively hiring the transport and the driver and employing someone on the Sabbath. As Thomas Boston put it – this is a commandment that prohibits 'all handy-labour or servile employments tending to our worldly gain'.

The core matter is whether or not use of transport run for commercial gain on the Sabbath is a breach of the fourth commandment even when used in order to attend public worship.  For what it may be worth, a clear stand on this matter is neither novel nor unique. Noted leading ministers of the past such as J.C. Ryle, R. Murray M’Cheyne, James Begg and John Kennedy of Dingwall were staunchly united against public transport on the sabbath. It may be of interest to learn that Samuel Miller led the 1836 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in condemning sabbath public transport as tending to “disgrace the church of God” and making those who used it to be “partakers in other men's sins” More historical examples can be found here.

Engaging public transport on the Sabbath is “wrong on the part of the payee, because, without deference, implied or expressed, to what the Fourth Commandment prohibits, on the one hand, or allows, on the other, he, as a contracting party, carries forward into the business of the Lord's Day the same mercenary aims, the same working conditions, and the same contract terms which he lawfully and necessarily employs on the six days during which, God says, "thou shalt do all thy work" and wrong on the part of the payer, because, as the other contracting party, by availing himself of the service, and by paying the stipulated fare, he voluntarily, and for the most part, cheerfully accommodates himself to these aims and conditions and accepts these terms. Nor can any amount or species of motive serve to make it right”, ‘Statement in Reference to Churchgoing by Public Conveyances on the Sabbath’, Synod of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, 1928.

It is quite clear that the paying traveller cannot remain guiltless in using this transport: 'Any use made of them on the part of an individual entails the giving by that individual of a certain proportionate moral and material contribution towards the support of the evil, thereby making him a party to it and involving him in the guilt of it.'

'This may appear in the case of some to constitute a hardship in so far as it precludes them from worshipping under conditions to which they had formerly accustomed themselves. The Synod believe, however, that in the end this will be found to be a hardship in appearance only; that the difficulty of it will be seen to have yielded to the forces of faith and faithfulness; and that the compensations of obedience to the truth and of preserving a conscience void of offence toward God and man are more than sufficient to counter-balance any amount of specious comfort foregone and of inconvenience suffered. "Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect to all thy commandments."

Chapter 11 of The History of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland 1893-1970, which can be viewed at outlines the reasons that the Free Presbyterian Church took this stand.

If we shy away from the difficult applications of the commandment it will in fact undermine the consistency of our whole approach and encourage people to search for loopholes where they wish to find them. How far does one push this particular open question? Is taking a Sabbath flight (run by a commercial airline) for the purposes of attending or perhaps leading corporate worship to be winked at too? How can one condemn the drivers, attendants, operators and owners of public transport run on the Sabbath who are employed by those who travel to corporate worship? If one form of employment in the realm of worldly gain could be permitted then, to be consistent, no type of employment on the Lord's Day can be made a matter of discipline. Having reached this point it is futile and contradictory to maintain any witness against breach of the Sabbath. “He who is not prepared to stand in a minority of one with a majority of millions against him, will not keep a good conscience respecting the Lord’s Day” (William Plumer).

To take refuge in the assertion that one would not travel by Sabbath public transport but could not condemn others for doing so is, as the Free Presbyterian minister Neil Cameron pointed out, a form of sophistry. “God’s Word says: 'Thou shalt not suffer sin on thy neighbour.'  The real meaning of such an argument is that the Synod should consent to allow their people to do that which they (these sophists) feel to be sin in their own conscience. If that be so why do they say that they would not do it themselves? Such arguments are devoid of any real force in face of the terms of the Fourth Commandment, and integrity of conscience.”