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Michael Jones and Michael Jones

Michael Jones and Michael Jones

At the very first Rugby World Cup tournament, in 1987, the first person to score a try was New Zealander, Michael Jones. In the 1980s and 1990s, the boy from West Auckland was not only famous for his canny abilities at flanker, but for his refusal to play rugby on Sundays. From the days of the early Christians, Sunday was commemorated as the day on which they believed that Jesus resurrected from the dead. By the fourth century, the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, placed restrictions on the activities able to be carried out on Sundays. These restrictions were extended later that century, under the Emperor Theodosius, making it illegal to conduct business, attend sports, or attend the theatre on every seventh day. In essence, Christians applied the Jewish laws concerning rest on the Sabbath to the new “Christian Sabbath”. Generations of Christians, including All Black Michael Jones, believed that rest on “The Lord’s Day” was the proper ethical stance for Christians to take.

Roll on 2011 and there is another Rugby World Cup. But things have changed in West Auckland churches. Within a couple of decades or so, the Christian attitude to Sunday which reigned in Christian parts of the world for a millennium and half has dramatically changed. If you attend Massey Presbyterian Church, for example, once the evening sermon by Matthew Flannagan is complete, you can remain in your pew and then watch the rugby match between New Zealand and Argentina.

As with all societies, cultures, and subcultures, the churches are continually changing and adapting their moral stances. They might not think that they do, and some might even claim to follow “objective divine commands”. Yet, on examination, churches are just as subject to the winds of moral change as any. No doubt Christians had good reasons in 1987 to stand up for not playing rugby on Sundays and equally good reasons in 2011 for showing rugby in church on Sundays. Ethical reasoning is often like that. There is no “fundamental” or “objective” reason for any set of ethics which a community adopts. Any set of ethics is completely subjective, merely the result of a community’s adoption of certain rules of behaviour. But once ethics are adopted, humans do tend to produce no end of rationalisations for doing what they currently do.

Much the same is the case for Christian communities. One difference, of course, is that Christian communities claim that they take ethical stances – e.g. on sex, war, global warming, stem-cell research, single mothers, etc – based on divine authority. However, “divine authority” is frequently a placeholder for whatever is the latest ethical trend. As Brian Malley says:

In my lifetime I have seen, among evangelical Christians, a new emphasis on environmental awareness, on physical fitness, on community formation, and changes in gender ideology. All of these changes reflected trends in the larger cultural environment, but all were incorporated into evangelical Christians’ authoritative discourse by being expounded from the Bible, as what the Bible had always said.

– Brian Malley, “Understanding the Bible’s Influence,” pages 194-204 in James S. Bielo, ed., The Social Life of Scriptures: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Biblicism (Rutgers, 2009), 202-203.

And what is the topic of the sermon at Massey Presbyterian Church, before they take down the sermon powerpoints and show the rugby game? The sermon is railing against … “ethical relativism“.

They couldn’t possibly be more ironic if they had tried!