The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland now seems to stand alone in faithfully witnessing against public transport being run in systematic disregard of the Sabbath, or Lord’s Day. Even those who disagree with public transport on the Sabbath find it hard to agree with the Free Presbyterian Church when it bars those who use it from Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, especially if they use it only in order to attend public worship.
The Free Presbyterian position is considered by some to be extreme and idiosyncratic, dividing them from the rest of the Christian world unnecessarily. However, they fail to realise that not only is it warranted by Scripture, but also godly men of the past have taken the same view. A clear stand on this matter is therefore neither novel nor unique. Besides rulings of Church Courts, noted leading ministers of the past such as Samuel Miller in America, J C Ryle in England, and in Scotland Robert Murray M’Cheyne, James Begg and John Kennedy of Dingwall, were staunchly united against public transport on the Sabbath. Nevertheless, even if no one agreed with us, we must still follow Scripture. Words spoken in a different context are applicable here: “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).
Historically the Church has treated profaning the Lord’s Day for worldly gain as a breach of the Fourth Commandment. It has been looked on as sin, just as it was sin for the Jews to profane the Lord’s temple by profiteering from money-changing. The Church of Scotland in the 1640s passed Acts against those that set sail in boats on the Sabbath, and proceeded in discipline against masters that allowed their servants to work on the Sabbath.
The core issue is whether or not use of transport run for commercial gain on the Sabbath is a breach of the Fourth Commandment even when used solely in order to attend public worship.
Sabbath public transport is in fact very clearly contrary to the Fourth Commandment, which explicitly prohibits us from engaging others to work on our behalf on the Sabbath. A clear provision of the Fourth Commandment is that we cannot employ someone or require them to work on the Sabbath: “But the seventh day is 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” (Ex. 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 thus employing someone on the Sabbath. As Thomas Boston put it, the Fourth Commandment prohibits “all handy-labour or servile employments tending to our worldly gain”.
Using 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 Church-going 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. The Synod statement said:
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.
If we shy away from the difficult applications of the Fourth Commandment, it will 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 refuse the drivers, attendants, operators and owners of public transport run on the Sabbath, when they come to a Kirk Session for Baptism or the Lord’s Supper, and at the same time accept those who employ them to attend corporate worship?
If one form of employment in the realm of worldly gain can be permitted, then, to be consistent, no type of employment on the Lord’s Day can be made a matter of discipline. Having reached that point, it would be futile and contradictory to maintain any witness against breach of the Sabbath whatsoever.
Some want to take refuge in the assertion that they would not travel by Sabbath public transport themselves, but could not condemn others for doing so. This 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.
Some say that the Free Presbyterian position is harsh, in that it precludes some people from being able to attend the public means of grace, to the detriment of their souls’ welfare. A number of answers can be given to this. Such people will be praying about it and seeking the Lord to provide for them. That might involve moving from where they live. It might involve them acquiring a vehicle for this purpose even if it is not otherwise needed. It might involve, as it often does among us, others from the congregation diligently taking them to and from church in their own private transport. It might involve, as it does in some places, the congregation investing in a vehicle to collect people.
But if no practical solution can be found for the present, the end can never justify the means. Using public transport run for profit in systematic disregard of the Lord’s Day is sin. Shall we say, “Let us do evil, that good may result” (Rom. 3:8)? Paul considered it slander when he was reported as saying that! We must never do evil under any circumstances, whatever good we might hope will come from it. It is good to be at the public means of grace, but we have no right to expect to reap good from it if we commit the evil of Sabbath-breaking to get there! The Synod ruling goes on to say:
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.”
This issue was disputed in the 1920s and up to 1930, when one congregation, together with their minister and a probationer, left the Free Presbyterian Church, protesting against the Synod’s faithful decision. An account of the controversy can be found in chapter 11 of the History of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland 1893-1970, and can be viewed on this site at this link. The Synod’s full statement on the issue can be found here.
Matthew A Vogan