Author’s note: I’m traveling this week, so this is a repost of a popular blog from last September. With the NFL season kicking off this week, the time is right to revisit the importance of justice, and the men who dispense it on the field – the referees. 

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[September 2012] The National Football League has been locked in a labor dispute with its referees. So this summer the league hired replacement officials to manage its games. For three weeks these inexperienced refs bumbled their way through 47 games, getting most of the calls right.

152732551-5783But that changed on Monday night in front of a national television audience. The refs blew a huge call on the final play of the game and robbed one of America’s most popular teams of a hard-fought victory.

The reaction from fans, pundits and fellow athletes was swift and furious. Normally neutral commentators reacted with disbelief and scorn. ESPN’s SportsCenter set an all-time ratings record as incredulous fans tried to make sense of this debacle. Facebook was alight with fans vowing not to watch NFL games until the real refs return. Athletes who are normally restrained in their tweets exploded in anger. Even President Obama questioned the call.

Why this furor over a single play in an early season game? And what can it teach us about men, who comprise the majority of the sport’s fan base?

Men are deeply offended by: 1) incompetence, 2) disorder and 3) inconsistency within their beloved institutions.

This is exactly what men are seeing in the NFL: indecisive calls from the referees. Increasing disorder as players test the officials to see what they can get away with. And they see a failure to apply the rules of the game consistently.

What can this tell us about men’s relationship to the church?

Men love competence. For decades men have been flocking to megachurches, in large measure because of this issue. Megachurches, for lack of a better phrase, have their acts together. They put on a good show. Men are not afraid to invite their friends to the megachurch because they know everything will be done with taste and professionalism. Megachurches may not be as warm and loving as the little church down the street, but they are never embarrassing, and that’s important to men.

Men love order. I know many men who have left churches because of disorderly worship. In an effort to “give over to the Spirit” things get crazy. Services run long. Individuals call attention to themselves. Emotionalism takes over. One man left his longtime church saying, “The lunatics are running the asylum.”

Men love consistency. Men are leaving churches that fail to apply the Bible consistently. Churches that have altered the rulebook to accommodate modern culture are losing their men. When a church reinterprets or twists the clear commands of scripture it’s almost like a referee who sees an obvious interception and calls it a touchdown. Inconsistent application of the rules drives men nuts.

The Bible speaks of God as a referee, or a judge. Before the world began he set down rules. We are expected to abide by these rules. Those that don’t will be penalized – both in this life and in eternity. He has promised to set things right at the end of the game. This is one reason the doctrine of “everyone goes to heaven” always fails to gain much traction with men. Men can accept grace and forgiveness. What they cannot accept are penalties that are uncalled or ignored. This offends their sense of justice.

Referees make mistakes. They’re only human. Men understand this.

What men don’t understand is a pattern of incompetence, disorder and inconsistency. That’s what we’re seeing in the NFL today. These are the same things that drive men away from the church.