When I was a teenager, on many a weekend we youth from our small church drove for 3-1/2 hours to spend time “down south” with church friends. Then on Sunday afternoon or evening, after a fine (or angst-laden) time in the Kitchener-Waterloo region with friends who sported last names like Bauman, Biehn, Martin, Frey, Horst, Martin, Koch, Weber, Martin, and Zehr, we would reluctantly hit the road north for Parry Sound and home. Usually our homeward journey took us through the little town of Arthur. There we would fill up with cheap(er) southern gas.
Yes, you read correctly. We bought gas on our homeward Sunday journey. I don’t remember ever buying supper in Arthur, however. Gas was a necessity. Food was not. If we were fortunate, our weekend hosts had already stuffed us with food. But not always. I clearly remember the hunger I felt during many long trips home, stomachs rumbling in the car as we rolled past many a welcoming restaurant.
If we timed things just right, the story ended more happily. I also remember many Sunday nights, driving home late after perhaps an evening revival meeting, when we rolled into the city of Barrie just as the clock struck midnight. On such nights–after 12:00 but not a moment before (usually!)–McDonalds was more than a welcome bathroom break. It was also the scene of happy teenagers scarfing cheezeburgers and fries. Ah, the salty satisfaction of stepping out of the sphere of the Law! McDonalds fries never tasted better.
This morning in Sunday School we discussed the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. Our class had an interesting and profitable conversation. But it wasn’t until the sermon that this post started to form in my mind. The sermon this morning was more of a teaching session, perhaps because the preacher recently returned from several weeks as a Calvary Bible School instructor. His presentation today contrasted Anabaptists and Protestants, explaining how differing theologies have led to differing behaviors. Some such presentations stick in my throat on the way down, but this one contained enough caveats and compassion that I thought it was quite helpful. Beliefs do matter, after all, and different beliefs do tend to produce different results, and I do find myself affirming a higher percentage of Menno Simon’s beliefs than those of Martin Luther.
One of the contrasts between Anabaptists and Protestants that was mentioned today was in our approach to Scripture. Protestants, we heard, have tended to have a “flat Bible.” That is, they have tended to draw principles and practices from both testaments quite equally. Thus, they while they affirm salvation through Jesus’ blood, drawing this from the New Testament, they usually also affirm that Christians can go to war, swear oaths, and baptize infants–often basing these affirmations on Old Testament precedents. Anabaptists, in contrast, have historically interpreted the OT through the NT, reading all through the “Jesus lens” (as a recent evangelical book encourages us to do!). Thus Anabaptists have rejected practices such as war, oaths, and infant baptism based on the teachings of Jesus and his apostles.
This general distinction is historically true. But, while talking with friends after the service this morning, I realized there are important exceptions. For example, my mind drifted back to our Sunday School topic: the Sabbath.
Let me state two theses for the heart of my post:
- I think that many conservative Anabaptists today take a very “flat Bible” approach to the question of Sabbath and the Lord’s Day.
- I think that this is due, at least in part, to Protestant influence. Update: And also due to much older influence—Constantinian law.
Let me briefly defend my first thesis and suggest research pointers for me second.
Many Anabaptists that I know are much like the teenaged me. Without even thinking about it, we tend to assume that the Lord’s Day replaces the OT Sabbath. More specifically, we believe that, just as the Sabbath was the day of rest for OT saints, so the Lord’s Day is the day of rest for NT saints. But this idea is not taught anywhere in Scripture.
Here are some things I do find in Scripture:
- Christians are not bound to “remember the Sabbath day” (Ex. 20:8). This command given to the Israelite nation. As NT believers, our general relationship toward the Law of Moses is that we are not under its authority (Rom. 6:14; Rom. 7:6; 1Cor. 9:20; Gal. 3:10, 23-26; Gal. 5:18; Eph. 2:15; Heb. 7:12; etc.). While Jesus reaffirmed 9 of the 10 Commandments as part of new covenant ethics, he never clearly reaffirmed the Sabbath command. If we only had Jesus’ direct words, you might be able to argue fairly convincingly that Christians should observe the Sabbath. But, after his resurrection, Christ clarified many things through his Spirit and his apostles. Paul answers our question very clearly: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in question of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:16-17; cf. Rom. 14:1-6; Gal. 4:9-11). If you want to hang onto the Sabbath law, then please enjoy your kosher meat and your new moon celebrations! The author of Hebrews makes a similar point. In his argument that Christ is “better than” all things previous, he notes that Israel’s rest in Canaan was not the final fulfillment of God’s seventh-day rest (Heb. 4:4-8). Rather, “we who have believed enter that rest” (Heb. 4:3). And in classic already/not-yet tension, he adds, “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest” (Heb. 4:9-11). To supplement our rest in Christ with Sabbath laws makes as much sense as insisting that we must also move to Canaan and rest in that earthly promised land.
- We find examples, but no rules, regarding the Lord’s Day. Our Sunday School booklets asked the blunt question: “Is there anything unlawful for us on the Lord’s Day?” To answer this well, we first need to ask, “Does Scripture give any laws about the Lord’s Day?” The answer is “no.” Here are some of the things we do find about the “Lord’s Day.” This term is use only once in Scripture–in Revelation 1:10, where John writes, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.” John does not say which day of the week this was. However, based on what we know of early church use of this term, it seems reasonable that he was referring to the first day of the week. Elsewhere in the NT we read of other Christian activities on the first day of the week: meeting to break bread and receive apostolic teaching (Acts 20:7) and setting money aside for collections for poor believers (1 Cor. 16:1-2). It seems reasonable, again based on early church history, that the reason Christians began meeting on the first day of the week was because this was the day that Jesus rose from the dead (Matt. 28:1) and also the day when the Spirit was poured out (based on calculations for the date of Pentecost).
In summary, Scripture makes it clear that : (1) Christians are not bound to obey the Sabbath. (2) We are not required to observe any other holy days. (3) Rest in and through Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the Sabbath law. (4) The origin of the Lord’s Day is unrelated to the Sabbath. (5) No rules are given for the Lord’s Day.
At this point some of you may be thinking: “But what about Genesis 2? What about God’s example of resting on the seventh day–an example that precedes the Law of Moses?” Good question!
Here is how I think that question can be answered:
- It is crucial to note that God’s example does not overturn the clear statements of the NT: Christians are not bound to observe any holy day.
- However, I think God’s example–as well as his institution of all sorts of Sabbaths (weekly and otherwise) in the Law of Moses–reflects the reality that all of creation flourishes best with regular times of rest. This is a creation fact, and I know it to be true in my own life: I flourish best with regular days of rest.
- However…! (This is where some of you may finally fall off my train.) I don’t think we should expect to enjoy now all of God’s original provisions for our flourishing. Put more bluntly, I don’t think Christians have a right to demand a weekly day of rest. A comparison may help. In Genesis 2:3 we read that God “blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” And in Genesis 2:18 we hear God say, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.” This blessing, the blessing of a wife, is the greatest blessing that God gives to man in Genesis 2. Most men–myself included–generally flourish best if they are married. (I’m speaking here as a male; most of what I’m saying is true for women, too, I think, although I have a hunch that on average single women fair slightly better than single men. Let’s put the lid back on that can!) So we have these two great Genesis 2 blessings provided for humanity: a day made holy because God rested, and marriage. But when we come to the NT, what do we find? Well, what might Paul say? Let’s listen:
8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion…
27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. 29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor. 7:8-9, 27-35)
This is uncomfortable theology for many of us, but I think Paul possessed exceptional insight. Given life post-Fall, and given the NT call to proclaim the gospel, Paul sees that marriage is not for all. Indeed, for those who can do without, marriage is sometimes actually a hindrance, a distraction from serving the Lord. God said “It is not good that the man should be alone,” but Paul knows we no longer live in the Garden, so he writes, “It is good for them to remain single.”
What does this have to do with a weekly day of rest? Well, back to a question from our Sunday School booklets:
Can resting on the Lord’s Day become laziness? (Consider Proverbs 10:5 in light of Matthew 9:35-38.)
Proverbs 10 teaches that a prudent son will gather during harvest. Matthew 9 records Jesus’ command to pray for more laborers in the spiritual harvest and describes him working hard in this harvest–including on each Sabbath, when he was “teaching in their synagogues.” Jesus did not rest his body on his Sabbath day; he knew there was a harvest urgently awaiting laborers.
Jesus did not have a flat Bible. Neither did Paul. But I fear that conservative Anabaptists sometimes have flatter Bibles that we realize. While discussing this after church, a friend suggested that we also have a flat Bible approach to our understanding of who is or is not authorized to preach. I agree that at least some of our ideas about leadership seem to arise as much from OT kingship and priesthood as from the NT. Our thinking about ordinances has suffered in similar ways. (I have not forgotten that essay.)
What did the early Anabaptists believe about a weekly day of rest? I don’t know, and don’t have time now to check. Edit (5/4/2015): John D. Roth, writing in his book Practices: Mennonite Worship and Witness, summarizes early Anabaptist belief on this topic:
Initially, the Anabaptists do not seem to have elevated any particular day of the week above another for their worship. They gathered for prayer and Bible study throughout the week, and some even went out of their way to work on Sunday as a public expression of their opposition to the Catholic mass. By the end of the sixteenth century, however most Anabaptist groups had settled into a pattern of Sunday worship. Traditionally, Mennonite groups in North America took God’s example of Sabbath rest quite literally. Although practices varied widely, many Mennonite communities prohibited their members from all forms of buying and selling, from participation in sports, and from most forms of entertainment on Sunday. (pp. 157-58)
How did we get to where we are today, so that most of us have grown up believing it is wrong to work on Sunday? Again, I don’t know all the influences. I do know that the Puritans in the 1600s enacted laws prohibiting work and pleasures on Sunday. And I do know that there was a Sabbatarian movement again in the 1800s and early 1900s, when “blue laws” were enacted prohibiting businesses from being opened on Sunday. Both of these are examples of Protestant influence. I also know that this Protestant influence was codified in Anabaptist thinking in part through the efforts of Daniel Kauffman, who wrote the following of the Lord’s Day in his Doctrines of the Bible:
It is a day of rest… This is not a mere arbitrary command, a religious dogma, a scriptural “blue law” to restrain man of his liberties… Let us give this beneficent provision of an all-wise God our respect and obedience by laying all secular labor aside on the Lord’s Day. (pg. 177-78)
Edit (5/5/2015): I now have confirmation that the idea of Sunday as a day of rest goes back far beyond Protestant influences. Dom Gregory Dix, writing in The Shape of the Liturgy (1945), summarizes how early Christians contrasted the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day, and how this changed:
It is still too often assumed that the observance of the christian Sunday is a continuation on a different day of the jewish sabbath. It is more than likely that the idea of such a weekly observance was suggested to the first jewish christians by familiarity with the sabbath; hellenism [Greek culture] furnishes no close analogies. But the main ideas underlying the two observances were from the first quite different. The rabbis made of the sabbath a minutely regulated day of rest, the leisure of which was partly filled in by attendance at the synagogue services which were somewhat longer on sabbath than on other days. But though the sabbath rest was emphatically a religious observance, based on the fourth commandment, it was the abstinence from work, not the attendance at public worship, which pharisaism insisted on; and indeed this was the only thing the commandment in its original meaning prescribed.
By contrast Sunday was in the primitive christian view only the prescribed day for corporate worship, by the proclamation of the Lord’s revelation and the Lord’s death till He come… But there was no attempt whatever in the first three centuries to base the observance of Sunday on the fourth commandment. On the contrary, christians maintained that like all the rest of the ceremonial law this commandment had been abrogated; and second century christian literature is full of a lively polemic against the ‘idling’ of the jewish sabbath rest. Christians shewed no hesitation at all about treating Sunday as an ordinary working day like their neighbours, once they had attended the synaxis [gathering for prayers, readings, and psalms] and eucharist [Lord’s Supper] at the ecclesia [church gathering]. This was the christian obligation, the weekly gathering of the whole Body of Christ to its Head, to become what it really is, His Body. It was only the secular edict of Constantine in the fourth century making Sunday a weekly public holiday which first made the mistake of basing the christian observance of Sunday on the fourth commandment, and so inaugurated christian ‘sabbatarianism’.
Early christian documents on the contrary go out of their way to oppose the two observances. So e.g. the so-called Epistle of Barnabas (c. A.D. 100-130) introduces God as rebuking the whole jewish observance of the sabbath, thus: ‘“It is not your present sabbaths that are acceptable unto Me, but the sabbath which I have made, in the which when I have set all things at rest, I will make the beginning with the eighth day, which is the beginning of another world.” Wherefore we (christians) also keep the eighth day for rejoicing, in the which also Jesus rose from the dead, and having been manifested ascended into the heavens’. Here Sunday is a festival, but not a day of rest…
It seems likely, therefore, that Sunday was from its first beginnings a christian observance independent of the sabbath, though its weekly observance was probably suggested by the existence of the sabbath… [Dix also suggests that Jewish Christians, probably from the earliest times, observed both a weekly Sabbath and the Lord’s’ Day, but with differing purposes for each.] (pp. 336-37, emphasis added)
Later Dix explains how Sunday’s role was reevaluated during the time of Constantine, as the year-long Christian calendar was developing. With the development of liturgical events such as Holy Week observances, the role of weekly Sunday worship evolved:
A new basis was therefore found for Sunday by making it what it had never been before, a weekly holiday from work. In A.D. 321 Constantine issued an edict forbidding the law-courts to sit upon that day, and the enforcement of an official holiday brought daily life to something of a standstill (as in the case of a modem Bank Holiday). The result was in large part to carry out Constantine’s design of rendering attendance at christian worship possible for all his subjects, christian or otherwise-it was largely a propaganda measure; though the church had difficulty in some places in securing that its provisions were extended to that large proportion of the population who were slaves. (p. 360, emphasis aded)
Thus, the idea of Sunday as a day of rest has a very long history—but a history which is clearly post-biblical in its origin, and unbiblical as a mandated practice.
Well, much more could be said, but this is nearly enough work for one Lord’s Day! Before going to some final exhortations, let me summarize how I now make decisions about work and purchases on the Lord’s Day. In short, I follow two principles:
- I remember all the above: I am not under any rules about any holy days.
- However, I also remember the multiple NT instructions for believers to gather together regularly for exhortation, teaching, worship, and more. I ask myself, “What can I do to make it as easy as possible for others to gather with God’s people? What can I do to make it easy for both saved and unsaved to gather under the sound of the gospel?”
Since Sunday morning is the time when it is easiest for most people in America to obey these NT commands to gather under the gospel, I do what I can to make it easy for others. I am free in my spirit; I sense no compulsion. If the goals of the gospel will be best accomplished by me working or buying on Sunday, so much the better. Most times I find that it is best to help others to be free from work, and to take Sunday as an opportunity to take a break from my own non-essential work.
Except of course when it is time to do the work of writing a blog post. 🙂 But now I better stop. It’s time to gather again with God’s people to do the work of worship!
If you agree with what I’ve written about Sabbath:
- Honor your neighbor. Don’t flaunt your Christian liberty before those who do not yet understand the freedom you possess (Rom. 14:19-20). Remember how long it took for you to reach your current understandings; remember those topics where you are still uncertain about the limits of your freedom. Give your neighbor the same time for growth that you require.
- Honor the Holy Spirit. Despite the freedom God has given you, there may still be times when God says, “For you, for the next while, I am calling you to regular Sabbath rest.” You have been freed from the Sabbath law; don’t replace that law with another that forbids the Holy Spirit from ever calling you to Sabbath observance. Even Paul, who thunderously forbade mandatory circumcision (Gal. 5:1-4), still practiced it at times for strategic reasons (Acts 16:3).
- Honor God’s Word. From time to time, when you can do so in love, teach others about what the New Testament says about holy days. Share your Scripture-based convictions with others. Don’t let fear of man keep you from honoring God in this way.
If you disagree with what I’ve written about Sabbath:
- Honor your neighbor. Your neighbor has been instructed to not “let anyone pass judgment” on him “with regard to… a Sabbath” (Col. 2:16). Make it easy for your brother to obey this verse! Don’t set rules for your neighbor or expect him to live up to your conscience on this matter. But do…
- Honor your conscience. Don’t work or buy on Sunday if you truly feel it is wrong to do so. Your conscience is one of the ways that God guides you (Rom. 2:15), and to reject your conscience is to act without faith–to sin (Rom. 14:5, 14, 23). So don’t trample your conscience. Rather, train it: Study and…
- Honor God’s Word. Be a Berean (Acts 17:11-12)! You might be surprised to find, as the Bereans did, that the good news is even better than you imagined.
Please share your thoughts in the comments below!