Tag Archives: Daniel Kauffman

In Which I Am Surprised to Agree With John Nelson Darby

I just finished a book called The Scofield Bible: Its History and Impact on the Evangelical Church, by R. Todd Mangum and Mark S. Sweetham. I recommend the book. It is slightly repetitive at points, perhaps because of the joint authorship, and it might be more engaging if it offered more specific examples and fewer general observations. But it is a very informative and apparently fair discussion of both the Scofield Bible (1909) and the man who created it, Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921).

Readers are sure to learn something new about one of the most powerful influences that have shaped the modern American evangelical landscape. I also noted parallels between Scofield’s project and the theological and publishing efforts of Mennonite fundamentalists of the same era, such as Daniel Kauffman. In both cases, I believe, the church was almost certainly better off thanks to the efforts of such leaders. Yet their best intentions and most helpful efforts were unintentionally marred by significant weaknesses only clearly visible after subsequent generations used their writings. This is both encouraging and sobering for writers today.

Scofield was a skilled Bible teacher, but rarely original. His many influences include the Geneva Bible (the first annotated English Bible, millenial in nature rather than ammillenial as Catholics of the time), James Ussher’s historical dating system (adopted by Scofield though modified by the “gap theory” in Genesis 1), European evangelicalism (perhaps including Isaac Watt’s musings on dispensations, which nearly match Scofield’s), John Nelson Darby (dispensational promoter of a two-stage return of Christ and a secret rapture), Southern Presbyterianism (turning from postmillenialism to the more pessimistic premillenialism after losses in the Civil War and advocating the curse of Ham—the idea that black people are destined to be servants), and the American fundamentalist-evangelical movement of which he was a part (which included prophecy conferences).

These are some of his most prominent influences, but I’m only providing a sample of examples of how these influences shaped Scofield.

For the rest of this post I want to focus on one of Scofield’s influences, J. N. Darby (1800-1882, a leader among the Plymouth Brethren in Ireland), and on only one of his themes, the nature of the church—since this theme directly relates to a main theme of my blog.

In short, Darby’s beliefs about the church shaped his beliefs about prophecy. And what surprised me is that, while I disagree with many of Darby’s beliefs about prophecy, I identify with some of his thinking about church.

First, some excerpts from the book by Mangum and Sweetam:

One of the most interesting things about the way in which Darby’s interpretation of prophetic Scripture emerged is that his development of dispensationalism was a result of his disaffection with the ecclesiastical status quo. Especially in light of his later complaints that those he spoke to during his visits to the United States enthusiastically absorbed his prophetic teaching while ignoring almost entirely his views on church order, it is important to not that with Darby eschatology followed from (and was an implication of) ecclesiology. (pp. 65-66, bold added)

In the years following his conversion, Darby became increasingly disenchanted with the Church of Ireland… The primary cause is clear. While studying Scripture, Darby became increasingly dismayed with the Erastian nature of the Church of Ireland—its status as the established church of the state. (pp. 64-65, bold added)

Erastian: “of, characterized by, or advocating the doctrine of state supremacy in ecclesiastical affairs” (Merriam-Webster dictionary). (The term is named after Thomas Erastus, a Zwinglian theologian who died in 1583.)

As I read this, I’m thinking: Darby sounds like a budding Anabaptist! The Anabaptists also rejected the church-state union promoted by magisterial reformers such as Zwingli.

More from Mangum and Sweetnam:

The Church of Ireland during this period enjoyed a unique position. Like the Church of England, it was the church established by law enjoying a special relationship with the apparatus of the British rule in Ireland. (p. 65)

This special relationship between the Protestant Church of Ireland and the British government led to oppression of the Catholic majority in Ireland, causing growing unrest.

Darby’s disgust and anger grew when his archbishop directed that oaths of allegiance to the British Commonwealth be imposed on anyone joining the church. Catholic conversions [which had been plentiful under Darby’s gospel preaching] completely dried up as religious faith became conflated and confused with political allegiance. (p. 65, bold added)

It was ecclesiological concern that led to Darby’s rethinking of prophecy. Up to this point, he seems to have held to [a] sort of postmillennial scheme… His own evangelistic efforts were a key part of the global spread of the gospel, which would eventually bring about the millennial bliss and the conditions for Christ’s return. His archbishop’s action and its consequences were probably not the only thing that changed this. But they did prove to be the legendary straw that broke the camel’s back. In the aftermath of these events, Darby became deeply pessimistic about the future of the world and disillusioned about the prospects of global evangelization and the growing success of the gospel…

Considerations on the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ (1828) was Darby’s first tract, and it outlined his emerging understanding of the nature of the church. Christ’s church, Darby argued, was spiritual in nature. Its unity was not, could not, be the product of human effort—it was a work of the Spirit alone. The Church of Ireland was following a path well worn by the churches through the centuries, a path that led to involvement in human power and civil government and away from the pristine simplicity of dependence on the Holy Spirit. These churches had fallen from their original position because they had lost sight of their heavenly calling and had become mired in human mechanism…

Darby gave practical expression to these views by resigning his curacy… He was discovering an alternative ecclesiology shaped by insights similar to his own, which were emerging in the small gatherings of believers that were eventually to develop into the Brethren movement.

By the time Darby’s first writing on prophecy was published in 1829—Reflections upon “The Prophetic Inquiry” and the Views Advanced in Ithe had, in line with his pessimistic view of the health of the church, adopted a clearly premillennial position. (pp. 66-67, bold added)

Up to this point, Darby still sounds like he could be one of the early Anabaptists. They, too, insisted on separation of church and state, and at least some of them held premillennial understandings. (I am not informed enough to be more specific than this on Anabaptist prophetic understandings.)

But as Darby further developed his prophetic understanding, he developed views very different from the early Anabaptists—views which some Anabaptists today promote, however, thanks in part to the mediating influence of the Scofield Bible.

One of the most important features of the dispensationalism that developed from Darby and that would be embodied in Scofield’s notes is the recognition of a distiction between Israel and the church… The longer tradition of Reformed exegesis had postulated a supersessionist, or replacement theology, mode of exegesis. Broadly speaking, this suggested that Israel had been replaced by the church as the people of God, its promises and position handed over wholesale because of their failure of obedience. This understanding of the relationship between God’s people in the Old Testament and in the New Testament was a standard feature of most biblical interpretation from the medieval period, through the magisterial reformers, and down to the present day. (pp. 69-70)

While the Anabaptists agreed that it was now the church, not ethnic Israel, who were the people of God, they differed from the magisterial reformers in their understanding of the Christian’s relationship to the OT. The magisterial reformers looked to the OT to support practices such as military participation and infant baptism, but the Anabaptists insisted more strongly that Christ’s teachings superseded the Law of Moses.

Both the Anabaptists and Darby were concerned that the “flat Bible” approach of the magisterial reformers was a problem, and that it supported a state-church union, which was also a problem. The church did not hold exactly the same position as Israel had. But Darby’s theological solution to this misunderstanding was different from the Anabaptist solution.

In his view this conflation of two distinct groups [Israel and the church] whom God had dealt with in different ways was little sort of disastrous. It was this mistake that underwrote the Erastianism [state-church union] that had so concerned him in earlier years; it was this mistake that obscured the church’s heavenly calling and nature. Israel had been, continued to be, and eternally would be God’s earthly people—his purposes for them would be worked out on earth. The church was a heavenly entity, entirely separate from Israel, and with a prospect that was purely heavenly…

This distinction between the peoples of God and his deep pessimism about the prospects of the contemporary church led Darby to the dispensations that gave their name to dispensationalism. (p. 70, bold added)

In summary: For the Anabaptists, there was both continuity and discontinuity between Israel and the church. The continuity was rooted in the church’s identity as the children of Abraham, trusting in Christ just as Abraham trusted in God’s promise, thus becoming heirs of the promises given to Abraham. The discontinuity was found in how Christ and the apostles interpreted these OT promises, with the kingdom of God (spiritual Israel) being now not an earthly kingdom but a heavenly one. Like the magisterial reformers, the Anabaptists did not seem to see any special role for ethnic Israel after the coming of Christ. Unlike them, they did not believe that the church inherited the political and military role that national Israel had carried. (I am making generalizations here, and writing from memory as an amateur, so I invite your help if you want to add nuance to this historical summary.)

Darby’s solution to the church-state problem was different from either the Anabaptists or the magisterial reformers. Rather than positing an end to God’s special purposes for ethnic Israel, he separated the church and Israel entirely. God had contrasting but ongoing plans for both, so that the church and Israel run on separate but parallel tracks until the end of the age, each with different duties and hopes.

Thus Darby and the Anabaptists came to theological understandings that were very different. Yet both understandings accomplished one same result: the division of the church-state union.

I was familiar with Darby’s prophetic conclusions, but did not know about his concept of church. To complete this post, I’d like to share some excerpts I particularly enjoy from Darby’s first tract, Considerations on the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ (bold added):

It is not a formal union of the outward professing bodies [church denominations] that is desirable; indeed it is surprising that reflecting Protestants should desire it: far from doing good, I conceive it would be impossible that such a body could be at all recognised as the church of God. It would be a counterpart to Romish unity; we should have the life of the church and the power of the word lost, and the unity of spiritual life utterly excluded. Whatever plans may be in the order of Providence, we can only act upon the principles of grace; and true unity is the unity of the Spirit, and it must be wrought by the operation of the Spirit… The Reformation consisted not, as has been commonly said, in the institution of a pure form of church, but in setting up the word, and the great Christian foundation and corner stone of “Justification by faith,” in which believers might find life… He is an enemy to the work of the Spirit of God who seeks the interests of any particular denomination; and that those who believe in “the power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” ought carefully to keep from such a spirit; for it is drawing back the church to a state occasioned by ignorance and non-subjection to the word, and making a duty of its worst and antichristian results. This is a most subtle and prevailing mental disease, “he followeth not us [Mark 9:38],” even when men are really Christians. Let the people of God see if they be not hindering the manifestation of the church by this spirit. I believe there is scarcely a public act of Christian men (at any rate of the higher orders, or of those who are active in the nominal churches), which is not infected with this; but its tendency is manifestly hostile to the spiritual interests of the people of God, and the manifestation of the glory of Christ. Christians are little aware how this prevails in their minds; how they seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ; and how it dries up the springs of grace and spiritual communion; how it precludes that order to which blessing is attached-the gathering together in the Lord’s name. No meeting, which is not framed to embrace all the children of God in the full basis of the kingdom of the Son, can find the fulness of blessing, because it does not contemplate it—because its faith does not embrace it.

Where two or three are gathered together in His name, His name is recorded there for blessing [Matt. 18:20]; because they are met in the fulness of the power of the unchangeable interests of that everlasting kingdom in which it has pleased the glorious Jehovah to glorify Himself, and to make His name and saving health known in the Person of the Son, by the power of the Spirit. In the name of Christ, therefore, they enter (in whatever measure of faith) into the full counsels of God, and are “fellow-workers under God.”… The Lord has made known His purposes in Him, and how those purposes are effected. “He hath made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself, that in the dispensation of the fulness of times, he should gather together in one all things in Christ, whether they be things in heaven, or things on earth, even in him, in whom we also have received an inheritance” [Eph. 1:9-11]—in one and in Christ. In Him alone therefore can we find this unity; but the blessed word (who can be thankful enough for it? will inform us further. It is as to its earthly members “gathering together in one, the children of God who are scattered abroad.” And how is this? “That one man should die for them.” [John 11:50-52] As our Lord in the vision of the fruit of the travail of His soul declares, “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will drawn all men unto me: this he said signifying what death he should die.” [John 12:32] It is then Christ who will draw – will draw to Himself (and nothing short of or less than this can produce unity, “He that gathereth not with him, scattereth” [Matt. 12:30]); and draw to Himself by being lifted up from the earth. In a word, we find His death is the centre of communion till His coming again, and in this rests the whole power of truth. Accordingly, the outward symbol and instrument of unity is the partaking of the Lord’s supper – for we being many are one “bread, one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread.” [1 Cor. 10:17] And what does Paul declare to be the true intent and testimony of that rite? That whensoever “ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.” [1 Cor. 11:26] Here then are found the character and life of the church, that into which it is called, that in which the truth of its existence subsists, and in which alone is true unity. It is showing forth the Lord’s death, by the efficiency of which they were gathered, and which is the fruitful seed of the Lord’s own glory; which is indeed the gathering of His body, “the fulness of him that filleth all in all” [Eph. 1:23]; and shewing it forth in the assurance of His coming, “when he shall come to be glorified in his saints and to be admired in all them that believe.” [2 Thess. 1:10] Accordingly the essence and substance of unity, which will appear in glory at His coming, is conformity to His death, by which that glory was all wrought…

Unity, the unity of the church, to which “the Lord added daily such as should be saved” [Acts 2:47]…, was when none said anything was his own, and “their conversation was in heaven” [Phil. 3:20]; for they could not be divided in the common hope of that. It knit men’s hearts together by necessity. The Spirit of God has left it upon record, that division began about the goods of the church, even in their best use, on the part of those interested in them; for there could be division, there could be selfish interests. Am I desiring believers to correct the churches? I am beseeching them to correct themselves, by living up, in some measure, to the hope of their calling. I beseech them to shew their faith in the death of the Lord Jesus, and their boast in the glorious assurance which they have obtained by it, by conformity to it – to shew their faith in His coming, and practically to look for it by a life suitable to desires fixed upon it. Let them testify against the secularity and blindness of the church; but let them be consistent in their own conduct.

While the spirit of the world prevails (and how much it prevails, I am persuaded few believers are at all aware) spiritual union cannot subsist… For, let us ask, is the church of God as believers would have it? Do we not believe that it was, as a body, utterly departed from Him? Is it restored so that He would be glorified in it at His appearing? Is the union of believers such as He marks to be their peculiar characteristic? Are there not unremoved hindrances? Is there not a practical spirit of worldliness in essential variance with the true termini of the gospel – the death and coming again of the Lord Jesus as Saviour?…

Unity is the glory of the church; but unity to secure and promote our own interests is not the unity of the church, but confederacy and denial of the nature and hope of the church. Unity, that is of the church, is the unity of the Spirit, and can only be in the things of the Spirit, and therefore can only be perfected in spiritual persons. It is indeed the essential character of the church, and this strongly testifies to the believer its present state. But, I ask, if the professing church seeks worldly interests, and if the Spirit of God be amongst us, will it then be the minister of unity in such pursuits as these? If the various professing churches seek it, each for itself, no answer need be given. But if they unite in seeking a common interest, let us not be deceived; it is no better, if it be not the work of the Lord. There are two things which we have to consider. First, Are our objects in our work exclusively the Lord’s objects, and no other? If they have not been such in bodies separate from each other, they will not be in any union of them together. Let the Lord’s people weigh this. Secondly, let our conduct be the witness of our objects. If we are not living in the power of the Lord’s kingdom, we certainly shall not be consistent in seeking its ends. Let it enter our minds, while we are all thinking what good thing we may do to inherit eternal life, to sell all that we have, take up our cross, and follow Christ…

So far as men pride themselves on being Established, Presbyterian, Baptist, Independent, or anything else, they are antichristian. How then are we to be united? I answer, it must be the work of the Spirit of God. Do you follow the testimony of that Spirit in the word as is practically applicable to your consciences, lest that day take you unawares?… Professed churches (especially those established) have sinned greatly in insisting on things indifferent and hindering the union of believers, and this charge rests heavily on the hierarchies of the several churches. Certainly order is necessary; but where they said, ‘the things are indifferent and nothing in themselves: therefore you must use them for our pleasure’s sake,’ the word of the Spirit of Christ says, ‘they are indifferent: therefore we will yield to your weakness, and not offend a brother for whom Christ died.’ Paul would have eaten no meat while the world endured, if it had hurt the conscience of a weak brother, though the weak brother was in the wrong. And why insisted on? Because they gave distinction and place in the world. If the pride of authority and the pride of separation were dissolved (neither of which are of the Spirit of Christ), and the word of the Lord taken as the sole practical guide, and sought to be acted up to by believers, we shall be spared much judgment, though we shall not perhaps find altogether the glory of the Lord, and many a poor believer, on whom the eye of the Lord is set for blessing, would find comfort and rest… Let believers remove the hindrances to the Lord’s glory, which their own inconsistencies present, and by which they are joined to the world, and their judgments perverted. Let them commune one with another, seeking His will from the word, and see if a blessing do not attend it; at any rate it will attend themselves; they will meet the Lord as those that have waited for Him, and can rejoice unfeignedly in His salvation…

Let me ask the professing churches, in all love, one question. They have often professed to the Roman Catholics, and truly too, their unity in doctrinal faith, why then is there not an actual unity? If they see error in each other, ought they not to be humbled for each other? Why not, as far as was attained, mind the same rule, speak the same thing; and if in anything there was diversity of mind (instead of disputing on the footing of ignorance), wait in prayer, that God might reveal this also unto them. Ought not those who love the Lord amongst them, to see if they could not discern a cause? Yet I well know that, till the spirit of the world be purged from amongst them, unity cannot be, nor believers find safe rest…

I would solemnly repeat what I said before – the unity of the church cannot possibly be found till the common object of those who are members of it is the glory of the Lord, who is the Author and finisher of its faith: a glory which is to be made known in its brightness at His appearing, when the fashion of this world shall pass away, and therefore acted up to and entered upon in spirit when we are planted together in the likeness of His death. Because unity can, in the nature of things, be there only; unless the Spirit of God who brings His people together, gather them for purposes not of God, and the counsels of God in Christ come to nought. The Lord Himself says, “That they all may be one; as thou Father art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them, that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” [John 17:21-23]

Oh that the church would weigh this word, and see if their present state do not preclude necessarily their shining in the glory of the Lord, or of fulfilling that purpose for which they were called. And I ask them, do they at all look for or desire this? or are they content to sit down and say, that His promise is come utterly to an end for evermore?

Yet will He surely gather His people and they shall be ashamed.

I have gone beyond my original intention in this paper; if I have in anything gone beyond the measure of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, I shall thankfully accept reproof, and pray God to make it forgotten.


While I admit that I wish some of Darby’s prophetic teachings would disappear (including from among Anabaptists), I am thankful that this tract of Darby’s was not forgotten. I might nuance a few things differently. But what a powerful call to examine our own hearts! Are we conformed to Christ’s death in a manner that will make true Christian unity possible?

I invite your response. Did you learn anything that surprised you about Darby or Scofield? Do you resonate with Darby’s words about the unity of the church? Share your insights in the comments below.


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125 Years of Seven Ordinances — Rough Draft

When a baby is born at 10 months, we don’t usually call it premature. When a writer has been promising for that long to release an essay, however, his “baby” may still be scarcely ready for the light of day. But everyone likes babies. (Right?) And everyone handles newborns gently. (Right?) And one can definitely only handle being pregnant for so long. So I’ve decided it’s time to release this overdue, unfinished essay into your hands.

Here it is, then: “that paper on the ‘ordinances.'” Click here to download, or find it on my Essays page.

Oh, isn’t he cute! He looks just like his daddy!

Now that I’ve given birth, I’d like to do two more things in this post: (1) Explain what I mean by “rough draft.” (2) Summarize the essay.

What Do I Mean by “Rough Draft”?

Though I’ve been working intermittently on this essay since the fall of 2011, I am aware of improvements that still should be made. For example:

  • My survey of pre-Reformation history is very brief.
  • I have still more Anabaptist-era primary sources I could peruse, to weigh my current survey for representative accuracy.
  • I could include more discussion of how the Coffman/Kauffman era was a time of transition, institution-building, and doctrinal formulation.
  • I should weigh more carefully whether the concept of ordinances is found in the NT, apart from the question of whether the word ordinance is used there as we use it. (In other words, is ordinance biblical in the same sense that Trinity is?)
  • A more nuanced discussion of sacramental theology would help, assessing it and contrasting it with other options such as a strictly symbolic understanding of the “ordinances.” I really don’t want to get too deep into this heated question (of which whole books are written!), but it is unavoidably related to the central questions of this essay.
  • My tone could be improved in places, better anticipating possible difficulties or challenges of readers and avoiding overstatement.
  • Technical details need help: Cleaning up footnotes, adding a bibliography, perhaps another appendix or two, switching to ESV as the primary translation, including Greek NT words in my exegetical discussions, etc.
  • Most importantly, I need to answer the “So what?” question. For this draft version of my essay I’ve included a list of problems possibly exacerbated by our concept of seven ordinances (see page 28). But I’m saving my discussion of these problems to share later. And should I note some benefits as well as problems?

I have been invited to share this essay at the Forum for Doctrinal Studies, probably in July 2017. After that I hope to post a fuller version here.

Your feedback is most welcome as I continue writing! Post your thoughts in the comments thread here or send me a private message.

Summary of the Essay

First (pp. 1-5) I summarize the pre-Reformation history of ordinances by noting three developments:

  1. The growth of formal ritual instead of simple obedience to NT commands;
  2. The development of the theology and vocabulary of sacraments; and
  3. The formation of a defined list of seven Roman Catholic sacraments.

Next (pp. 5-14) I discuss the early Anabaptist era, including their rejection of ritual and sacramental theology, their failure to fully restore all NT practices related to ordinances, and their various lists of sacraments/ordinances. This section is full of primary source quotes, including this gem from the Martyr’s Mirror, from the trial of an Anabaptist named Jacob de Roore:

Jac. If you want to imitate all the things which the apostles did, and regard them all as sacraments, why do you not also regard your aprons or handkerchiefs as sacraments, and lay them upon the sick, as Paul did? For what greater sacredness was there in the oil of which James writes, than in Paul’s aprons, by which he also healed the sick, as is written in the nineteenth chapter of the Acts of the apostles?

Fr. Corn. If the devil does not wag your tongue, I do not understand the matter. You accursed Anabaptists may yourselves make a sacrament of your filthy handkerchiefs or aprons; for you people have no sacrament, but we Catholics have seven sacraments; is it not enough, eh?

Jac. Yea, in troth; for since the term sacrament is not once mentioned in the holy Scriptures, you have only seven too many.

The third section (pp. 14-24) finally explains the origin of our own seven ordinances. I survey ordinances among early American Mennonites, then focus on J.S. Coffman and Daniel Kauffman, who appear to be primarily responsible for formulating and codifying the list we have inherited. (Thus the “125 Years” in my title, dating from 1891.) This section ends by asking what Kauffman meant by the term ordinance.

The fourth section (pp. 24-27) continues this linguistic focus by comparing Kauffman’s use of ordinance with biblical vocabulary.

The fifth section (pp. 27-30) proposes some responses to the previous historical and biblical discussion. I ask whether we can redeem the term ordinance and whether our inheritance of a theology and practice of seven ordinances is really anything to be worried about. (In other words, is this essay merely much ado about nothing?)

Finally, I’ve included three appendices (pp. 31-34) with more technical data:

  1. “Words Translated ‘Ordinance” in the King James Version”
  2. “Who Baptizes in the New Testament?”
  3. “Who May Anoint With Oil?

Again, I warmly welcome your help with this project! Those of us who are conservative Anabaptists have inherited these seven ordinances as a shared legacy. Our response to this heritage will also be a shared project.

How can we hold onto the best of the past while also making needed changes? How radical dare we be in our changes? How can we avoid overreacting? How can we let Scripture speak anew in our generation? What understanding and practice of “ordinances” do we want to leave to our children?

Please share your comments here or, if you prefer, in a private message.

For Christ and his Church,
Dwight Gingrich


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Anabaptists, Flat Bibles, and the Sabbath

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:

  1. I think that many conservative Anabaptists today take a very “flat Bible” approach to the question of Sabbath and the Lord’s Day.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. 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:

  1. I remember all the above: I am not under any rules about any holy days.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  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:

  1. 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…
  2. 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…
  3. 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!


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