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Take this Sabbath Day

Growing up in a church family, I knew somehow that there was a different atmosphere to Sundays.

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Sunday felt different. Perhaps it was because we were squeezed into itchy polyester clothes (it being the 1970s), and had our hair combed and our faces polished. And perhaps it was because the aroma of a roasting leg of lamb was always filling the house by the time we got home from church carrying our Sunday School craft items made with raw pasta, toilet rolls, and cotton wool.

But is Sunday actually different? What is the status of this day? Ought it to be a “Christian Sabbath”, set aside for the worship of God and for no other diverting activity? The witness of Eric Liddell, the Scottish runner who later died on missionary service in China, was to the sacredness of Sunday. He refused to run in the Olympics on a Sunday in Paris in 1924 because of his Christian conviction that Sunday was the Lord’s Day, and not for playing sports.

Was he right?

For the most part these days, modern evangelical Christians are completely agnostic on the question of which day the church should gather and whether that day should also be in some way a sacred day of rest. There are good biblical grounds for this rather relaxed attitude, since the New Testament shares the same point of view. Romans 15 is instructive here:

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord.

In other words: “whatever goes, just keep to your conscience!”

Two other pieces of teaching in the New Testament give Christians further hesitation about making too much of their chosen meeting day as a “Christian Sabbath”. The first is the fulfilment of the Sabbath command in Christ. As John Calvin says:

For [Christ] himself is the truth, with whose presence all figures vanish; he is the body, at whose appearance the shadows are left behind. He is … the true fulfillment of the Sabbath.

There is no replication in Christian practice then of the Jewish practice of the Sabbath, since that which the Sabbath foreshadowed has arrived. Indeed, the whole of our lives now is a reflection of that truth – not just a single day.

In this, by the way, I disagree with the great Westminster Confession of Faith (XXI.8), which describes Sunday as a simple transfer of the Jewish Sabbath into the first day of the week. But then, John Calvin didn’t think this either! There is no evidence that the earliest Christians treated Sunday as a rest day either, though they did meet together on this day.

That there is no “Christian Sabbath” makes sense of the second piece of New Testament teaching: the critique of the superstitious or legalistic observances of special days. We find this well expressed in Colossians 2:16-17:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions 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.

Interestingly, Paul lists observances of pagan festivals alongside the Jewish Sabbath here and insists that observances of these rules do not represent the essence of holiness – and may indeed distract from them. Jesus, too, challenged the practice of Sabbath keeping that was prevalent in his day as a great spiritual distraction.

But what about Sunday? If it is not simply a “Christian Sabbath”, then why has it become special for Christians over time?

In Acts 20:7, we do hear that the disciples in Troas used to meet on the first day of the week to break bread together and exhort one another. In 1 Corinthians 16:2 the first day of the week is set aside for the collection.

The term “the Lord’s Day” came to be used for this day in Revelation 1:10, and the writers of the first centuries of the Church used the expression to speak about the day on which Christians gathered for worship. The famous early bishop, Ignatius, wrote of Christians no longer celebrating the Sabbath but now “living in observance of the Lord’s Day on which also our life sprang up again” – that is to say, the day of Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

It was not too long before the idea of resting on the Lord’s Day became added to the idea that it was the day for gathering together. But when the Empire became Christianised in the days of Emperor Constantine, the observance of Sunday became not just a minority practice but the rule of life for everyone. This happened in 321 AD.

This is a crucial development, because it normalised the first day of the week as the day of ceasing work not just as matter of choice, but as a matter of law. We are still, even now, in the era in which Sunday is regarded as a day of rest as a matter of law – although successive laws about Sunday trading have eroded that principle. What has been lost in countries like Australia is a sense that Sunday is set aside for the Christian gathering.

So to summarise: Sunday has been the traditional day for Christians to gather since New Testament times, though certainly not the only day. But the concept of “rest” has been imported into that day via the legislation of the state. The New Testament is, meanwhile, wary that observance of religious or holy days might become superstitious.

So where does that leave a Christian church trying to do the right thing?

First, Christians do not celebrate the Sabbath in the way that the Jews did in the Old Testament. In fact, to do so would be to misunderstand the way that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament law.

Nevertheless, (second) the notion of taking time to rest one day in seven is a very good principle built into the fabric of creation itself by its maker. Christians ought to rest, because resting is an expression of trust in the sovereignty and goodness of God. But when? Anytime would be good – Sunday or otherwise. And we ought to be vigorous in upholding the rights of others to rest. The laws against trading on Sunday were by and large good and just laws. The erosion of adequate rest time for workers is a terrible scourge.

Third, Christians ought to meet regularly together, and to develop the habit of doing so. Most of our activities are structured by the working week, and so meeting together weekly is a great way to ingrain a habit, since the community follows that pattern of life. And it is good for us as a community to set aside specific times and places in which to meet. As Calvin said,

because it was expedient to overthrow superstition, the day sacred to the Jews was set aside; because it was necessary to maintain decorum, order, and peace in the church, another was appointed for that purpose.

That day, in the New Testament and in the history of the Church, has been Sunday. It has a speci
al meaning as the day of the resurrection – it is a day of joy and hope. It is a great thing indeed for Christians to meet on that day, and it is a habit that connects them with Christians across the world and across the centuries.

But does it have to be Sunday? Clearly it does not!

In fact, we should feel free to meet together on any day and on every day! Why not indeed? We should feel free to dedicate any part of our time to consider the hope that lies within us, and to encourage one another in the Word and in love.

But it is good that churches set aside certain times for this habit – and it is a great blessing when governments help them to do this. Sunday observance has a particular place in Western culture, and for good reasons. But it is not by any means a rule of God that Christian communities have to worship together on Sundays or they are not authentic.

What we find difficult to do sometimes is distinguish between the commands of God and the rules necessary for the ordering of community life. And yet, it is a very important difference. Does God command us to meet on Sunday? No. Is it good that there is a day set aside for church-going by human beings? Yes. Can a real church meet on Wednesday? Indeed!

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