I take a risk this morning by presenting a longer blog than usual which I have lifted from Evangelicals Now as it raises, what I think are key questions about the Fourth Commandment relating to the Sabbath. It is offered in the hope that it will cause some heart-searching as to how we obey this commandment in the 21st Century and with thanks to David Robertson for some challenging questions.
IS IT TIME TO REVISIT THE CONCEPTS OF SABBATH AND SUNDAY?
I was recently in a fascinating conference conversation with the remarkable Andy Crouch.
Andy is the former editor of Christianity Today and editor of several books – amongst them his 2017 The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place. In the course of his conversation, he mentioned his practice of having a one day ‘Sabbath’ where he does not use social media, internet or ‘devices’. I am increasingly coming across people who think it is a good idea to have one day a week set apart from our usual routine and set apart for the Lord. Whereas it was once fashionable, even amongst Christians to mock the perceived ‘extreme Sabbatarianism’ of the Victorian period, and the Western Isles in Scotland until very recently; now people are beginning to wonder whether we may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Was J.C. Ryle correct when he said that if we lose the Lord’s Day, we will end up losing Christianity in the nation?
Even within the lifetime of many readers there has been a sea change in attitude to the idea of keeping Sunday special. This has been caused by a number of pressures – and I’m not sure which came first, or if one even caused the other. On the theological side, partly due to a reaction to an extreme Sabbatarianism (locking up the swings on Sunday, no travel on public transport, no TV, etc), many evangelicals came to believe that the fourth commandment was the only one of the ten that no longer really applied.
The influence of people like Don Carson and the collection of essays entitled ‘From Sabbath to Lord’s Day’ was important amongst conservative evangelicals. On the practical side – shops, factories, entertainment, sports were all demanding that Sunday be handed over to them. It was much easier for churches to acquiesce in this when there was no theological reason for them to maintain the idea of the Lord’s Day. Don Carson made the point that, although theologically he was opposed to the concept of the Christian Sabbath, in practice he was not that different from those who maintained the practice. The trouble is that it was inevitable that once the theological foundation was removed, along would come a generation who knew not Don, and who would go the next step. If there is no theological basis for the Sabbath, then why continue the practices associated with it?
Of course, it is convenient to have a day when we gather together to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, but why should that day be Sunday? What if it becomes inconvenient? Why don’t we reduce the Lord’s Day to the Lord’s half day? Why not have the Lord’s evening on another day of the week? Why be hidebound by tradition?
Working with Sydney Anglicans I have spoken to people who remember the time when most Christians in Sydney went to a morning and evening service. Then with the development of multiple services – often divided according to age – people only went once. Now we are increasingly finding that with holidays, weekends away, work demands, family pressures, some Christians are moving towards a half day a fortnight, or even once a month. It will be interesting to see how online church and Covid impacts this.
Back in the UK I enjoyed going to preach in some of the charismatic and black-majority churches where the people were disappointed if the service was shorter than a couple of hours! In some traditional churches people were looking at their watches if you dared to go past the hour! The same is true in the States. At one church which prides itself on being ‘into the Word’, I was instructed that the evening sermon had to finish after 25 minutes so that people could get home for 7pm in time for supper (and TV?). At a practical, pastoral and spiritual level I found that those who gave the day over to the Lord – including meeting with His people, hospitality, prayer, visitation of the sick, rest, reading, etc., were often deeper and healthier spiritual Christians.
Does it matter? I think it does. Firstly, I am still not convinced of the exegesis which has removed the concept of the Christian day of rest. Secondly, if the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28), then have we now reached the point in human progress where humanity no longer needs the Sabbath?
Not according to Andy Crouch and many others – who are now coming round to the point of view that it might be a good idea to have a day of rest every week; a switch-off time; a day without the mobile; a day off from work and a day for praise, worship and helping the poor. It’s not just the church, but the society that needs the day of rest. Remember the Sabbath?
David Robertson is the Director of the ASK project ENC in Sydney and blogs at www.theweeflea.com