Fighting Over the Sabbath

Throughout the ages, Christian churches have fought over pretty much everything. Name a topic, and chances are, Christians have quarreled and fought over it.

One recurring conflict particularly grieves us because it goes to the very heart of how we experience our relationship with God: Christians fight over the Sabbath. This should not be.

Consider the actual words of the Fourth Commandment:

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the Seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your man-servant or maid-servant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” Exodus 20:8-11

Here we have a specific command from our Creator to set aside time each week to intentionally remember Him and all He has done. God is calling us to invest time each week in getting to know Him. We are commanded to do so in a manner He has said would please Him—“by keeping it holy.” And then we are reminded that “The Lord blessed the Sabbath day.” What a gift this commandment is to the church! Shouldn’t our response to this commandment be one of sweet worship, devoted gratitude, and cheerful obedience? Shouldn’t we hear this important call as a gift of God’s grace? Isn’t it amazing that the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe wants to spend time with us?

The Fourth Commandment should draw all Christians together in deep unity because we are all drawing closer to God. Instead, generations of Christians have taken this good gift, this commandment of God, and turned it into yet another issue over which to quarrel and fight. In fact, we don’t have a scientific survey that proves it, but our years of experience in working with Christians in conflict leads us to the conclusion that of all the Ten Commandments, this one may be at the center of more church conflict and controversy than any other. (Well. The tenth commandment to “not covet” must be right up there with it.)

In any case, conflicts over “remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy” abound:

  • What day of the week must the Sabbath be?
  • How long must the Sabbath last? 24 hours? Sunrise to sunset? Or sunset to sunset?
  • How many times must we go to corporate worship services on the Sabbath?
  • How much Bible must we read? How much time must we spend in prayer?
  • Do we eat out at a restaurant or shop in a store on the Sabbath?
  • Are we allowed to vacuum, do laundry, or pay bills on the Sabbath?
  • May I go to my job in the emergency room of my local hospital? What about my job mopping floors for a cleaning company?
  • Didn’t Jesus release us from any obligations under the Fourth Commandment? Can we just treat all seven days of the week the same?

These are not inconsequential questions. If you have not come to a principled conviction regarding such things, we pray that you will do so. Seek out the wisdom and counsel of your church leaders. Read what theologians and laypeople have written throughout the ages. Study Scripture. Pray.

And then keep the Sabbath. Remember God. Keep the Sabbath holy. Exactly what this means may vary from denomination to denomination, church to church, family to family, and person to person. But we know with 100% certainty what it does not mean: We do not keep the Sabbath when we gracelessly criticize our brothers and sisters over how they keep the Sabbath. We are not remembering God when we split hairs and then split churches over what it means to keep the Sabbath.

The Fourth Commandment should bring forth life-giving, beautiful, edifying practices for God’s people—actions, activities (and inactivities) whereby Christians set aside one day in the week to invest in their relationship with God in a way that is different, special (holy) compared to how they develop their relationship with God the other six days of the week.

Imagine for a moment how the face of the church would change if, instead of quarreling over what is or is not allowed in Sabbath-keeping, we instead applied our emotions and energy toward cheering one another on in setting aside the dailyness of life and keeping the Sabbath holy. This is not a small matter. Renowned church historian, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, recently listed neglect of the Sabbath as one of the greatest concerns facing churches today:

“One of my concerns for the church that has grown in recent years is the loss of the Sabbath day. Christians need time for God. God gave us that time by setting aside one day in the week, from creation on, in which to we can cultivate our fellowship with him. Many churches and Christians have abandoned or neglected the Sabbath both as a doctrine and a practice, and I believe that is a very dangerous situation in our time.” Westminster Seminary California’s Update (Winter, 2012)

We agree with Dr. Godfrey: All Christians are to keep the Sabbath as a means of cultivating their fellowship with God. We are to set aside regular weekly time for the sake of strengthening our relationship with God. Just like we have to invest effort in our friendships, marriages, pastor/sheep, and parenting relationships, it takes time and effort to develop a real relationship with God.

This is the true problem related to keeping the Sabbath: We simply don’t want to. And because we don’t want to keep the Sabbath, we don’t prioritize keeping the Sabbath. Instead, we work hard at investing in other relationships and other tasks. We spend time with lots of people—but not God. We do “important and godly” (or frivolous and worldly) things—and we fill our Sabbath day of rest up with activities and work.

How can we possibly turn away from conflicts related to legalistically keeping the Sabbath and/or licentiously ignoring the Sabbath altogether? How can we turn away from the dripping urgency of all of the people and duties in our lives that conspire together to push God into background? The Sabbath helps us in this regard. A day of rest and remembering? A day to focus on God more than anything else? Keeping the Sabbath actually helps us to keep the Sabbath—not as a condition of our salvation but as a matter of relationship with God.

We will spend in eternity more time in the presence of God than anywhere else. He will be our constant focus. Simply because He is unseen now while others are so visible will not be an excuse worthy of much attention in heaven, our true and eternal home.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:18

We close by admitting that we are convicted as we write this. The truth is, God has not received from us the time and attention He desires and commands regarding “keeping the Sabbath day holy.” Are you also convicted? Convicted not because you have no relationship with Him but because the relationship you could have with Him would be so much better by following what He calls you to do? If so, perhaps you will want to pray this prayer along with us:

Father, forgive us for looking for excuses to not keep your Sabbath day holy. Forgive us for not setting aside one day each week to cultivate the relationship you have called us into through grace by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Please, God, forgive us for fighting, quarreling, and harshly criticizing others as regards keeping the Sabbath. Help us all to see you now as we will see you more clearly one day—not as unseen but as seen. In Jesus name, Amen.

– Dave Edling and Tara Barthel


About Dave Edling & Tara Barthel

We use this name whenever we co-author blog posts, or whenever one of us substantially edits the other's post. You can read our detailed bios on the "About Us" page of this blog:
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