Ecclesiological Implications of the Sabbath (Part 1)

*This post is the latest in a series looking at the Sabbath. Previous posts include: Sabbath Typology and Eschatological RestPaul and the Sabbath,  Jesus and the Sabbath,  The Sabbath and the Decalogue in the OT, a look at God’s Rest as Prescriptive, an examination of the Sabbath as a Creation Ordinance.

Accepting or rejecting the Sabbath as a creation ordinance has immediate implications for the church. Specifically, the ecclesiological implications of weekly Sabbath addressed in this post are church attendance and discipline and a theology of time.

Church Attendance and Discipline

The ongoing nature of the Sabbath ordinance, combined with other commands in the New Testament, requires the weekly gathering of believers for worship. Without a prescriptive creation ordinance, requiring church attendance to worship becomes tricky. The only passage in the New Testament explicitly commanding a gathering of saints for the purpose of worship is Hebrews 10:25: “not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (NAS).  The word translated “forsaking” is ἐγκαταλείποντεσ (from ἐγκαταλείπω) that means, “totally abandoned, or utterly forsaken.”[1] That means a believer could, conceivably, come to church faithfully once a year on Easter and could not be touched by church discipline because he has not “totally abandoned” church attendance. This is not the biblical picture of a faithful believer, but it is the picture of what could be allowed if the biblical mandate for Sabbath remembrance is removed.

Additionally, if the church believes that man is no longer bound to keep one day per week specifically devoted to God, and then that church disciplines a man for lack of attendance, they would be adding laws to (their interpretation of) God’s word. By removing the command of God for a weekly Sabbath and then enforcing attendance that is no longer required, the church would be guilty of a pharisaical type of legalism; that is, they would be requiring something that God does not, just like the Judiazers and circumcision.

If there is no longer a single day out of the week that is set apart for worship as a body, then there could conceivably be church any day of the week. If you combine this with the modern trend of multiple services/sites in a single congregation, it is perfectly possible to have a church service every night of the week. If believers are told that they are no longer to devote a day to the Lord, an institution as old as creation, members could work seven days a week and just pick a night to swing by the church for a service. This plays right into man’s sinful desire to disregard the worship of God for the sake of some idol, whether it is work, play, or anything else. Our fallen desire is to plan our schedule around our wants and perceived needs- to make our self the center of our world. Squeezing God to fit into our schedule is exactly what the Sabbath prevents. One day a week that is set apart for worship and rest is God’s plan for us; a plan that reorients His people and focuses their attention on Him weekly.

Theology of Time

The preceding arguments all originate because of confusion regarding a theology of time. How is man to spend his time in work and in worship?

Integral to a biblical theology of time, the creation ordinance of Sabbath observance is intimately linked with the ordinance of work. The Sabbath principle implied labor. To cease, shabat, requires that something has been done leading up to the cessation. If a theology is taught that disregards the Sabbath command, but leaves in place the work ordinance, then two possible aberrations could result: a slavish idolatry of work, or a slavish tendency toward laziness. The latter is addressed by the creation ordinance of work; the former, by the Sabbath.

Most would agree that work is a creation ordinance and that it is good for man to work. However, if one takes away the regular Sabbath pattern set forth by God and only the command to work remains, it would be more faithful to that interpretation of the remaining ordinances (marriage and work) to have no rest at all. If you believe that the command to work is still binding and the command for a Sabbath is not, you should work every day of the week.

Furthermore, if the creation ordinance of work is still binding and the Sabbath command is merely a non-binding wise option, there is no reason to have a mere seven day work week. Why not have ten days of work and one of rest?[2] Or why not rest once a quarter? Once a year?

Walter Chantry writes, “So long as we are creatures of time, love must devote time unto him who is the object of our supreme love.”[3] The Lord knows of our sinful desire to minimize and overlook the importance of personal and corporate communion with Him; that is why he began the command with, “Remember the Sabbath.” Thomas Watson states it most clearly: “The business of week-days makes us forgetful of God and our souls: the Sabbath brings him back to our remembrance.”[4] Chantry adds,

“It [the Sabbath] is to be kept in mind as an important obligation and commitment…Love which desires to commune with God and to serve God will not forget the time scheduled to be given to our Lord…The day must be remembered and taken into account. Our time must be managed so that the day is available to the Lord.”[5]

Forgetful fallen man has been graciously given a weekly reminder that there is a future. God has built into the rhythm of creation a weekly marker pointing to the remaining “Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9).

The Sabbath has huge implications for our ecclesiology. In the coming posts I hope to discuss more of these implications, see some historical teachings on the sabbath, and discuss why so many people love to reject the blessing of Sabbath rest.

[1]Thayer and Smith. “Greek Lexicon entry for Egkataleipo”. “The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon,” 1999. Found at: http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/egkataleipo.html (Accessed 5/2/2013). See also: Frederick W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 106.

[2]Interestingly, the French tried a ten-day work week following the French Revolution. The detrimental effects of such work schedules proved to be unsustainable. Regarding the failed French calendar, see: Harold Damerow, “French Revolution,” Union City College, http://faculty.ucc.edu/egh-damerow/french_revolution.htm (Accessed 5/3/2013).

[3]Chantry, Call the Sabbath a Delight, 17.

[4]Watson, Ten Commandments, 3rd ed. (Banner of Truth Trust, 1981), 94.

[5]Chantry, Call the Sabbath a Delight, 19.

Jon English serves as a Pastor of Morningview Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He has earned an undergraduate degree in Microbiology from Auburn University Montgomery, a Masters of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a PhD in Systematic and Historical Theology from SBTS. Jon English is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a fellow for the Center for Pastor Theologians.
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