Is a Weekly Sabbath Observance Expected of Christians?
The sacrifice of Jesus provides Christians freedom to enter into God’s rest on a perpetual basis. Therefore, it is an open question whether a practice of keeping a weekly day of rest, referred to in the Old Testament as sabbath, is necessary for a Christian believer. The New Testament scripture seems to give a Christian the freedom to choose for him or herself the answer to this question.
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. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. (Romans 14:5-6)
Some Christians interpret this passage as warrant for not having a formal sabbath day, although Romans clearly states that those who choose to keep a sabbath should not be judged for it. Whether a believer sets aside a specific day for sabbath, or rests only as the spirit leads, this passage from Romans indicates that both practices should include thanking God.
Although people are free to choose when and how to rest, there are compelling arguments both for observing a weekly sabbath rest and for worshiping collectively with other Christians on a customary day of the week (whether or not the latter feels restful to an individual.) Some sort of weekly meeting involving worship has been widely observed throughout the history of the church.
Jesus’ disciples certainly go to the temple on the Jewish sabbath, if for no other reason than to convince others that Jesus is the Messiah.
After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.” Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. (Acts 17:1-4)
Indeed, Paul’s practice is to attend sabbath meeting in any town he visits and to use that platform to proclaim the good news about Jesus. It doesn’t seem particularly restful to him (indeed, his speeches are often followed by violent mob outbursts), and perhaps rest is not the primary reason he observes this custom.
In his own life Jesus demonstrates two distinct practices of sabbath. Jesus engages in both personal spiritual rests and communal worship experiences. Jesus takes moments alone to rest in God’s presence (Matthew 14:13). At other times, he uses the Jewish sabbath worship for reaching out to others with his message of salvation (Luke 4:16-21). Since both resting personally and worshiping communally are important in the life of Jesus, modern Christians might do well to make similar choices with their God-given freedom.
Whether or not people choose to rest in a particular weekly pattern, those who manage other people have a responsibility to ensure that these workers have proper access to rest. God’s commandment to the Israelites reveals his deep concern for the rest of his people:
But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:14-15)
In this passage, the end of slavery brings freedom to rest. Christians’ freedom to observe the sabbath in a manner of their choosing must always be seen in this light. Rest, at its core, is freedom from the unceasing work inherent in slavery. Because God delivers the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, he expects his followers at the very least to refrain from enslaving others. Furthermore, Jesus’ sacrifice of his own life is not limited to one religious group, but “for many” (Matthew 26:28). Thus when managers protect rest time for employees, they can view this management practice as partnering with God in his continual work of deliverance.
Providing for the rest of all workers may take different forms in different industries or organizations. Bandwidth.com, a telecommunications company based in North Carolina, has a policy that everyone should leave work by 6 pm in order to spend dinner time with the people they love. If necessary, people may work from home after 8 pm or so, but workers are expected not to work or communicate with one another at least between 6 and 8. Co-founder Henry Kaestner says the biblical Sabbath is an inspiration for the policy, not because of its religious particularity, but because it gives everyone time for rest and relationship.
The fast-food restaurant chain Chick-fil-A is well known for being closed on Sundays. This is certainly one way to ensure that everyone has a day off, at least from their work at the company itself. According to the company’s website, founder Truett Cathy’s decision to make weekly sabbath a company policy “was as much practical as spiritual. He believes that all franchised Chick-fil-A Operators and Restaurant employees should have an opportunity to rest, spend time with family and friends, and worship if they choose to do so.” Hopefully, in addition, everyone who works at the company doesn’t feel the need to work elsewhere on Sunday to make ends meet.
Henry Kaestner, panel discussion at Movement Day, New York City, October 10, 2013.