This article explores the relationship between the Sabbath, the fourth commandment, and the Sunday. How should we celebrate and rest on Sunday? The author deals with challenges facing Christians in regard to keeping the fourth commandment, calling for tolerance among believers.

Source: Diakonia, 2004. 5 pages.

Sunday Celebration and Working on Sunday

When preparing to write this article I did not do any more research on the matter than I had already done in my book The Ten Commandments and so I simply rely on the evidence stated there in the sec­tion dealing with the fourth commandment. Why do I write another article on this subject? In one of our churches serious commotion was caused by the fact that an elder had worked on Sunday. He has a car business and had been able to hold working on Sunday at bay for a long time but finally felt that it was necessary that he be present at a car show on Sunday. That caused unrest. Congregation members asked for his suspension because how can someone who works on Sunday be an example to the congregation? But the consistory did not suspend him and were supported in this by the church visitors. The consistory did answer letters and visited the people who had the most serious problems with what had happened. A congregational meeting was called and I was invited to speak. I tried to answer a few questions that were important whether or not they relate to working in a car show on Sunday.

When I thought about these questions, I was no longer completely satisfied with what I had writ­ten earlier about the relation between Sabbath and Sunday. This also appeared at the congregational meeting itself for a sister called my attention to a passage where I had written about truck drivers who leave on Sunday with a load of goods in order to get through the border as early as possible. In the aforementioned book, I write that this kind of action is in conflict with the fourth commandment. The sister wanted to know if I still stood behind that statement. I said there what I had thought earlier at home: I would not put it that way anymore. While I still base my work on what I had researched at that time and worked into my book, I reach somewhat different — and, in my opinion, clearer — conclusions. I put three questions to the brothers and sisters in congregation X:

  1. How is it possible that in the past and nowadays there are difficulties with respect to the meaning of the fourth commandment?
  2. What do we need to all agree on?
  3. What does tolerance in the congregation of Christ mean when we have to deal with differences in insight with respect to the fourth command­ment?

1. How is it possible that in the past and today there are difficulties with respect to the meaning of the fourth commandment?🔗

It is certain that the church in the first centuries did not have the Sunday rest which we know today. The Christians simply worked on Sunday and services were held early in the morn­ing or late in the evening. It was not until 321 that Constantine declared the Sunday to be a day of rest, though that did not mean complete rest. Farm labour still often took place. In any case, the church does not yet link resting from labour with the fourth commandment. It is not until 630 that we find a direct link being made between the Sunday and the fourth commandment

It is understandable that the link with the fourth commandment was not easily made because of the fact that the Christians were quite conscious of their difference from the Jews. Usually when early Christian texts dealt with the Sunday, they were clearly distinguished from the Jewish Sabbath. In the Bible itself, we also find sharp opposition to the Jewish way of celebrating the Sabbath as a com­pulsory day of celebration (Gal 4:10; Col. 2:16f). Is it, then, surprising that the fourth commandment disappeared from view? The Jews have their Sab­bath, we have our Sunday. They were seen as two sharply distinct items and not as one and the same matter! But even though there was no connection between the Sunday and the fourth commandment, the Sunday was celebrated. From the beginning, the Sunday was held in honour and it was also clearly understood why. The resurrection of Christ was celebrated in gatherings wherein the Word was proclaimed and the sacrament of Lord's Supper was celebrated. Even though it was not a day of rest, it certainly was a day of celebration. Think of the let­ter to the Magnesians (110 AD.) the Christians "no longer celebrate the Sabbath but focus on the day of the Lord on which also our life was revived through Him and his death."

Thus the Sunday had to be a day of joy. But it is not surprising that such a day also requires rest. Note, however, that they did not say "remember the Sabbath day and rest from your labour" but "celebrate the Sunday and make room for this by stopping from your work as much as possible." On the day of a wedding in our culture, no one finds it strange to do some shopping or a chore around the house, etc. but it would be strange not to take the day off if possible. Therefore I see a logical development from celebrating to resting.

Therefore, it also made sense for Constantine to declare the Sunday a day of rest when the world began to be ruled by this Christian. He did not do this because of the fourth commandment but because on this feast day there should be free time for proper celebration. The people were called to go to church; opportunities for this had to be created.

It seems to me that the source of the great degree of difficulty concerning this question can be formulated as follows: in our reflection on the celebrating of the Sunday, should our starting point be the complete rest which was required on the Sabbath or should it be the celebration of Christ's resurrection, for which there should be the proper opportunity and, therefore, also rest from our labour but not because the fourth commandment commands this. Since the Middle Ages it has become clearer that the con­nection between the Sunday and the fourth com­mandment is to be regarded as obvious and, in my view, even necessary. I'll put forward an argument which I myself find decisive. Imagine that we were no longer bound to the fourth commandment, then we would no longer have ten commandments but only nine. It is either one or the other: either we are not bound to the Old Testament and thus also not to the ten commandments or we are still bound to the ten commandments and then not to nine but to all ten.

The church has always followed this last route and we with her. But this does not solve all the difficulties. For the question remains (and in my view rightly so), how are we now still bound to the fourth com­mandment? Exactly as Israel was? Or is there also a shadowy side to the fourth commandment which is past now? Simply the fact that we no longer come together for worship on the Sabbath but rather on the Sunday makes this question legitimate. A simple equals sign between Sabbath and Sunday is indefensible.

When the Sunday was connected to the fourth com­mandment for good (this occurred among Roman Catholics as well as among the Reformed) there were clearly two positions in the Reformed world which had great authority. This can most easily be illustrated by the two confessions:

The Heidelberg Catechism (Lord's Day 38), which largely reflects Calvin's view, emphasizes the spiri­tual character of the fourth commandment. What is important is the preaching of the Word, the church services, the sacraments, prayer and giving Christian offerings for the poor. Doesn't it deal with resting? Yes, that as well, since all this occurs on the Sab­bath, "the day of rest." But this "resting" results in the call to rest from our evil works all the days of our life. This spiritual interpretation is the heart of the fourth commandment in the eyes of Calvin and many others. What is important is the celebration of the Sunday and resting from our evil works. In my view, the line of reasoning clearly goes from celebrating to resting.

The Westminster Catechism (1648) has a different direction: "The Sabbath or holy day of the Lord is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, not only from such activities which are always impermissible, but also from such worldly employments and recre­ations as are lawful on other days. We should count it a joy to spend the whole time in the public and private exercises of God's worship." This is clearly a literal interpretation of the fourth commandment in addition to which the celebration is added (while this element is not in the fourth commandment). Here the line goes from resting to celebrating. The tensions between these two ways of connecting the Sabbath with the Sunday have not been resolved.

2. What do we need to all agree on?🔗

Thus we all relate the Sunday to the fourth commandment but the way in which this is done is different and can cause tensions. It took centuries before the link between the celebration of the Sunday and the resting on the Sabbath was made. The length of this history is not reason enough to doubt the relation between the Sunday and the Sabbath. I see the providence of God working in this. Even without a direct link between Sunday and Sabbath in Scripture, the church was led to make the link in her reflection on these matters.

I do not deny that there are difficulties with respect to the correct interpretation of the Sunday and how it should concretely be celebrated. But we exaggerate these differences if we do not recognize what we agree on together. We all agree on the great significance of the Sunday as the church has recognized this from the beginning of her history. The celebration of the resurrection of Christ is a continuation of the line of the exodus from Egypt. Redemption, liberation and celebration are the key concepts for both the Sunday and the Old Testament Sabbath. We all regard the Sunday worship services as the pivot on which this feast day turns. The Old Testament Sabbath day violator corresponds to the people in our day who, despite knowing Lord's Day 38, neglect the worship services, do not want to celebrate the Lord's Supper, do not give to their needy brothers and sisters and show in their lifestyle that they are not willing to rest from their evil works. This "spiritual" depth is legiti­mately connected to the fourth commandment.

Ideally both viewpoints (from celebrating to resting and from resting to celebrating) will come together. An entire day off is an ideal circumstance in which to celebrate the Sunday. Celebrating and resting – and then in this New Testament order! But this ideal can­not always be reached. Many Christians are occupied with necessary labour, works of mercy and religious labour, a lot more labour than would be permitted, in my view, under the strict Old Testament Sabbath law. But that aside, ongoing secularization ensures that the Sunday is becoming less and less a day of rest. The ideal situation in which we as Reformed Christians were able to live in the Netherlands for the last hundred years or so can no longer be main­tained. Between brackets: if something has existed for a hundred years it quickly seems to us that it has always been so. But the ideal image of the past is also less ideal than is often thought. From the time of the famous Synod of Dordrecht (1618-1619) till the time of Groen van Prinsterer (1800s) the working activity in Dordrecht was at a high level on Sunday. Groen van Prinsterer considered the fact that the mail was delivered three or four times on Sunday to be too much and so attempted to reduce it to twice on Sunday.

The restful Sunday which we have known in the Netherlands will probably disappear in the near future. The situation of the first centuries may return. More and more people have to face the question whether they can keep their job or whether they can start a job which requires working on Sunday. Must we keep saying No to working on Sunday on the basis of the fourth commandment and therefore because God doesn't want it? Or is the Sunday also Sunday if we celebrate the day by going to the worship services as much as is possible for us without the ideal situation that we are free from labour for the whole day? Must we fight for the rest, apart from the celebration? Or do we fight for the celebration and therefore also for as much rest as possible? In this last case, we are happy that we still have the possibility of attending the worship services. Who knows, perhaps in the future, in order to enable as many people as possible to come to church, the services will have to be held very early and very late in the day.

3. What does tolerance in the congregation of Christ mean when we have to deal with differences in insight with respect to the fourth commandment?🔗

First of all, it is important to listen carefully to each other's concerns without a quick judgmental attitude. If my explanation till now is acceptable, then there are obvious differences among Christians on this issue. In our own Reformed churches, they will probably become more and more noticeable. I would like to quote the addition to Luke 6:4 found in Codex D: "Jesus saw someone working on the Sabbath and said to him: 'Blessed are you if you know what you are doing but if you do not know, you are cursed and a transgressor of the law." A striking statement which probably does not belong in Luke 6 but which does seem to have had a place in the early church. It is permissible to inquire after one's intentions before one judges by what he sees (working on Sunday).

It is easier to be tolerant when we have passed our Dutch borders and meet Christians who act different­ly on the Sunday than we do. Whoever has contacts in, for example, France, Korea, or Scotland, knows the differences. Such contacts are also refreshing, not in order to enthusiastically believe in everything which is different or to believe that it is better everywhere else. I've never believed that. But it does make one more careful in these matters which are easily dealt with far too absolutely and strictly when one only has the Netherlands in mind. The either/or problem ("or" is all too often replaced by "and"). Everywhere in the world our fellow Christians go to church on Sunday but in France they walk into church with the fresh bread they've just bought, in Korea they have no problem taking you to a restaurant after the service and in Scotland other things happen which we do not consider normal on Sunday. Thus there is much variation among those who are convinced that we should celebrate the Sunday as the day of Christ.

Toleration with respect to those outside of our im­mediate tradition does not mean that we as Reformed people in the Netherlands may not differ from the lifestyle of Christians elsewhere in the world. We have our own history which has granted us trea­sures from which we would part only with sorrow.

Among those treasures I consider the practically ideal situation which we may have with respect to the combination of rest and celebration. It was even possible to argue about the exact length of the Sunday: does it end at 24:00 or not? We were able to claim the whole time period from 6 p.m. on Saturday till Sunday night, a much different situation from the early church! Kuyper also supported this Puritan viewpoint with the necessary arguments in his very influential Tractaat van den sabbath (Tractate about the Sabbath) with the result that Geesink even called the position in the early church on the Sunday just as much of a heresy as that of Judaism! Such a remark is only possible in a country where Kuyper received much authority and power and was able to make the Sunday rest much more normal than it ever was before.

And so it is that for a long time we have been in the ideal situation where celebration and resting could occur on the whole Sunday without most church­goers having to engage in their weekly labour. And this ideal situation is worth defending. Thus I can defend all the efforts made (fortunately also by non-Christians) to resist a 24-hour economy and so preserve the Sunday as a work-free day. Our own people should be encouraged to be on their guard when choosing a job, or switching to a different job, or working in shifts in order to keep the Sunday a work-free day as it still is for most Christians. But we should also not rather go on welfare than take a job wherein we have to partly work on Sunday. I would only advise the welfare route if it is clearly required from us that we keep the Sunday as the people of Israel had to keep the Sabbath.

Church discipline also deals with the fourth com­mandment as Lord's Day 38 makes clear. But this Lord's Day does not forbid us to take walks in the forest, to use bike or car, to watch TV, or use public transportation on Sunday. It also does not say that we should abhor each and every job done on that day (aside from the well-known necessary labour). The aforementioned things can rightfully be a topic of discussion. It would not be a good thing if my free time on Sunday had to be filled by watching TV. But it is important to realize how we criticize such activity. Do we do it because of casuistic or because we are convinced that such activity would not be a good way to express our joy in Christ?

There is a difference of viewpoint in our midst with respect to the Sunday issue. It is also possible that an elder does not do anything which goes against the fourth commandment but still is not a good example for the congregation. We know that there is a struggle in the Netherlands to maintain or get back the "old" Sunday. It is important to point out that what was necessary in the time of the early church can be quite dangerous for the Netherlands which is still very privileged. And then it is understandable that we have greater difficulties if a leader in the church does not follow the normal way of honouring the Sunday than if a regular church member does not do so. But I would oppose actions which would suspend such a person as a violator of the Sunday and withhold him from the Lord's Supper. Those who do not accept the tolerance for which I plead should be careful that they do not fall into the evil which they fight against in others.

Pharisaism and hypocrisy are near at hand. You who preach that one shouldn't steal, do you steal (Rom. 2:21ff)? You who go to the church twice, but make a mess of the Sunday during the rest of the day, do you honour the Sabbath? You who stay away from church or do not go to the Lord's Supper because you do not accept the guidance of the consistory, do you honour the Sabbath? I do not say this in order to stifle criticism. We may criticize others but we should examine ourselves because otherwise it will become colds in the congregation with different parties and grim faces.

Thus far, in main lines, the speech which I held in an upset congregation at a peaceful congregational meeting. I already mentioned that a sister in this con­gregation had called attention to a passage from my earlier writings. I had written that truck drivers who cross the border on Sunday in order to get through the border as early as possible were acting in conflict with the fourth commandment. As I said already, I would no longer write that today because: might be doing people injustice, people who otherwise are in church twice on the Sunday and truly celebrate it, even if they crawl behind the wheel on Sunday evening in order to earn their daily bread. Among them there are Sabbath violators who were busy with their daily tasks before, during and after the sermon. But you don't have to be a truck driver of perishable goods for that. Also here the saying is in order: "If you know what you do...." And because I don't know this about truck drivers who do not neglect the worship services even if they are busy with their daily task on Sunday evening already, it seems better to me to no longer stand behind that previous written passage.

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