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Sunday Observance (The “Backstory”)

“Papa, is it a sin to work on Sunday?”

A few weeks ago my wife and I had four of our grandchildren ages 9-13 out to our cottage overnight.  On Sunday I was taking a walk with them and we passed two guys building a wall; therefore, the question.

“The short answer to your question of whether or not it’s a sin to work on Sunday is this; it depends!  Let’s get some ice cream, because this will take a few minutes to explain.”

The worst kept secret in our family is that I give long answers to almost every question put to me, especially about the Bible.  The reason I do is because I value context.  I want them to know the “backstory” of why I and other followers of Jesus believe or behave the way we do instead of simply giving them the, “because the Bible says so” line.  While that answer may be accurate, it’s not very helpful for helping our children or grandchildren grow in their admiration for the wisdom of God.

What follows is a very simplified version of the theology behind a teaching that still confuses and even angers some adults about “the rules” they grew up with surrounding what they could and couldn’t do on Sunday.  I hope it’s helpful to you as you teach your children or grandchildren.

Kids, in protestant theology there are two major schools of thought regarding how Christians are to interpret the Bible, that shape what each group believes the Bible teaches, including Sunday observance.

Covenantal Theology

Covenant Christians view the history of God’s dealings with humans in all of history from Creation to The Fall through the lens of three major covenants – the Covenants of Redemption, of Works and of Grace.  A covenant is simply an agreement between two or more people.  In the Old Testament, most of the covenants were between God and individuals like Adam, Noah, Abraham and the people of Israel.  God agreed to do something, if Israel or these patriarchs did something in return.  They made a bargain.

One aspect of covenant theology is that it requires Christians to obey all God’s moral laws, including the commandments God gave to Israel in the Old Testament, which obviously includes the 4th commandment to keep the Sabbath Day holy.

“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 male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.” Exodus 20:8-10

“Kids, you may be wondering why, if God made a deal or gave a commandment to Israel, why do we still have to obey it today?  Because covenantal Christians believe that when the Jews (Israel) rejected Jesus, God chose the church (true Christians) to continue his covenants.  God didn’t reject Israel.  God simply couldn’t depend on Israel any longer to carry out their part of the bargain.

It’s kind of like a man who owns a business, but his natural children have rejected his authority and refuse to obey him.  So, the father adopts other children who will run the business the way the father wants it run.  The father still loves his natural born children and if any one of them ever came to their senses he’d be delighted to invite them back into the family business.  That’s God’s attitude toward Israel.  He still has a special place in his heart for them because he is faithful to his promises, even if they aren’t.

So, as God’s faithful, adopted sons and daughters we are expected to continue honoring these covenants.  That’s why covenantal Christians still believe we ought to obey the moral laws of God, including Sunday rest.  That’s why covenantal churches and denominations believe it’s a sin to work on Sunday.

Let the questions begin!

Q. Papa, what’s a denomination?

A. A denomination is like a Christian franchise.  It’s a group of churches that all believe and teach the same things.  So, just like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and KFC are all restaurants, but serve different kinds of food, Presbyterians, Reformed, Methodists and Congregational churches all are Christians, but believe slightly different things about God and the Bible.  Almost all denominations who accept the basic teachings of John Calvin or Martin Luther and other Swiss reformers are covenantal, like Presbyterians, Reformed, Lutheran churches.  If they baptize babies, they’re very likely covenantal (but, not always).  It’s complicated.

Q. Papa, why do we go to church on Sunday, if the only thing God commanded us to do was to rest on Sunday?

A. In all fairness, nowhere in the Bible, in the Old or New Testament, are we commanded to go to church every week.  However, because Jesus regularly went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and we’re supposed to live like Jesus did, that’s what we do.  Also, it was the practice of Christians from the beginning of the church to worship at least weekly.  The Bible encourages us to, “Not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:25  By the way, the early church also changed their Sabbath, from Saturday to Sunday, because it was the day Jesus rose from the dead, but the exact day isn’t important.

Q. Papa, do you believe it’s wrong to work on Sundays?

A. No, I don’t.  However, I believe working on Sundays is very unwise and I’ll explain why in a few minutes.

Dispensational Theology

Years ago our family attended a covenantal church and that’s the way your parents were raised as young children.  However, our church and the church your parents now attend is dispensational.  Most Bible churches, Baptists, undenominational, and many charismatic churches are dispensational.  Dispensational denomination and churches view the Bible differently.  They see the Bible broken up into seven general periods of time they call dispensations.

  1. Innocence – Adam and Eve

  2. Conscience – Cain and Abel

  3. Government – Noah

  4. Promise – Abraham

  5. Law – Moses

  6. Grace or the Church – from Pentecost until Jesus returns

  7. The last dispensation will be The Kingdom

A theologian named Ryrie once said “Dispensationalist view the world as a household run by God.”  It’s clear to them that at different times (dispensations) in human history God required people to do certain things in obedience to him, that he didn’t require in other dispensations.  For instance, God asked Adam and Eve only to take care of God’s creation, have babies, serve God and not eat the fruit from the tree God warned them about.  They didn’t have to obey the Ten Commandments and neither did Noah or Abraham because God wouldn’t even give the commandments until another dispensation.  That’s why dispensationalists believe that the law, the Ten Commandments, including God’s forbidding work on Sunday, are no longer applicable for Christians today.  Those laws were given to Israel, for Israel – not to us, for us.

The “Nine Commandments” for Christians

“What?  Papa are you saying we no longer have to obey any of the Ten Commandments?”  Theologically, yes.  HOWEVER, Jesus taught and in essence, reaffirmed nine out of the ten commands.  In fact, he even expanded some of the commands.  He taught that if you hate someone it’s like murder and if you think impure thoughts it’s like committing adultery in your heart. So for all practical purposes, Jesus actually raised the bar and requires more of us than a legalistic keeping of the law.

However, while Jesus affirmed the idea of Sabbath rest, he rejected the legalism and man-made rules about Sabbath observance and more interestingly, he never reaffirmed the prohibition against work.  “Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Mark 2:27  Also, Paul said this about the Sabbath.  “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” Colossians 2:16  In Romans 14:5 Paul made it a matter of personal freedom on how we were to use Sundays.  “One person considers one day more sacred than another; and other considers every day alike.  Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.”

“But, Papa, then why did you say working on Sundays might not be wise?”  Because we believe God’s idea behind not working was that humans, even animals and the land need rest.  (Read Lev. 25:1-7)  God was wise enough to know that humans and animals need to rest occasionally or they would get worn out and sick.  God loves us enough to protect us from ourselves.  It’s just like the rules your parents have for you about going to bed at a certain time, so you’re rested and healthy.  Sometimes it feels like a punishment, but it’s really done out of their love for you.

Also, we don’t have to work seven days a week because God said he would meet all of our needs. So by not working it shows him that we trust him to do that and that we’ll be content with whatever he provides in six days. Finally,  resting one day a week is a reminder of what God has in store for us someday – an eternal rest from sin and hard work and an eternity of enjoying our heavenly family.

So then, why Sunday Rules?

So, when your mother grew up we established some family rules about Sunday.  Nana and I decided that our family would go to church, we wouldn’t go shopping, work, or go to the movies, and our kids couldn’t go on dates.  But, we never said those things were sins.  We just wanted that day for God and for our family to rest, read, enjoy each other and be together.  In fact, we told them, “When you grow up we don’t ever want you telling people that your parents thought it was a sin to… (whatever).  These are our rules, so we don’t want you blaming God or Christianity.  However, when you have families of your own, our guess is that you if you’re wise, you too will set boundaries and rules for how your family will take advantage of this gift from God of a day’s rest each week.

What do you believe?

I’m sure I’ve left out some important elements of the arguments on both sides. My purpose was to give you a framework for explaining why good Christians who love God and have great respect for the authority of the Bible have different views on this subject so that you can prepare yourself for this discussion with your own children.  And if it doesn’t come up naturally, then look for a teachable moment to open the subject.  That’s how we pass on the wisdom of righteousness to the next generation – intentionally.

Question:  How have you explained Sunday observance to your children?

Following Jesus in Real Life

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