I am not a Christian. Actually, I am not a follower of any religion that worships the God of Abraham. While I was raised in a community where Christianity was the majority religion and was taught the basics of a Protestant faith as a child, I have to admit that the Christian religion has never called to me personally. So I generally try to stay away from any debate about Christian ethics or the interpretation of scripture. Instead, if I want to discuss religion, I will tend to stick to writing about my own NeoPagan religion as I did in a recent article, “Beyond the Bell, Book and Candle”.
Occasionally though, I will be inspired by something a fellow writer has shared. And today I was inspired to respond to @rextrulove’s wonderful post, “The Confusion Over the Sabbath.” In this post, Rex looks at the fact that Christians of different denominations can often hold very different views about how to observe the Sabbath – and most especially on what day should be observed as the Sabbath Day. Rex’ sensitive look at why God set aside the Sabbath is one that I hope all people of faith will read, regardless of their chosen path.
What is the Sabbath Day?
In Abrahamic tradition, God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day. The Sabbath, from a Hebrew word that means simply “to rest,” is a tradition of taking one day out of a 7-day week to rest. It is commonly looked upon as a time to gather together as a religious community for the purpose of worship and fellowship. In Judaism and Islam, it would seem there is universal agreement about when the Sabbath falls. But in Christianity, there are differing traditions about which day of the week should be observed as the Sabbath, sometimes called the Lord’s Day. Unfortunately, those differing traditions have also led to a history of sometimes very ugly accusations between one branch of Christianity and another.
The Need for Rest and Recreation
In his post, Rex makes a really good argument about how the Sabbath can be kept holy in different ways. He appeals to all Christians to understand that the important thing is that a person rests one day out of every week and not necessarily when or how he rests. Rex reminds us that the Sabbat was created for man and not for God, who is tireless and doesn’t need to rest.
You may also be reminded of the words of Jesus in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” (New American Standard Bible, NASB) These words were spoken in response to a challenge from the Pharisees, who condemned Jesus for a great many practices. In this particular instance, it was his disciples picking grain as they walked through a field on the Sabbath. Jesus responded by pointing out that even the commandment to keep the Sabbath Day holy was sometimes subject to exceptions.
It is, I think, in a similar vein that Rex responds to the question of when and how to mark the Sabbath – and also to the matter of one Christian questioning another about working on the Sabbath. “If we catch ourselves criticizing a brother or sister because they are working on the Sabbath, it is we who are sinning,” says Rex, as he points out that no one of us can know what another finds relaxing.
The Sabbath Day as a Communal Observance
It’s a perfectly good argument. And certainly, the Bible admonishes us not to judge another. However, there are two matters left untouched if we choose this particular approach to a discussion of Sabbath Day observance: fellowship and accountability. Customs such as observance of the Sabbath Day are as much a matter of culture and agreement as a religious community as they are a question of one person’s relationship with God. And when we get to a point where they are decided by the individual alone, and not in agreement with his church community, both the individual and the community can suffer.
If God had thought it enough that each person should rest once as week, the commandment could easily have been worded, “Keep one day aside to rest and worship, each according to your need and habit.” The fact that a single day was specified to an entire people would seem to indicate that God understood the need for communion with one’s family, as well as with one’s religious and cultural community.
God must also have seen, even if man did not, that it becomes all too easy to take our own day off by delegating unpleasant tasks to another. This was one of the reasons that many communities fought against the lifting of so-called “Lord’s Day Acts” that traditionally set out restrictions against shopping, gambling, sports and other activities on Sundays, considered the Sabbath by most Christian denominations. Those communities understood that, while there are some essential services that a sizable community needs even on the day of rest, others are a matter of convenience.
Thus, lifting bans on Sunday shopping tends to create a second class of citizens who are expected to pump gas, take tickets at the movies, cook and serve food, or keep the dollar store running so that others can enjoy their particular form of recreation on the Sabbath Day. When do those service industry workers get their day of rest, you may ask? It’s a question that generally goes unanswered, especially in an economy that commonly sees such workers holding down two or even three jobs just to make ends meet.
When Sabbath Day observance works best is when an entire community takes time out to stop working. The whole community needs to spend time together doing things that restore body, mind, and soul. It’s a matter of balance and of promoting health in both individuals and the community. Observing the Sabbath together is not a question of forcing one person’s standards on others, but rather of reserving a day each week for activities that restore and replenish. When done right, it’s truly a beautiful thing – not a matter of arguing over who is right or wrong.
A Commandment to Hold Others Accountable
We’ve seen that Sabbath Day observances tend to be more powerful when a community makes choices about the Sabbath together. But what do we do about people who break with tradition? And what about those who identify as Christians but don’t belong to any church? Should each Christian simply be left alone to do his own thing? Perhaps in our day we must make allowances for solitary practice, even in Christianity. But if one Christian believes another is failing to keep the commandment of the Sabbath Day, is he wrong to challenge his brother?
Jesus himself said people of faith should hold each other accountable when they felt a neighbour had sinned. In Matthew 18:15 we are told, “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” (NASB) The following verses make it clear that a good Christian should not simply point out a sin once, and then leave it to his brother to reconcile himself with God. There is a whole process of escalation that continues right to the point of ostracizing a community member who refuses to repent.
“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.”
~ Matthew 18:17 (New American Standard Bible)
It seems pretty clear that if one person departs too much from the customary observances of his community, he poses a threat to the community as a whole. Christians are not commanded to judge or to condemn, as that is not a business for humans. But a certain kind of avoidance is prescribed, lest a small irregularity on the part of one Christian be seen by others as permission to take similar liberties with the interpretation of the word of God.
Even when a person belongs not a member of one’s own personal church community, if a Christian feels he isn’t keeping the Sabbath it may still be a matter for concern. Religion has become much diluted in our day. There is something to be said for trying to rally other Christians and to agree upon Sabbath observances that are designed to nourish the individual and to reinforce the bonds of a religious fellowship. This can be especially important if a Christian hasn’t found a church of his own, as he is already missing a spiritual community.
The Importance of Fellowship in a Religious Community
So, when Jesus taught that Christians should confront each other about perceived sins, did He not understand that some men would enjoy pulling the weeds in the garden? Did God not foresee that there would come a time when some people would be needed to care for the sick even on the Sabbath Day, or to respond to emergency calls to fight fires or respond to crime scenes, or perhaps help a lost child find her way home on the Sabbath? It seems unthinkable that an omniscient God would not know there would always be exceptions and different ways to interpret the commandments.
Perhaps this is why there has always been a tradition of reading scripture communally and discussing its meaning in pairs and groups. From the Jewish tradition of havruta to Bible exegesis, fellowship has always been emphasized over solitary study – and respectful debate about the possible interpretations of scripture over blindly accepting the viewpoint of a single authority figure.
Religion is often defined as an organized expression of faith with rules and standard observances. But we would do well to remember that the literal interpretation of the word is “to bind back again.” Religion is about fellowship and communion, first and foremost. And we cannot lose sight of our relationship to our fellow man and to a religious community in our insistence upon a personal relationship with the Divine. Each of these things is important. And they must be balanced if an individual and his community are to truly “get religion,” as the popular saying goes.
A certain respect for both personal differences and differences between Christian denominations is important. But the act of coming together must be respected too. For some, that coming together will be a communal celebration of the Sabbath Day, with all members of the community favouring some activities while eschewing others. But sometimes too, fellowship will come in the form of a concerned brother asking his neighbour, “Why do you work on the Sabbath Day?” No man is perfect. We all struggle sometimes upon our path towards a better understanding of the Divine. But it is no sin to challenge a friend, especially when the intent is to better understand that friend or to help him with a perceived imbalance in his life. It is a matter of brotherly love and of religion – of seeing when a neighbour seems disconnected and trying to help him bind himself back to the things that matter once more.
Original content © 2016 Kyla Matton Osborne. Featured image by pixel2013/Pixabay/CC0, public domain.
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