Sabbatarianism is a movement within Protestantism whose proponents advocate that certain observances, specifically enumerated in a code of behavior or law, are required for Christians to properly observe the Sabbath or Sabbath principles. Its historical origins lie in Puritan Sabbatarianism, which delineated precepts for keeping Sunday holy in observance of Sabbath commandment principles. This observance of Sunday is the purest form of first-day Sabbatarianism, a movement which diminished and largely disappeared in the 18th century, though traces and influences remain today.
Today, seventh-day Sabbatarianism is the most prominent type, a movement that generally embraces a literal reading of the Sabbath commandment that provides for both worship and rest on the seventh day of the week. Seventh-day Baptists leave most other Sabbath considerations of observance to individual conscience. The Seventh-day Adventist Church considers that Christians must follow the Mosaic Law in rigorous Sabbath observances based on the Hebrew Sabbath, Friday sunset through Saturday sunset.
Non-Sabbatarianism is the view opposing all Sabbatarianism, declaring Christians to be free of mandates to follow such specific observances. It upholds the principle in Christian church doctrine that the church is not bound by such law or code, but is free to set in place and time such observances as uphold Sabbath principles according to its doctrine: to establish a day of rest, or not, and to establish a day of worship, or not, whether on Saturday or on Sunday or on some other day. It includes all Catholics and Orthodox, and most Protestant denominations.
Sabbatarianism and non-Sabbatarianism
Sabbath in the Bible is informed by the Genesis creation narrative and has a formal origin before the giving of the Ten Commandments. By the time of Jesus, an emphasis on freedom from legalistic Sabbaths had arisen (compare Is. 1:13). Some of Jesus's teachings are considered as redefining the Pharisees' Sabbath laws (Lk. 13:10-17, Jn. 5:16-18, 9:13-16). Since Jesus is understood to have fulfilled the Law of Moses (Mk. 2:28, Mt. 5:17, Antithesis of the Law), apostolic teaching confirmed to Christians that they are not bound by the letter of Sabbath law, Pharisaic or Mosaic, since being bound instead to Christ frees one from death and sin (Rom. 8:2) that the law reveals (Rom. 7:7). Later, Church fathers Justin Martyr and Augustine also taught specifically that Sabbath according to the Decalogue does not apply in a binding fashion to Christians.
These teachings, the starting point of Christian liberty, solidified in the early Church as a fundamental principle behind its rejection of Hebrew Sabbath practices in its observances, calling its legalisms Judaizing. In the late 4th century, the 29th canon of the Council of Laodicea declared that Christians must not rest on the Sabbath, but must work on that day and if possible rest on the Lord's Day, and that any found to be Judaizers are anathema from Christ. Judaizing influences diminished and almost disappeared as all of Christianity, east and west, became effectually non-Sabbatarian. Most of it remains so today.
The essence of Sabbatarianism, named for the Sabbath, is that it reintroduced the idea that Christians are bound to keep a specific code of conduct in relation to the principal day of Christian worship, or a day of rest, or both. The first-day, Puritan Sabbatarians constructed their code from their understanding of moral obligations following from their interpretation of "natural law", first defined in writings of Thomas Aquinas. Not seeking to re-establish Mosaic Law or Hebrew Sabbath practices, their connection to Judaizing was limited to the use of a legal code by which Christians might be judged. Later, the seventh-day Sabbatarians were much more comprehensive, seeking to re-establish the Mosaic Law itself, along with Pharisaic interpretations and Hebrew Sabbath practices, including observances running from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. Most identify with the early Jewish Christians, and consider early church condemnations of Judaizing to be the marks of a "Great Apostasy" in early Christianity, which they seek to rectify.
Tendencies towards Sabbatarianism began to arise very early in the Reformation (early 16th century), causing some of the first Protestants, Luther and Calvin among them, to deny the need for legal codes and accept the non-Sabbatarian principles long established in Christianity. Since then, Protestants from many denominations have reaffirmed them as well, including Anglicans Peter Heylin, William Paley, and John Milton, nonconformist Philip Doddridge, Quaker Robert Barclay, Congregationalist James Baldwin Brown, and Christadelphian Michael Ashton.
Differences among non-Sabbatarians in their views of Christian law reflect both their interpretation of Christian liberty and the nature of their rejection of Sabbatarianism. For some, that liberty includes freedom from the letter of the (Mosaic) law rather than the law itself, for it remains with the law of righteousness, but is followed in the Holy Spirit through the power of baptism given in Christ. For others, it is liberty from the law, considered to be fully replaced along with the Mosaic covenant. For yet others, it is founded on the belief that all or some of Mosaic law has been completely set aside or abrogated, laying the way for some to full antinomianism. The common ground in non-Sabbatarianism, though, is the rejection in principle of the binding force of any required code of Sabbath-related conduct, a denial of legalism.
The roots of Sabbatarianism have been described as beginning with not making a distinction between the Christian festival of Sunday and the Hebrew Sabbath, a distinction most non-sabbatarians do make. However, in recent decades, the expression of the difference between Sabbath and Sunday has been blurred through a looser, non-doctrinal application of terminology. Often used among non-Sabbatarians in regions where Sabbatarianism itself has had its greatest prominence, it signifies a contrast with seventh-day Sabbatarianism. "First-day Sabbatarian" is often applied to those more accurately described non-Sabbatarians, because of their Sunday worship and rest. But not all non-Sabbatarians would agree to being called first-day Sabbatarians, wishing to disassociate with all of Sabbatarianism, while yet upholding Sabbath commandment principles on Sunday. Similarly, the common term "Christian Sabbath" is sometimes used to describe the fact that most Christians assemble in worship on Sunday, and may also consider it a day of rest, aligning with the Biblical norms of the Sabbath, and even the Puritans. However, not all non-Sabbatarians agree to that usage, continuing to make a clear distinction or separation between the Sabbath and Sunday, and arguing that the Christian observances on Sunday stand on their own without any necessary connection.
The Puritans of England and Scotland brought a new rigorism into the observance of the Christian Lord's Day, in reaction to the customary Sunday observance of the time, which they regarded as lax. They appealed to Sabbath ordinances with the idea that only the Bible can bind men's consciences in whether or how they will take a break from work, or to impose an obligation to meet at a particular time. Sunday Sabbatarianism is enshrined in its most mature expression, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), in the Calvinist theological tradition. Chapter 21, Of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day, sections 7-8 read:
7. As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in his Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord’s day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.
8. This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe a holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.
The confession holds that not only is work forbidden in Sunday, but also "works, words, and thoughts" about "worldly employments and recreations." Instead, the whole day should be taken up with "public and private exercises of [one's] worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy."
The Puritans' influential reasoning spread Sabbatarianism to other Protestant denominations during the 17th and 18th centuries, making its way beyond the British Isles to the European continent and the New World. It is primarily through their influence that "Sabbath" has become the colloquial equivalent of "Lord's Day" or "Sunday".
Strict Sunday Sabbatarianism is sometimes called "Puritan Sabbath", and may be contrasted with "Continental Sabbath". The latter follows the continental reformed confessions, such as the Heidelberg Catechism, which emphasize rest and worship on the Lord's Day, but do not explicitly forbid recreational activities. However, in practice, many continental Reformed Christians also abstain from recreation on the Sabbath, following the admonition by the Heidelberg Catechism's author Zacharaias Ursinus that "To keep holy the Sabbath, is not to spend the day in slothfulness and idleness".
Though first-day Sabbatarian practice declined in the 18th century, the evangelical awakening in the 19th century led to a greater concern for strict Sunday observance. The founding of the Lord's Day Observance Society in 1831 was influenced by the teaching of Daniel Wilson.
Seventh-day Baptists emerged out of the separatist movement in England in response to laws enforcing conformity to Sunday worship, founding Mill Yard Seventh Day Baptist Church in London in about 1650. Spreading rapidly to the English colonies, seven members of the First Baptist Church of Newport withdrew from that church to establish Sabbath worship. They called themselves Sabbatarian Baptists, and founded the first Seventh Day Baptist church in America at Newport, Rhode Island in December 1671. A similar occurrence in Piscataway, New Jersey in 1705 led to the formation of a sister conference among the Germans in Ephrata, Pennsylvania in about 1728. The Seventh Day Baptist General Conference united them in 1802. The Ephrata community formed the German Religious Society of Seventh Day Baptists in 1814 and its site came to be known as the Ephrata Cloister. Its last surviving resident, Marie Kachel Bucher, died on July 27, 2008, at the age of 98, but its grounds are now owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and are open to public viewing.
Embracing education where it had not yet become available to the public, the churches established schools, including three that became colleges in Alfred, New York, Milton, Wisconsin, and Salem, West Virginia. A seminary was added at Alfred University in 1871. Missionary activity in the 19th century led to expansion both in the U.S. and overseas into China, India, the Phillipines, Oceania, and Africa. Today, its General Conference offices are located in Janesville, Wisconsin, although most of its membership resides outside the U.S.
United in a literal interpretation of the Sabbath commandment to keep the seventh day holy (in worship) and to rest, seventh-day Baptists leave other observances largely to its individual members to interpret and follow for themselves. In this way it represents the least uniform and least rigorous type of Sabbatarianism.
Some Christian non-Sabbatarians advocate physical Sabbath rest on any chosen day of the week, and some advocate Sabbath as a symbolic metaphor for rest in Christ; the concept of "Lord's Day" is usually treated as synonymous with "Sabbath". This non-Sabbatarian interpretation usually states that Jesus's obedience and the New Covenant fulfilled the laws of Sabbath, the Ten Commandments, and the Law of Moses, which are thus considered not to be binding moral laws, and sometimes considered abolished or abrogated. While Sunday is often observed as the day of Christian assembly and worship, in accordance with church tradition, Sabbath commandments are dissociated from this practice.
Non-Sabbatarian Christians also cite 2 Cor. 3:2-3, in which believers are compared to "a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written ... not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts"; this interpretation states that Christians accordingly no longer follow the Ten Commandments with dead orthodoxy ("tablets of stone"), but follow a new law written upon "tablets of human hearts". 3:7-11 adds that "if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory ..., will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? .... And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!" This is interpreted as teaching that New Covenant Christians are not bound by the Mosaic Law, and that Sabbath-keeping is not required. Further, because "love is the fulfillment of the law" (Rom. 13:10), the new-covenant "law" is considered to be based entirely upon love and to rescind Sabbath requirements.
Non-Sabbatarians who affirm that Sabbath-keeping remains for God's people (as in Heb. 3:7-4:11) frequently regard this as present weeklong spiritual rest or future heavenly rest rather than as physical weekly rest. For instance, Irenaeus saw Sabbath rest from secular affairs for one day each week as a sign of the way that Christians were called to permanently devote themselves to God and an eschatological symbol. One such interpretation of Hebrews states that seventh-day Sabbath is no longer relevant as a regular, literal day of rest, but instead is a symbolic metaphor for the eternal salvation "rest" that Christians enjoy in Christ, which was in turn prefigured by the promised land of Canaan.
"The NT indicates that the sabbath followed its own channel and found its goal in Christ's redemptive work [John 5:17, cf. 7:23, Colossians 2:16, Matthew 11:28–12:14, Hebrews 3:7–4:11]. It is true to the NT to say that the Mosaic sabbath as a legal and weekly matter was a temporary symbol of a more fundamental and comprehensive salvation, epitomized by and grounded in God's own creation sabbath, and brought to fulfillment (in already–not yet fashion) in Christ's redemptive work. Believers are indeed to 'keep sabbath,' no longer by observance of a day of the week but now by the upholding of that to which it pointed: the gospel of the [Kingdom of God]."
Lutheran writer Marva Dawn keeps a whole day as Sabbath, advocating for rest during any weekly complete 24-hour period and favoring rest from Saturday sunset to Sunday sunset, but regarding corporate worship as "an essential part of God's Sabbath reclamation."
Many early Christian writers beginning in the second century, such as pseudo-Barnabas, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Hippolytus, interpreted Sabbath not as a continuing literal day of rest, but (following rabbinic Judaism) as a thousand-year reign of Messiah, which would follow six millennia of world history.
- Sabbath in Christianity
- Sabbath in seventh-day churches
- Biblical Sabbath
- Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath, Hebrew Sabbath)
- High Sabbaths
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There was scarcely any Divine ordinance, which the Rabbis, by their traditions, rendered more fully void, and converted into [a yoke], than the Sabbath law. [Christ] exhibited the true meaning and object of the Sabbath. Never did the antagonism between the spirit and the letter more clearly appear.
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The false teachers were advocating a number of Jewish observances, arguing that they were essential for spiritual advancement. On 'new moon,' see note on Num. 28:11–15 .... The old covenant observances pointed to a future reality that was fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Heb. 10:1) .... Christians are no longer obligated to observe ... 'a festival ... new moon ... Sabbath' [Col. 2:16], for what these things foreshadowed has been fulfilled in Christ. It is debated whether the Sabbaths in question included the regular seventh-day rest of the fourth commandment, or were only the special Sabbaths of the Jewish festal calendar.
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