Evangelical Questions: But I thought Jesus said we don’t have to follow the Sabbath anymore?
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about Sabbath. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
Today’s verse comes from Mark 2:23-27:
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.
A common Evangelical question that would come up here is: WHY does your church teach that we should obey the Sabbath when clearly Jesus says we don’t have to. First we’ll address what that looks like during Sunday worship and then what it looks like for the rest of the day on Sundays.
So, how do Evangelicals understand what “keeping the Sabbath” means? As we’ve talked about in another video the history of Evangelicalism really goes back about 70 or so years and it’s growth happens right along side the Baby Boom. And those initial churches that called themselves Evangelical were pretty much following the pattern churches had followed forever – Sundays were for worship, no working, no shopping, no extravagant entertainment, spend time with family, try to keep a reverent spirit about the day. But by the late 60’s that starts to change and it’s a Southern California church called Calvary Chapel they’re at the forefront of that change. They were hugely successful. They become the hub of the “Jesus Movement” of the 1970’s where churches and a tension starts to develop between the rules and expectations that churches, even Evangelical Churches had, and what the Jesus Movement/Hippies were looking for. But for most of the 1970’s this tension is located Southern California and isn’t an issue. Most Evangelical churches across the country would still have been thinking about something like the Sabbath Day in traditional ways. The members probably would have still been dressing up for church, men in ties and women in dresses. But by 1979 the younger leaders at Calvary Chapel wanted to take the church culture they had created there, and start churches with the same mind set around the country. And so during the 1980’s the Evangelical movement takes a radical turn toward a more casual worship style. It doesn’t happen all at once, but by the end of the 1980’s most Evangelical churches are encouraging people to come “dressed as you are” to church, and have also de-emphasized most rules on Sunday behavior. This is the history of how they got there, but why did they do it?
Ultimately Evangelicals place high priority on the pragmatic – does something work – and far less priority on the long term consequences. Beginning in the 1980’s and certainly into the 1990’s the kinds of Evangelical churches that were embracing a casual style of worship were growing. They were exciting places to be. Families with youth flocked to these churches because they had fun programs that kept the teenagers engaged. But by the 1990’s and into the 2000’s a pragmatic practice that had begun for a good reason (to accommodate the Jesus Movement culture) had turned into the normalized practice. By 2000 you would be hard pressed to find any Evangelical church where members and clergy alike were not dressing in casual clothes on Sunday morning. And when that shift happened along with it was the shift away from “rule keeping” around other Sunday practices like not working or shopping. Nobody really saw a point in emphasizing what was relevant because embracing what was casual was working for them from a pragmatic point of view. The casual style did draw in young families and lots of excitement. By the time this had spread to most Evangelical Churches there really wasn’t a way to put the Genie back in the bottle. The change happened and that was that.
Interestingly enough, about 15 or so years ago, a movement started within some corners of Evangelicalism to embrace more traditional practices, to have services that were quiet and not full of rock music. Many of the people who embraced that ultimately move out of the Evangelical world and become Anglicans, Lutherns, Catholics or Eastern Orthodox.
One thing I’ve noticed in our church is that it can sometimes be hard for Latter-day Saints to look at Evangelical services and not be a little jealous. They’ve got exciting music, lots of energy, worship bands, and more. And so sometimes I think that a conversation with an Evangelical friend would end with a Latter-day Saint saying something like, “Yeah, I kind of wish we were doing what you’re doing.” And I sympathize. Our hymns are old, organ music is not the most exciting, even when the hymn says it should be “sung vigorously” it’s usually not. But I’d like to make the case about why a more reverent style of worship sets the tone for a day where the Sabbath can be kept, and that keeping the Sabbath is a blessing, not a rule we chaff against.
When Evangelicals started to dismantle a more formal style of worship for the sake of the Jesus Movement they had the best of motives. But as it grew into a standard practice without the underlying motivation it also came with an unspoken message that said something like: We can follow Jesus without traditional constraints, and in fact, it is our obligation to do so. “We need to show people that church is not about following your grandmother’s rules for church, it’s for us fun, modern people too.” Do you hear the change there? It went from, “We want to change our worship style for the sake of the Jesus Movement people who seem to need an honest accommodation,” into “We make the change for ourselves because we’re not old and boring.” The goal moved from accommodating others to expressing one’s own coolness. And if the point of worship is about me and what makes me feel comfortable, it’s really hard to accept that anyone else, even God, should place any expectations on me. So the idea that God gets a say in how worship goes gets tossed aside. But none of them really looked far enough into the future to say, “If we start to throw out God’s expectations in one area, it becomes pretty easy to throw them out in other areas.” And a deep cynicism starts to develop of God’s right to have any say in our behaviors. If his opinion doesn’t matter on Sundays, soon it won’t matter on Friday night either.
Instead, what we are trying to do in our church is to say that God asks us to have an attitude of reverence when we worship him, especially on the Sabbath day. And that attitude should be carried throughout the day. And it’s true that the expression of reverence might look different in different cultures, but there is no culture where failing to express reverence in at least some way is obedience to that command. God is the object of our worship, His day is Sunday, we modify our behavior to worship him as he would like – not as we would like. And so while I see what the Evangelicals are trying to do, at least historically, I think that project ultimately failed. It became about what makes the members of that church feel good – and when they stop feeling good at that church, they can move to another one across town where they might feel good again.
But what about after church? How do Evangelicals think about keeping the afternoon/evening holy?
In our church there has been some change over time here as well. Some of the more strict practices of the past seem to have softened. If you were to peek in on a Latter-day Saint family during a Sunday afternoon and an Evangelical family during the same time, you might not see much difference. It’s subtle, but let me try to tease it out for you.
In the last 10 years or so there has been a flurry of books published in the Evangelical world on the topic of the Sabbath. I’ve read many of them, one of the classes I had in Divinity School was simply titled, “The Sabbath.” Those books have titles like, “Finding Renewal on the Sabbath”…”The Sabbath for Soul Rest”…and one simply titled, “Breathe.” The thesis of most of these books is that God wants you to feel good and mentally healthy, and taking time for yourself on the Sabbath is God’s plan for how to do that. Now, you know this, I’m a mental health therapist so I’m all about good self-care and doing things in your life that will bring about more mental health. This is not a bad pursuit and I’m certainly not making fun of them for it. You should be taking care of yourself and you do need breaks from your obligations and that is certainly part of what is going on in observing the Sabbath. But is that it? Is it just for me to feel better? You can hear in this the same logic that is used for an Evangelical Sunday worship service playing out here too. This is “you time” which is quite different then,“This is a day where we focus on worshiping God all day long, and in various ways, even when that requires quite a bit of effort from us.” The traditional understanding of keeping the sabbath day holy was that this is God’s day, and we use it for him. But for Evangelicals that has turned into “this is a day for you to rest and feel better.”
So, how do we explain our beliefs to an Evangelical friend without their eyes glossing over and them thinking, “that doesn’t sound like Sabbath day rest to me at all.” Well, let me tell you what it was like for me when I was investigating our church.
I noticed the external differences in worship right away, anyone would. But eventually I noticed the spirit of reverence behind the differences and found that very attractive. It’s impossible to be both reverent and cynical. Those two things repel each other. And, while this isn’t true for every Evangelical, my experience of it was that all that striving to be cool also came with a deep river of cynicism. When you form a church to suit your own preferences, you have to edge out at least some of God’s preferences, and things get confusing. It’s hard to tell which of God’s commandments even matter any more. Or what things about God are even true. Not everyone’s experience, but it was mine. So when I encountered a very typical, boring service at my local ward it didn’t take me long to see the lack of cynicism as very comforting. I came to enjoy being able to worship reverently with friends, but also to have a hilarious time with those same friends in other contexts. But when we’re together doing the things of God we act like God wants us to act. That’s the feeling of community and purpose. There are very few feelings that are better than that.
I hope you enjoyed this discussion on the Sabbath day. Join us again next week when we look at more Evangelical questions as they come up in our Come Follow Me text.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.