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Part 2d: What Are the Terms? Sabbatarianism

Glossary 24 Sabbatarianism

Sabbatarianism. A term restricted to the teaching and practice of Christians to apply Sabbath law in some respect to their weekly behavior and conduct. As such, Jews are not “Sabbatarians” even though they are Sabbath observant according to their community history and traditions. The extent of application of Sabbath law can vary among Christian sects and Bible-based cults; however, the most common application is to regard the chosen day of community worship as a day of rest. In the strictest sense, Christians are Sabbatarians if they practice any Sabbath law or appeal to Sabbath law as a basis for Christian assembly. Sabbatarianism is “the view which insists that one day of each week be reserved for religious observance as prescribed by the OT sabbath law.”[i] Harm differentiates between strict Sabbatarianism which holds that humankind is morally responsible to rest from all labor on Saturday and semisabbatarianism, which merely transfers this demand to Sunday.

Alexander Johnston (1816-1891) “The Sabbath Eve”

A Sabbatarian doctrine is a nuanced position because it developed over several centuries to arrive at a state of strict observance in the English commonwealth during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries and then to ultimately to lose its national prominence while maintaining its variable relevance in Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Reformed, Reformed Baptist, and Seventh-day sects.

The earliest Christian traditions did not associate the Christian Lord’s Day on Sunday with the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday and only minor doctrinal connections involving rest were taught during medieval times. Skarsuane evaluates the dialogue of Justin and Trypho, a second century Christian apologetic, and concludes: “The main point is that the ritual commandments [circumcision and Sabbath keeping] were understood to be temporary measures until the coming of the Messiah. To continue with them after his coming would amount to a practical denial of the efficacy of his coming. It could well be that if Justin knew (as we know he did) Jewish believers who nevertheless kept on observing the ritual commandments due to ‘instability of will,’ he also knew Jewish believers who did not, i.e., who drew the full and logical consequences of this theory concerning the law and abandoned all or most of the ritual observances.”[ii] Historically, the development of a Sabbatarian theology began within the Roman Catholic Church which allegedly claimed to have moved the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday by the authority of the church, which is an instrument of Christ. Aquinas later popularized the idea that all of the Jewish feasts were replaced with Christian feasts.[iii] These teachings aggrandized the power and authority of the Roman church to hold the populace accountable to consistent Sunday observance, to declare certain days to be holy, and to legitimize ritualistic practices. Protestants could not accept the rationale for Sunday worship in terms of papal authority and began to emphasize that Sunday worship was simply a practical decision during the early years following the resurrection. And so they initially denied the historical claim of the Roman Catholic Church to have moved the Sabbath, to decree holy days, or to demand the practice of religious ceremonies, but within a century came to view Sunday as a “Christian Sabbath”—the expression of mature Sabbatarian thought.[iv]

The early Reformers, Luther (1483-1546) and Calvin (1509-1564), distanced themselves from claiming that the fourth commandment was the basis for Christian gatherings on the first day of the week or that it was to be fully observed like the Jews, but they employed the fourth commandment, like Aquinas, to defend the notion that “some time” is necessary for the worship of God and that Sunday should be treated more reverently than other days.[v] Even though Calvin understood the typical intent of physical rest was to encourage believers “to cease from their own works and allow God to work in them,” he posited the idea that servants were to be “indulged with a day of rest.”[vi] By undermining his own understanding of the typical meaning of rest—to perpetually rest from our works—he employed the literal rest to serve his pastoral desire to have the commoners and laborers attend church to be fed by God’s word. The contradiction did not go unnoticed by his peers who complained that “Christian people are trained in Judaism because some observance of days is retained.” He denied the accusation, stating that “we do not celebrate it with most minute formality, as a ceremony by which we imagine that a spiritual mystery is typified, but we adopt it as a necessary remedy for preserving order in the Church.” While this was not called “Sabbatarianism” at the time, the foundation was laid for the progressive development of Sabbatarian thought. This seemingly innocent application of the Sabbath to the Christian economy encouraged increasing calls to transfuse the Lord’s Day with sabbatic rules, or as Parker observes, “the evolving rigorism of judaizing Christians.”[vii]

With this foundation and the later development of a creational rationale for a weekly rest, in the early sixteenth century Glait (1490-1546) and later Traske (1585–1636), both seventh day Anabaptists, argued that the Sabbath could not be moved to Sunday if the fourth commandment is a moral command emanating from creation; and so their followers gathered on Saturday. The initial use of the term “Sabbatarian”—along with “Saturdarian” and “Sabbatary Christians”—was used by Sunday-observant Christians (who believed the Sabbath was transferred to Sunday) to describe Christian assembly on Saturday (who believed the Sabbath could not be moved). “Traskites were to become important as examples of the extremes that could result from precisionist attitudes.”[viii] Ironically, the term invented to describe the aberrancy of Christians observing a Sabbath on Saturday came to describe those who first employed the term.

The Sunday Sabbatarian culture prevailed and was able to curtail commerce and control conduct through civil law. During the Great Awakening in the United States, other seventh day sects developed. This led to the distinction between “Saturday Sabbatarianism” and “Sunday Sabbatarianism” because both endeavor to apply the fourth commandment to their chosen day of worship, as opposed to non-Sabbatarians who do not consider Sabbath law to have any force for Christians. With the rise of evangelicalism, the Sabbath was increasingly regarded as a ceremonial law or simply an outdated law of the old covenant and therefore without moral relevance for Christians. “We are convinced that there is no theological connection between Sabbath and Sunday.”[ix] This decrease of support for Sabbatarian practices and the loss of a national Christian consensus eventually led to the desuetude of business closure laws and penalties for breaking the Sabbath. “Sabbatarianism was also to burden Christian liberty with human traditions”[x]

The moral state of this present age is no different than that of the twelfth through twentieth centuries, but Sabbatarians no longer appeal to the State to control the behavior of the populace on Sunday (or Saturday). While a few Sabbatarian authors opine about the loss of significance that Sunday worship commands compared to former years, they are unable to do anything except at the ecclesiastic level.

Following the Reformation, the magnification of Sabbath obligations was only possible because of the working relationship of church and state. Having acknowledged the danger of such a relationship and admitting a need to alter confessions,[xi] the idea of the moral obligation of all humanity to rest for 24 hours on a weekly basis is no longer defensible. Sabbatarians continue to proclaim the morality of the Sabbath but the lack of enforceability erodes confidence in this doctrine. Nowadays, the appeal to observe a sabbatic rest is conditioned on the individual decision to apply this law for personal benefit, which is grounded not on the authority of God’s word, but on a person’s internalization of what the command means to them at any given time.[xii]

Sabbatarianism is a difficult doctrine to defend because of the presuppositions that undergird it, the internal contradictions, and the inconsistencies in application. During the sixteenth century, the heightened state of Sunday Sabbatarianism gave birth to Saturday Sabbatarianism which in turn diminished the solidarity and enforceability of Sunday Sabbatarianism. What Sunday Sabbatarianism logically generated came to weaken the arguments for Sunday Sabbatarianism. For example, the first Saturday Sabbatarians were Anabaptists who believed that the State did not have authority over church matters, but unfortunately for the earliest Saturday Sabbatarians, they were persecuted for their faith for the reason that if Sunday Sabbatarianism is the only proper day for Christians to worship and the church has the support of the State to enforce Sunday Sabbatarian laws, then they could condemn and persecute Saturday Sabbatarians. However, if Sunday Sabbatarians argue that the fourth commandment means that people are only obligated to rest every seventh day, then they could not condemn Saturday Sabbatarians for worshipping on Saturday. Ultimately, this gave civil government the power to sit as judge and settle the theological conundrum facing the church (which is also undesirable).

The development of Sabbatarianism gave rise to internal theological contradictions. Sunday Sabbatarianism caused a schism centered on the significance of the day of Christ’s resurrection and the authority of God to freely appoint another day of worship for Christ followers. Initially, with the alignment of the state, they were able to persecute Saturday Sabbatarians on the premise that God moved the Sabbath to Sunday. But with the loss of the state’s favor, Sunday Sabbatarians now must tolerate the existence of Saturday Sabbatarianism. “We are taught that a Sabbatarian has the right to observe the seventh day if he so wishes; that is, if he believes that God wants him to.”[xiii] Barnhouse, writing this in the twentieth century, could not have said this in the early sixteenth century. Observe that the sequence of rest every seventh day is more important than the actual day God chose for Christians to worship. Giving theological superiority to the sequence (one in seven days) in order to summon the authority of the fourth commandment results in the loss of significance of first day congregational gatherings.[xiv] “Those who celebrate Saturday are clearly the most consistent Sabbatarians but fail to do justice to the newness of the eschatological situation brought about by God’s actions in Christ… the discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants, and to the attitude of the New Testament… to the Mosaic Law.”[xv]

The question then arises, “If Christians meet weekly and the Sabbath occurred weekly, then isn’t this an adaptation or continuance of Sabbath law?” Not necessarily. What marks Sabbatarianism is rest, which is the meaning of shabbat, not its hebdomadal attribute. The Sabbath was not only a weekly occurrence but was occasioned on the New Moon and several annual festival days. What made it a Sabbath was the prohibition from work (and other associated laws). The introduction of the Sabbath in the wilderness as a weekly observance gave that day of the week its name because the Jews would rest from their labors every seventh day as commanded from that point forward, but the fact that other days were called Sabbaths implied that Sabbath observance was not strictly a weekly event. Otherwise, any observance that occurs on a weekly basis is sabbatical—if Sabbath means weekly.  

Lincoln (LD) addresses the fact that the Sabbath and Lord’s Day share the seven-day sequence and sees this as an analogy. “Even if it is agreed that Sunday is the new Christian day for worship and that the Sabbath commandment is not to be applied to it, there remains an analogy between the two institutions of the Old Testament Sabbath and the New Testament Lord’s Day.”[xvi] It is undeniable that the Sabbath occurs weekly on Saturday (and still does) and the Lord’s Day occurs weekly on Sunday (and still does). Both had a distinct beginning, a distinct etiology, a distinct nomenclature, and a distinct covenantal duty.  They are treated as separate institutions in the NT, i.e., the Sabbath and the first day of the week, and they were treated as disparate institutions by the church fathers.[xvii]

Giving the Sabbath to the liberated Jews was a sign of the Mosaic covenant that obligated them to a recurring weekly observance. The Sabbath occurs on what is now called Saturday, but the specific day of the week was designated by God as the Sabbath. Had not the Romans control over the calendar and given celestial names to the days, we would have continued to call the seventh day of the week by the Jewish name “Sabbath.”[xviii] The Jews were given other recurring observances that coincided with the celestial rhythms of the day, months, seasons, and years, but the Sabbath was unique in that it was not related in any way to the natural rhythms of the planet. Its rhythm was of divine decree. Neither the OT nor the NT give any indication that the weekly Sabbaths could be instantly shifted to a different day of the week. With the establishment of the new covenant, the former observance of days was nullified, and in their place the Lord assigned the first day of the week and all that followed as a day for believers in Jesus Christ to assemble to remember their Redeemer through a new communal ritual. The new covenant was a new beginning for the new creation based on the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week in fulfillment of the Feast of Firstfruits which shadowed forth His resurrection. Having fulfilled the Sabbath as His body lay lifeless in the tomb, He rose in power over the grave on the first day of the week.

The week as a unit (and later as a recurring pattern) is unique to the Judeo-Christian mindset because it was a divine measure of days established at creation. Since God is the source of this measure of days and of His desire to mark His people by a weekly observance, He is free to use it however He wants. The weekly character of Jewish and Christian meetings identifies them with the God of the Bible. Even Muslims adopted a weekly pattern for worship.

If God desires His covenant people to meet together, is He not free to choose a frequency and appoint a starting day? Just because the Sabbath is nullified, it doesn’t mean the Lord can’t ask His children to assemble together on the first day of the week to hear the preaching of His word and to enjoy joyful fellowship in acknowledgement of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lincoln and others propose that first day assembly and worship was simply a practical matter for Christians—they couldn’t meet daily until the Lord returned and they couldn’t meet with the Jews on the Sabbath—but this bypasses the possibility that the Lord Himself ordained the day and set the frequency for Christians to meet through apostolic authority.

The Sabbath was not instituted at creation, but the model for a week of seven days was. The weekly pattern of rest did not apply to the community of Israel until they were a community in covenant with God. The church as a new community of God demonstrates their association and fellowship with God by a hebdomadal tradition, not on the last day of the week but on the first day, which accentuates the loss of continuity with ritual calendar laws of the old covenant.

[i] Harm, F. R. “Sabbatarianism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A. Elwell, ed. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001) p. 1045.

[ii] Skarsaune, Oskar. “Evidence for Jewish Believers in Greek and Latin Patristic Literature” in Jewish Believers in Jesus, Skarsaune and Hvalvik, eds. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), p. 512.

[iii] O’Hare, Terrence D. The Sabbath Complete, p. 267.

[iv] González, Justo L. A Brief History of Sunday (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), p. 113.

[v] Bauckham, R. J., “Sabbath and Sunday in the Protestant Tradition” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day,p. 317.

[vi] Calvin Institutes (2:8:28), p. 339. Following references in order (2:8:33), p. 342

[vii] Parker, Kenneth L. The English Sabbath p. 162.

[viii] Parker, Kenneth L. The English Sabbath, p. 164.

[ix] Shead, A. G. “Sabbath” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, T. Desmond Alexander, et. al. eds. (Downers Grover, IL: IVP, 2000), p. 749.

[x] Bauckham, R. J. “Sabbath and Sunday in the Protestant Tradition” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 329.

[xi] Barker, William S. “Lord of Lords and Kings of Commoners: The Westminster Confession and the Relationship of Church and State” in The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, Ligon Duncan, ed., repr. 2004 (Ross-Shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2003) p. 413-428.

[xii] Wirzba, Norman. Living the Sabbath. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007).  See my review at

[xiii] Barnhouse, Donald Grey. Romans: Expositions of Bible Doctrines (Rom 14:5,6).

[xiv] See

[xv] Lincoln, A. T. “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical and Theological Perspective” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 401.

[xvi] Lincoln, A. T. “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical and Theological Perspective” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 398.

[xvii] González, Justo L. A Brief History of Sunday (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), p. 18-39.

[xviii] In countries where the early Christian terminology persisted, Saturday is known as Sabato (Italian), Sabado (Spanish and Portuguese), Subbota (Russian), Sobota (Polish and Czech), and Szombat (Hungarian).

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