Sabbath in the Early church
One of the most popular arguments against the doctrine of the Sabbath is the purposed silence of the Early Church fathers on the issue. While it is true that the early writers did not use the language of “Christian Sabbath,” they did have an almost uniform Lord’s Day observance. Their theological underpinnings for Lord’s Day worship were not uniform, as we shall see, but one thing is for sure: they believed that it was the duty of believers to gather and worship on the Lord’s Day.
My goal in this post is to propose one reason why Sabbath language is absent among the fathers (Persecution of Judaism) and to let the fathers themselves speak about their Lord’s Day worship practices. While the term “Christian Sabbath” was not used during the first 200 years of the church (just like Trinity, or penal substitution…), the principle of a weekly day for worship is clear.
Persecution of Judaism
One reason for the lack of “Christian Sabbath” language in the early church was the persecution that was levied against the Jews of the day. The Greco-Roman animosity toward the Jews was important in the shaping of early church practices. Odom succinctly explains:
The second century opened with intense antipathy manifested throughout the Roman Empire by pagan Gentiles toward Jews as a result of Jewish uprisings against the Roman government in Palestine, Egypt, Cyprus, and Cyrene during the reign of Trajan (98-117). It reached its climax during the Jewish revolt led by Bar Cocheba in Judea during 132-135. Emperor Hadrian (117-138) crushed the long and bloody revolt with terrible severity, razed Jerusalem, and established a heathen community there, and made it a capital crime for a Jew to set foot on its soil. Judaism was outlawed by harsh decrees of the emperor, and all of its religious practices- especially Sabbath observance, Passover celebration, and circumcision- were prohibited under penalty of death. Although the Hadrianic decrees were softened somewhat by Antonius Pius (138-161), widespread animosity toward Judaism and everything that seemed to smack of it smoldered long afterward.((Robert Leo Odom, Sabbath and Sunday in Early Christianity (Washington D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Association, 1977), 297.))
The stakes were high for those early Christians who believed that sabbath observance was still their responsibility. Furthermore, because Christians were linked with Jews, as was the case in the minds of many Romans, the early followers of Christ were also worthy of persecution. This volatile environment was the setting in which the early Fathers lived and ministered. This persecution also shows that, at least for many early Christians, the sabbath/Lord’s Day debate was not a mere academic exercise; it was, potentially, a matter of life and death. They had good reason to avoid the “Christian Sabbath” terminology, and to use the Lord’s Day language instead.
2nd Century Primary Resources
Pliny the Younger ((While not an early church father, Pliny does offer one of the earliest extra-canonical testimonies of Christian worship practices; hence his inclusion in this post.))
Pliny the Younger, a Latin author who was appointed a Roman consul by Emperor Trajan in 100 AD, was also later the governor of the provinces of Pontus and Bithynia. ((Odom, Sabbath and Sunday in Early Christianity, 72.)) In a letter written to the Emperor between 111–113 AD, Pliny remarks that his investigation has revealed that the Christians were in the habit of meeting on “fixed stated day.” While this “fixed” day of meeting is not explicitly named, and therefore cannot be assumed as a reference to the sabbath or the Lord’s Day, ((Contra, e.g., Rordorf, who posits regarding this ‘fixed day’: “No one seriously argues that the designation ‘on a fixed day’ (stato die) does not refer to the weekly Sunday,” in Sunday, 254-5.)) it does make it clear that the Christians in Bithynia did have a weekly pattern of meeting, presumably for corporate worship.
Introduction. The Didache is believed to be a Jewish-Christian document intended for Gentile-Christian readers (as asserted by the full title, “Teaching of the Lord transmitted by the Twelve Apostles to the Nations). ((Pierluigi Lanfranchi, “Attitudes to the Sabbath in Three Apostolic Fathers: Didache, Ignatius, and Barnabas,” in Jesus, Paul, and Early Christianity, ed. Rieuwerd Buitenwerf, Harm Hollander, and Johannes Tromp (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 247.)) Most scholars believe the text to be dated in late first century, perhaps even early second century. ((See, e.g., Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Didache.” See also: Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English translations (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 2007), 337.)) The text itself is divided into three main sections: the “Two Ways” (1–6), liturgical instruction (7–10), and doctrinal instruction (11–16). ((Lanfranchi, “Attitudes to the Sabbath…” in Jesus, Paul, and Early Christianity, 247.))
Relevant Text. The first verse of chapter 14 begins, “And on the Lord’s Day gather to break bread and to give thanks, after having confessed your offenses so that your sacrifice may be pure.” ((Didache 14.1, translated from La Doctrine des Douze Apôtres. Didache, ed. and trans. W. Rordorf and A. Tuilier, Sources chrétiennes 248 (Paris: 1978), 129-135. See also, Johnson, Worship in the Early Church, 1:40. For a full discussion of the Didache 14.1 textual variants, see: Francis N. Lee, The Covenantal Sabbath (London: The Lord’s Day Observance Society, 1974), 298.))
Significance. This reference to the Lord’s Day worship in the Didache gives evidence of very early second-century convictions regarding the day of worship. Significantly, the (presumably) Jewish Christian author is advising a gentile believer to worship on the Lord’s Day. Unlike Paul’s and Ignatius’ judaizing opponents, who would presumably advocate keeping a weekly sabbath, the Jewish-Christian author of the Didache neither speaks of following Jewish law, nor of the 4th commandment, nor of God’s rest after creation, nor of the exodus. Sadly, the theological reasoning is not given for this Lord’s Day observance; however, the presence of such a command does demonstrate a very early pattern of weekly Lord’s Day worship found in the early church, even in the thought of a (presumably) Jewish-Christian author.
Jon English serves as Pastor of Discipleship for Morningview Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He has earned a Bachelor’s degree from Auburn University Montgomery, a Masters of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a PhD in Systematic and Historical Theology from SBTS. Jon English is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, a fellow for the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct professor for Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary.
Course taught at CBTS: The Decalogue & the Sabbath in Redemptive History