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Is Sunday a Secular or Religious 'Day of Rest'?

Is Sunday a Secular or Religious 'Day of Rest'?

At the Second European Conference on the Protection of a Work-free Sunday and Decent Work held on the 21st of January 2014 at the European Parliament (Brussels), the European Sunday Alliance (ESA) raised awareness around their Pledge and their core demands by asking current members of the EU Parliament and candidates for the next European elections 2014 to sign the Pledge.

By signing they would be committing themselves to firstly, ensure that all relevant EU-legislation both respects and promotes the protection of a common weekly day of rest for all EU citizens, which shall be in principle on a Sunday, in order to protect workers' health and promote a better balance between family and private life and work and secondly, to promote EU-legislation guaranteeing sustainable working time patterns based on the principle of decent work benefiting society as well as the economy as a whole.[i]

Although the ESA's well intentioned goals of reducing stress and longer workweek are to be appreciated, unfortunately its Pledge for asking European lawmakers to promote legislation that respects Sunday as a 'day of rest' seems to impose, if adopted, a religious practice (Sunday observance) upon all the European citizens and thus discriminate those whose beliefs differ from such religious practice.

Having a work-free day of rest is quite an appealing option worth considering, especially in our busy society. The late Pope John Paul II, advocating a rest day observance, acknowledged that "the Sabbath precept… is rooted in the depths of God’s plan. This is why, unlike many other precepts, it is set not within the context of strictly cultic stipulations but within the Decalogue, the 'ten words' which represents the very pillars of the moral life inscribed on the human heart. In setting this commandment within the context of the basic structure of ethics, Israel and then the Church declare that they consider it not just a matter of community religious discipline but a defining and indelible expression of our relationship with God, announced and expounded by biblical revelation. This is the perspective within which Christians need to rediscover this precept today." [ii]

Such statement is worth reflecting upon, especially as it highlights that Sabbath keeping is "not just a matter of community religious discipline but a defining and indelible expression of our relationship with God" as noted. It clearly reminds us that our life is measured by time and that the manner in which we use it, indicates where our priorities are truly placed. Therefore, if as believers we give priorities to God in our thinking and our living on the Sabbath, we are showing how strongly we value our relationship with God.

Unfortunately for Christians who do not practice Sunday observance, Pope John Paul II advocated for a Sunday/Sabbath observance rather than a Saturday/Sabbath observance which he referred wrongly as Jewish Sabbath. He wrote "It is the duty of Christians therefore, to remember that although the practices of the Jewish Sabbath are gone, surpassed as they are the 'fulfilment' which Sunday brings, the underlying reasons for keeping 'the Lord's Day' holy - inscribed solemnly in the Ten Commandments - remain valid, though they need to be reinterpreted in the light of the theology and spirituality of Sunday." [iii]

It is quite cleverly inventive to attempt to ground the moral obligation of Sunday/Sabbath observance in the Saturday/Sabbath commandment. Surprisingly, such attempt lacks biblical and historical support. Biblically speaking, there is no evidence in the New Testament that Sunday/Sabbath observance was ever considered as the "extension" or/and "full expression" of the Saturday/Sabbath observance. Saturday/Sabbath observance was established by God Himself at Creation who hallowed it and sanctified it (Genesis 2:2, 3). It is worth remembering that this occurred several centuries before a Jewish tribe ever came to existence, therefore Saturday/Sabbath observance is truly God's original plan for all of humanity (Exodus 20:8-11) including the Jewish nation and God's sign of His true worshipers who remain faithful to Sola Scriptura and have a clear understanding of the physical, moral and spiritual renewal the proper observance of the Saturday/Sabbath observance provides.

Historically speaking, great emphasis was made on the difference between Sunday/Sabbath observance and Saturday/Sabbath observance rather than on a continuity between them. Early Christian literature suggests that Sunday/Sabbath observance arose as the replacement of the Saturday/Sabbath observance rather than as the "extension" as Pope John Paul II suggested. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, stated without any ambiguity that "In the New Law the observance of the Lord's day took the place of the observance of the Sabbath not by virtue of the precept [Saturday/Sabbath Commandment] but by the institution of the Church and the custom of Christian people" [iv]

Earlier Christian literature also expressed the necessity that arose to separate from the Jews and "their" Sabbath which influenced Christians to adopt the 'venerable day of the Sun', since it commemorates divine events that happened on that first day such as the creation of light and the resurrection of the 'Sun of Justice'. Eusebius in his Commentary on Psalm 91 wrote that "The logos has transferred by the New Alliance the celebration of the rising of the light. He has given us a type of the true rest in the saving day of the Lord, the first day of light. …In this day of light, first day and true day of the sun, when we gather after the interval of six days, we celebrate the holy and spiritual Sabbath... All things whatsoever that were prescribed for the Sabbath, we have transferred them to the Lord's day, as being more authoritative and more highly regarded and first in rank, and more honourable than the Jewish Sabbath. In fact, it is on this day of the creation of the world that God said: 'Let there be light and there was light.' It is also on this day that the Sun of Justice has risen for our souls." [v]

The ESA's emphasis on the need for civil legislation that guarantees Sunday as 'a day of rest' seems to reiterate the late Pope Leo XII's statement in the Encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), cited by Pope John Paul II, speaking of "Sunday rest as a worker's right which the State must guarantee" [vi] for which Pope John Paul II added "Therefore in particular circumstances of our time, Christians will naturally strive to ensure that civil legislation respects their duty to keep Sunday holy." [vii]

Unfortunately, to call upon current and future members of parliament to sign a Pledge that commit them to promote legislation that "respects" Sunday as a common weekly 'day of rest' means to ignore that we are living in a pluralistic society where certain religious communities already observe a different weekly 'day of rest'. For example,  Jews and other Christians denominations do observe Saturday and likewise Muslims may prefer Friday as their 'day of rest'.

By downplaying the religious practice of Sunday while highlighting the human and secular benefits as well as the social, cultural and family values of Sunday legislation, the ESA’s approach seems to echo a statement made some years ago in America by Attorney Michael Woodruff in the Sunday magazine of the Lord’s Day Alliance: “If we must justify the retention of the Lord’s Day as a secular day of rest, we must find compelling secular grounds to make it so. . . . If Courts view Sunday laws as having the direct effect of ‘advancing religion,’ then under current First Amendment doctrine, such laws must be unconstitutional. However, if the laws are generally applicable and have a religion-neutral purpose, then the effect is likely to be seen incidental. To this end, the distinction between religious practice and the form of laws is important.” [viii]

Perhaps, the solution to Europe's economic arguments is not to be sought in a work-free Sunday, Saturday or Friday legislation but rather in measures that promote actions by employers to accommodate the religious convictions of their employees without causing any unduly hardship to their businesses or professions.

[ii] Dies Domini, paragraph 13

[iii] Dies Domini, paragraph 62

[iv] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1947, II, Q. 122 Art. 4, p:1702

[v] Eusebius, Commentaria in Psalmos 91, PG 23, 1169-1172

[vi] Dies Domini, paragraph 66

[vii] Dies Domini, paragraph 67

[viii] Michael Woodruff, The Constitutionality of Sunday Laws,” Sunday 79 (January-April 1991), p. 21-22


posted by Brighton Kavaloh
Wednesday, 12 March 2014 21:03

Thank you so very much for such a brilliant comment. We await to hear what others have to say.

posted by clarenckir
Tuesday, 11 March 2014 20:50

This is an excellent discussion, around the topic, making good reference points to the question and giving balance to the arguments and call-to-action. Engaging article, straight to the point; very effective in demonstrating in an incredible way the rational utilized by the European Sunday Alliance to promote Sunday as a religious day of rest; and their pledge to promote the protection of a common week day of rest for all EU citizens; under the guise of protecting workers' health, family life and work. Does the Bible say that Sunday is a religious day of rest? Or is it a secular day like any other day of the week? Very thought provoking questions!

The missing text to support the observance of Sunday, the first day of the week, as a religious day of rest has long been the subject of research and study. It is now acknowledged by many leading Bible scholars that no biblical authority exists for such claim. This is an extra-ordinary dilemma for Christendom. It is interesting to note however that the principle of a work-free day of rest is good practice to solidify family ties, as well as raising awareness of workers' health and a balance between private life and work. In its context this is important. For this purpose, God, in His wisdom, has given the Seventh-day Sabbath as a day of rest and a time to solidify family ties as well as a time of intimate communion with Him.

The ESA's pledge to promote legislation in respect of Sunday as religious day of rest poses an interesting dilemma for other religious faiths who prefer to observe an alternative day of rest. It is unfortunate that a legislation that will infringe on the religious liberty and democratic freedom of others, is being promoted. The ESA's pledge is a mere re-invention of the wheel. It is imperative that, as Bible believing Christians, we view these arguments with an unbiased approach to the truth.

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