Passion City, an evangelical congregation in Atlanta founded in 2009 by Louie Giglio (whom the reader may remember from the inauguration controversy), announced this week that the congregation will be taking a Sabbath from the Sabbath this Lord’s Day and the next. According to the biblical and traditional understanding of the Sabbath, a day of rest and worship. Thus, to Sabbath from the Sabbath would seem to imply that they will be quite busy but rather what he means is that they will not be holding services this Sunday and next. As he explains, the new church season is about to begin they thought it appropriate to rest for the next two Sundays in preparation for the coming activity.
There are traditional elements to the account of the Sabbath offered by Giglio. He recognizes a one-in-seven pattern in creation. That is to be commended. There are a great number of evangelicals who do not seem to recognize that there is a creational pattern, let alone that the Sabbath is an integral part of it. He is right to imply that, as Christians, who meet on the first day of the week, we rest and then we work. He wants the congregation to stop, rest, and remember. These are all aspects of the Sabbath.
Nevertheless, the context of and his application of the Sabbath principle are seriously flawed and not to be emulated by Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) churches. I offer this exhortation (on the Sabbath) about the Sabbath because I know how closely connected are some of our confessional P&R congregations to broad evangelicalism. Giglio is an influential evangelical and his decision follows on the decision taken by some congregations this past Christmas (Sunday, December 25, 2016) not to hold services so that congregants could be with their families. One feels a tend coming on and not in a good way.
The context of this application of the Sabbath principle is problematic. Evangelicalism—if we may speak of such a thing, as if there were an agreed theology, piety, and practice among “evangelicals,” a theory much to be doubted—is a truly busy religion indeed. To be an evangelical can be exhausting for all the activity both on the Lord’s Day and through the week. Evangelicals have long defined piety by activity. Obviously, the principal activity is personal evangelism but that has expanded into “every-member-ministry.” Then there are personal devotions, bible studies/small groups, short-term missions trips, and finally Sunday, which, for many evangelicals, can be the most exhausting day of the week. Because of the influence of the so-called “Great Awakenings,” American evangelical religion has increasingly taken on the character of lay-monasticism. Evangelicals regularly testify that they are as burdened today as Luther was in the 16th century.
…I was a devout monk and followed the rule of my order so strictly that I cannot tell you all. If ever a monk entered into heaven by his monkish merits, certainly I should have obtained entrance there. All the monks who knew me will confirm this; and if it has lasted much longer I should have become literally a martyr, through watching, prayer, reading, and other laborious effort.
Given the way many evangelical congregations think about the Lord’s Day, as a day of frenzied activity, one can understand why a congregation might take a break for two weeks before diving in headlong.
A thorough critique of this view of the Christian life, Christian service, and the Lord’s Day would take us far beyond the scope of a brief opinion piece but suffice it to say that it is out of step with the biblical pattern as confessed by the P&R churches. Those evangelicals worn out by the treadmill of activity, by the guilt of failed every-member ministry and evangelism (“You did not witness to the fellow standing next to you at the stop light. Now he is going to hell and it is all your fault!”) need to know that there is an alternative that leads neither to Rome nor to Constantinople. The Christian life need not be frenzied and the Lord’s Day need not be a beehive of activity. Your busy-ness is not a good indicator of piety and sanctification. This view of the Christian life and the Lord’s Day has more to do with American cultural values than it does with Scripture virtues and those of the historic Christian faith. At their best, when they are shaped by the historic Reformed understanding of the Christian life, of the priesthood of the believer, and of the Lord’s Day, the confessional P&R churches offer a different version and vision of these things than is commonly found in the evangelical culture.
Thus, Giglio’s application of the Sabbath principle, however superficially plausible it might seem, is also profoundly flawed. Indeed there is a one in seven pattern. Indeed Christ was raised on the first day of the week. Indeed we are to rest and worship on that day and this is the problem. If one’s Christian life and observance of the Lord’s Day is so busy as to be exhausting, as to require a two-week rest from it all, something (as suggested above) is seriously wrong. In the biblical, historic Christian, and P&R pattern, the Lord’s Day is that day in which we begin to enter into the eternal Sabbath rest, which our Lord Jesus earned for all his people. We gather for reverent, joyful worship and praise in the morning and again in the afternoon/evening. In between we rest and/or engage in works of mercy. The Sabbath is not meant to be a day of frenzied activity. It is meant to be the opposite. It is the day on which we rest from what the old Reformed theologians called “servile” works, i.e., your Monday–Saturday work.
Here’s what we confess in Heidelberg Catechism 103:
103. What does God require in the fourth Commandment?
In the first place, God wills that the ministry of the Gospel and schools be maintained, and that I, especially on the day of rest, diligently attend church, to learn the Word of God, to use the Holy Sacraments, to call publicly upon the Lord, and to give Christian alms. In the second place, that all the days of my life I rest from my evil works, allow the Lord to work in me by His Spirit, and thus begin in this life the everlasting Sabbath.
On the Sabbath we set aside our secular (i.e., ordinary, week-day) pursuits and devote ourselves to the sacred ministry of the Word and sacraments, to rest, and to Christian instruction. Truly, the Christian Sabbath is meant to be a day of rest and worship. It is not something from which Christian laity need to rest. It is the beginning of rest. It is the rest God established for this period of redemptive history.
In principle, Giglio’s plan to rest from evangelical busy-ness is not wrong but it is misdirected. What is needed is a return to the historic Protestant view of the Christian life, vocation, and Sabbath. The Passion City plan is like a warning indicator on the dashboard of a car. It signals a problem to be remedied. It is surely not a pattern for P&R churches to follow.