Joe writes, “Is missing church a sin? Like if my child has a game, if I’m on vacation, or have to work?” Over the years many people have asked me some version of this question. It is an important question, one faced by the New Testament church and by the church in the twenty-first century.
There are two truths that have to be acknowledged in this discussion at the outset: Sunday, the Lord’s Day, is the Christian Sabbath.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Ex 20:8–11; ESV).
God’s Word grounds the Sabbath principle not in the Mosaic legislation (i.e., in the judicial or ceremonial laws) but in creation. The Old Covenant, Mosaic, Sabbath has expired but the creational pattern of rest and work has not. The same Lord who instituted the Mosaic Sabbath observance transformed it by his resurrection from the grave on the “first day of the week” (Matt 28:1), which the Apostles called “the Lord’s Day” (Rev 1:10). We know from the New Testament and the earliest post-Apostolic writings that the church gathered on the Lord’s Day for worship. See the resources below for more on this.
Ordinarily, i.e., by divine ordination and usually, one ought to set aside the Lord’s Day as a day of rest, worship, and acts of mercy. Ordinarily, there ought to be two services on the Lord’s Day. That is the biblical pattern and it has been the Christian pattern until very recently. Please do not assume that the lax attitude toward the Sabbath and Christian worship that one sees today is the norm. It is quite the opposite. It is the exception. It was not long ago that most congregations, across a variety of traditions, held not only two services on the Lord’s Day but a Wednesday evening service as well. Today, the second service is fading away. The Wednesday service is entirely forgotten and it is not unusual for congregations to cancel the Sunday morning service in favor the Super Bowl or public service projects. Our brothers and sisters in earlier ages, e.g., during the patristic, medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation periods, would be astonished at the ease with which we cancel or drop public worship services.
The second baseline truth in this discussion is that it is the Lord’s revealed will that ordinarily (in the two senses used above), the Christian is to attend to public worship: “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:25; ESV). The Jewish Christians to whom Hebrews was written were tempted to abandon the assembly of the church. They were being tempted to go back to the types and shadows and to forsake the reality of those types and shadows, Christ. They were under pressure from the synagogue to go back to Moses, as it were. The Christians of Asia Minor, to whom the Apostle Peter wrote, were under informal pressure to conform to the prevailing Greco-Roman religion and ethos. They too were tempted to turn away from Christ and had to be reminded that the church is the living temple of Christ (1 Pet 4:12–19).
Legitimate Reasons For Missing Church
First, let us divide the question. There are legitimate reasons for missing church. There are a few vocations which sometimes require Christians to miss congregational worship on the Christian Sabbath (Lord’s Day). E.g., firefighters, police officers, medical professionals, and those who keep our utilities going. In the country, farmers sometimes must miss worship to attend to livestock in distress. We distinguish rightly between works of necessity, works of mercy, and servile work. The latter is our daily work. Someone who sells clothing for a department store is providing a service but it is not a work of moral or medical necessity. It is not necessary for public safety or the life of a fellow image bearer that the department store be open on the Christian Sabbath or that one be able to buy a suit on the Lord’s Day. Works of mercy are indeed necessary but they can usually be performed between services. Of course, anyone who has done diaconal work knows that emergencies do arise and we remember that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).
It might also be necessary to miss church because of illness or for the health and well being of the congregation. We are all familiar with the upheaval caused by Covid-19. Those who have, might have, or who have been exposed to Covid-19 have a moral responsibility to try to protect their brothers and sisters by staying home. Even before Covid-19, during flu season, it is a mercy to the brothers and sisters for one to stay home if one is ill with a cold or the flu. There was a period early on during the pandemic when church services were suspended by public authorities in the interests of public safety. This was controversial and, as it turns out, unconstitutional (especially since commercial activities were not also forbidden).
Illegitimate Reasons For Missing Church
Joe asks if it is morally permissible to miss church in order to go to a child’s ball game. The short answer is no. This is a great problem today. As the social significance of the visible church has receded, the void has been filled with sports and other organized activities. Not long ago it was unknown for a sports league to schedule practices and games on the Lord’s Day. They would have heard about it from the members of the league and from the local ministers. Today, Christian parents routinely sign up their children for sports leagues and traveling teams, which schedule actives on the Christian Sabbath, in hopes that this team will help their child get a college scholarship. To that I can only say: what does it profit a man if he gains a scholarship for his child but loses his child’s soul, as it were? (Luke 9:25). The statistical probability that your child is going to get an athletic scholarship is exceeding low. The likelihood that a child will conclude that his parents do not much value the Word, the Kingdom, the church, and the sacraments is very high indeed.
I have already addressed work. If one has a vocation that is necessary for public safety, then, yes, it might be necessary to miss services. Crime and medical emergencies do not take a Sabbath and neither can police officers and medical professionals, at least not every week. This is a growing challenge for Christians. I do not write this with joy or without sympathy. I have had to tell an employer that I would not work on the Lord’s Day. The last time I told my employer (a radio station, which broadcasts continuously seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day) they accommodated me but they let me know that they did not like it. I tried to compensate for not working on Sunday by being available to fill-in at other times during the week. Eventually, the company realized that I was not being a slacker.
Since then, however, things have only become more difficult for Christians who seek to observe the Lord’s Day as a day for rest, worship, and acts of mercy. Nevertheless, we need to set aside the Lord’s Day as much as lies within us. The time may that we shall have to do as as the early Christians, and meet very early on the Lord’s Day for worship and then go serve our masters and then gather again in the evening, after our chores, but we are not there yet.
Vacations can also be challenging. It might be impossible to attend to congregational worship in a rugged wilderness but otherwise, it is usually possible. It can be adventure. One never knows what one may find. It can certainly lead to some interesting conversations with the family after church but the Lord’s Day is the Lord’s Day. Should one be in the wilderness, then one ought to bring a psalter, a Bible, a phone on which to play a sermon from church. Even in the wilderness, the Sabbath is the Sabbath.
The answer to the question about missing church is another question: what is the nature of the Lord’s Day? The Lord’s Day is to be set aside for rest, worship and acts of mercy. The answer to the question is a second question: How has God promised to work in our lives? In Heidelberg 65 the churches speak directly to this question:
65. Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, from where comes this faith?
The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments.
We talk about the “means of grace,” i.e., those things that Christ has ordained to use to bring his elect to faith and to nurture them in that faith. When we absent ourselves from public worship, we miss the means of grace.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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