Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself (John 20:1–7; ESV).
The Christian church has observed the Lord’s Day (Rev 1:10) or the “first day of the week” (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2) since the time of the Apostles. The early Christians gathered for corporate worship twice on the Lord’s Day, first before daybreak and again in the evening. They did so out of conviction. They did so even though it was illegal. They did so even when they discovered they would lose their lives. Those Christians gathering in underground churches in China, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere understand. The medieval church met on the Lord’s Day. The churches of the Reformation met on the Lord’s Day. It is truly an ecumenical Christian conviction that the Scriptures require us to gather on what was once widely (across many Christian traditions) to be called the Christian Sabbath. It is not as if there is no clear biblical warrant for that conviction.
The preacher to the Jewish Christians, who were tempted to go back to Judaism, exhorted them, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 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 10:23–25; ESV). In Matthew 16:19 our Lord himself gave the keys of the kingdom to officers of the visible church. Those keys are exercised in the public assembly of the covenant community (Qahal in the OT and ekklesia in the NT). When Jesus said “tell it to the church” (Matt 18:17) he assumed the existence of the visible, assembled covenant community gathered on the Lord’s Day. The epistles written by the Apostles were addressed to the visible church and they were read out to the assembled churches on the Lord’s Day. When Paul criticized the Corinthians for abusing the Supper he said, “when you assemble” (1 Cor 11:17). They had to assemble in order to abuse the Supper.
The Presenting Problem
None of this, however, prevented Fletcher Lang, lead pastor of City on a Hill Church in Somerville, Massachusetts from arguing in a recent essay that it is a matter of Christian liberty when elders decide to cancel Lord’s Day worship services when Christmas falls on a Sunday.
Further, they cancelled the service knowingly. He begins by recounting how the church leadership agonized over a 2016 essay by Kevin DeYoung exhorting churches not to cancel services on Christmas. His principal argument for cancelling worship services in favor of Christmas is that it is too difficult to hold services on Christmas. To wit:
- They are a church plant and that means that they must set up and tear down (which is laborious).
- They are a commuter church (which means travel).
- They are short-handed (80% of their congregation travels over the Christmas holiday).
- Their “secular” (which he uses as a synonym for pagan) neighbors will not be interested in visiting church on Christmas Sunday.
These are a real issues with which anyone who has been in church plant has wrestled, nevertheless, they are not compelling reasons to cancel services on the Christian Sabbath. As a fellow who is very familiar with life in small churches and church plants, I have some brief responses:
- A smaller congregation on Christmas Sunday means a smaller set up.
- Hold a simplified service. The church worshipped without the aid of a light and sound show for thousands of years.
- The principal reason for gathering on the Lord’s Day is to glorify God not to reach the lost. The lost may or may not appear in the service but God is not going anywhere this Sunday. The tomb is still empty. Jesus is still at the right hand of the Father. The Holy Spirit is still among his people. The law is still the law and the gospel is still the gospel.
- Who knows whom the Holy Spirit will bring to your service? Forecasts about whom the Lord, in his mysterious providence sends, are about as reliable as weather forecasts in Nebraska.
All that is needed for a quiet, small, service on the Lord’s Day is a preacher, some chairs, a lectern, and maybe some song sheets with Psalms printed on them. The most ancient post-apostolic Christians gathered without any printed materials and they did quite well. Anyone can sing well-known tunes a cappella.
The Underlying Problem
The ease with which evangelical congregations will cancel Lord’s Day services this year (as they did in 2016) testifies to the poverty of their theology of the means of grace, and by poverty I mean non-existence. The same God who sovereignly saves his elect by grace (divine favor) alone, through faith (trusting, resting, receiving) alone, in Christ alone, has also instituted means (media) through which he has ordained to operate. The means of grace are three: the preaching of the holy gospel, the use of the holy sacraments, and prayer (on means of grace ministry see the resources below).
The Reformed churches confess that the first means of grace by which Christ operates is the preaching of the gospel. This, we say, is how Christ has ordained to call all his elect to new life and true faith. This is how we understand Paul in Romans 10:14–15:
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (ESV)
There is a principle embedded in this argument and it is this: God has ordained the means of the preaching of the gospel to bring his elect to new life and true faith. This is the implied relation between “how are they to believe” and “how are they to hear without someone preaching?” As Paul understands things, this is how God has ordained to operate. This is why he encouraged Timothy to preach when it is fashionable and when it is not (1 Tim 4:2). This is why the Reformed churches confess:
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.
Notice that the second means we confess are the “use of the Holy Sacraments.” By these we understand God to confirm the promises he has made in his preached gospel. This is the nature of sacraments. They do not create faith (contra the sacerdotalists) nor are they mere empty symbols (contra the modern evangelicals). They are divinely ordained signs, which point to the gospel, and seals, which testify to believers that what they signify is really true not only generally but personally. On this see Heidelberg Catechism 66:
What are the Sacraments?
The Sacraments are visible holy signs and seals appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof He may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the Gospel: namely, that of free grace, He grants us the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross.
We derive this understanding from many places, such as Romans 4:11: “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith.” Abraham, like the New Covenant church, knew that circumcision was not a sacrament of anything that he had done but of what Christ had promised and done.
Prayer is a means of grace but of a different sort. Where the gospel and the sacraments come to us, prayer comes from us. It is our response to God’s grace but it is nevertheless something through which God ordains to operate. Consider 2 Corinthians 1:11, “You also must help us by prayer (τῇ δεήσει), so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers (διὰ πολλῶν εὐχαριστηθῇ ὑπὲρ ⸀ἡμῶν) of many” (ESV).
To cancel the Lord’s Day services on Christmas Sunday is to deprive the congregation that is left behind of the due use of the ordinary means of grace. Is there a biblical warrant for a quorum to hold a worship service? The Synod of Dort did not think so. They instructed ministers to conduct Sunday evening services even if only the pastor and his family appeared. Further, those who are traveling for the holidays should be exhorted to find themselves in church, where ever they might be.
The irony here is that pastor Lang and the leadership of his congregation is abandoning the Christian Lord’s Day and the divinely ordained means of grace in favor of a holiday that God himself has not instituted and what is, in effect, nature. It is ironic because typically American evangelicals have no place for nature as a category and in their theology, piety, and practice, grace (redemption) typically wipes out nature (creation). In this case, however, Pastor Lang has put nature, e.g., family gatherings, before redemption.
It is also ironic to see a pastor cancel Lord’s Day services, for which we have clear biblical precedent and warrant in favor of an observance that has no biblical warrant or precedent whatever. We have no idea when Christ was born. The Christmas holiday is not a New Testament holiday. The earliest post-apostolic Christians argued about which day the church should observe what they called pascha (what we call Easter) but they said nothing about Christmas. Interest in the “feast of the Nativity” developed after the third century. As late as the early 5th century Jerome and Augustine disagreed about observance of the feast of the Nativity.
The appeal, in this context, to “Christian liberty” is risible and also, again, ironic. In this case the church has infringed on the liberty of the church by canceling services on the Christian Sabbath and then more or less shaming anyone who would complain about it. Liberty is freedom to observe that which has been instituted by the Lord. Where is the liberty of the members who are left without services on the Sabbath? The Protestant Reformers did not defend and, in too many cases, die for the doctrine of Christian liberty so that American evangelicals could invoke that doctrine in defense of what is arguably license.
The doctrine of the church has fallen on hard times in our day, but it need not be so. It is right before us in the Word of God and the Reformed confessions. In case, dear reader, you have wondered what are the differences between the confessional Reformed and the so-called Young, Restless, and Reformed movement, this is a major difference.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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There’s a trend.
Some super sad stuff. I was thinkin. People probably think “hey we can’t have church today you know we gotta celebrate the birth of our Lord!” One can just reply with a fat jolly smile on his face “Well hello idiot, last time I checked we celebrate it every day.” Personally that’s what I would say but again with fat Jolly smile on my face and would probably end that sentence with bro, of course, for common curtesy, I just called someone an idiot for crying out loud. For context I would probably only call the elders or deacons idiots if they are not having church on Christmas. They know better.
I am personally delighted to belong to a church where this question has not even come up.
” Who knows whom the Holy Spirit will bring to your service? Forecasts about whom the Lord, in his mysterious providence sends, are about as reliable as weather forecasts in Nebraska.”
This thought leaped off the page at me when I read the Pastor’s rationale for canceling a Sunday Service. A church will scarcely have a better opportunity to “impact” a secular city than Christmas. People who never darken a church door will show up on Christmas and Easter.
This is a shame because “secular” cities are filled with people who are beside themselves with problems on Christmas, problems that a pastor could address.
As a child the only time I was exposed to anything like Christianity, presented as a religion (rather than merely as an ethic), was at Easter and Christmas.
I am grateful for this perspective – honoring the means of grace and feel no necessity for honoring a cultural holiday. However, I wonder if these issues would never have arisen if the church would have stuck with 52 holy days that include the means of grace without entertaining the idea of Christian festival days (Easter, Christmas,etc) at all. There is no need for introducing elements of piety that the Scripture doesn’t endorse. The Lord determined that special feasts and festivals were needed for saints of old but did not introduce ANY in this epoch of redemptive history besides the Christian sabbath and worship with it’s own elements to be celebrated, viz the Supper. Doesn’t observing such a special day undermine what God has actually instituted? (The so-called Christian Calendar practiced by Reformed Christians remains an enigma to me.) Ultimately, the deepest underlying problem Rev Lang is facing is one that the early church sadly introduced.
See the resources (linked below the essay) on the problems associated with the Christian calendar generally. The Reformed churches tended to want what you suggest but the magistrates, trying to keep the people happy, often over ruled them—something erstwhile theocrats might bear in mind.
The true elect Math 25: 31 – 46, If I miss church this Sunday am I in trouble?
This Sunday morning is our intimate time of just my wife, son and daughter and their family reading scripture, breaking bread and prayer, is God going to be mad at me for missing church?
If you read the essay, then you saw that Scripture, by precept and command, calls Christians to gather together as a covenant community (which is typically more than a single family) for corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. The pattern of setting aside one day in 7 for worship and rest is grounded in the creation pattern (Gen 1-2) and renewed in the new creation pattern (2 For 5:17). This is why, as John Owen’s successor, David Clarkson, wrote that public worship has priority over the private.
It is a fine thing to gather together with one’s family but to put the natural family before the spiritual family or community which is the church is a confusion of priorities, especially to observe what is essentially a man-made holiday (Christmas). I understand that Christmas has a great sentimental import for many people and surely the truths it signifies (chiefly the incarnation and birth of Christ) are great and vital to our faith, but the Christmas holiday is no warrant for closing church or for skipping the means of grace.
Private gatherings have no divine promise attached to them. The public worship does. Paul suggests to the Corinthians that angels are present in public worship (see 1 Cor 11:10). We have no such intimation about private worship.
Is God angry with willful sin? He is not pleased with it. Are you in Christ, by grace alone, through faith alone? If so, why would one of Christ’s people willfully absent himself and his family from the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the holy sacraments in favor a private family gathering?
“”This Sunday morning is our intimate time of just my wife, son and daughter and their family reading scripture, breaking bread and prayer, is God going to be mad at me for missing church?””
If not ill, or unable to attend for a serious reason of any other sort, yes, you will make God angry.
You’re putting private bio-family idolatry ahead of worship of the true God, with his saints, in community. I know how easy it is to justify bio-family idolatry, btw. And how ‘right’ it seems.
Get you to church on the Lord’s Day.
The Heidelberg Catechism is a topical substitute for the church year lectionary, at least as far as one Sabbath service is concerned. Lord’s Day 6 is devoted to the Incarnation. Lord’s Day 17 is Resurrection “day.”
I’m getting some bad vibes from here and there that some megachurches and others have announced that they plan to cancel both Christmas Eve and Sunday morning services this year. I live in an area where a well known college uses its music students to perform in a special Christmas program earlier in December every year. My question to the people who favor not attending at least a Sunday morning service as well as possibly Christmas Eve is – If you had tickets for the 7:00 Saturday performance of that college’s program would you still get up and attend the regular Sunday morning service the next day? If so, then what’s the difference between that scenario and the weekend services this year? It’s all wrapped around the annual Christmas Eve party night/gift openings and the Christmas morning nostalgia of kids running down stairs to find a load of presents waiting – and more gift opening.