I’m a fan of Sheldon Sorge, and I affirm his article on ways that congregations can support their pastors in keeping their callings vital. However, I’ve been forced to conclude, after too many years of study, that there is little evidence from New Testament and pre-Constantinian historical sources to justify a Gentile Sabbath ethic. Sheldon says of himself (and all us pastors) and of members, “I needed not just an equivalent of their Saturday, a day to mow the yard, change the oil, fix the bicycle, etc. — but also of their Sunday.”
Many American Presbyterians remember blue laws and other external constraints on Sunday activity. Those constraints are gone, and “their Sunday” enjoys no practical consensus. Are Sundays for naps? NFL football? Movies and museums? Golf? Shopping? Youth sports? The whole day in acts of corporate and/or personal worship? Lacking a consensus, many pastors and authors are treating Sabbath as a personal spiritual practice, loosely defining it as “rest.” Such an approach requires a good bit of work to justify itself as sufficiently grounded in Scripture, confessions, and theological reflection.
Paying attention to Sheldon’s situation (and every minister’s) can help.
What is it that we (“clergy”) and they (“laity”) both need? For starters, we need the same thing on the same day. What “lay” Christians do on Sundays (teach Sunday School, open the building, greet worshipers, sing in the choir, serve coffee and doughnuts, lead the youth group) requires the same commitment, faithfulness, and effort that are required of pastors. Several years ago, I tried to forget the clergy/lay division. I started treating Sunday as the Lord’s Day, and my service on that day as equivalent to the service that any other member of the church renders. After all, those busy, faithful members didn’t get to take Monday off just because they served on Sunday. And do the rabbis have a sabbath other than the Sabbath?
Clearly, pastors will have to establish limits on Sunday service. Rather than taking another day as sabbath, let the work stop at noon on Sunday, for yourself and your congregation. (This is a gift that congregations and pastors can offer to each other.) In other words, take the same Sunday that “they” get, or should. Some Sundays will involve pulling a few oxen out of a few ditches, but not most. Some church work can hardly be avoided on Sunday afternoons, such as youth work.
Second, taking another day as a second day — call it sabbath or call it a day off — essentially drives work back in the week another day. Colleagues have told me how utterly unsuccessful they have been at “keeping a sabbath.” Likewise, I had always worked most Saturdays to get sermons written. I suspect I’m not the only one. When I stopped hitting my head against the sabbath wall and worked Monday through Friday, I found that I could get my work done more effectively and enjoy Sundays as the Lord’s Day. What’s more, Sundays have sent me into Mondays feeling more refreshed than before.
What if you’re working three or four nights a week? I have no word of the Lord, only my opinion. We should not call sabbath the day that simply demonstrates the demands of a heavy workload; they frequently become the idolatry of too much work. Pastors still enjoy the benefits of a flexible schedule, and need not hesitate to take compensatory time when needed. That’s not Sabbath — that’s sanity.
Third, the church has a better chance at developing a shared ethic for the “holy day” (Karl Barth) if we eliminate the false division between clergy and laity. We must construct a faithful, workable Christian practice of the day as the whole people of God, testifying to the lordship of Jesus Christ. My own studies led me to adopt the metaphor of the messianic banquet as a guide for Lord’s Day ethics. The church is invited to an observation of the day grounded in the good news that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s Sabbath hope, that he invites all people to his banquet table, and that the holy day is a foretaste of the eternal sabbath.
This is not a practice of “what we can’t do.” It is, rather, an invitation to what is best to do. Rather than making legitimate excuses (“I have bought a field,” “I just got married,” “I have tickets on the 35 yard-line,” “I’ve got to catch up on my laundry”), all Christians do well to gather at the Lord’s Table in corporate worship, and to live the entire Sunday as a testimony to God’s promised rest, freedom, and joy in the kingdom of God. Such a practice truly refreshes this pastor, and offers sufficient flexibility of expression that diverse Christians find in it inspiration for their practice of Sundays.
Stuart R. Gordon is associate pastor for discipleship at First Church, Nashville, Tenn. He received the D.Min. for a project entitled Lord of the Sabbath: The Messianic Banquet and Lord’s Day Ethics.