Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Lone Commandment: Are Christians Inconsistent in not Obeying the Sabbath?

- Jake Magee

The Charge of Inconsistency

It has been argued that since the commandment to keep the Sabbath is placed in the middle of nine other commandments which are manifestly universal and perpetually binding, it is simply inconsistent for people to obey nine of the commandments and to ignore this one. To be consistent, it is asserted, we would do better to regard the Sabbath as we do the others - as being equally binding to all people.

I contend that this argument, considered apart from both New Testament declarations about the Sabbath, as well as the clear testimony of the early church, is unconvincing.

An Argument From Analogy

It appears that this argument is an argument from analogy. An argument from analogy states that if object x has properties A, B, C, and D, and object y has properties A, B, and C, then chances are that y also has property D. For example, let’s say that water has the properties of wetness, phase-changeability, drink ability, and is a molecule of two hydrogen atoms to one oxygen atom. Imagine that we landed on some obscure planet and observed something that looks like water. It is wet, undergoes changes into gas at the same temperature as water, and is drinkable. Given that this liquid is similar to water in these three properties, then chances are that this stuff on this planet also has a two hydrogen to one oxygen atom ratio.

As it applies to the discussion on the 10 commandments, those who argue for the perpetuity of the 4 th commandment seem to be saying something like this. Since the nine other commandments are
(1) divinely authoritative

(2) related to one another (i.e., part of the same family of commands)

(3) absolutely binding (i.e., perpetual, not reducible to spiritualization or culture)
(4) it is most probable that the 4 th commandment, which is divinely authoritative and related to the other nine, is also absolute and perpetual.
Now the strength of any argument from analogy is rooted in the genuine commonality of properties in two objects compared. So, if we find out that the liquid on this supposed planet doesn’t freeze at the temperature that water does (though it does change into gas at the same temperature as water), is drinkable but doesn’t hydrate our bodies, then we have good reason to be suspect as to whether it is a molecule of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

As this applies to the 4 th commandment, to be really secure that Sabbath-observing is trans cultural or absolute, it would require that the other commandments are truly very similar to one another and all equally absolute. I contend that there’s plenty of dissimilarity with the nine other commandments that makes it perfectly allowable for the forth commandment to be revised in the way it has by most Christian churches.

Commandments That Are Situation-Specific

We observe in Scripture that there are some commandments that do not apply to all people at all times.

Take the commandment which says that we should not bear false witness. Now, is this commandment binding to all people in all circumstances? The scriptural answer is no. For instance, Rahab is praised for an action at the core of which was a violation of the 9 th commandment (Josh 2:1-7; James 2:25; Hebrews 11:31). A modern day case in which the 9 th commandment isn’t absolute was dramatically played out over and over again in places like Poland in World War 2. People were forced to either lie to Nazi soldiers or disclose that they had families of Jews hiding in their homes. It seems clear that the prohibition of bearing false witness gave way to a greater good of preserving peoples lives.

Take also the prohibition of murdering. Does Moses mean that it is always wrong in all occasions to take someone’s life? I think the answer is clear when the Lord commands Israel to slaughter various people groups throughout the Old Testament. God seems to command people to do in one circumstance something that he doesn’t in another. Now, we often make the distinction between murder and killing. Although I think this distinction is true, it’s not one given clearly in the actual commandment. Elsewhere in Scripture, the word is used for both justified and unjustifiable murder.

NAU Numbers 35:27 and the blood avenger finds him outside the border of his city of refuge, and the blood avenger kills the manslayer, he will not be guilty of blood

Here we have an instance where the same Hebrew word is used of both justifiable and unjustifiable murder. This passage refers to a city (cities) of refuge where a person who inadvertently killed someone could flee and find protection from avengers. In other words, if Bob desired to kill Larry for killing his brother, Bob wouldn’t be justified in killing Larry when Larry is within the borders of this city. However, if Larry ventures outside of the city limits and Bob slays him, Bob has committed justified homicide. To sum up, there are some circumstances that permit murder. As such, its not absolute and perpetually binding.

Commandments That Are Absolute

We also observe in Scripture that there are other commands that are binding to all people in all circumstances. For instance,

Exodus 20:3 3 "You shall have no other gods before Me.

This first commandment is clearly an edict that should never be violated. It doesn’t matter if lives are at stake, there is no circumstance in which idolatry is permissible.

The tenth commandment is also one that seems difficult to justifiably disobey. For example, we can’t even imagine a circumstance in which it would be permissible for a person to covet another person’s spouse. That is, it is always wrong to covet another’s spouse.

Commandments That Allow For Changing Details

There are certain commandments that were designed specifically for the promotion of people’s well-being such that if there was ever a circumstance when these commandments obstructed human good or didn’t conform to a person’s calling (vocation), the details of these commandments were subject to alteration. As an example, let’s take the activities of the Sabbath without considering the specific day it is to be observed. Jesus states in Mark 2:27,

"The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”

This statement was made after Jesus gave Old Testament examples of circumstances in which it was permissible to deviate from the normal activities that were commanded in the Law. The first example Jesus gives in this passage is David who takes the bread that was to be eaten only by the priests and feeds both himself and his men. This certainly was a violation of prescribed activities. However, the adherence to these specific activities was not superior to preserving the lives of David and his men. As such, this deviation was permissible. The second example Jesus gives is of the temple workers who were exempt from the Mosaic prescription of relative inactivity. Not only was this exemption permitted, but it was commanded. That is to say, they were considered disobedient to God if they weren’t disobedient to the Law.

Now notice that we can’t make the same kind of declaration that Jesus made concerning the Sabbath about worshipping God. We can’t say,

“Worshipping Jehovah was made for man, and man was not made for worshipping Jehovah.”

It is manifest that all creatures are obligated, from the moment they come into being, to worship the true God. The activity of Jehovah-worship should never be suspended or deviated from.

Some Conclusions

We’ve observed that the proposition that Saturday worship should be observed because it is found in the midst of nine other commandments that are absolute and perpetually binding is an argument from analogy. But I have argued that this analogy is bad because there are different kinds of commandments. There are
(1) commandments that one must always obey no matter what.

(2) commandments that one shouldn’t obey given certain circumstances.

(3) commandments that are specifically designed to promote human well-being such that the observances of these commandments are flexible.
As such, it may be the case that
(1) the Sabbath is a commandment that one doesn’t have to obey.

(2) the Sabbath has been altered to fit new historical circumstances (I.e. resurrection).

(3) just as certain Sabbath-day activities commanded by the law proved to be flexible, it may be the case that the day these activities were to be performed on is also flexible, such that Sunday worship is now appropriate.

-Jake Magee