On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them.
Several years ago, I distinctly remember walking up to the church doors on a particular Sunday morning to find them locked. I was a little surprised, and I turned to examine the parking lot. Yes, I was a touch early, but not that much. I was the only one there, and no one else would be joining me. There would be no corporate worship on that day, at least not in that building. Somehow I had overlooked the announcement. That is not terribly unusual – I am often overlooking important information.
It so happened to be Christmas Day, one of the few times it lands on a Sunday, and several churches decided to close their doors so that their worship team, pastors, choir, etc., could spend the time with their families. Other churches cited different reasons, but the result was that members were encouraged to stay home with families rather than to come to worship.
I confess I was a little shocked. I already knew that certain large churches had shut down. While I didn’t agree with the decision, I at least understood the reasoning. It takes a lot of people to put on a show with lights and music and video as many of those churches have. Those people were likely going to want Christmas Day off. Now is not the time for an argument against this sort of church model, but one jumps to mind. But the church I was at wasn’t like that. It was smaller, with less production. It was a conservative church too, one that is unlikely to cancel for anything.
I am reminded of that day because this year, as it was then, Christmas happens to fall on a Sunday. I don’t know what percentage of churches will cancel worship, but I know that some of them will. Some of them will have the excuse that it takes a lot of people to run the service, and those people want the day off. Some of them will use the family excuse. But ultimately, we will find, these are excuses, and there is a fundamental theological flaw that brings this about.
But this issue is not merely about Christmas. Even those conservative churches who would never close on any Sunday are still apt to be controlled a little by the calendar. I’m not speaking of a liturgical calendar – I don’t have a problem with those at all; I’m speaking of a secular one.
In certain churches, Mother’s Day would not be complete without a special sermon on the wonderful sacrifice of mothers. Or perhaps a patriotic holiday has you singing “God Bless America” and the pastor preaching on politics.
Here’s another question, more to the laity than the pastors – how much does attendance drop on Super Bowl Sunday?
Don’t misunderstand me – I’ve heard plenty of God-honoring sermons about mothers, and there is much overlap between theology and politics that should be addressed from the pulpit. But what is our focus in these cases? If we have a special prayer for mothers on Mother’s Day or a sermon that takes up the theme, but continue to focus on Christ, then we have done well. If our purpose is to praise mothers instead of proclaim the Word, then we have a problem.
In the same way, I am very much in favor of our churches praying for our soldiers and politicians. I would even advocate for us preaching as to what politicians and soldiers should be doing. But I am very much opposed to our worship turning from our Lord and Savior in order to pay tribute to someone else. We’ve missed the point of what we are doing.
And as a layman, I must recognize that when worship takes a backseat to football, then I have an idol.
The very fact that a church would consider passing a Lord’s Day without corporate worship (except in extreme circumstances) says something of our understanding of the day. Do we worship on Sunday simply because it is convenient? Is it a tradition that can be trumped by something more interesting or by another tradition? Or is it something greater still?
The Jews of Jesus’ day, as people have done ever since Creation, have set aside Saturdays for worship and devotion. The early church, under the guidance of the Apostles, moved that day of worship to Sunday to commemorate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (Revelation 1:10, Acts 20:7).* From these days forward, it has been the habit of the Christian church to gather for worship on Sundays.
But over the years, I think the church has thought this move one of convenience and not one of obligation. It was certainly not convenient. Sunday was a work day in ancient Rome and in ancient Jerusalem, so this was not a thing simply done. The church was worshipping in a way that was in opposition to the culture around them.
And the commands to corporate worship stressed the importance of it. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “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” (Hebrews 10:24-25, emphasis mine).
Truly, as a priesthood of believers, when we are called to worship, we have a priestly duty to be there, barring some circumstance that is preventing it. And that circumstance isn’t football.
And this point may be the most helpful for us. When we look at the Old Testament commands for the priests and the Levites, we see clearly that there is no room for the duties to go undone for a week, or for a ceremony to be skipped. Oh, certainly an individual may have taken the day off or the duties be rotated (as indicated in Luke 1:8), but the work was always performed. Someone qualified to do the work was there. As believers after Christ’s incarnation, we sometimes pass over these passages as being part of the types and shadows that have been fulfilled. After all, Christian churches typically do not have priests in a formal sense, excepting that Jesus is our High Priest. But it is not that the office has been abolished, but rather expanded, for the Bible now describes all believers as priests (1 Peter 2:9). As priests, we are to come when worship is called, and it is called for on Sunday by teaching of Scripture.
We have a duty to be amongst the brethren on Lord’s Day if we are able. That is commanded of us, and the elders have a duty to lead that worship.
In the Reformed tradition, there is actually only one “holy day” – and that is Sunday. I once quipped that the Reformed have a church calendar, but it is only seven days long. It was said in jest at the time, but there is some truth there.
Brothers in Christ disagree on this point, and many have a liturgical calendar that separate out particular feast days. As I mentioned, I really have no problem with this, but the temptation then is to, as Rome has done, regard Easter and Christmas as the high holy days and Sunday as part of the weekend.
And there is the trap we must avoid. Christ is Lord of the Sabbath, but he did not abolish it. He abolished the ridiculous man-made laws of the Pharisees associated with the Sabbath, but we are called to keep Sabbath as prescribed in the Law. God even lists that command with others that we would find good and profitable:
Keep justice, and do righteousness,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my righteousness be revealed.
Blessed is the man who does this,
and the son of man who holds it fast,
who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it,
and keeps his hand from doing any evil.
Ah, you will say. This is Old Testament. This is an Old Covenant command. But if you look more closely at the chapter, you will find this to be a New Covenant command. In this chapter, the eunuch who keeps the Sabbath is promised a memorial name in the house of the Lord, but the Old Covenant forbids eunuchs from entering the house of the Lord (Deut 23:1, also see Joseph A. Pipa, The Lord’s Day).
While the exploration of these things can and do take up books, this introduction will suffice for our purposes. The conclusion we must draw from Scripture is that the Lord’s Day should be celebrated with corporate worship, and we should attend unless somehow prohibited.
But then let us speak of Christmas a while. And I would not have you think I am against the holiday here. I have defended Christmas as a worthwhile celebration before, and I would do it again. For many years I dedicated the Winter edition of Primum Mobile Magazine to focus the on Christmas, and I wrote the bulk of that material personally. The original version of this very essay was one of those works. Christmastime is my favorite season of the year and a wonderful opportunity to honor God in so many ways.
But Christmas is not commanded by God’s Word. You do no sin if you fail to celebrate Christmas. It is within the realm of Christian freedom. Corporate worship, on the other hand, is commanded, and it is a sin to fail to attend without cause.
We must see that a freedom should and must yield to a command. While Christmas may be part of your Lord’s Day worship, it must not in any sense trump it, lest we fall into sin.
This is exactly why it is so terribly sad to see churches remaining closed on Lord’s Day simply because the date is December 25. It is so sad to see pews empty on Super Bowl Sunday. It is so sad to see the worship of our Lord altered to include any other worthy cause, such as veterans or mothers or anything of the sort, even though these be worthy groups to celebrate. Our holidays are fun and enjoyable, but they are not as Sundays are, for on Sunday we have a command from God to gather together to sing to him, to read the Scriptures, to partake of the sacraments, to pray, and to hear the proclamation of the Word.
That includes Christmas Day when it falls on Sunday.
Please enjoy the day. If you can, spend time with family. In God Rest Ye Merry, Douglas Wilson advocates Sunday to be a weekly gathering of family and friends to dinner, and Sunday, December 25 should not be an exception there. Make merry, feast and give thanks. But far more importantly, go worship your King. If your church decides to shut down that day, find a good Bible-believing church nearby where the Elders understand their Lord’s Day duties to lead the congregation in worship.
And ask your own Elders about it, because there truly is something that should be concerning to us when the decision is made to not worship our Lord on the day he prescribed us to worship him. I for one think it is, besides a sinful decision that requires repentant, a symptom of deeper troubles that need to be examined.
But thankfully, our God is a forgiving God. He has forgiven the countless times I have not worshipped properly on the Lord’s Day. Do not presume his grace, but also remember that it is there when we have erred.
Joseph A. Pipa Jr.’s book The Lord’s Day is exceptionally good in drawing out the Christian doctrine of the Lord’s day and what God intends for us on that day each week. I definitely recommend it as further study on this topic. There has been much written on what Christians should do with Christmas in general, but I believe the foundation to moving forward on the topic is the very topic of what a holy day is and what it is not, which is what Dr. Pipa is exploring.
*The move of the Christian Sabbath to Sunday is one that I had to gloss over briefly, and I did not that simply because the intended audience of this essay is not likely one who believes the Sabbath should be on Saturday. Dr. Pipa’s book The Lord’s Day tackles this topic in more depth.