Roman Church Councils Between 506-796
by Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Between the 200s and 400s AD, the Western Roman Empire was overrun by a number of Germanic tribes. They eventually settled within the confines of the Roman Empire. There were 10 main tribes by the 400s AD, and 8 of them converted to a form of Christianity called Arianism (which we have reviewed in previous articles). This form of Christianity had Sabbath-keeping tendencies.
As time passed, these Arian tribes were either conquered by the sword or through Catholic conversion. From 506 to 796, there were at least 22 pro-Roman Church councils that enforced Sunday keeping, condemned the seventh-day Sabbath, and/or restricted communication between Christian and Jewish people.
Among the councils of this time period, at least eight ban interactions between Christians and Jews in varying degrees. Three of them in particular ban Christians from participating in meals, festivals or banquets with Jewish people – which is likely a reference to the Sabbath and annual festivals of Leviticus 23 (Agatha or Agde [506 AD], Epaone , Macon ). Jewish people were expelled from Spain unless they converted to Catholicism (Toledo ).
At least 16 of these 22 Councils gave varying kinds of instruction about Sunday worship. 12 of these 16 councils either governed appropriate behaviors for Sunday (such as resting from work) or force Sunday church attendance. Some of the penalties for working on Sunday were fierce. One could be excommunicated from fellowship for violating them. The council of Narbonne in 589 imposed fines on people who worked on Sunday. Even worse, the council of Dingolvinga (also called Dengolfel) in 772 demanded that repeated Sunday violators be sold into slavery (Mansi, 12:851-856, lists this council is listed as Concilium Bavaricum). In some of these councils, the true Sabbath was denigrated. At least four of them condemned Sabbath keeping directly or indirectly (Agde in 506; Toledo in 589; Estinnes in 743; Friuli in 796).
These councils help us understand a few things. First of all, we learn that Sabbath keeping did not instantly die out during a previous time period. Secondly, the repetition of Sunday laws helps us understand that Sunday-keeping was not an established, entrenched custom hundreds of years after Christ. Lastly, the repetition of these laws indicates that Sunday worship did not easily take hold in these areas. They had to threaten people with severe punishment to force them to keep Sunday. Among these Arian Germanic tribes, Sunday keeping had to constantly be reinforced.
Some of these councils were held at a time that coincided with significant events in Gothic Arian history. Let’s look at an example.
In the 480s AD, Clovis I became the King of the Franks. In 496, he converted to Catholicism. By 506, he conquered most of the Visigoth holdings in southwestern France. About this same time, the council of Agatha (or Agde) was held. In it, people were banned from participating in the “meals of the Jews”. Fasting on the Sabbath during Lent was upheld. Those who did not celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost were not considered true Catholics. It also forced people to attend church every Sunday and to stay for the entire service or face punishment. Jewish people were forbidden from being baptized until they had proven themselves over an eight-month period (Landon, vol 1:12, Hefele, Vol. 4, 76-86).
This Roman Catholic Church Council promoted Sunday at a time that coincided with the conquest of former Arian domains. Any remnants of Sabbatarianism were suppressed; Sunday was enforced by threat of punishment. Furthermore, the repetition of pro-Sunday councils over an almost 300 year period is a reminder of the difficulty the Roman Church had in enforcing Sunday worship.
We will look at two specific Church Councils in our next blog on Sabbath history.
Kelly McDonald, Jr
BSA President, www.biblesabbath.org