Seven Factors that Influenced the Sabbath in the Early Church (Part 4 of 4)
by Kelly McDonald, Jr.
The last factor that influenced the Sabbath was the relationship between Roman Emperors and Roman Bishops. Beginning with the time of Constantine, the Roman Church became intertwined with the Roman Empire. Constantine de facto made the Roman Church an institution of the state. Roman Emperors starting with Constantine codified Roman Church practices as law and even tried to influence them.
In 321 AD, Constantine ruled that people could leave property to the Roman Church upon death (CT: 16.2.4). In 326 AD, he passed a law that granted the Roman Church special privileges. All other Christian groups were not allowed these privileges and were bound to public service (CT: 16.5.1). He regulated the number of clergy in Christianity (CT: 16.2.6 [326 AD]). Secular judges were even required to enforce the decisions of Christian Bishops (CS: 1 [333 AD]).
In 379, Theodosius became the Eastern Roman Emperor. After hearing the perspectives of different Christian groups, he sided with the Roman Church. All houses of prayer were given over to the Roman Church. The next year he passed a law, which forced all peoples under his rule to follow the Roman Catholic religion. We have an excerpt from this decree below:
“To the residents of Constantinople: It is our will that all the peoples whom the government of our clemency rules shall follow that religion which a pious belief from Peter to the present declares the holy Peter delivered to the Romans, and which it is evident the Pontiff Damascus and Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic sanctity, follow; that is, that according to the apostolic discipline and evangelical doctrine we believe in the deity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit of equal majesty in a holy trinity. Those who follow this law we command shall be comprised under the name of Catholic Christians; but others, indeed, we require, as insane and raving, to bear the infamy of heretical teaching; their gatherings shall not receive the name of churches; they are to be smitten first with the divine punishment and after that by the vengeance of our indignation, which has divine approval” (CT: 16.1.2).
His laws relating to religion were sometimes fanatical. People were not even allowed to discuss religious matters in public (CT: 16.4.1 [388 AD]). Non-Roman Catholic groups were forbidden from owning churches or meeting together to have services.
The Imperial relationship with the Roman Church would pave the way for celebrations of the Roman Church, including Sunday, to be enshrined as enforced law. The first Sunday law in history with any mention of the Lord was issued in 386 AD by Theodosius (CT: 2.8.18).
From 386 to 469, there were seven laws enacted that specifically regulated some aspect of Sunday rest or worship. Sunday became cemented as the day of rest in the Roman Empire. This would last for centuries into the future and even transfer to other European monarchies that used Roman law (such as the Frankish people under Charlemagne).
How did this last factor effect the Sabbath? The institution of Sunday as a government-mandated day of rest set up a false Sabbath beside the true one. People began to view Sunday as legitimized due to civil law. “If its good enough for everyone else, then its good enough for me.” This popularized Sun-day in a way not experienced before this time.
The bottom line: these laws distracted people from God’s agenda – for humans to rest on the seventh day of the week. Other Roman Catholic Celebrations such as the nativity of Jesus (later called Christmas) also became popularized (for Christmas, see: CT 15.5.5 [425 AD]) became established law.
In conclusion, the Sabbath was attacked and slandered for centuries through these seven factors: 1) Persecution of Christians, 2) Destruction of Jerusalem (twice), 3) Quartodeciman Controversy, 4) Anti-Semitism, 5) Syncretism, 6) Allegorizing Scripture, 7) The relationship between the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church.
As you ponder these details, consider that some of these same factors are used in arguments today to denigrate the seventh-day Sabbath. But now you know their origin. We will give some examples.
Example #1 – The Quartodeciman Controversy still affects the Sabbath. People often use the argument that the resurrection occurred on Sunday morning to justify changing the Sabbath to Sunday. This argument was never used by the first Apostles. It wasn’t used by anyone until over 100 years after Christ was on earth.
Example #2 – Anti-Semitism still influences people’s view of the Sabbath. When you mention the seventh-day Sabbath, many will say “That’s just for the Jews”; “You mean the Jewish Sabbath?”; or “We do not live like Jewish people”. Yet not a single time in the Bible is the Sabbath ever called Jewish; it is called the Sabbath of the Lord our God (see Exodus 20:8-11 as an example). Jesus said the Sabbath was for man, not Jews. People who use these arguments may not be anti-Semitic; but they are using an anti-Semitic argument.
Example #3 – Allegorizing the Scriptures. Some today still allegorize when discussing the Sabbath. For instance, some people say “Jesus is my Sabbath” or “Rest is not a day, it is salvation in Christ” – yet none of these arguments are found in the Bible.
Despite these seven factors, most Christians still honored the Sabbath into the 400s AD. This completely negates the argument that the Sabbath was changed by the early Church!
We will look at one writer who lived in the late 300s/early 400s AD. His name is Socrates Scholasticus; He wrote a tremendous work on Christian history.
“For although almost all churches throughout the world celebrate the sacred mysteries on the Sabbath of every week, yet the Christians of Alexandria and at Rome, on account of some ancient tradition, have ceased to do this. The Egyptians in the neighborhood of Alexandria, and the inhabitants of Thebais, hold their religious assemblies on the Sabbath, but do not participate of the mysteries in the manner usual among Christians in general: for after having eaten and satisfied themselves with food of all kinds, in the evening making their offerings…” (ibid, bk 5, ch 22)
Pay close attention to the words of this historian. He recorded that Rome and Alexandria were the two cities that ceased to honor the Sabbath; this means at one time they did it! He also noted that they did not stop honoring the Sabbath because of any scripture, but because of a tradition. Jesus warned us about the traditions of man that contradict the commandments of God (Matthew 15:1-20).
Despite these seven factors, most Christians continued to honor the Sabbath. If you missed the first three parts of this series, I have included them below:
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org