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Sabbath Worship: Hobby or Holiness?

Sabbath Worship: Hobby or Holiness?

What is going to church on the Sabbath? Is it an act of holiness—or just the exercise of a religious hobby?

The answer to that rather strange question might determine how you (and your state or local government) view the necessity of reopening houses of worship for in-person services. For most of the past eight weeks, lockdown orders throughout the world have shuttered church doors, sending pastors and congregants online in search of Bible study, fellowship, and weekly worship.

Confrontation Looms Over Worship

But now, the scene is being set for confrontation. In the latest of several lawsuits to hit Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, now a group of Romanian-American pastors has signaled their non-compliance: “Several pastors ministering to Romanian Christian congregations in the Chicago area have told Democratic Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker that they will be defying an executive order limiting religious gatherings to only 10 people and are unafraid to take the issue to court,” online publication LifeSite News reported.

The problem is one of discrimination. If 500 people can “congregate” safely within a Walmart as shoppers, then why cannot a certain number of people, following the same “social distancing” guidelines, be allowed to safely meet in a church sanctuary? Why has the arbitrary number of 10 been put in place for churches but not for other businesses deemed “essential”?

Noting their history of Communist oppression, the Romanian pastors wrote, “In light of our shared experience living behind the Iron Curtain—where discriminatory treatment of Churches by authoritarian governments was the norm—we are determined to do everything that we can to ensure that our beloved country and our State remain the beacons of freedom that brought us here.”

This clash—echoed by pastors and congregations in Kentucky and California—raises the question: Just what is congregational worship in light of the Constitution? Is it an essential right as part of the “free exercise” of religion in the First Amendment, or is it more of an option?

What the Constitution Says

Robert P. George is one of America’s top legal scholars, particularly in the areas of civil rights and religious freedom. He holds Princeton University’s esteemed position of McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence and directs the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He was also the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), as well as a presidential appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Recently, he spoke with John Stonestreet on the BreakPoint Podcast, offering an explanation for the continuance of draconian restrictions on in-person worship services even as other commercial enterprises have opened up.

The framework for the United States of America was established largely with the prevention of religious persecution in mind. Our nation thus originally held a very prominent viewpoint of the freedom of religion. “‘In our constitutional tradition,’ George [stated], religion ‘is singled out for special care. … Our founding fathers, who bequeathed to us this great constitutional government … understood that religion has to do with the conscience.’”

America’s objective was to secure, defend, and preserve the individual’s right to practice his religious beliefs according to that conscience. This was of the utmost importance. People died for it.

But measures were also put in place that affected one’s religious practices in times of crisis. As Stonestreet explained, governments are “fully entitled to curtail religious freedoms in a national emergency”—and, yes, suppressing contagious disease is such an example. However, this must be done with regard to the Constitution and its precepts. In Stonestreet’s words: “Any restrictions imposed cannot be more burdensome than necessary.”

However, what we are seeing today, in this current time of crisis, is the singling out of churches, mosques, and synagogues in ways that are more burdensome than those placed on other segments of society. 

According to George, the problem lies with the evolution of the perception of religion. “Too many Americans, … including lawmakers and even Christians—‘essentially see (religion) as a hobby … like football, or going to the ballet, or collecting stamps.’ These things are, of course, non-essential.”

The Bible, however, speaks of worship in terms that are distinctly not those of a hobby: “One thing I have desired of the LORD, that will I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in His temple” (Psalm 27:4). Worship of God is the essence of life.

The Lord specifies that worship is to be done on the Sabbath day, when “all flesh shall come to worship before [Him]” (Isaiah 66:23).

Worshiping God is one thing, but what is being currently addressed through this pandemic is the freedom to worship together. What does the Bible have to say about that?

“‘Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation,” we read in Leviticus 23:3. Those words, “a holy convocation,” suggest a group of believers.

That message is amplified in the New Testament. In the book of Hebrews, we read, “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24, 25).

So we do find in Scripture that gathering together for Sabbath worship has a specific and important purpose, especially as we see the end coming near. Let us therefore strive even more in these times of isolation to encourage, strengthen, and pray for one another. Perhaps you might also find useful the article, “ Is it necessary to go to church on the Sabbath?

This article contributed by Mark A. Kellner
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