Before I begin, I will give a disclaimer. This post isn’t advocating cooperate worship on Sunday but is a look at what history tells us versus the alternative history you may have heard from certain religious denominations—namely, Seventh-day Adventist.
According to Adventist theology and some other Sabbatarians groups, Sunday observance started with Emperor Constantine after his conversion to Christianity. Notice how Amazing Facts—an Adventist organization spins it:
When Constantine pressed his pagan hordes into the church they were observing the day of the sun for their adoration of the sun god. It was their special holy day. In order to make it more convenient for them to make the change to the new religion, Constantine accepted their day of worship, Sunday, instead of the Christian Sabbath which had been observed by Jesus and His disciples.1
The spirit of concession to paganism opened the way for a still further disregard of Heaven’s authority. Satan, working through unconsecrated leaders of the church, tampered with the fourth commandment also, and essayed to set aside the ancient Sabbath, the day which God had blessed and sanctified (Genesis 2:2, 3), and in its stead to exalt the festival observed by the heathen as “the venerable day of the sun.” This change was not at first attempted openly. In the first centuries the true Sabbath had been kept by all Christians. They were jealous for the honor of God, and, believing that His law is immutable, they zealously guarded the sacredness of its precepts. But with great subtlety Satan worked through his agents to bring about his object. That the attention of the people might be called to the Sunday, it was made a festival in honor of the resurrection of Christ. Religious services were held upon it; yet it was regarded as a day of recreation, the Sabbath being still sacredly observed. 2
In the early part of the fourth century the emperor Constantine issued a decree making Sunday a public festival throughout the Roman Empire. The day of the sun was reverenced by his pagan subjects and was honored by Christians; it was the emperor’s policy to unite the conflicting interests of heathenism and Christianity. He was urged to do this by the bishops of the church, who, inspired by ambition and thirst for power, perceived that if the same day was observed by both Christians and heathen, it would promote the nominal acceptance of Christianity by pagans and thus advance the power and glory of the church But while many God-fearing Christians were gradually led to regard Sunday as possessing a degree of sacredness, they still held the true Sabbath as the holy of the Lord and observed it in obedience to the fourth commandment.3
Based on this revisionist history:
- All Christians kept Saturday between the resurrection of Christ to the time of Constantine in the fourth-century (300s A.D).
- After Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, he changed the Christian day of worship from Saturday to Sunday because it was more convenient and help convert pagan Romans (who already worshipped the sun god on Sunday).
- He was also urged by Christian bishops who had a thirst for power and believed that it will make it easier to convert pagan Romans.
A Balanced View of History
History paints a very different picture of when and why some early Christians began holding cooperate worship on Sunday. Justin Martyr in his first apology written in the second-century (100s A.D) gives us a glimpse of early church practices:
And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration. 45
There are other documents I can quote but I won’t because:
- Some will say Ignatius’s letter to the Magnesians should say “Lord’s way” instead of “Lord’s day”.
- The Didache is dated by most scholars between the first and second-century only includes the phrase “Lord’s day” just like Ignatius’s letter, which may cause some Sabbatarians to say it’s a bad translation or that Lord’s day means Saturday instead of Sunday.
However, Justin Martyr’s apology creates a major problem for certain skeptics because of a very important context clue. By stating that common assembly (i.e. cooperate worship) is held on the day of the resurrection he makes it abundantly clear that he is taking about Sunday. The only way you can deny he is not taking about Sunday is to deny that Jesus was resurrected on Sunday.6Therefore, let’s compare history vs. that of the revisionist:
- All Christians kept Saturday between the resurrection of Christ to the time of Constantine in the fourth-century (300s A.D) ❌
- We know at the very least that some Christians kept Sunday by the second-century (100s A.D)
- After Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, he changed the Christian day of worship from Saturday to Sunday because it was more convenient and help convert pagan Romans (who already worshipped the sun god on Sunday) ❓
- Because we cannot be sure how widespread Sunday observance was at this point in history if anyone tells you Constantine changed the day because it’s more convenient has to claim that they are omniscient. I am not omniscient so I will let you draw your own conclusions.
In conclusion, as stated in my disclaimer this post shouldn’t be used to prop up the views of Sunday advocates or Sabbath advocates. I believe both groups sometime cheat when looking at early church documents for supporting their various theological positions. Some Sabbatarians may try to discredit certain early church Fathers or claim that certain documents were written after the fourth-century when it’s convenient. In contrast, Sunday advocates like to use early church documents that hint or state Sunday observance as being universal for all Christians. We have very few documents from the early church Fathers and can use them when appropriate while keeping in mind that these documents only give us a glimpse of early Christian practices. They can only give us snapshots that may be limited in scope and we should be careful not to overstate them regarding our various theological positions.
How The Sabbath Was Changed. (n.d.). Retrieved December 15, 2019, from https://www.sabbathtruth.com/sabbath-history/how-the-sabbath-was-changed. ↩
Justin Martyr. (1885). The First Apology of Justin. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, pp. 185–186). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company. ↩
See https://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01/anf01.viii.ii.lxvii.htmlfor text online ↩
I am well aware that certain Christians deny that it’s on Sunday but this post isn’t for them 😉. Also, Justin’s statement challenges that idea because he said Jesus rose after the day of Saturn (i.e. Saturday). ↩