Is Sunday a “Pagan” Day of Worship?

shutterstock_132176963With the recent observance of Easter, I’m reminded of an exchange I had with a reader concerning when Christians should worship. About a year ago I wrote an article entitled “A Dozen Evidences for the Resurrection of Jesus.”1 There I pointed out that one of the supporting factors for the resurrection is that Christ rose on Sunday and that the emergence of Sunday as a Christian day of worship (not observed by Jews) commemorates and supports the truth of the resurrection. But a reader challenged this claim by saying Sunday is a “pagan” day of worship.

Since some people object to historic Christianity’s alleged connection to paganism (for example, the days of the week being pagan in origin as well as the claim that historic Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter being celebrated on pagan days), this topic deserves a response. I’ll cite part of what I wrote in the original article about Sunday worship and then I’ll state the objection and offer my response.

Emergence of Sunday as a Day of Worship2

The Hebrew people worshipped on the Sabbath, which is the seventh day of the week (measured from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). Nevertheless, the early Christian church (which was viewed initially as a sect of Judaism) gradually changed the day of their worship from the seventh to the first day of the week (see “the first day of the/every week” in Acts 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 16:2, and “the Lord’s Day” in Revelation 1:10). For the early Christian church, Sunday uniquely commemorated Jesus’s resurrection from the dead.

Sustained reflection on Christ’s resurrection to immortal life transformed Christian worship—influencing the formulation of the sacraments of the early church (baptism and communion)—and distinguished the Christian faith in its theology and practice from traditional Judaism. Apart from the resurrection, no reason existed for early Christians (as a sect of Judaism) to view Sunday (the first day of the week) as having any enduring theological or ceremonial significance. The resurrection of Jesus, therefore, set historic Christianity apart from the Judaism of its day. That same truth of resurrected life sets the faith apart from all other religions through the centuries.

So the event of Easter Sunday—Jesus’s resurrection—explains two things well: (1) why the Christian religion emerged as a historical movement, and (2) why Christians worship on a different day of the week than the Jews. And, in turn, both of these historical elements support the factual nature of Jesus’s resurrection.

Critical Comment

A reader commented on my Reflections page and raised the issue of whether some Christians are now observing a pagan day of worship:

“The Christian Church didn’t change the day of worship. God’s day has always been the Sabbath. Sunday was a pagan day of worship that was never condoned. God’s faithful people observed his day. Revelation 1:10 doesn’t talk about Sunday, it talks about the Lord’s Day, which according to Isaiah 58:13 is the Sabbath.”

My Response

All of Christendom (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) views the Lord’s Day as Sunday—commemorating Jesus Christ’s bodily resurrection that took place on the first day of the week. The majority of New Testament scholars see Sunday as a day of worship honoring Christ’s resurrection. Thus, viewing Sunday as the Lord’s Day distinguishes historic Christian observance from traditional Judaism. People may keep the Sabbath on the seventh day out of conscience (see Romans 14), but Seventh-day Sabbatarianism is an outlier position in Christian theology.

Christ’s resurrection happened on a so-called “pagan day,” but because of the resurrection many Christians call it (Sunday) the Lord’s Day. For historic Christians, every single Sunday (52 days a year) commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Again according to historic Christianity, none of the days are pagan because all days have been dedicated to God who is the Creator of the world.

A question to bear in mind is whether everything associated with pagans is to be viewed as false or immoral. Pagan religion certainly involved polytheism, which the Bible strongly forbids (Exodus 20:3) and, at times, deeply immoral actions that Scripture also condemns (Deuteronomy 18:10). Thus, a clear clash of worldviews existed between God’s people—the Jews—and the pagan people of the nations who often erred theologically and morally.

However, pagan people were made in the image of God and were the recipients of general revelation and common grace. This means that pagans can get things right about reality and moral goodness (Acts 17). A look at the profound insights of the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle attests to this perception. The ancient pagan religions were a lot like the non-Christian world religions of today. They got a lot wrong but they also got some critical issues right (for example, a sense of the divine and a basic morality). This common ground affords us the opportunity to build responsible bridges that can hopefully lead to sharing the gospel message with people who don’t know Christ (either ancient pagans or today’s non-Christian world religions).

I’ve found Christian theologian Gerald McDermott’s historical observation helpful. Here he describes Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas’s approach to evaluating the so-called pagan philosophy of Aristotle:

Thomas accepted from Aristotle what he thought was in accord with Christian doctrine, rejected what he thought was not (and explained why), and used some of Aristotle’s categories to help teach Christian faith.3

I think Aquinas’s approach is insightful and fair-minded. It reminds us to be careful about using the word “pagan” as if non-Jewish people groups were (and are) somehow less than image bearers.

Summary

Apart from the specifics of the Sabbath day, I think Christians can recognize that people in other religious systems get important things right by a revelation of truth that is given to all people (Psalm 19). Yet Christians must confront the inevitable errors and distortions due to idolatry (false gods and immoral practices) that are inherent in non-Christian religions (Romans 1).

When the Christian church chose to celebrate great Christian truths (Incarnation [Advent], Resurrection [Easter]) on what were apparently pagan holidays, the church showed great wisdom in changing the focus away from pagan ideas to Christian truths. Their wisdom leads most Christians today to uphold the emergence of Sunday as a day of worship.

Reflections: Your Turn 

Is it biblical to think non-Christian religions will always combine some basic truths mixed with deeply false ideas about God? If so, why?

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Kenneth R. Samples, “A Dozen Evidences for the Resurrection of Jesus,” Reflections (blog), Reasons to Believe, March 27, 2018, https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/reflections/read/reflections/2018/03/27/a-dozen-evidences-for-the-resurrection-of-jesus.
  2. Samples, “A Dozen Evidences.”
  3. Gerald R. McDermott, The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2010), 65.

  One thought on “Is Sunday a “Pagan” Day of Worship?

  1. April 30, 2019 at 5:52 am

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

  2. April 30, 2019 at 1:54 pm

    Thank you for another wise post, Kenneth, supported by Scripture and history.

    Responding to your “Your Turn” question, counterfeit theology seems to be the enemy’s favorite method to harm human beings, and the Bible warns us of his constant efforts to deceive. Our innate longing for unity with our perfect Creator is susceptible to being diverted by pride, into a type of thinking that we can earn God’s favor or rise to His level on our own. At first look, a non-Christian spiritual principle or practice seems genuine and true and a solution to our dilemmas, but upon deeper honest testing we can see it leads to the replacement of God’s eternal sovereignty with something else, usually ourselves. In Eden, the enemy used on us a counterfeit picture of God, and the enemy still uses them now, across the whole range of heresies, from pagan religions to false gospels, taking some appealing attributes of God (such as love, beauty, wisdom, or justice) but then elevating created things of earth and man above God and His will.

    • April 30, 2019 at 3:39 pm

      Thanks, MFD.

      Ken Samples

  3. April 30, 2019 at 2:39 pm

    Every day should be a day of worship whether it is church, at work, or at home. We are commanded to think about things above at all times. Some people see worshipping on Sunday as a duty or ritual and forget about their calling the rest of week. There would be no difference if we went to church on Wednesday and not Sunday as long as we accept, understand, and honor the resurrection.

    • April 30, 2019 at 3:40 pm

      Thanks, Xenova1.

      Ken Samples

  4. S. Robinson
    May 1, 2019 at 9:13 am

    With due respect I think your argument is weak. The texts cited can mean many things, majority opinion is not the same as truth, nor was there ever a command given for 1st day worship. Tradition is only tradition – not necessarily truth. Jesus spent a great deal of time exhorting the Jewish leaders about the righteous way to observe the Sabbath (what was right to do) and did many acts specifically to illustrate such. I don’t believe he would have spent so much time if it was soon to be meaningless. I do agree that conscience should dictate one’s choice and that we shouldn’t judge (Colossians 2:16) but we need to be intellectually and theologically honest when we are in a position of influence.

    • May 1, 2019 at 10:12 am

      S. Robinson:

      Greetings in Jesus’s name.

      I’ve studied the Sabbath issue over many years and dialogued and debated with such distinguished Sabbatarians as Dr. Desmond Ford and others. I have also written articles on the distinctives of Seventh-day Adventism in such periodicals as Christianity Today and the Christian Research Journal. So I’ve endeavored to do my homework and I’ve heard the other side and respectfully interacted with it in a scholarly and hopefully gracious manner.

      It is true that the traditional interpretation of Scripture on a particular issue does not guarantee biblical and Christian truth. But if the consensus of Christendom affirms something then I think it would be prudent for those who hold the outlier position to give the consensus interpretation view very careful consideration.

      I think my track record working in the fields of theology, philosophy, and apologetics shows evidence of being both intellectually and theologically honest. Integrity and charity are both values I prize highly as a Christian thinker.

      On a personal note I respect your conviction to keep the Sabbath and I hope as a fellow Christian you can respect my conviction that my freedom in Christ allows me not to.

      My very best regards in the Triune God.

      Ken Samples

      • Janette Schaafsma
        May 1, 2019 at 6:15 pm

        I agree, and believe that the shift from Saturday Sabbath to Sunday Sabbath was guided by the Holy Spirit after He birthed the Church of Jesus Christ. It was not merely a human decision! As with so many things, it takes time for redeemed humanity to “get with the program,” but the first day of the week is indeed a day to remember and to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord and the resurrection life we now live in Him. Just as those long-ago saints heeded the Spirit, and began to practice gathering on Sunday in those early years of the newborn Church, so we continue to do to this day.

      • May 1, 2019 at 7:43 pm

        Appreciate your comments, Janette.

        Ken Samples

  5. Bob Sherfy
    May 1, 2019 at 2:04 pm

    As you rightly point out, even the names for the days of the week have pagan roots. No one complains because over time this has become a non issue since people do not associate the names with paganism. In the case of Sunday being the day of worship, the Christian reasons for its observance far outweigh any argument for pagan influence.

    • May 1, 2019 at 2:28 pm

      Thanks, Bob.

      Ken Samples

  6. George Sullivan
    May 14, 2019 at 5:38 am

    I believe God’s requirement was for there to be 6 days of work and a 7th day for rest. Saturday or Sunday has nothing to do with it. If, for some odd reason, I had a work week that was Tuesday to Sunday, then Monday would be my 7th day and a Sabbath for me.

    • May 14, 2019 at 1:51 pm

      Thanks, George.

      Ken Samples

  7. Hudson Barton
    May 14, 2019 at 6:10 am

    The 4th Commandment, concerning the Sabbath, is described by Moses twice, but they are not identical. The first time is in Exodus 20, and the reason for the Sabbath is related to the day on which God rested from His work (six days) of Creation. Moses says “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. ” The second time it is described is in Deuteronomy 5, and the reason for the Sabbath is NOT related to the days of Creation but rather is related to the first day of Redemption from captivity. Moses says “And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm.”

    That the Sabbath should be kept on the first day of the week rather than the seventh day was NOT an entirely new teaching by Christians. Moses anticipated the change when he pointed toward Christ the Redeemer.

    • May 14, 2019 at 1:53 pm

      Thanks, Hudson.

      Ken Samples

  8. John Siston
    May 23, 2019 at 5:15 pm

    I found the book “A Brief History of Sunday: From the New Testament to the New Creation”
    by Justo L. González very helpful on this topic.

    It traces the history and development of Sunday worship chronologically over 4 time periods:

    Before Constantine
    From Constantine to the end of Antiquity
    The Middle Ages
    The Reformation and Beyond

    It is an easy read and very informative for anyone interested in this topic.

    • Brenda Nulter
      November 18, 2019 at 3:43 pm

      I am no scholar but understand the Bible as absolute truth and love. Genesis 2:1-3 God gave his first command outside creation. 1) He ceased His creation 2) He blessed the seventh day 3) made it a Holy day. Only day for all His creation to rest and praise Him. Genesis 4 Cain and Able brought sacrifices “at end of days” (seventh). Genesis 26 Abraham kept God’s decrees, commandments and instructions. God’ doesn’t change, think His commandments were the ones he wrote in stone on Sinai. In Ex. !6 Israelites knew about sabbaths before Sinai when picking up manna. In Ex. 20 God gives Moses the book or law of Moses, also called the hand writing of ordinances. These were place outside the ark of the covenant. These were strictly Jewish. Read Leviticus 27:34. Then God wrote in stone with His own finger the 10 commandments. These were absolutes and eternal. These were placed inside the ark below the mercy seat were Godhead dwells on earth. There is the ark in heaven Rev. 11. (idolatry, murder, adultery, covetousness , and keeping sabbath, etc. are for all mankind) God told Moses to sprinkle animal blood on side of ark (book of Moses) on the mercy seat and on the people ratifying the old covenant with the Jews. 600 years before Christ crucified, during destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, Jeremiah had ark hidden in Jeremiah’s Grotto. Christ anointed the mercy seat as prophesied in Daniel 9: 24. This ratified the old and new covenant. We agree to keep his commandments and he agrees to cover our indebtedness (Col. 2) or sins when we break them. His blood covers sins from beginning of time to end. What grace. On the sabbath He expects His peoples and creation to rest and PRAISE HIM. This identifies those that love Him but He expects our allegiance all time.

      • November 18, 2019 at 4:00 pm

        Brenda:

        Thanks for your comments.

        If you’d like to pursue a scholarly discussion of why Christians worship on Sunday, see From Sabbath to Lord’s Day by D.A. Carson and A Brief History of Sunday: From the New Testament to the New Creation by Justo L. González.

        Best regards in Christ.

        Ken Samples

  9. May 16, 2020 at 10:13 am

    In Acts 20:7, the purpose of the meeting was that Paul’s stay in Troas was his last stay. So, he and the other disciples gathered on Saturday night because of the use of burning torches in verse 8. The purpose of the message was because of the death and resurrection of Eutchycus. Paul preached until dawn. Then on Sunday morning , he left by ship. So Acts 20:7 does not support Sunday worship. Sunday worship has it origin from the pagan sun worship that began with Nimrod. So, Saturday is the true sabbath ,not Sunday.

    • May 16, 2020 at 10:59 am

      Okoye:

      Greetings in the risen Christ.

      The collective conservative biblical scholars within Christendom disagrees with your interpretation. Sabbatarianism is a minority view within Christendom. That doesn’t make it wrong but it should cause Sabbatarians to ask why most other Christians hold a different view.

      You’re welcome to keep the Sabbath but the Lord’s Day commemorates the day the Lord was raised from the dead (Easter Sunday).

      Most Christians view the Sabbath commandment as being fulfilled in Christ.

      Saved by Grace,

      Ken Samples

  10. May 17, 2020 at 9:41 am

    Ishtar, the Assyrian goddess of love and war was worshipped. Tammuz, the lesser sun god was believed in Assyrian mythology to be killed by a rival unknown god. He was believed to be raised on a Sunday. That became the origin of Easter and has nothing to do with the resurrection of Christ. Holy Communion and Baptism commerates the death and resurrection of Christ, not Easter.

    • May 17, 2020 at 1:30 pm

      Okoye:

      Greetings again.

      You’ve unfortunately accepted what I think are some faulty ways of thinking.

      The Lord created all days and they are good in his sight. Because the name given to a day has some connection to ancient pagan civilization doesn’t invalidate the day (see the genetic fallacy).

      From a biblical perspective, pagan people groups collectively did affirm some serious false doctrines and engaged in some very immoral practices. But pagans were also made in the image of God, received common grace, and observed general revelation. Thus they also got certain things right about God and morality (see for example the writings of the great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle).

      Easter on the ancient church calendar is the celebration of Jesus’s resurrection which happened on Sunday.

      Christian teaching about the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are principally derived from Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

      Salvation comes through faith in Christ not on the basis of Sabbath observance.

      My Sabbath rest is in Jesus Christ.

      I’ve allowed you to post two responses to my article. But with my busy schedule our discussion needs to end here. Since you have subsequently called me “an agent of Satan,” I will not be posting any of your further comments.

      Saved by Grace,

      Ken Samples

      PS Since you identified yourself as a Seventh-day Adventist, you may want to read my published articles on Adventism. You’ll see that I endeavor to practice the Golden Rule of Apologetics: Treat the beliefs of others in a respectful and fair minded manner.

      https://christian.net/pub/resources/text/cri/cri-jrnl/web/crj0005b.html

      Click to access 08_kenneth_samples.pdf

  11. May 19, 2020 at 7:13 am

    Yes, our discussion will end here.

    I will not post any further comments by you.

  12. May 22, 2020 at 10:29 am

    Okoye:

    I accept your apology. Thank you.

    But I will not post any more of your comments on my blog page.

    Sincerely,

    Ken Samples

  13. Joyfull Manners
    July 18, 2020 at 5:25 pm

    I agree that no day can be marked “pagan” by men, but is it not one of the ten commandments to keep the Sabbath day holy? I just want to know what you think about christians keeping the Sabbath. Is it only for the Jews or is it for all that keep the Lord’s commands?

    • July 18, 2020 at 5:41 pm

      JM:

      Greetings.

      For the Christian, one’s Sabbath rest is uniquely fulfilled in Christ (Matt. 11:28-30; Col. 2:16-17).

      A Christian can honor the Sabbath but Sabbath keeping is no longer required (Rom. 14:5).

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  14. John Siston
    October 28, 2020 at 3:14 pm

    This article just posted on The Gospel Coalition’s website is also helpful in showing the difference between the Sabbath and The Lord’s Day.

    3 Reasons Sunday Is Not the Christian Sabbath
    https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/sunday-not-christian-sabbath/

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