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

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