Ron Dart was a minister in the Armstrongite Church of God, International when I was growing up. I imbibed his arguments for the Sabbath and annual holy days, and I used them in debates with a Church of Christ friend, who didn’t think Christians had to observe them.
Today, I want to interact with some of Dart’s arguments for the seventh-day Sabbath. As in my post, Des Ford Sabbatarian Arguments, I’ll be citing a few of them from memory. But, as with Ford, many of Dart’s arguments are commonplace in Sabbatarian apologetics (although Ford and Dart can be quite original at times!). Thus, I’m not only responding to him when I address them.
In Acts 13:14-44, Paul enters a synagogue in Antioch, Pisidia (which is in Asia Minor). He does so on the Sabbath day, according to his custom (see Acts 17:2). Paul gives a powerful sermon to the Jews and pious Gentiles at the synagogue, and they ask Paul to come back the next Sabbath. When Paul does so, the whole city assembles to hear God’s word.
I’ve heard Dart and other Sabbatarians point out that Paul didn’t tell the Gentiles to keep Sunday (see here). “Why do you want me to come back next Sabbath?,” he could have said. “We Christians celebrate the Lord’s day, which is the day after the Sabbath. Come to hear me then!”
First of all, this argument assumes that Paul was obsessed with the day of worship. And that’s a problem I have with a lot of Sabbatarians: they assume that everyone is walking around with the Sabbath/Sunday controversy on the brain, just because it’s one of their preoccupations. “If Christians were meeting on Sundays, then Paul would’ve told the Gentiles about it,” their argument runs. Who says? Maybe that wasn’t one of Paul’s priorities at the time. There are more important things than one’s day of worship, like, say, the Gospel.
Second, Paul is in the synagogue on the Sabbath. You know, I get the impression that a lot of Sabbatarians like to project their own practices onto the first century church. They envision the early church gathering together for Sabbath morning (or, in the case of Armstrongites, Sabbath afternoon) services. I once read an Armstrongite church’s web site that said something like, “If you went back in time to the first century church and visited it on Sunday, you’d find you were a day late, since their services were the day before.” But Acts doesn’t say that Paul went to church on Saturdays. It says he went to the synagogue, which had a lot of non-believers. How many Adventists and Armstongites visit their local synagogues every Sabbath?
In From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, a pro-Sunday book, one of the articles maintains that there were many Christians who went to the temple or a synagogue on the Sabbath, while they gathered together with their fellow believers on Sunday (or, more accurately, Sunday night, which was when many of them got off work). That’s possible, I guess. I wonder how Adventists and Armstrongites handle this issue: If the early Christians went to the synagogues on the Sabbath, then when did they go to church? Do they think they did a double-shift every Saturday?
A similar “Paul would have” argument that Sabbatarians like to use concerns Acts 21:20-25. There, a group of Jewish-Christians says to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law. But as for the Gentiles who have become believers, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” (NRSV).
And Paul accedes to their request, thereby showing the Jews that he is not opposed to their Torah. I once heard Dart argue that Paul wouldn’t have done this, had he truly believed that Christ nailed the law to the cross. Rather, he would’ve set the Jewish believers straight, telling them that they didn’t need to observe the law.
Again, who says? Maybe Paul was trying to keep the peace, instead of bringing unnecessary persecution on himself (not that he succeeded). He had Timothy circumcised before they visited the Jews of Derbe and Lystra, since Timothy had a Jewish mother (Acts 16:1-3). He didn’t want to make the Jews mad, if he didn’t have to do so.
I can resort to the old “I Corinthians 9:20” argument, which says that Paul was only doing the Jewish customs to win Jews to Christ. And this has some merit, for Paul says in that passage: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law.” But Acts presents Paul as a devout Jew. Acts 18:18 says he was even under a vow, presumably a Nazirite one. I can’t see how that would have been a missionary ploy! It was something between him and God.
But I wonder why Sabbatarians like to see the issue as a polarity. The way they frame it, either Paul believed that the Mosaic law was binding on every human being on the face of the earth, or he treated it as worthless garbage that was nailed to the cross. But could Paul have respected the Jewish laws and customs, without thinking that everyone had to observe them? Observe, the Jewish-Christians’ concern was not that Paul was telling Gentiles to forsake the Mosaic law. As far as they were concerned, the Gentiles had their own set of requirements. Rather, they feared that Paul was telling the Jews not to abide by the Torah. And Paul demonstrated that this was not his goal. After all, Paul was pretty tolerant when it came to how others honored God (Romans 14). And he himself felt free to experience God through Jewish rituals.