Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Should Christians Meet on Sunday and Who Should Do the Teaching?

In this post I am not interested in discussing the issue of whether Sunday is the sabbath or should be considered the Christian sabbath or not. My interest is the historical one--- did early Christians regularly meet on a fixed day of the week, and was that day Sunday? We have seen in the immediately previous post, that Pliny noticed that Christians did indeed meet on specific or set day of the week, at least in the region where he was governor. But is there other evidence besides the allusion to the Lord's Day in Revelation 1, or the reference in 1 Cor 16? Well yes there is, and it is probably first century evidence as well. Here below you will find the discussion in the Didache on this very matter. The first day of the week was called the Lord's Day, because of course it was the day Jesus rose from the dead. It was not picked because it was called Sunday or the day of Apollo. It had to do with the Jewish calendar not the Julian one, and more specifically it had to do with when after dying on Passover Eve Jesus thereafter rose from the dead.

Here is the quote from the Didache--

14:1 And on the Lord's own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.
14:2 And let no man, having his dispute with his fellow, join your assembly until they have been reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be defiled;
14:3 for this sacrifice it is that was spoken of by the Lord;
14:4 "In every place and at every time offer Me a pure sacrifice;
14:5 for I am a great king, saith the Lord and My name is wonderful among the nations."

15:1 Appoint for yourselves therefore overseers and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are meek and not lovers of money, and true and approved;
15:2 for unto you they also perform the service of the prophets and teachers.

The translation here is by that other Durhamite, J.B. Lightfoot. Several points call for comment. Firstly, in this text there is a definite reference to the Christian meeting being on Sunday, and the activities listed involve sharing in the Lord's Supper and confessing sins, as James instructed. Notice that the word sacrifice is applied here to the meal which is spoken of as involving breaking bread and giving thanks. What makes especially clear that the reference is to the Lord's Supper, is that it entails a sacrifice "spoken of by the Lord".

The very next section of the Didache refers to the congregation appointing for themselves both overseers and deacons who perform for you the service of prophets and teachers. The reference here is clearly enough to specific persons who are appointed to specific roles, and what is interesting is that the 'speech' roles are assigned to overseers/bishops and deacons who are to be the congregation's prophets and teachers.

38 comments: said...


How do you read the word sacrifice? How does that fit into the study or understanding of the Transubstantiation ?


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Edgar--- see my little book Making a Meal of It

Ben W.

Bill said...

How do you know that "the Lord's own day" refers to the first day of the week. Is it out of line to think that this is the Sabbath, which "the Lord" established way back when? Of course, this would apply to Revelation 1, as well.

Grumpy Old Man said...

How come you're not Orthodox? Your views seem similar.

Rob Namba said...

I aplogize that my question does not address the subject of this post, but I would love to hear you weigh in on "appoint for yourselves" overseers and deacons. Specifically, in contrast to what you said in the first post on 'Pagan Christianity'. You stated, "The elders do not appoint themselves, nor do congregations get together and ordain or appoint them much less vote on them. The ecclesial structure of the NT church was hierarchial, not congregational—it started with the apostles and the 12 at the top, worked its way down to the co-workers of the apostles who were also itinerant and over multiple congregations, then there were the local church leaders—prophets, teachers, elders, deacons etc."

How does this piece of info from the Didache add to the discussion? To whom was the Didache addressed? Only leaders? Was it addressed to the congregation? I am just curious.

Thanks for such a stimulating blog.

Brian Small said...

Hi Ben:

I have heard and read some Seventh Day Adventists try to shame the rest of us for meeting on Sundays. They claim that meeting on Sundays is the "mark of the beast." This passage from the Didache is clear proof that Christians did meet on Sundays at a very early date, much earlier than some of its opponents claim.


Ben Witherington said...

See the immediately previous post, Pagan Christianity- Postlude. As Pliny says, they met in the morning on the first day of the week, and furthermore, always and everywhere the Greek-- 'Lord's Day' refers to the day of resurrection, Sunday. You need to actually read early Christian literature. Start with the Didache.

In regard to the question about 'appoint for yourself', I think that it happened in different ways in different places. For example, Ignatius, from Antioch was a monarchial bishop, appointed by another one. Here, the congregation is expected to do this for themselves, it would appear. It should not be surprising since the NT doesn't give us all the specificity we would like, that church praxis looked different in different places in regard to this matter.



P.S. I am not Orthodox because I do not subscribe to their theology of priesthood, of theosis, their view of women in ministry, and a host of other things, of course.


Ali said...

So...if the overseers and deacons are the ones in "speech" roles, then what do the prophets and teachers mentioned in 15:4 do?

15:3 Therefore despise them not;
15:4 for they are your honourable men along with the prophets and teachers.

I'm really not sure you can say on the strength of these quotes that only the deacons and overseers spoke in the assembly. Even in the Bapist Church I go to, people who are not elders (who we don't distinguish from overseers) or deacons are able to speak; not every elder or deacon does speak; and we have teachers who do not teach in the service itself.

Ben Witherington said...

In some passages in the Didache, the prophets and teachers are itinerant ministers, not ones stationed in one congregation.


Anonymous said...

Great Post and excellent insight. I was wondering if you knew of any websites or bookstores that would sell copies of the Apostolic writings. I am especially interested in the Dichade and Clement of Rome's Epistle. Just asking. Thanks again for the post and keep them coming.

Ilíon said...

Isn't it the case that the Greeks and Romans didn't even have a concept of a "week" (much less a seven-day week) until they learned and/or adopted it from Judaism and Christianity?

Ben Witherington said...

The simplest thing to do is to buy the Apostolic Fathers Vol. I and II in the Loeb series, published by Harvard U. Press. They have good translations. You also get the Greek.


Anonymous said...

Based on scripture seems like a stretch to say Sunday is the Lord's day. Jesus said in Matthew 12:8, Mark 2:28, and Luke 6:5 "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." The only day Jesus claims is the Sabbath. So in Revelation 1:1 could not John be referencing Jesus when He says, "I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day." I don't think that just b/c the disciples or early Christians met on Sunday that eliminates the reality that they still went to the temple on Sabbath and still worshiped on Sabbath as well.

Unknown said...

Hey Ben,

I for one am glad that your a Methodist and not Eastern Orthodox!
(No offense to EOers; we Methodists really need some good injections of sound biblical theology)

As a fellow UMCer, what do you believe is the function and purpose of our bishops? What role are they to provide in the church?

I ask this because I think that the last General Conference highlighted the need for a clear identification of role for bishops.

I grew up in the UMC and never knew who our bishop was and what he was supposedly doing.


Ben Witherington said...

Jesus is a Jew addressing only Jews. He is not saying anything about the meeting day for Christians. For that matter Jesus is Lord of any and all days, but the church was quite right to choose to worship on resurrection day. There would be no church without it, but there certainly would be a church if the sabbath had ceased altogether.



Rev Tony B said...

I'd be interested in evidence to show how soon regular Sunday worship can be demonstrated. Revelation and the Didache are relatively late; 1 Cor.16:2 probably refers to a collection taken up during the meeting rather than a special gathering for the purpose, and most significantly seems to be about an accepted practice rather than an innovation. So Sunday worship was certainly a convention by the 50s. I suspect Temple and synagogue worship continued among Jewish Christians until the 80s, when the anathema against Nazarenes was inserted into the liturgy in the Eighteen Benedictions.

The factor we usually forget is that Jewish days began and ended at sunset. So it was possible that the first disciples were in synagogue for shabbat worship, and at Saturday sunset moved into their own resurrection celebration. Their Saturday night was our Sunday morning. Having said that, Paul's criticisms in 1 Cor.11 suggest that by that stage the Christian gathering was on the Sunday evening after work.

Anonymous said...

Ben, Isn't it a little short sighted to say, "Jesus is a Jew addressing only Jews." Don't we run into problems with this then. So when is Jesus addressing more than just Jews? Is it when He says something that fits into the customs we hold now? But when He says something outside of our realm of understanding or desired acceptance He then becomes a Jew speaking only to Jews? And if Jesus wanted the Sabbath changed why did He not say anything of the sort? He certainly wasn't one to try and fit in with culture and the traditional norms of the church. "You have heard it said...But I tell you..." He even addressed Sabbath and defended His disciples breaking the traditions in regards to what Sabbath keeping is about. It seems to me if He had wanted to change it He would have said, "When I rise keep Sunday." He told them after He left to wait on the Holy Spirit. He told the disciples to "Go and make disciples..." He told His disciples to keep communion, "in remembrance of Him." He told John to take care of His mother, and Peter to "feed my sheep." So logically it just seems He would say something about Sabbath too. But He doesn't.

Shawn Brace said...

You wrote that "Always and everywhere the Greek-- 'Lord's Day' refers to the day of resurrection, Sunday."

Could you please show me that this was undeniably true during the time the New Testament was written?

Besides that, the Greek utilized in the Didache is different than Revelation 1:10. In Revelation 1:10, the Greek is kuriake hemera ("the Lord's day"), whereas in the Didache it is kata kuriaken ("according to the Lord's").

Furthermore, from what I understand, the first time the phrase "the Lord's day" can be conclusively linked to Sunday isn't until the latter part of the second century, when it is utilized in The Gospel of Peter.

Thus, any insistence that Revelation means "Sunday" when talking about the "Lord's day" is a purely anachronistic interpretation.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Shawn: The phrase Lord's Day and its variations was of Christian coinage, and one of the clearest pieces of evidence that it obviously refers to Sunday is that the earliest Christian interpreters of Revelation and these other texts all say so, and were continuing the practice of the first century which they had learned from the apostles. See for example Papias, as quoted in Eusebius on this and other points.

As for the sabbath change Jesus did say something--- he said he was the Lord of the sabbath, and he busily went about doing all kinds of work on the sabbath by healing people, exorcising demons etc.--- It was clear to his opponents that he was redefining the terms of the practice (see John 9).


Anonymous said...

Ben, You and I are in agreement that Jesus redefined Sabbath. He said, "Is it not lawful for man to do GOOD on the Sabbath." He never redefined it by saying, "no longer remember the Sabbath." He just showed a more excellent way of keeping the Sabbath. Not just running around working for the sake of working (see Luke 6:6-10). We see Him doing this same thing with purity, "Don't look on another man's wife with lust in your heart." War, "Give him the other cheek as well." Ben thank you for the continued discussion!



Ilíon said...

I think people are overlooking that Christ *is* Torah; Christ *is* the Holy Wisdom; Christ *is* the Word of God by which all that is created exists.

It was not only a man hanging on that tree, it was The Law up there as well. It was not only a man who went into the Grave, it was The Law as well.

But, The Law as it had been known to men since Moses did not come out of the Grave: for Christ perfected The Law -- he fulfilled The Law, he completed The Law, he met the obligations of The Law.

Brigitte said...

I came across this on Pastor Weedon's blog today:

It is the LCC's (Lutheran Church Canada's) official short document on the relationship between the office of the ministry and the laity. It begins with Christ, who is THE Shepherd.

During VBS this week, I took out a book from my pastor's library which contains Luther's commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. I haven't got to far with it, yet, but it starts simply with this:

"Seeing the crowd, He went up on the mountain; and when He sat down, His disciples came to Him. And He opened His mouth and taught them and spoke."
commentary: Here the evangelist opens with a preface stating how Christ prepared Himself for the sermon He wanted to deliver: He went up on a mountain, sat down, and opened His mouth, to make it evident that he was in earnest. These are the three things, so to speak, which every good preacher should do: First, he takes his place; second, he opens his mouth and says something; third, he knows when to stop. "Takes his place" means that he presents himself as a master, a preacher with both the ability and the responsibility, one who comes with a call and not on his own, one to whom it is a matter of duty and obedience. Then he can say: "I am not coming because my own purpose and preference impel me, but I must do so because it is my office." this is said against those who have been causing us so much toil and trouble and still are, the schismatic rascals and fanatics who roam all over the country. They poison the people before the clergy and the government can discover it; and so they defile one household after another, until they have poisoned an entire city, and from the city an entire country.

To guard against such sneaks and cheats, one ought not to let anyone preach unless he has been appointed and commissioned for it... If he neither will nor can enter the pulpit publicly, he should keep quiet... Therefore, it says here that Christ went up the mountain openly and publicly when He began His preaching ministry... Take your place openly, and fear no one; then you can boast with Christ: " I have spoken openly and freely before the world, and I have said nothing in the corner."

It struck me from both documents how the office of the ministry comes down from Christ's example and role.

Volkmar said...

Ben wrote;

"In some passages in the Didache, the prophets and teachers are itinerant ministers, not ones stationed in one congregation."

I've also noticed that in Chapt. 11 prophet and apostle are used interchangably.


Shawn Brace said...


I have to go back to the fact that the earliest we see the phrase "the Lord's day" referring to Sunday is not until the late second century. You claim that these later commentators were continuing the "practice of the first century which they had learned from the apostles," but there is no historical document that shows Christ's apostles had any sort of practice of Sunday worship or recommendations that others practice it. Certainly the Bible doesn't insinuate this.

So unless it is based on some oral tradition, or gnostic teaching, or second century authority based on apostolic succession, I am not sure how a case can be made that there is any type of justification for maintaining that the NT condones worship on any day, other than Saturday.

Furthermore, Eusebius didn't come around until the third century, a hundred years after Papias. Utilizing a third century figure, who is quoting a second century figure, talking about the "Lord's day," would hardly qualify as a good source to maintain that Revelation is speaking of Sunday.

Lastly, Ilion: you claim that the Law was nailed to the cross and went into the grave with Christ, thus insinuating that it has been done away with. My question for you is: which of the other Ten Commandments would you like to do away with as well? Is murder all right? Adultery? Taking the Lord's name in vain? Dishonoring our parents?

Some how, when it comes to one particular commandment - the fourth commandment - the Law has been nailed to the cross, but when it comes to the other nine, they are still valid.

Can you help me understand that reasoning?

Ben Witherington said...


I'm sorry but the phrase the Lord's day is right there in Rev. 1. More importantly the point is the phrase says-- 'I was in the Spirit on the Lord's Day', meaning I was in the proper condition for worship and receiving a Word from God on the appropriate day! And the Didache, written at the end of the first century is perfectly clear--- it talks about worship on the Lord's Day. So, it could hardly be more clear. And then when you have the evidence from Pliny himself that they met at dawn on the first day of the week, the very same phrase used by Paul referring to Sunday, the evidence becomes very clear.

You seem to be splitting hairs to avoid the obvious conclusion. Then when you read all the second century Christian literature and whenever worship is mentioned and a day, it is Sunday, it should be clear. There is not somehow a huge gap between the practice of the Christian church in the later second century and that of the first century-- they chose to worship on a day different from the synagogue in celebration of the Lord's Day of rising, not the sabbath.


Ben W.

Joel said...

Shawn: Regarding the Ten Commandments, the answer to that is simple: all but one of them are explicitly reaffirmed in the New Testament and are therefore also part of the new covenant as well as the old. The fourth is the only exception to this.

veritas said...

Chad is right. The first century church met on Saturday night after the Shabbat, which would be the first day of the week, since biblical days start and end at sunset.The reason the church meets on "Sun"day is because Constantine was a Sun god worshiper.

Ben Witherington said...

Clearly Chad has not been paying attention. The text of Pliny is perfectly clear--- Christians met at DAWN on the first day of the week. There were of course many Jewish Christians who ALSO went to synagogue services. See the book I previously listed by James Burtchaell.


Ilíon said...

Ben Witherington: Should Christians Meet on Sunday ... "In this post I am not interested in discussing the issue of whether Sunday is the sabbath or should be considered the Christian sabbath or not. My interest is the historical one--- did early Christians regularly meet on a fixed day of the week, and was that day Sunday? We have seen in the immediately previous post, that Pliny noticed that Christians did indeed meet on specific or set day of the week, at least in the region where he was governor. But is there other evidence besides the allusion to the Lord's Day in Revelation 1, or the reference in 1 Cor 16? ..."

The *correct answer* to the question, "Should Christians Meet on Sunday?" is: it doesn't matter -- Christians are free to meet whenever they wish to meet.

I believe it was due to a recent blog of yours that my personal attention was directed to Romans 14, and specifically verse 6 (I'd really never given that verse any thought, before). That chapter, and specifically that verse, answers the question you pose in the title of this blog entry.

As for your historical interest in the question of whether the earliest Christians met on the the first day of the week, should that verse not be understood as very strong indirect evidence that at least some did? And that there was controversy over this ... that is, that the question was yet another aspect of the "Judaizer" controversy?

Shawn Brace said...

Ben, neither Pliny nor the Didache mention anything about the first day of the week, or Sunday. Pliny says that "on a certain fixed day," saying nothing about the first day or Sunday, while the Didache talks about "the Lord's day." Supposing that either refers to Sunday or the first day seems to be reading into the text.

At the same time, even if they were speaking about Sunday, is it out of the realm of possibility that, contrary to what the apostles believed and practiced, that Christians in the first or second century could have been apostacising already? Paul, John, etc, were already warning in the 60s, 70s, etc, that heresy was creeping into the church. It seems as though an erroneous teaching about the day of worship could have easily been present in the early 2nd century, etc.

At the same time, the argument has been made that it doesn't matter what day Christians worship on. For the life of me, I cannot understand why God would command that His people worship on Saturday in the Ten Commandments, but then say, in the New Testament, "Oh, it doesn't really matter." His Ten Commandment proclamation would seem superfluous (especially if that were the only one of the ten that didn't really apply to NT believers, as Joel has supposed). (And just as a side note, those texts that apparently say that it doesn't matter what day a person worships on is a very simplistic and elementary reading of the text, missing the whole context f what Paul, etc., is saying.)

I don't mean to "split hairs," but, in some senses, isn't that what theology and biblical exegesis is all about?? Yes, I'm a Sabbath keeper, so I have a "dog in the fight," so to speak, but, more importantly, I want to remain faithful to what the Bible says, and not read into it through the eyes of second or third century church "fathers" who may or may not have already started going in the wrong direction.

Ben Witherington said...

Sorry Shawn you are wrong. Try reading the texts in their original Latin and Greek respectively.


Ben W.

Shawn Brace said...


I'm sorry. I'm just not seeing what you're seeing. I have already talked about the Greek of the Didache, which speaks nothing of the first day of the week, or Sunday. The phrase "the Lord's day," as I have mentioned, is not even constructed the same way as Revelation 1:10 and, in fact, the word "day" [Greek hemera] is missing altogether from the Didache. It is supplied by the English translators.

Maybe you could help me better understand what you see in the Greek that indicates the Didache is talking about the first day of the week.

As for the Latin of Pliny: perhaps you could point me in the direction of where, exactly, you got this text from. I am having a hard time locating where you were quoting from.

Of course, I don't know Latin anyway, so that would be problematic, but maybe it would also just be easier if you could give me your English translation of the Latin, where Pliny talks about the first day of the week or Sunday. Certainly, nothing in the English that you have quoted seems to come close to even hinting at the first day of the week or Sunday. Please share with me, if you would, the correct and literal English translation that indicates it should read that way.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Shawn:

You can look at the Loeb Classical Library editions of those works, including the Didache. They have Latin or Greek on one page and the English on the facing page.



Funzo said...

I am glad to read something about the Lord's day and sabbath etc. I have always held with Paul that we should not judge one another in respect of "... an holy day, of the new moon or of sabbath days, which are a shadow of things to come..." (Col 1:16-17). Our Lord said the Father seeks those who will worship in spirit and in truth! (John 4:23,24). QED!

Brent said...

Sunday may have been a traditional meeting time for Gentile Christians in the NT, while Saturday was the time for Jewish Christians in Judea.

As a former Adventist, I notice some of my Adventist brethren are trying to hijack this post. Paul clearly said the law was nailed to the cross (Col 2:13-15). The reality is that no rabbi ever conceived of the Law as not including the Decalogue. They made no distinction between "ceremonial" and "moral" like some do today. If God gave a ceremonial commandment, and that commandment is still in force, then breaking that commandment is immoral, Biblically speaking. Paul, as a former rabbi, wrote in this vein. In the OT, the Law couldn't be kept in part. This is why Paul said that he who tries to live by keeping part of the Law of Moses must keep the entire thing perfectly (Gal. 5:3). In fact, even Paul defined the Law he was speaking of as including the Decalogue (Rom. 7:7). He even explicitly called the Decaloque "the ministry of death" (2 Cor. 3:7).

Paul's statements in Rom. 14, Col. 2:14, and Gal. 4:19 are indeed discussions of Sabbath, as well as the other Holy Days. Scholars are virtually unanimous on this. Even the SDA scholar Bachiochi agrees that Col 2:16 is referencing the Sabbath, but he denies the obvious implication.

The Decalogue was part of the Old Covenant. The Sabbath command, as reiterated in Deut 5, clearly had ties to the Jews being brought out of bondage in Egypt, and thus was part of the Old Covenant (compare that to the first few sentences of Ex 20). Even rabbis today will refer to the Decalogue as the Tablets of the Covenant. It was done away with at the cross, that a New Covenant could be made with all races.

Even the prophets spoke of the Messiah ministering to Gentiles. To the prophets and New Testament writers, a Gentile was someone who wasn't circumcised, and thus wasn't bound by the Law of Moses. In the view of the OT prophets and first century Christians, a Gentile sabbatarian would have made no sense to them. If you were an ancient Gentile, you didn't keep the Sabbath by defintion. In Acts 15, why didn't the counsel require Gentile Christians to rest on Saturday?

There was always a moral right and wrong before the Decalogue. The Law of Moses said not to do immoral things because those things were wrong in the first place. In Romans 1 and 2, Paul spoke of Gentiles knowing right and wrong even though the Law of Moses hadn't been given to them. Jesus spoke of a law behind the Law: Love (see Matt 22:35-40). So the Decalogue cannot be God's ultimate explanation of right and wrong. (BTW, Gen 2:3 is a prolepsis. Compare it to the obvious prolepsis in Ex. 16:30-35, where the Testimony did not even exist yet).

Is Sunday the Christian Sabbath, or is Saturday? The correct view, according to the New Testament, is that there is no Christian Sabbath, though Christians are at liberty to rest one day of the week if they so choose, and do it to the Lord (Rom 14:6).

Ilíon said...

Brent: "As a former Adventist, I notice some of my Adventist brethren are trying to hijack this post."

I never was an Adventist (*), but I noticed that, too, right away.

And, that was a very good post, Brent.

Brent: "Jesus spoke of a law behind the Law: Love ..."

Indeed! And Christ *is* that Law-behind-the Law; Christ *is* the perfection of Moses' Law.

I have an additional thought: Jesus said "No part of the Law shall pass away until all things are fulfilled."

But, what was the last thing he said before he died? "It is finished" ... it is complete, it is fulfilled.

Christ didn't "do away" with the Law (though, even as bad as that phrasing is, it's still head-and-shoulders above the legalism that some are still trying to force on God's people); rather, he perfected the Law. 'To perfect' is to finish, to complete, to make whole/entire, to fulfill.

(*) I'm not a Seventh-Day Adventist, though I was, in part, educated by them. While I believe their doctrine is erroneous, and rather silly (that's the charitable view), I'm yet grateful to them. When I was growing up (mid-70s), and where, the public schools were so bad that I doubt I'd have finished high school had my parents not been able to get us into the SDA school.

Richard said...

hit seems to me that the methodology used by those those wanting to speak of institutionalisation of the church as the great pagan evil closely resembles the kind of methodological leaps of bad historical jesus scholarship and jesus seminar esque source criticism. It uses the same basic discourse (uncovering the real truth tradition has delibertely kept from us, getting to the real jesus and the real church) and uses similar anti-realist jumps to avoid acknowledging evidence to the contrary.

Shawn Brace said...

Hey guys,

I am sorry if it appears as though a couple of Seventh-day Adventists are trying to "hijack" this post. That has not been my intention at all. But I suppose if someone disagrees with a basic premise that has been set forth, then it would seem to some (especially to a person who is a "former" Seventh-day Adventist) that the post is trying to be "hijacked."

Over and above everything else, I just want to remain faithful to the biblical witness, as I know everyone wants to. And even though I am not saved by keeping the law, I think that we would all agree that if someone is guilty of breaking one of the Commandments, he is guilty of breaking them all (or so says James) and, therefore, his or her salvation is on the line. So, for me, personally, I just want to make sure that I am living up to what the Holy Spirit reveals to me through the Bible.

Thanks for the stimulating discussion.