Europe and the Issue of Rest

Edwin C. Cook January/February 2011

On May 31, 1998, Pope John Paul II issued the apostolic letter Dies Domini (on keeping the Lord's Day holy), in which he attempted to provide a biblical argument for Sunday worship. While both the argumentation used and the appeal to Scripture are questionable, the practical application of the letter is not. In article 67, paragraph 2, Pope John Paul II admonished: "Therefore, also in the particular circumstances of our own time, Christians will naturally strive to ensure that civil legislation respects their duty to keep Sunday holy. In any case, they are obliged in conscience to arrange their Sunday rest in a way which allows them to take part in the Eucharist, refraining from work and activities which are incompatible with the sanctification of the Lord's Day, with its characteristic joy and necessary rest for spirit and body" (italics supplied).

Sunday Laws in Europe
Since release of Dies Domini, bishops and priests alike have obediently heeded the admonitions contained therein. In Croatia, a country comprised of a predominant Catholic populace (90 percent), efforts to pass a national Sunday law found fruition on January 1, 2009, after the cabinet had spent four years preparing the legislation.1 The law, making exceptions for bakeries, flower shops, newsstands, and stores located in bus, train, and metro stations, requires all businesses to remain closed on Sundays.2 Despite the lack of support from the populace, the highly influential leadership of the church pressured Parliament to pass the law, without consideration of the effects upon minority religious groups who hold as sacred a day other than Sunday.

During the same year, debate on Sunday legislation escalated in Germany. Berlin had passed legislation allowing stores to be open for ten Sundays a year, per contra the national law. Catholic and Lutheran churches had opposed Berlin's law and the case made its way to Germany's Constitutional Court, which ruled against Berlin's law of leniency.3 The court's ruling went into effect on January 1, 2010. Germany's protection for Sundays is found in article 140 of Germany's Basic Law, a holdover from the Weimar Constitution of 1919.

While these steps were being taken in Croatia and Germany, the Commission of Bishops for the European Community (COMECE) had given hearty approval and support to the proposal brought by five ministers of state to the European Parliament, arguing in favor of a Sunday law for all of Europe since Sunday served as a proper "cultural patrimony and social model" for European society.4 They argued for recognition of Sunday as a day of rest for the well-being of society. They reasoned that, in light of the current economic crisis, economies continued to function, indicating that the common seven-day workweek is not as essential as believed. They concluded that amid the hectic demands of modern, fast-paced society, families needed time together. Adeptly sidestepping any religious connotations to their appeal, they focused their arguments on the detriment to society's moral tone due to parents who had no time for their children, or for their own health.

Other supporters have included pro-labor and pro-family organizations from numerous European countries such as Germany, Austria, Denmark, Croatia, Spain, France, and Italy. Most recently, debate on the topic was aired on the British Broadcasting Corporation's program The Big Questions,5 which pitted Dr. Michael Schluter, director of the organization Keep Sunday Special, Alex Goldberg, head of the London Jewish Forum, Jenni Trent Hughes, work-life relations expert, and Cristina Odone, writer and broadcaster, against Richard Haddock, farmer and entrepreneur, and other U.K. citizens who are against Sunday legislation.

All of these Sunday legislation developments in Croatia, Germany, and possibly for all of Europe, due to the European Union's legislative decision, the central issue, beg the big question of motivation. What is the motivation behind calls for Sunday rest? Is it solely to rest from labor, thus allowing time for families? Or, does it have another facet related to religious overtures? Sunday-rest advocates answer affirmatively the former question, and negatively the latter. The Commission of Bishops for the European Community recognizes that Europe is comprised of a variety of religious groups that do not all share the sanctity for Sunday as the Catholic Church does.6 Respecting those differences, the bishops concede that any day could be set aside as a day of rest from labor, but the customary practice in European society is that public institutions and schools are closed on Sundays. Thus, to facilitate family time, a work-free Sunday law should be enacted for all of Europe that contains not a hint of religious terminology or connotations.

As fair-minded as this argument sounds, however, its central weakness is that it does not answer the question Upon what foundation—religious, or merely social—does the customary practice exist of closing public institutions and schools on Sundays? When presented in this light, one avoids defending a practice just because it may have the advantage of ages of existence. Therefore, the issue demands further investigation, especially in light of the historic argument. As the eminent historian A. H. Lewis, D.D., stated: "History is an organic whole, a series of reciprocal causes and effects. No period can be separated from that which has gone before, nor be kept distinct from that which follows. . . . Every effort to remodel existing Sunday legislation, or to forecast its future, must be made in the light of the past."7 Thus, it is necessary to examine both the theological and the historic rationales surrounding the current Sabbath debate.

Saturday Worship and Sabbatarians
Sabbatarians are believers who observe Saturday as the biblical Sabbath. They find in Scripture support for this practice as opposed to Sunday as the day of worship. Because the biblical Sabbath is typically associated with Judaism, Sabbatarians are often mistakenly identified as Jewish believers, or "Judaizers." However, Sabbatarians understand the perpetuity of God's Ten Commandment law,8 and recognize the fourth commandment at the heart of it. They believe that the Sabbath is a memorial both of Creation and of redemption.

God created the world in six literal days and rested on the seventh, thus completing His work of Creation.9 Jesus Christ taught that the Sabbath was for humankind, bypassing any reference to the Jewish nature of the Sabbath, when He referred to the Creation week: "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath."10 The apostle Paul, many decades after Christ's crucifixion, continued this Creation-theme emphasis when he referred to the Sabbath of Creation and its enduring blessings to all who observe it: "For he spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works. . . . There remaineth therefore a rest [Greek, sabbaton] to the people of God."11

Sabbatarians also believe the Sabbath serves as a memorial of redemption. During the Passion Week, Jesus was crucified on Friday, rested in the tomb on Sabbath, and was resurrected on the first day of the week, Sunday.12 On the Friday of His crucifixion, Christ declared, "It is finished!" as He breathed His last breath, indicating that His supreme sacrifice for humankind was a completed act.13 During the Sabbath, Christ rested from His completed work of salvation; symbolic of the spiritual "rest" into which His followers enter by observing the Sabbath.14 Thus, those who observe the Sabbath as a sign of their salvation in Jesus Christ cannot be accused of trying to "work their way to heaven" out of good merit, since they have "ceased from [their] own works, as God did from his" and trust fully upon the merits of a crucified and risen Savior.15 Although Sunday was the day of Christ's resurrection, there are no scriptural passages supporting the observance of it as a day of worship.16

In contrast to Sabbatarians, numerous Christians worship on Sunday. Lacking strong biblical support, Christians who observe Sunday as their sabbath have historically relied upon the tradition of the church and their desire to dissociate themselves from any Jewish overtones that they believe are central to Sabbath (Saturday) observance. The historical record during the Christian Era is replete with numerous periods of struggle between Sabbatarians and Sunday-observing Christians, which repeatedly resulted in legislatively enacted Sunday laws.

Sunday Laws and the Roman Catholic Church
The history of Sunday legislation clearly indicates that it is integrally related to religious beliefs. History records that Sunday legislation traces as far back as the Roman emperor Constantine, who on March 7, 321, enacted into law a decree to honor the "venerable day of the sun," by which citizens were to abstain from work on Sunday, a day dedicated to the worship of the sun god and to the observance of "its venerable rites."17 As one Catholic historian transparently acknowledged regarding Constantine's efforts on behalf of the church: "He invested the judicial decisions of the bishop with civil authority. He modified the Roman Law in the direction of Christian values. Sunday, the day when Christians assembled, was made a day of rest. . . . Under Constantine the Church was firmly set on the road to union with the state."18

Several decades later, in A.D. 364, the Catholic Church convened the Council of Laodicea. One of its decisions related to a practice dating back to the middle of the second century, to roughly A.D. 150. At that time, the church had begun to encourage Christians to observe Sunday instead of the biblical Sabbath in order to distinguish Christians from Jewish believers, a change without scriptural support. By the time of the Council of Laodicea, Christians were observing both days of the week. In order to make a complete break with the Sabbath, and substitute it with Sunday, the council stated, in Canon 29: "CHRISTIANS must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath [Saturday], but must work on that day, rather honoring the Lord's Day [Sunday]; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ."19 The church's overtly antagonistic stance toward the biblical Sabbath paved the way for atrocious and grueling torture of "Judaizers" during the Inquisition many centuries later.

A short 16 years after the Council of Laodicea, the church had gained such influence over the masses that emperors Gratian and Theodosius finally established it as the basis of the whole social order."This is the intent of the epoch-making decree promulgated by Theodosius from Thessalonica on February 27, 380, which began: 'We desire that all peoples who fall beneath the sway of our imperial clemency should profess the faith which we believe has been communicated by the Apostle Peter to the Romans and maintained in its traditional form to the present day. . . .' Paganism was declared illegal, while privileges were granted to the Catholic clergy; they were accorded immunity from trial except in ecclesiastical courts. Roman law was revised in harmony with Christian principles: The Sunday observance laws of Constantine were revived and enlarged, with the banning of public or private secular activities."20

Not even the passage of time has altered the vehement attitude of the church toward Sabbath-observing Christians. A little more than a thousand years after the time of emperors Gratian and Theodosius, the church again thundered its opposition against Sabbathkeeping believers at the Council of Florence (1438-1445).

Catholic theologians failed to see the distinction between the moral Sabbath (Saturday) of God's Ten Commandment law and the ceremonial sabbaths, which required animal sacrifices that symbolized the long-awaited Messiah. The moral Sabbath of the Ten Commandments (Saturday) was to be observed on a weekly basis,21 but the ceremonial sabbaths sometimes occurred in the middle of the week, and sometimes on the Sabbath (Saturday) of the Ten Commandments.22 Ceremonial sabbaths were also associated with circumcision, animal sacrifices, and the Jewish covenant.

Although the ceremonial sabbaths were fulfilled by the death of Jesus at Calvary,23 the moral Sabbath of the Ten Commandments (Saturday) remained in vigor as part of God's moral law for humanity,24 just as the apostle Paul stated, "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God."25 Misunderstanding these fine theological nuances, Catholic theologians mistakenly conflated ceremonial sabbath observance with moral Sabbath observance. Thus, at the Council of Florence, they declared that all who observe the Sabbath (Saturday) are "alien to the Christian faith and not in the least fit to participate in eternal salvation, unless someday they recover from these errors."26

The Council of Trent as depicted by the artist Pasquale Cati in 1588.

Within a century later, the Protestant Reformation had occurred and the Catholic Church was already organizing its forces for the Counter-Reformation. Seeking to counteract Protestant advances, the church at the Council of Trent ordered the preparation of the Catechism of the Council of Trent, in which leading theologians formulated responses to the perceived Protestant heresies.27 One of the doctrines reemphasized was the teaching regarding the Sabbath (Sunday) commandment.28 Here again, the Catholic Church acknowledged the (attempted) transference of the sanctity of the biblical Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, claiming the church's authority to tamper with the divine law of God: "But the Church of God has thought it well to transfer the celebration and observance of the Sabbath to Sunday." Of utmost concern to the discussion of Sunday-rest laws, the Council of Trent not only solemnly admonished all to abstain from work on Sunday, but also continued to expound upon the obligation of all to use the day in "worship of God, which is the great end of the Commandment." Such worship included attendance at church, confession to the priest, performance of the Sacrament of Penance, and participation in the "Holy Sacrifice of the Mass."29

With such mistaken zeal about the moral law of God, the Catholic Church justified itself in the torture and murder of numerous "Judaizers" during the Inquisition. Historical records confirm that not all who observed the biblical Sabbath (Saturday) were Jewish in faith, yet they were classified as "Judaizers" because, in the eyes of the church, they maintained an affinity to the Sabbath of the Ten Commandments.30 Not only was the Catholic Church a persecuting force to Sabbatarians, but also the Reformed faith in Transylvania persecuted and confiscated property of Sabbathkeepers during the Great Persecution of 1638.31 Thus, history records that both Catholics and Protestants united in their efforts to suppress other Christians who held convictions about the Sabbath that were contrary to their own.

It becomes evident that any emphasis upon Sunday-rest does not involve the mere abstinence from work, but naturally leads to the observance of religious rites. As recently in the modern era as 1864, the church voiced its authority, declaring that the state does not have the authority to allow servile work on certain holy days and feasts, contrary to the teachings of the church—such men "make the impious pronouncement . . . that the law should be repealed 'by which on some fixed days, because of the worship of God, servile works are prohibited [by the church].'"32 In those countries where governments acquiesce to the demands for Sunday-rest legislation, they will acknowledge by default that the church has the upper hand. This in turn will lead to the church not only obligating citizens to rest on Sunday, but to worship on it as well.

Some may argue that such accounts refer to Roman Catholicism of the past and that Vatican II (1962-1965) introduced dramatic reforms within the church. While there is some veracity to such an argument, one must not overlook the immutable position of the church with respect to Sunday. In Dies Domini, article 3, paragraph 1, Pope John Paul II stated: "The fundamental importance of Sunday has been recognized through two thousand years of history and was emphatically restated by the Second Vatican Council: 'Every seven days, the Church celebrates the Easter mystery. This is a tradition going back to the Apostles, taking its origin from the actual day of Christ's Resurrection—a day thus appropriately designated "the Lord's Day."' Paul VI emphasized this importance once more when he approved the new General Roman Calendar and the Universal Norms which regulate the ordering of the Liturgical Year." The calendar reform—the idea of making calendars with Sunday as the last day of the week, rather than Saturday—has found continual support from the church and is gaining headway in Europe.

Not only was the immutable position of the church regarding Sunday worship evident at Vatican II, but Catholic theologians have written extensively to promote Sunday worship. For example, one of the leading Catholic scholars in the "nouvelle théologie" movement, Henri de Lubac, refers to the periods of world history, the sixth one having begun with the incarnation of Jesus and the seventh one beginning with His resurrection. By using numerology, mystical symbolism, and church tradition, De Lubac attempts to rationalize why Sunday should be considered as a true Sabbath of rest in honor of the Resurrection.33 Calendars should reflect this teaching, hence, the substitution of God's holy Sabbath (Saturday) with the Sabbath (Sunday) of the church's own creation.

In light of the foregoing efforts of the church to exalt Sunday worship, and especially when one considers the examples of Sunday laws being passed in Croatia and Germany mentioned at the beginning of this article, there remains an immovable shadow of doubt upon the position of the church as a champion of religious freedom for those of other faiths.

Current debate regarding Sunday as a day of rest from labor cannot overlook the direct impact of Dies Domini and the centuries-long struggle over the Sabbath (Saturday) as a day of worship. The apostolic church, founded by Christ and under the guidance of the apostles, observed the biblical Sabbath, Saturday. While the Catholic Church does acknowledge this fact, it also has declared in various councils the authority of the church to command the observance of Sunday, not only as a day of rest, but also as a day of worship. Not content with mere didactic efforts, the church has also sought on various occasions to enforce its teachings regarding Sunday observance through legislative enactment.

Through the centuries various Christian groups have rediscovered the truth regarding the biblical Sabbath and have consequently begun worshipping on Saturday instead of Sunday. If one were to apply the specious reasoning and coercive spirit of the Catholic Church as recorded in the history of the Sabbath-Sunday debate and briefly outlined in this article, then such groups in our day as Seventh Day Baptists, Jews who observe the Sabbath, Seventh-day Adventists, members of the Worldwide Church of God (Seventh-day), the Church of God of Prophecy, and various other Pentecostal Christians would be subject to the anathema, execration, and condemnation of the Catholic Church (and possibly subject to that of other Sundaykeeping Christians, too). God forbid, but is it possible that in our enlightened age of civility, religious pluralism, and respect for differing views, we shall see a return to the barbaric and heinous crimes of religious persecution of medieval times?


Edwin Cook, a minister of religion, is currently completing his doctoral studies in church-state relations at Baylor University, Waco, Texas.


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7 A. H. Lewis, A Critical History of Sunday Legislation From 321 to 1888 A.D. (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888), pp. v, vi.
8 There are several laws mentioned in Scripture: (1) the Ten Commandment law (Exodus 20:1-17), (2) the "law [of sacrifices]", (Hebrews 10:1), (3) the "law of sin and death" (Romans 8:2), and, (4) the "law of faith" (Romans 3:27). Recognizing the multiple laws mentioned in Scripture requires close scrutiny to determine which ones were abolished by Christ's death at Calvary (the law of sacrifices and, partially, the law of sin and death, at least with respect to mankind's condemnation) and which ones were upheld (the Ten Commandment law as identifying sin, the law of sin and death as requiring the death of the sinner, in this case, Christ who bore our sins, and the law of faith, by which we gain access to God's grace).
9 Genesis 2:1-3.
10 Mark 2:27, 28, NKJV. Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
11 Hebrews 4:4-9.
12 Luke 23:54–24:1.
13 John 19:30, NKJV; Hebrews 4:5, 9-11.
14 Hebrews 4:5, 9-11.
15 Hebrews 4:10: "For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his."
16 There are only eight references in the New Testament that refer to "the first day of the week" and none of them give the command to worship on that day as the fourth commandment orders the observance of Saturday: Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2, 9; Luke 24:1; John 20:1, 19; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4.
17 Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), pp. 18, 19.
18 Thomas Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1990), p. 39.
19Accessed on 5/9/2010 from
20 Bokenkotter, p. 57.
21 Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15.
22 For example, the observance of the Day of Atonement occurred on the tenth day of the seventh month and was considered as "a sabbath of rest," even though it did not fall on the weekly Sabbath (Saturday) in some given years (Leviticus 23:27-38). Nonetheless, God made a clear distinction between it and the weekly, moral Sabbath when He commanded the observance of these feasts of atonement (verse 37) "besides [or, in addition to] the Sabbaths of the Lord" (verse 38, NKJV).
23 Daniel 9:27; Colossians 2:14-17.
24 Romans 3:31.
25 1 Corinthians 7:19.
26 "A Decree in Behalf of the Jacobites," from the bull "Cantata Domino," Feb. 4, Florentine style, 1441, modern, 1442, as cited in Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma (Fitzwilliam, N.H..: Loreto Publications, 2002), p. 229 (par. 712).
27 Originally convened December 13, 1545, it was not until February 26, 1562, when a commission was actually appointed to prepare the catechism. Pope Saint Pius V, xxiii.
28 Pope Saint Pius V, The Catechism of the Council of Trent (Rockford, Ill.: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1982), pp. 402-407.
29 Ibid., p. 403.
30 Haim Beinart, ed., Records of the Trials of the Spanish Inquisition in Ciudad Real (Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1985), vol. 4, pp. 409-525. This section, Biographical Notes, relates personal information about the 700 citizens of Ciudad Real who were tried, and many of whom were burned at the stake, for observing the Sabbath (Saturday).
31 Daniel Liechty, Sabbatarianism in the Sixteenth Century: A Page in the History of the Radical Reformation (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1993), pp. 68-77.
32 Pius IX, from the encyclical Quanta cura, Dec. 8, 1864, as cited in Denzinger, p. 431 (par. 1693).
33 Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatius Press, 1988), pp. 150-155.

Article Author: Edwin C. Cook

Edwin Cook has a doctorate in church-state studies from Baylor University, Waco, Texas. He writes from Waco.