The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. Sabbath is a gift God has given us for our good. We are feeble creatures who need rest, yet foolish creatures who would otherwise work ourselves to the bone. The sabbath is a reminder of our weakness, of our finiteness, of our inability. It is a reminder of all of these in a physical sense and, more ultimately, in a spiritual sense, for so much of what is true of our bodies is true of our souls. We accept sabbath as a blessing from God and ignore or reject it to our own peril.
Yet even as we accept sabbath, we are prone to profane it, which is exactly what the religious authorities of Jesus’s day had done. They had taken the simple gift of a day of rest and surrounded it by complicated laws. Terrified of breaking the one big commandment, they had hedged it in with a whole list of small rules and regulations—only walk so far, only carry so heavy a burden, only do these kinds of activities. Soon the day of joy had become a day of fear, the day of freedom had become a day of captivity. Instead of anticipating the sabbath people dreaded it, for they had become enslaved to it. In this context Jesus reminded them: You weren’t made for the sabbath, the sabbath was made for you! And in doing so he warns us that even the best of God’s gifts can be coopted and perverted by the legalistic hearts of fallen men.
I have often wondered if we need to hear a related admonition today: The local church was made to serve the Christian, not the Christian the local church. I think this is true in the sense Jesus’s phrase is true—not as an absolute statement but as a phrase that is meant to catch our attention and provoke some self-examination.
Around mid-March churches began to shut down. While most quickly moved their services online, the rest of their programs went into hiatus. Sunday evenings and Sunday schools, book studies and Bible studies, men’s meetings and prayer meetings, children’s programs and youth programs—it all just suddenly came to a screeching halt. And it was my observation that many people breathed a quiet and perhaps sheepish sigh of relief. It was my observation that many people did not realize just how many commitments they had to the church—and perhaps more seriously, how many commitments they felt to the church—until they were all taken away. Some Christians were doing too much and it took a pandemic to make them realize the strain they were feeling; some Christians were doing just the right amount, but were still laden with guilt that they were not doing more.
Of course there is nothing even a little bit wrong, and in fact there is very much right, about studies and meetings and mid-week services and all the rest. There is nothing wrong with a church offering many different activities and programs and studies. Each of them can be a tremendous blessing and a part of a well-balanced spiritual diet. Each of them can provide an opportunity to serve and to be served, to deploy our gifts for the good of others and to have others deploy their gifts for the good of us. Yet attending them all, or feeling that we should or must attend them all, can quickly wear us down and wear us out.
If we judge our faith or our spiritual maturity or our commitment to the local church by the quantity of activities we participate in (or choose not to participate in), we are judging ourselves not by the freedom of the gospel but by the captivity of the law. The religious people Jesus spoke to judged their adherence to the fourth commandment not by their adherence to the commandment itself but to the host of little laws they themselves had created. And in much the same way we can judge our commitment to the local church by our own little laws, like “when the doors are open, we are there.” Yet just as the sabbath becomes burdensome when we replace freedom with obligations, the local church can become burdensome when we replace simplicity with complexity. Just as our relationship to the sabbath can wear us down when we are constantly afraid of violating it, our relationship to the local church can wear us down when we are constantly afraid of not doing enough.
I don’t mean to advocate apathy or to defend a lack of commitment to the local church. Not even a little bit! The local church matters a great deal and we cannot thrive without a serious commitment to it. But I do mean to ask whether we tend to judge our commitment by a simple measure of quantity. I do mean to ask whether many of us need the reminder that just as we can become captive to the sabbath and enslaved by it, so too the local church. Both are good gifts of God, for we must rest and we must join in community with others. Both are necessary for spiritual life and health, for we must take a break from our work and we must participate in fellowship. If there is fault it is with us, not with them! The strange reality is that the people who most want to honor the sabbath are the ones who are most prone to becoming captive to it; likewise, the people who most want to honor the local church are the ones who are going to face the temptation to relate to it by law instead of grace. We are more likely to make idols out of very good things than very bad things, out of things we want to honor than things we are glad to dishonor.
As we emerge from the restrictions of the pandemic, as we slowly re-open our churches for not only Sunday morning services but also that host of other meetings and programs, it marks an ideal opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to the local church, but also to reexamine that commitment. Outside of gathering for corporate worship, what else will we commit to? Why will we commit to these? Most importantly, how will we mark our measure our commitment to God’s good gift of local church fellowship? The point is not so much what we do, but why we do it. The point is not so much the number of activities we participate in, but the levels of freedom or captivity we feel in saying yes or no, in accepting or declining. The point is whether we are free or bound. In that way church on the far side of COVID marks the ideal time for each of us to consider our relationship to the local church and to remember that just as sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath, so the local church was made for the Christian, not the Christian for the local church.