Should members of the Church of God own businesses that remain open on the Sabbath?
As the sun sinks low in the sky on Friday afternoon and approaches the horizon, the people of God wrap up their daily toil and prepare to honor God by resting on the Sabbath. This Sabbath rest is a time earnestly anticipated by the laboring man and woman, but what about the business owner? Can a Christian employer or business owner keep the business open during holy time by hiring others to work during that time? What are the biblical principles involved in business owners keeping the Sabbath holy? Let's examine several biblical principles regarding Sabbath observance.
The Sabbath Is Holy
In addressing this issue, we must start with the basic Sabbath command. Exodus:20:8-11 states: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work; you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. 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. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it."
The first principle stated by God is that this 24-hour period He refers to as the Sabbath should be remembered by humans so that it can be kept holy. This 24-hour period is special—unlike the other six days of the week. In the second half of verse 11 we read that this period of time is hallowed (holy). God reveals in the Bible that new days begin at evening or sunset (Genesis:1:5; Joshua:8:29; 2 Chronicles:18:34; Nehemiah:13:19; Mark:1:32). So the time from Friday sunset until Saturday sunset is holy and our responsibility as humans is to remember it in order to keep it holy.
God also reveals that each Sabbath is to be a memorial to the Creator. Keeping the Sabbath holy acknowledges that God is the Creator and Life Giver (Exodus:20:11; 31:17).
Rest, Not Work
God set the example of rest when it came to the Sabbath (Genesis:2:2). Exodus:31:16-17 states: "Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed."
God did not carry on His creative work during the Sabbath through the angels (righteous or fallen) but instead set an example of rest and refreshment.
God also reveals that humans are to keep the Sabbath holy by not working on this day—"in it you shall do no work" (Exodus:20:10). God clearly shows that the other six days are for working and laboring. "Six days you shall labor and do all your work" (verse 9). The Sabbath is to be very special—so special that God proclaimed the death penalty upon those Israelites who ignored the command to hallow this day (see Exodus:31:14-16).
Since the Sabbath is holy time, God instructs us that He did not want His people to make others disrespect Him by forcing them to work during the Sabbath. Everything that was under the control of one's household was also to cease from work on the Sabbath—even including slaves and animals! "In it you shall do no work; you, nor you son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates" (Exodus:20:10).
It is clear that God did not want regular work to go on during the holy time of the Sabbath. He did not want His people to continue regular business through others—even if those workers are currently unconverted. Therefore, He commanded that children, slaves, animals and even foreigners not be compelled to work in our place. "But the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you" (Deuteronomy:5:14, NASB).
In Leviticus:23:3, we are told, "For six days work may be done; but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work; it is a Sabbath to the LORD in all your dwellings" (NASB). The biblical principle seems clear: as much as possible the Sabbath should be a "complete rest" from our normal working or secular activities.
The overriding principle is that we are to show respect and honor toward God by respecting and hallowing the time He set aside as holy. This cessation from work and respect for holy time was—and continues to be—an example of our respect for God as our Master and Creator.
Avoid Doing Business
Another Sabbath principle is brought out in Nehemiah:13:15-17: "And I warned them about the day on which they were selling provisions . . . Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said to them, 'What evil thing is this that you do, by which you profane the Sabbath day?'"
Nehemiah was clear in his instructions to shut the city gates and not allow regular business to continue. The Sabbath had become a "market day" in Jerusalem with all sorts of items being bought, sold and bartered. These were not just food items. While we must be careful not to extract too much from this example, there is a business principle here for our day—conducting normal business activities is not acceptable for Christians on the Sabbath. God's people were not to be involved in regular commerce during holy time.
Our Example and the Gospel
If a Christian operates a business on the Sabbath and has others work in his or her place, what is he teaching others about the Sabbath?
In Numbers:15:32-36 we have the example of a man who was discovered working on the Sabbath by gathering sticks. He disrespected holy time and thereby disrespected God by not using the preparation day properly and by not resting on the Sabbath. It was judged that he should be put to death. Would it have been acceptable for this man to hire an unconverted person to pick up his sticks for him on the Sabbath? No. The principle is that God desires His people to rest from their work and for their workers to be able to rest as well.
To hire another person to work on what we know is holy time sends a very confusing message to that person. It conveys, "I rest on this day, but it is not important for you to do so." What gospel are we preaching by our personal example? Are we saying, "The Sabbath is holy for me, but I feel that it is fine for you to break God's law and work as my employee"?
We are told in Isaiah:58:13-14, that on the Sabbath we are not to do our own ways. Certainly that would include our employment and our enterprises. Instead we are asked to devote the Sabbath to God's business and pleasure. Instead of engaging in our own pleasures we are to engage in God's pleasure on the Sabbath. We aren't supposed to even speak our own words on His day because the Sabbath should be the one time of the week that nothing should hinder us from becoming completely absorbed in God and His Word.
Matthew:5:19 states: "Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." Can we see that employing others to work while we rest is a confusing contradiction?
On the other hand, what beneficial effect could a proper Sabbath-keeping example have on an employee? On our neighbors? On the community? Wouldn't it be another means to show the significance of the truth of God and how precious this holy time is to us? Not only are we to rest, but those who work for us are to be given the opportunity to rest also. If we own a business, it is not acceptable to have our employees working while we enjoy a restful Sabbath day.
Is an Employee a "Manservant"?
What was a manservant? Was he roughly equivalent to today's employee? A close reading of the Scriptures shows that a manservant was a bond servant or slave who lived in the owner's household. Deuteronomy:16:11 and 14 show that a manservant was taken to the Feast of Pentecost and Feast of Tabernacles to worship as a part of the family. Deuteronomy:12:18 shows that an owner was to take his manservant to the place where God set His name to worship and offer sacrifice (that is, the tabernacle and later the temple).
An employee, therefore, should not be classified as roughly equivalent to a "manservant" since such a servant was a household slave.
Yet, it is clear that God intended that everything under the control of the believer—sons, daughters, servants, slaves and animals—have the opportunity to rest on the Sabbath. This principle clearly extends to employees. They likewise should not be working for a Christian who understands that the time during the Sabbath is holy. We cannot force unbelieving employees to rest on the Sabbath, but we should not hire them to labor for us on that day.
Exceptions to the Rule
Judgment is required in many circumstances because there may be exceptions to the general rule. For example in Matthew:12:5 we read, "Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless?" Some work was done on the Sabbath by priests and Levites in order to be able to worship God. Today this principle is applied in our setting up chairs for Sabbath services, assembling public-address systems, information tables, coffee service, traveling to services, etc. Like the priest's labor of old, this kind of Sabbath labor seems to be a legitimate exception to the rule because it enables us to worship God together in the "holy convocation" He commands.
In Matthew:12:11 we read, "Then He said to them, 'What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out?'" Here we see that the need of an animal in distress took precedence over the complete rest of the Sabbath day. The clear principle is that if a genuine emergency occurs, action should be taken to handle that emergency.
Also, in John:7:22-23 we read, "Moses therefore gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath, so that the law of Moses should not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made a man completely well on the Sabbath?" The Jews had judged that the work that needed to be done to circumcise a male child also took precedence over the complete rest usually observed on the Sabbath, and Christ did not disagree.
In Luke:13:15-16, "The Lord then answered him and said, 'Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?'" Jesus was upset with the Pharisees because of their hypocrisy. While they cared for the routine needs of livestock on the Sabbath so that the animals would not suffer, they refused to permit the healing of this woman on the Sabbath to end her suffering. While the lesson was about people, in passing, Jesus showed that it is acceptable to do the minimal labor to care for the routine needs of livestock on the Sabbath day.
Today, judgments may need to be made regarding dairy farmers, ranchers, physicians, nurses, nursing home operators, home health care workers, and others as to how to observe the Sabbath command in their circumstances. (See the accompanying three letters addressing some of these issues. ) Yet we strive to be consistent in our application.
We teach Sabbath observance from the strength of biblical principle, not from exceptions to the rule. The principle is clear—all who are in a Christian's direct control should be given an opportunity to observe the Sabbath rest.
Therefore, the Church of God teaches that a believer should not hire employees to work on the Sabbath and Holy Days. It does not set the right example of respecting holy time; it does not teach them the holiness of the Sabbath; and it does not give employees the benefit or option of rest during holy time. Employees working on the Sabbath place the member business owner in a position of responsibility. Employing others on the Sabbath also brings into question our motivation for owning a business that is open on the Sabbath. Is it just to make money? Does this lead to other problems?
Therefore, as a Church we recommend that members who own businesses close them on the Sabbath from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset in order to observe the commanded Sabbath rest. We encourage them to have faith that God will bless them for respecting His holy time and setting the right example for others. UN