Days of Obligation: Mormonism, the Sabbath, and Fasting
Some doctrinal issues are less important than others. Such is the case when it comes to matters pertaining to the Sabbath and other religious special days and observances. Nevertheless, understanding why these things are not to be treated as essential matters of the Christian faith does have some importance. It is one of the perennial dangers in the history of Christianity for the non-essentials to influence unduly our understanding of the essentials, like the proverbial tail wagging the dog. It is in this context that we turn to consider briefly three questions in relation to the LDS teachings and practices pertaining to the Sabbath and fast days:
- Is Sunday the Christian Sabbath?
- Should fast days be made religious obligations?
- Is the observance of religious days necessary for salvation?
A. Is Sunday the Christian Sabbath?
According to Gospel Principles, the first Christians from the time of Jesus’ resurrection “observed the first day of the week as their Sabbath” (140). The LDS Church is hardly alone in claiming that Sunday is the Christian Sabbath; this is likewise the position of many orthodox Christians. Still, unlike most Christian denominations, the LDS Church claims to have modern prophets through whom Mormons know with divine authority that Sunday is the Sabbath for Christians.
The New Testament evidence usually adduced for this idea is meager at best. Acts 20:7 reports that Paul and other Christians in Troas, “on the first day of the week, were gathered together to break bread,” and that Paul gave a rather lengthy message that lasted past midnight (a practice thankfully most Christians today do not seek to emulate!). It is likely that “to break bread” refers to the Lord’s Supper; assuming it does, however, it is far from certain that the text implies that the Lord’s Supper was observed the first day of every week as part of a Christian Sabbath. After all, Luke also reports that the first disciples in Jerusalem were “breaking bread” on a daily basis (“day by day,” Acts 2:42). Paul asked the Christians in Corinth to put aside and save gifts “on the first day of every week” for the collection he was taking for the poor saints in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:2). Oddly, though, Paul makes no references to the Corinthians gathering together on the first day of the week; he simply says that on that day “each one of you is to put aside and save” (NASB) what he intends to contribute. These two New Testament texts are consistent with the idea of a Christian Sabbath, but neither of them clearly teaches that idea.
As was often the case, Joseph Smith presented a revelation that seemingly clarified the issue. In 1831, Joseph delivered a Sunday message instructing the Saints to rest from their labors and to remember their religious obligations “on this, the Lord’s day” (D&C 59:9-13). For Mormons, then, the issue is settled.
One New Testament text that Gospel Principles does not mention in its discussion on the Sabbath is Colossians 2:16-17. In this passage, Paul urges Christians not to let anyone act as their judge with regard to their adherence to rules about food or drink, or about “a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths,” which were shadows of the reality of Christ. The broader principle in this passage is that the Christian life is about a relationship with Jesus Christ, not about observing ritual or religious obligations. Paul makes much the same point when he tells the Roman Christians not to divide over days of observance, because what matters is that both those who observe them and those who don’t are living for the Lord (Romans 14:5-12).
Although Bible-believing Christians continue to have some differences over the issue of special holy days, as they did in Paul’s day, they all understand that this issue is not to be made into a primary or essential doctrinal matter. My own view is that no New Testament text teaches the idea of a Christian Sabbath, and Colossians 2:16-17 seems inconsistent with that idea.
B. Should Fast Days Be Made Religious Obligations?
If the New Testament evidence for a Christian Sabbath is sparse, the evidence for a Christian day of fasting is nonexistent. The point here is not that there is anything wrong with fasting. Many Christians throughout church history have practiced fasting, and many do today. The point, rather, is that there is something wrong with legislating that Christians must all fast on a particular day.
It is troubling, then, to see that the LDS Church requires its members to fast once a month on the same day. Paul’s principle was that each individual should do with a day whatever he was convinced would serve the Lord best (Romans 14:5-6). The LDS institution of a monthly fast day violates this principle. One Sunday a month, all Mormons are expected to skip two meals (typically breakfast and lunch). Furthermore, all Mormons are expected to donate the money they would have spent on those meals to the LDS Church to be used to help those in need (Gospel Principles, 146-47). Again, there is nothing wrong with fasting and certainly nothing wrong with giving money to help the needy. Where the trouble begins is in institutionalizing these activities so that they become regular religious obligations, not personal acts of commitment and charity. Jesus taught his disciples that when they fasted, they should not let anyone else know about it (Matthew 6:16-17). Granted, Mormons don’t disfigure their faces when they fast, as Jesus said some Pharisees did, and Gospel Principles does instruct Mormons not to fast to impress others (146). Still, Jesus’ teaching assumed that people fasted at different times and so would not know if anyone was fasting unless he made a spectacle of himself. Interestingly enough, Matthew later reports that Jesus’ disciples did not fast, even when other Jews did (Matthew 9:14-15). Here again, it is evident that Jesus taught his disciples to view fasting as something less than a religious obligation.
C. Is the Observance of Religious Days Necessary for Salvation?
Finally, and most importantly, we must express concern that in LDS teaching Sabbath-keeping and fasting are essential for individual salvation—that is, entrance into the Father’s celestial kingdom. This is understood first of all from the fact that observance of all LDS religious obligations or “covenants” is prerequisite for individual salvation. Regular attendance at church meetings is one of the specific obligations of all who get baptized as Mormons and one of the “requirements for exaltation” (Gospel Principles, 277-78). LDS General Authorities over the years have made various statements confirming that both Sabbath-keeping (on Sunday) and fasting are essential requirements for individual salvation. Here are just three notable examples of such statements:
“It requires you, therefore, to live the laws of the celestial kingdom if you are going to receive the blessing of celestial glory. What are the laws and the way by which we receive that blessing? Well, we have the first principles and ordinances of the gospel—faith, repentance, baptism, and the Holy Ghost; and in the kingdom of God there are laws which teach us the way to perfection, and any member of the Church who is learning to live perfectly each of the laws that are in the kingdom is learning the way to become perfect. All of us can learn to live the Word of Wisdom perfectly. All of us can learn to keep the Sabbath day holy perfectly. All of you can learn how to keep the law of fasting perfectly. We know how to keep the law of chastity perfectly. Now, as we learn to keep one of these laws perfectly we ourselves are on the road to perfection” (The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. Clyde J. Williams, 166; also quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, 27).
“The gospel plan has many fields of activity. Each one of those fields is vital and essential. We have the work of the priesthood quorums for men and for boys; we have the Church welfare plan; we have our financial system of tithing, and fast, and other offerings; we have the work of the auxiliaries: we have the plan of clean living, known as the Word of Wisdom, and many other fields of activity. Each one is positively essential in its place; each one was set there by the Lord himself as part of the plan of salvation. It is not for us to say that any part of the plan of God is not essential. It is not for us to say that any part is unimportant, to be disregarded with impunity” (Elder Mark E. Petersen, Conference Report, Oct. 1944, 123).
“The true Sabbath is essential to salvation, and those who use it to the full, according to the divine intent, shall attain celestial rest” (Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary, 1:202).
These statements clearly stand opposed to Paul’s teaching that we should not judge people based on their observances of religious holy days or dietary restrictions (Romans 14:1-11; Colossians 2:16-17). They also are incompatible with the gospel of grace, that we are saved individually through our faith in Jesus Christ, not by our ritual observances (John 3:16-18; 4:20-24; 20:30-31; Ephesians 2:8-10; Colossians 2:20-3:4; etc.).
It is not our place or our purpose to judge what Mormons do on Sunday. That is not the issue here. Again, religious days are a secondary issue as far as the New Testament is concerned. Our intention is to proclaim some good news to the vast majority of Mormons who for whatever reason find themselves falling short of the LDS Church’s expectations. God is not looking for people to perform rituals and observe special days in order to become worthy of living in his presence. He is looking for people to trust in what Christ did for them and to observe every day as a day of new life and liberty in the Son of God. Our hope is that many more Mormons will refuse to let man-made rules (like fasting for two meals once a month) continue to function as hurdles between them and God’s acceptance.