James Bannerman: Ecclesiasctical Holidays


WE have had before us of late the subject of the one great distinction which has been drawn by God Himself between the times and seasons appointed for man on the earth,—the distinction, namely, between that one-seventh portion of the week which He made holy and set apart from the rest for the purpose of His own worship, and those six-sevenths of the week which He did not so sanctify or set apart, but gave to man for his ordinary uses. We believe that there is ample warrant in Scripture for saying that this distinction is not of human invention, but of God’s positive command; that it was appointed at the creation as the fundamental law that was to regulate the intercourse of God and man; that it was dictated to men, not as the subjects of any peculiar or temporary dispensation, but as the creatures of God under all dispensations; that as such it is of permanent and universal obligation, destined to cease only with the existence of man on the earth; and that, even after his earthly existence is terminated, this Sabbath, suited to his present character here, shall be done away with, only because it shall be merged into the Sabbath of God in heaven. In reference to the ordinance of the Sabbath as the time marked out by God Himself for worship, it is the office of the Church, just as in regard to every other Divine ordinance, simply to administer the appointment of its Divine Head, to accept of it in all its fulness, integrity, and simplicity, as it comes from His hands, and to carry it into effect for the purposes He has designed by it, without addition or alteration by ecclesiastical authority.

This ordinance, which makes holy an entire day in seven, and sets it apart for God, is of God’s own appointment. He who in the beginning divided the day from the night, and set His signs in the heavens to measure out the seasons of man on the earth, has also separated one day in the week from the rest, to be a sign between Him and His creatures, and to be sanctified to them as the season of worship. This separation of one portion of time from another, and this consecration of one day, returning every seven, above the rest, was the sovereign act of God, who alone has the right or the power to divide between day and day, and to stamp the character of holiness upon one more than upon another. And the question here meets us,—and it is both an important and an interesting one,—whether or not the Sabbath, thus enjoined and set apart by God for the worship of the Church, is the only season so preferred above the rest; whether or not there are other solemnities of a similar character and authority to be observed by His people; and more especially whether the Church, by its own appointment, may ordain days to be kept holy in the stated and usual order of its worship? In other words, is there any ground to allege that there are other holy days besides the weekly Sabbath of binding and permanent obligation in the Church? or is there warrant in Scripture to believe that the Church has a right to ordain days of its own authority as regular and periodical solemnities, in addition to the Sabbath, and similarly obligatory on the conscience and obedience of its members? The question of the right of the Church to appoint holidays and fast days as part and parcel of her ordinary worship, and to impose the observance of them in addition to the keeping of the Sabbath, is one of the most important in the department of the exercise of Church power in connection with the worship of God.

There can be no doubt that, whether the power belongs to the Church or not of appointing fasts and holidays, the liberty to exercise that power was very early claimed by the Christian Church; and a multitude of days, unknown to Scripture and destitute of all Scriptural authority, were, very soon after the apostolic age, observed and honoured by Christians. The introduction of anniversary days, set apart for special purposes of devotion, was one of the earliest examples of the observance or appointment of uncommanded rites and ceremonies finding its way into the Christian society. Days consecrated to the memory of particular events in the history of our Lord’s life and sufferings, and death, and resurrection, were early introduced and solemnized; and next in order, and following rapidly after them, we find the introduction of days dedicated to the remembrance of apostles, and saints, and martyrs,—a practice which, growing apace, at length filled the year with saints’ days, and has crowded the calendar of the Romish Church with an untold number of fasts, and feasts, and superstitions.

It is not difficult, perhaps, to trace back the origin of the superstitious reverence for days not appointed in Scripture to a practice of which we find traces even in the New Testament history. God Himself, by His express appointment, had ordained days of religious solemnities for the Jewish Church over and above the weekly Sabbath,—“days, and weeks, and years,”—the parts and elements of an outward typical and ceremonial economy. There was an interval of transition between the time when that economy was really cancelled by the resurrection of Christ and the time when it practically ceased to be regarded, during which its ceremonies, although no longer binding on the conscience, yet continued to be kept up and observed by the Jewish converts, ever prone to cling to the customs of their fathers,—a practice which was permitted by the apostles out of indulgence to their feelings and associations, although not enjoined as necessary to true Gospel obedience.

It was in accommodation to these habits and prejudices of the Jews that the practice of circumcision, for example, although legally abolished in the Christian Church, was for a time permitted to be continued as a matter of concession to their weak consciences; and that in one particular case—that, namely, of Timothy, we even find Paul actually ordering the rite to be performed, in order to avoid offence to his countrymen. And it is precisely on the same footing, during the transition interval between the disuse of the Mosaic and the full establishment of the Christian economy, that we find the observance of Jewish feasts and holidays placed. The observance of these days belonged to the elements of a ceremonial law, abrogated by the death of Christ; and yet the keeping of these seasons was permitted for a short time to reign still in the Christian Church among the Jewish converts, in accommodation to their weak consciences, and as a matter of indulgence, but not of necessity or obligation to them. In regard to the observance of such days, the conscience was free: if kept, it was a matter of gratification to the feelings and habits of those who kept them; if not kept, it was because those who did not keep them found no profit and no duty in the observance. For, in express reference to such voluntary observance or non-observance of these seasons, the Apostle Paul says: “One man esteemeth one day above another; another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it.” But it can hardly be doubted that it was this permission given to individuals to keep or not to keep, as they felt it to be for their personal edification, these holidays of the Jewish Church that had been abrogated, that, through mistake and misapplication of the indulgence, was developed in after ages into the practice of the Church by its own authority enforcing the observance of fast and feast days upon all its members. Under the direction of the Apostles, and in the practice of the apostolic Church, the observance of Jewish days was a matter of permission to weak consciences, and not of command to the consciences of all,—a practice optional to individuals who felt they could use it aright, and not binding upon others. With the rapid inroad of human conceptions and superstitions into the primitive Church, the practice was converted from an individual permission to a general enactment binding upon all; and the observance of religious days, instead of being left outside of the Church as a matter of indulgence to individuals, was brought into the Church as part of its ordinary worship, and made binding on all its members indiscriminately.

It is important, then, to examine into the foundation or warrant for Church power when exercised in such a manner. We have already seen that the one distinction which separates one day in seven from others for worship is a distinction made by Divine appointment, and fitted and intended to be binding upon man universally and permanently. Is there any other distinction of days in a similar manner binding in connection with the worship by man of his Maker? In addition to the weekly Sabbath, are there any other days which the Church may by its own authority ordain as part of or necessary to the ordinary worship of God, and which the members of the Church are bound to regard as similarly holy? Now, in order distinctly to apprehend and to keep in view the real point in dispute between the advocates and the opponents of ecclesiastical days, whether fast days or feast days, there are two preliminary remarks that it is important to make.

First, The question in debate between the friends and enemies of ecclesiastical holidays does not turn on the lawfulness or unlawfulness of private days set apart by individuals for their personal use and edification in the service of God, whether in the way of fasting or of thanksgiving. That such private and personal appointments may be lawful and profitable, it is neither our business nor our inclination to deny. If it be admitted that the duty of fasting, on occasions when sin committed or judgment incurred may call for humiliation and prayer of a special kind, is warranted by Scripture precept or example, then it would be difficult to deny that the individual so called upon to fast and pray may lawfully set apart a special time for the duty, whether that time be a portion or the whole of any particular day. Or, again, if it be admitted that the duty of thanksgiving for special mercies enjoyed, or special judgments averted or removed, be warranted by Scripture, it seems to be impossible not also to admit that the individual who desires so to pour out his heart to God may lawfully set apart a special time for the duty. In either case, the duty, once admitted to be binding, carries with it the warrant for setting aside from other employments or avocations a certain time for the performance of it. The rule laid down by the apostle in regard to those Jewish Christians, who desired to devote their ancient days of religious service under a former and worn-out economy to religious purposes under the Gospel economy, is plainly applicable here: “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind: he that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, unto the Lord he doth not regard it.” His convictions and his practice are not binding upon other men; his own conscience, when fully persuaded, is a warrant and justification in the matter to himself. It is a voluntary observance, and not obligatory upon other men in other circumstances.

Second, The controversy between the advocates and opponents of ecclesiastical holidays does not turn on the lawfulness or unlawfulness of the Church, by its own authority, setting apart occasional days of fasting or thanksgiving, as emergencies in the dealings of God with the Church may warrant or demand. There is a wide difference between what it is lawful for the Church to do on those occasions when God in His providence may be calling its members to weeping and humiliation, or summoning them to special joy and thanksgiving, and what it is lawful for the Church to do in the way of setting up a standing ordinary part of its permanent worship. In the examples given us in Scripture of such practices, and in the general principles there laid down in regard to such matters, we believe that the Church has Divine warrant for the duty both of fasting and thanksgiving, when on special occasions there may be a call to that effect in the providence of God addressed to her, and that, not less collectively than individually, it may be right and profitable, on an emergency, to join in such special observances; and if it be a duty, then the duty carries with it the warrant for the Church to order and regulate the circumstances necessary for its performance. In other words, the duty of occasional fasting laid upon the Church justifies the Church in setting apart a fixed time, whether it be a part or the whole of a day, for the duty; and the obligation of occasional thanksgiving warrants, in like manner, the appointment of a season for thanksgiving. But there is a wide difference between this and the appointment of days warranted by no such emergency, but set apart as themselves holy, and constituting a stated and permanent part of ordinary religious worship, in virtue of the authority of the Church, and binding upon all its members. The occasional, as contradistinguished from the permanent and universal use of a day for special religious services, can give no holiness to it above other days; and the extraordinary, as contradistinguished from the ordinary use of such days, can make them no constituent part of the stated worship of God. The special call which warrants the appointment of occasional days of religious service, sufficiently excludes the idea either of any holiness belonging to the day in itself, or in its appropriation, or of such extraordinary appointments forming any part of the ordinary worship of the Church, as if they were essential to it. It is not with the appointment of special days of fasting or thanksgiving that our present argument has to do.

There are two elements that enter into the notion of ecclesiastical holidays. First, they are public and general appointments, made binding by the ordinance of the Church upon all its members, and not merely private anniversaries of a voluntary kind, which each man individually may find it to be right or profitable for himself personally to observe; and second, they are stated and permanent appointments by the Church, recurring as regularly in religious service as the weekly Sabbath, and constituting part of ordinary worship, and not merely occasional and extraordinary appointments. These two elements seem plainly to belong to the idea of ecclesiastical holidays, properly so called, and must be taken along with us in our argument. Are such holidays, then, lawful or unlawful, when appointed by ecclesiastical authority? What are the limits set to the power of the Church in this matter? If we apply to the case of ecclesiastical holidays those general principles, which more than once we have already seen so distinctly to set limits to the exercise of Church power in other matters, we shall find that such holidays have no Scriptural warrant, and that the assumption of power on the part of the Church in their appointment is unlawful. “There is no day,” says the Directory for Public Worship, sanctioned by our Church; “there is no day commanded in Scripture to be kept holy under the Gospel but the Lord’s Day, which is the Christian Sabbath. Festival days, vulgarly called holy days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued. Nevertheless, it is lawful and necessary, upon special emergent occasions, to separate a day or days for public fasting or thanksgiving, as the several eminent and extraordinary dispensations of God’s providence shall administer cause and opportunity to His people.”

I. Scripture, as the rule for the exercise of Church power, forbids the appointment of ecclesiastical holidays.

Under the Gospel dispensation, and within the New Testament, it cannot be pretended that there is any countenance to be found for the binding obligation of any sacred day except the weekly Sabbath. During Old Testament times, indeed, it was different; and typical days, as well as typical ordinances and typical persons, are to be found in the Jewish Church. But such days were abrogated, in so far as they had any authoritative force to command the obedience of Christians, when the ancient economy was abrogated. Nor can it be alleged that there is anything in the New Testament beyond a bare permission to the Jewish converts to use such days, and that granted only in accommodation to their weak consciences, and for no more than a time. They were matters of permission, not of commandment, and in this character suited only to the transition interval between the legal abrogation of the Jewish economy and its practical disuse. But while the former use of holidays in the Old Testament Church cannot be pleaded in their favour as making them lawful or binding at the present day, there are at least three passages of Scripture that may be referred to as very emphatically discountenancing such ecclesiastical appointments.

1st, The very terms of the grand Sabbatical law, as announced in the fourth commandment, seem very emphatically to mark out the Sabbath itself as the only day statedly to be separated from other days for the peculiar service of God, and withdrawn, in the ordinary practice of the Church, from common and secular avocations. This is not obscurely intimated in the very language instituting the ordinance: “Six days shalt thou labour and do all thy work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God.” The boundary line drawn around that portion of time given to man for his secular and necessary avocations is here as sharply and distinctly marked as the boundary line drawn around the portion of time appropriated to God. And it seems to be very decisively indicated, that the seventh part of the week, and neither more nor less, was to be secluded from the rest and appointed for religious worship, as the general and ordinary law for the division of man’s time; and that the remainder, consisting of six-sevenths, as the customary and common rule, was to be reserved entire for the ordinary and needful work of man in this life. Ecclesiastical holidays traverse and permanently encroach upon this grand principle laid down in the fourth commandment; and they must therefore be held to be clearly discountenanced by it.

2d, The Apostle Paul very distinctly includes holidays among the number of the things belonging to the bondage of a former dispensation, not to be considered binding upon those who had entered into the freedom of the Gospel. In his Epistle to the Galatians, much of which is directed to the object of vindicating the liberty wherewith Christ has made his people free through the Gospel, he rebukes the Church of Galatia for the importance they attached to the requirements of the legal dispensation, and among these to the observance of holidays. “Ye observe,” says he, “days and months, and times and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.” And in the context it is not difficult to gather the twofold ground on which the apostle condemned such observances. First of all, he grounds his condemnation of ecclesiastical days on the fact that, in attaching importance to them, and regarding them as ordinary parts of the service due to God, the Galatians, like “children, were in bondage under the elements (στοιχεια) of the world;” in other words, he stigmatizes these appointments of days and seasons as rudimentary observances suited to the infancy of the Church, but only fetters to it now, when it ought to have arrived at spiritual manhood. And again, he characterizes them as “the weak and beggarly elements (or rudiments) whereunto the Galatians desired again to be in bondage.” They were the empty and outward appointments of a carnal and worn-out dispensation.

3d, In the Epistle to the Colossians the same apostle comes forth with a no less emphatic condemnation of Church holidays. Referring to the marvellous fulness of those privileges which in Christ and with Him belong to every believer, the apostle condemns the value put on the observance or non-observance of mere outward ceremonies. “Let no man judge you,” says Paul, “in meat or in drink, or in respect of an holiday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days.” And here, too, he assigns a twofold reason for the warning and admonition. Such things were but types, under a former economy, of the very blessings which Christians now enjoyed through the Gospel; and these blessings themselves being now bestowed, the mere typical representations of them were done away; “which are a shadow of things to come, but the body (or substance) is of Christ.” And still further, such ordinances, whatever authority they once had, were now but human appointments, from which it was the very object of the Gospel to emancipate them. “Wherefore, if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world,2 why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (touch not, taste not, etc.), after the commandments and doctrines of men?” Judging by such statements as these, we seem to be inevitably shut up to the inference, that Scripture, as the rule for the use and limitation of Church power, forbids its exercise in the way of appointing ecclesiastical holidays.

II. The authority of Christ, as the source of Church power, limits it so as to exclude the right of appointing ecclesiastical holidays.

It is never to be forgotten, that all worship on the part of man addressed to God is an act done unto God. It is an acknowledgment of His authority as having opened up the way and appointed the manner for sinners to approach Him, and a religious expression of their homage to that authority. This is more especially apparent in regard to the positive institutions or parts of worship. Such institutions are used by us in worship, simply because God has appointed them; and in the use of these, and not of others, we do homage to God, as having the authority both to require the worship at our hands, and to regulate the forms and institutions of it. All this is abundantly obvious in the case of the Sabbath itself. In keeping the last day of the week as a day of religious observance, the Jews, by the very act, expressed their religious acknowledgment of God, who had appointed it, and did an act of worship to Him as its author, in the character of the one Creator who made the heavens and the earth. In keeping the first day of the week now, Christians, by the very act, recognise Christ as the author of it, and do an act of religious homage to Him as the one Redeemer, who on that day rose from the dead, and secured the salvation of His people. By keeping the last day of the week holy, the Jews, by the very act, adored one God, the Creator of all. In keeping the first day of the week holy, Christians, by the very act, adore one Saviour, the Redeemer of all. Though there were no other service rendered on the Sabbath, and though our lips were silent and our tongues expressed no articulate praise, the single act of keeping the first day of the week holy would be an act of religious homage to the authority, and of solemn adoration to the person, of Christ. The observance of that day above the rest, as part of the ordinary worship of the Church, is an act of adoration to Christ, as much as a hymn in His praise would be an expression of adoration to Christ. And who does not see, that upon the very same principle the observance of holidays appointed by the Church, as ordinary and stated parts of Divine worship, is an expression of religious homage to man, who is the author of the appointment,—an unlawful acknowledgment of human or ecclesiastical authority in an act of worship. In keeping, after a religious sort, a day that has no authority but man’s, we are paying a religious homage to that authority; we are bowing down, in the very act of our observance of the day as part of worship, not to Christ, who has not appointed it, but to the Church, which has. We are keeping the season holy, not to God, but to man.

Such uncommanded seasons, observed in religious worship as a part of it, cannot but be an unlawful encroachment upon the authority of Christ. They are instituted, not in His name, but in man’s. They are kept, not in His name, but in the Church’s name. They are holy, and honoured as holy, not because of His authority, but because of ecclesiastical authority. They are an expression of religious homage addressed, not to the Divine Master, but to His human servant. If they are acts of worship at all, they are the worship, not of Christ the Saviour, but of the Church’s ordinance and authority. In this point of view, the observance, after a religious manner, of human or ecclesiastical days is a daring interference with the sole authority of Him who is the Divine Head of the Church, to be adored in it, and the Divine Head of ordinances, to be adored through them. The authority of Christ as the Divine source of Church power, forbids the exercise of it in such a manner as to dishonour Himself; it forbids the appointment by it of holidays in worship, other than He has appointed.

III. The liberty and edification of Christ’s people, the grand aim and end of Church power, are inconsistent with that exercise of it which ordains ecclesiastical holidays.

In drawing near to God in holy things, as emphatically as in other matters, “whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” It is of the very essence of acceptable worship, that men “be fully persuaded in their own minds,” and that the conscience, out of a sense of duty, lend its free and willing consent to the acts of worship, as authorized and required by that God who has a right to bind the conscience, and to lay upon it the sense of obligation. The appointment of ecclesiastical holidays, as parts of worship addressed to God, is inconsistent with the right exercise of conscience in the matter; and that whether the conscience is offended and grieved by the introduction of human and uncommanded ordinances in Divine service, or whether the conscience, deluded and ignorant as to the sin, has no sense of the injury and wrong done to it. In the one case,—if the conscience is hurt and aggrieved by the imposition, in a matter so nearly concerning it as God’s worship, of unwarranted and uncommanded rites, and is forced, although wounded and offended, to submit against its felt conviction, it is plain that here there can be no liberty left to it at all, but that its Christian rights and freedom in the very matter of approaching to God are trampled under foot. The oppression upon the conscience in such a case is both great and painfully felt. But even in the other case,—when the conscience is not forced to stifle its own convictions, because no convictions of the wrong done to it are felt,—when, knowing them to be no more than human or ecclesiastical ordinances, they are yet made use of in God’s worship at the bidding of the Church, without any feeling of being offended by the unlawful imposition, still Christian liberty is taken away not the less, and the conscience is enthralled as much, or rather all the more, because it is unconscious of the thraldom. That the conscience should be taught and trained, in a matter of conscience, to yield a passive and unconscious submission,—that in the very worship of God the conscience should be instructed to own the obligation, not of God’s authority, but of man’s,—that the act of religious service should be a homage, done, not to Christ, but to the Church,—this is to destroy true and intelligent liberty of conscience; and the deed is all the worse, and not the better, because the conscience is made to feel no wrong, but rather to love the yoke that binds it. It matters not whether, in the appointment and observance of human and uncommanded days, as part of God’s worship, by ecclesiastical authority, the conscience of those on whom they are enforced feels the chain or not. In either case, the imposition is inconsistent with the true liberty wherewith Christ has made His people free.

IV. The true nature of Church power, as exclusively spiritual, excludes the imposition of holidays as stated and ordinary parts of worship.

The controversy with the friends of uncommanded ordinances, such as ecclesiastical holidays, in Divine worship, is very much the controversy which the Apostle Paul so strenuously maintained with the Judaizers of his day, who sought to bring into the spirituality and simplicity of the Gospel Church the carnal observances of a carnal economy that had been abrogated. For the Church to appoint and enforce such days, is a departure from the spirituality of that dispensation which is emphatically the dispensation of the Spirit; and a step, and no small one, backward in the direction of that fleshly system that had been done away with. There were under that former economy holy places, more sacred to God and more acceptable in His sight than others. There were holy seasons, in which more than in others the presence of God was enjoyed, and the prayers of His worshippers were effectual. There was a formal consecration of places and times, by which the Jews were taught and warranted to connect the presence of God more particularly with one spot of earth and with certain seasons than with others. The Israelites had Jerusalem and the temple there, with its solemn feasts and sacred seasons; and these more especially and peculiarly were “holiness to the Lord.” Such outward and ceremonial holiness of places and times has been done away, and is unknown under the Gospel. “Neither at Jerusalem, nor in the Temple, do men now worship the Father.” There is no sacred spot on earth now, where we must take our shoes from off our feet, because it is, above all others, the dwelling-place of God. There is no temple on earth or in heaven consecrated to Jehovah and made holy by His presence, save the temple of Christ’s glorified body, and the temple of each believer’s soul. “The true worshippers now worship the Father in spirit as well as in truth.” It is a spiritual service, linked to no altar, and chained to no place of prayer. And if there be yet one day in seven holier than others,—if the Sabbath, and that alone, is a time sacred to God, that ordinance of holiness had neither its birth nor its kindred with the ceremonial holy days of an outward economy. It had a higher origin and a loftier character; it was the resting time of God, when He finished His mighty work of creation, long before the Jewish dispensation was appointed; and, holier still, it was the resting time of Christ when He rose from His work of toil and blood, and entered into His rest when that dispensation was abrogated.

There is something mysteriously sublime in that peculiar holiness which distinguishes the Sabbath as the only holy day known under the Gospel dispensation, marked out as it is from all time, since time itself began to be numbered; and connecting, as it seems intended to do, the narrow section of time which belongs to the history of this world with that eternity into which it is about to be merged. For the ordinance of the Lord’s Day shall bear witness to His resurrection, as the ordinance of the Lord’s Table speaks of His death, “till He come again.” It was the Sabbath of God the Father at the creation,—a day of His eternal subsistence let down from heaven, and inserted among the days that then began to be counted on the unfallen earth. It was the Sabbath of God the Son at the redemption,—another day of heavenly rest let down from on high, and inserted amid the days of evil and sorrow which this fallen world had so long numbered,—a day on which the Redeemer rested and was refreshed, when His work was done. And now the Sabbath day both of creation and redemption awaits the development of the Divine dispensations, and points forward to a higher, so surely coming, when the earthly day shall be taken up into the heavenly, and become the Sabbath of God the Holy Ghost,—when He too shall rest from His special work, as the Father and the Son rested before, and shall repose and be refreshed in the contemplation and enjoyment, throughout eternity, of His finished work of grace and spiritual renovation.


Bannerman, J. (1868). The Church of Christ: a treatise on the nature, powers, ordinances, discipline, and government of the Christian Church (Vol. 1, pp. 406–420). Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

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