Sabbath-keeping in Christian Schools

Matthew H. LeeThe CACE Roundtable1 Comment

Sundays are my favorite holidays.

New Year’s Day, Easter, even Christmas pale in comparison. Unlike other holidays, particularly those of the man-made variety, the Sabbath is a tradition divinely consecrated and nearly as old as creation itself (Exodus 20:11).

When we remember the Sabbath, we celebrate our freedom from bondage (Deuteronomy 5:15). By contrast, it’s no surprise that throughout human history, ignoring the Sabbath has been the practice of oppressive societies. Sohrab Ahmari recently wrote for The Wall Street Journal, “While restless, Sabbath-less societies could easily descend into tyranny and barbarism,” Sabbatarianism was seen “as an essential bulwark against the depravities that had marked the French Revolution.” In an effort to abolish all religious influences, the French government adopted Auguste Comte’s Religion of Humanity and implemented a ten-day workweek. The practice was repeated in the Paris Commune of the 19th century.

The French weren’t the only culture who tried to dispense with Sabbath-keeping. Ancient Egypt used a nine-day workweek, with one day of rest reserved exclusively for the ruling class. In 20th-century Maoist China, during the disastrous Great Leap Forward, peasants were expected to follow a 48-hour workday, with a mere six hours for rest.

Ignoring the Sabbath was catastrophic in all cases.

In each of these societies, we see the same threefold rejection: of rights and liberties, of God, and of the Sabbath. In contrast, to love the Sabbath is to love neighbor, acknowledging each person’s dignity as an image bearer and inviting them to share in rest. To love the Sabbath is to enjoy rest, both from our work and from our works-righteousness (Hebrews 4:9-10).

And yet, how often do we subject ourselves to the oppression of Sabbath rejection?

Communities in which members profess faith in God should affirm human dignity in part by prioritizing Sabbath rest. Along with our churches, Christian schools should be among the communities in which the freedom of Sabbath rest is proclaimed.

Sabbath-keeping in Christian schools

To explore the topic of Sabbath-keeping in Christian education, Albert Cheng, Rian Djita (both at the University of Arkansas), and I analyzed data from the Sabbath Study, a survey fielded by the Association of Christian Schools International in early 2021. Altogether, 5,634 individuals responded to our survey, including administrators, teachers, students, and parents. As part of the survey, respondents indicated whether or not they keep the Sabbath, their beliefs about the Sabbath, their teaching practices as they relate to the Sabbath, and common practices they follow on the Sabbath. They also completed the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory, a validated six-item scale that measures psychosocial well-being.

We predicted a robust and statistically significant inverse relationship between Sabbath-keeping and burnout, and we were right. Of the respondents in our study, 68.5% consider themselves Sabbath-keepers, while 31.5% reported that they do not keep the Sabbath. Sabbath-keepers in our study reported significantly lower levels of burnout than non-keepers, a difference of about a quarter of a standard deviation. The difference was greatest for administrators and teachers for whom Sabbath-keeping was associated, with roughly two-fifths to half a standard deviation lower levels of burnout.

Teachers who keep the Sabbath are more likely to extend the blessings of the Lord’s Day to their students as well. In addition to being less likely to grade student work or attend professional meetings on the Sabbath, these teachers encourage Sabbath-keeping among their students by, for example, avoiding major deadlines or exams immediately after the Sabbath (see Figure 1).

Activities teachers "never" or "rarely" do on the Sabbath

Digging deeper

As someone passionate about both education research and theology, I found additional patterns interesting. We asked respondents how strongly they agreed with 11 statements about the Sabbath. The vast majority agreed that the Sabbath is for worship and for rest from labors, and most agreed that Sabbath keeping is a priority for their school. Roughly three-quarters disagreed that recreations are not permitted on the Sabbath (see Figure 2).

Reformed believers may disagree on some of the finer points of Sabbath-keeping. I personally subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which states that “worldly employments and recreations” are inappropriate for the Lord’s Day. Others may take to the Continental view of the Heidelberg Catechism, which sets apart Sunday as a “festive day of rest.”

Interestingly, in our sample, while “Sabbath-keepers” hold Continental views on average, they are more likely to have Westminsterian sensibilities than “non-keepers.” Keepers are more likely to believe that recreations are forbidden on the Sabbath, and they are less likely to engage in recreational activities, including streaming TV/movies, eating out, and participating in community programs. It isn’t mere inactivity that promotes wellness among Sabbath-keepers: keepers were busily engaged in a number of activities on the Sabbath, including participating in or leading church activities, attending morning and evening worship, and fellowshipping with family or church members (see Figure 3).

Implications

I always want to iterate that empirical research cannot prove theological doctrine (as if doctrine depends on statistics). But we shouldn’t be surprised to find that research provides evidence consistent with what we affirm biblically. Given the strong suggestive evidence of the benefits of Sabbath-keeping, how should Christian schools respond?

Failing to plan is planning to fail. From my perspective, it’s important to make plans to keep the Sabbath. For example, the Israelites in the wilderness made preparations for the Sabbath by “gathering a double portion” on the sixth day (Exodus 16:21-23). Some school leaders have shared that they schedule holiday weekends from Friday to Monday rather than from Thursday to Sunday, allowing families time to travel on Monday. For some schools, encouraging Sabbath-keeping may be as simple as explicitly communicating “permission” not to labor on the Lord’s Day. In more extreme cases, obedience may mean missing an obligation (e.g., a meeting or a deadline), rather than foregoing a Sabbath. Whatever the practice, I am always encouraged to hear of what Christian schools do to promote Sabbath-keeping. After all, Sundays are my favorite holidays.

Author

  • Matthew H. Lee is Director of Research at the Association of Christian Schools International. His research focuses on faith-based education, character formation, and educational liberty. Matt received his PhD in education policy from the University of Arkansas, where he learned to apply microeconometric research methods to the field of education. He was one of the first recipients of the Chancellor’s Fund for Humanities and Performing Arts in recognition of his research on the civic effects of Holocaust education. He was named a Humane Studies Fellow at George Mason University for his research on faith-based education and educational liberty.

One Comment on “Sabbath-keeping in Christian Schools”

  1. Matt – Thank you for such a timely,Theological and insightful article and research. As we are made in God’s image, Sabbath rest is a blessing and so beneficial to our heart, soul, strength and mind. Our peers at Hobby Lobby and Chick-Fil-A know this and their businesses have actually thrived in 6 days work rather than 7. We as Christian school leaders would do well to also abide in our Lord God’s ways and best practices that uphold Biblical truth and absolutes. Christ’s blessings! David Ritter, Ph.D.

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