Is it a sin to eat in a restaurant on the Sabbath?


The Church of the Eternal God in the USA and its corporate affiliates in Canada and Great Britain have consistently taught that it is not wrong to eat out on the weekly Sabbath or annual Holy Days (which are also called “Sabbaths” in the Bible), depending on the circumstances. At the same time, we must always keep firmly in mind that whatever we do or say or think on the Sabbath should be in realization of the fact that we are spending time that God has set aside for a holy purpose (Isaiah 58:13-14).

Quoting from our booklet, titled, “God’s Commanded Holy Days,” pages 21 and 22, we have said:

“It was Jesus Christ-the LORD of the Sabbath-who created the Sabbath, following the directive and command of God the Father. It is God-both the Father and the Son-who expects man to keep the Sabbath holy. Only God has the right to tell us how to keep the Sabbath holy. In Matthew 12:1-8, Christ tells us that mercy allows for a hungry person to get and eat food on the Sabbath. We see here a very important distinction to the time when God did not provide ancient Israel with manna from heaven on the Sabbath. In Christ’s day, food was available. The disciples could pluck heads of grain from the field. Under the law, the landowners were not allowed to harvest completely all grain, but they had to leave some of it in the field, so that those who were hungry could pluck and eat it.

“While this is true, it must be emphasized that the disciples did not ‘harvest’ the field on the Sabbath. They just plucked a few heads of grain to satisfy their hunger. We should also take note of what the Scripture does not address here. Notice that it does not reveal whether the disciples were traveling or whether they were close to home. We are not told why the disciples were hungry to begin with, and why they had not prepared food on the previous day for the Sabbath. The reason we are not told is that it is irrelevant for the point that Christ is making here. The message rings loud and clear: Don’t condemn the innocent as to how they keep the Sabbath. They will have to give account to their own Lord and Master-Jesus Christ (Romans 14: 4, 9-13). Instead, WE are to show mercy and compassion. Mercy teaches us that it is wrong to prohibit a hungry person from getting food for himself and to eat it on the Sabbath.

“This is not to say, however, that a Christian should engage in shopping on the Sabbath, except in a real emergency (compare Nehemiah 13:15-22). Nor should this episode be used as justification or an excuse for a refusal to prepare for the Sabbath on the previous day.

“Note also that the disciples were in the presence of Christ while they were eating. They were with God-in the person of Jesus Christ-and were focusing on God. They did not profane the Sabbath by forgetting the sanctity of the day when they plucked grain to eat it. If Church members today eat occasionally in a nice, quiet restaurant on the Sabbath or a Holy Day after Church services, for instance, while, at the same time fellowshipping with other brethren and speaking about the things that pertain to God, then we must not condemn them for that. For instance, Church members might be traveling for quite a distance to attend Church services, looking forward to spending additional time with their brethren after services. If, on the other hand, your conscience does not allow you to go to a restaurant on a Sabbath or a Holy Day, then you must not do so, since ‘whatever is not from faith [or conviction] is sin’ (Romans 14:23). It would be advisable, though, to review the Scriptures to see whether your conscience is based on the Bible or merely on man-made traditions. God never accepts our conviction as justification for the violation of His law, and man-made regulations can, as we saw, cloud the intent of God’s commandments in the minds of men.”

We might want to add here that anyone who sincerely believes that he or she would compromise God’s Sabbath by eating away from home in a commercial establishment must also consider their own example within the body of believers and the effect on other believers — especially those who might be weak in the faith.

This teaching, that it is not wrong to eat out on the Sabbath, is in accordance with the long-held understanding of the Church of God. In a letter from the Letter Answering Department of the Worldwide Church of God, dated October 1988, this understanding was correctly explained, as follows:

“The Church has long taught that it is not wrong to eat out on the weekly Sabbath occasionally or on the annual Holy Days, depending upon one’s circumstances and preferences. Those waiters, waitresses, chefs, and the like, who may serve in a restaurant, are not our ‘servants’ in the way described in the Fourth Commandment. They are the employees of the owner of the restaurant. They would be working regardless of whether or not we ate there. God does not hold us responsible for their working on the Sabbath just because we use their services — unless we are the only ones who ever ate in that restaurant on the Sabbath. Obviously, we make up a very small portion of the customers served in restaurants on the Sabbath or Holy Days. Further, eating out occasionally on the Sabbath can enhance spiritual fellowship with brethren and allow family members more time to be with one another.”

Mr. Armstrong, the late human leader of the Church of God, who died in 1986, explained once during a Bible study that he did not feel that it was inappropriate to go to a restaurant on a Sabbath. His long-time assistant, Aaron Dean, subsequently confirmed Mr. Armstrong’s understanding on the issue, to the effect that eating or not eating did not stop the cooks and servers at a restaurant from working on the Sabbath. Mr. Armstrong did not make it a practice of going out on the Sabbath (except on trips), and he didn’t comment a whole lot about it. He would not have formal dinners on the Sabbath (Friday nights or on Saturdays, during the day) at his house or Ambassador College — a college which was run by the Church — because that would have required employees or College students to work on the Sabbath. He would go out on a Friday night if he had guests, and if he had served his guests in his house, it would have meant a lot of work for Mr. Armstrong’s housekeeper and cook.

The Church of God in Germany published a booklet in the early 70’s, titled “Gottes Sabbat–ein Tag der Freude” (“God’s Sabbath — A Day of Joy”). It reflected the Church’s understanding on the issue, and stated: “In Matthew 12:1-5, Christ shows clearly that it is not prohibited to acquire food on the Sabbath, when one is hungry and has nothing to eat. If one is not at home, it is not wrong to go to a restaurant on the Sabbath. There are people who do not have the means of cooking at home. In such cases it is permissible to buy food on the Sabbath.”

Some have felt that we must never eat out on the Sabbath, as this would be engaging in the business of buying and selling. Sometimes, Exodus 16:22 and Nehemiah 10:31; 13:16-22 are quoted for that proposition. However, none of these Scriptures apply to eating occasionally in a restaurant.

Exodus 16 refers to a limited situation at the time. If we wanted to apply the entire passage literally today, we would not be allowed to leave our houses on the Sabbath (compare Exodus 16:29). But, we generally must leave our houses today to attend Sabbath services (Leviticus 23:3; Hebrews 10:24-25). In regard to the extreme and unusual circumstances at the time of Exodus 16, please also note that today, our food lasts longer than just for one day (compare Exodus 16:18-20). In addition, Exodus 16 does not even address the question of buying and selling.

Nehemiah 10 and 13 seem to apply more to the situation of a farmer’s market. If we were to apply it to occasionally eating out on the Sabbath, we would have to answer the following questions:

If Nehemiah were to prohibit eating out on the Sabbath, as it would violate, in principle, the prohibition to engage in commerce, then we could not stay at a hotel during the Sabbath (which Mr. Armstrong did on numerous occasions), as we would pay for the hotel’s services during that time (including eating complimentary breakfasts, room cleaning, using electricity), and we could never ride a bus to get to services (which Mr. Armstrong did habitually for a while). However, Christ made it very clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan that it is not wrong to stay in a hotel or an inn on the Sabbath and to pay for the services of the inn keeper (compare Luke 10:30, 33-35). Please note that in the parable, the man was severely beaten, and left almost half dead (verse 30). The Samaritan bandaged his wounds, brought him to the inn, took care of him (verse 34), departed the next day, giving the inn keeper money, and told him to take care of him, until he returned, when he would repay him (verse 35). Since the man was severely wounded and half-dead, he could not have been restored in just a week — which means, there would at least have been one Sabbath in between.

If Nehemiah were to prohibit eating out on the Sabbath, as it would violate, in principle, the prohibition to have a person labor for us, then we could not use a bus on the Sabbath to drive to services (as the bus driver “labors” for us); and hotel personnel could not do anything for us on the Sabbath (including cleaning our rooms and beds, bring us fresh towels, etc.).

If Nehemiah were to prohibit eating out on the Sabbath as it would violate, in principle, the prohibition to “work,” then one would have to answer the question why a person can “work” by preparing food on the Sabbath. For instance, Christ made it clear that it was not wrong to circumcise a baby on the Sabbath. This year, the Passover evening falls on the Sabbath, and work will have to be done during the ceremony. In addition, the Night to Be Much Observed falls this year on an annual Holy Day, following a weekly Sabbath. Some members of the Church of the Eternal God keep the Night to Be Much Observed in a nice, quiet restaurant, so as to reduce the work load on the women that night. Otherwise, the ladies would have to work during the weekly Sabbath to prepare meals for the evening. To prepare meals on Friday might pose several problems, as Friday, as the preparation day for the Sabbath, should be spent more properly to spiritually prepare for the Passover evening (in addition to finishing removing all leavening from the house, which must be completed this year by Friday evening).

In the early 70’s, it was the practice of the Church of God in Germany to meet together in a restaurant during the Night to Be Much Observed. This was always a most inspiring experience, and rightly observed, did not at all take away from the spirit of that occasion.

Some have said that we can eat out on an annual Holy Day, or on a weekly Sabbath, when we are traveling, but that we cannot eat out on a weekly Sabbath, when we are “within our gates.” However, there is no Scriptural evidence supporting this claim. Apart from the fact that the issues of having someone work for us, or engaging in business, would still be the same, the only Scripture occasionally used to justify the distinction is Deuteronomy 16:13. However, if anything, this passage would say the exact opposite (compare verse 14). Some have said that we can eat out on an annual Holy Day, as we are to “rejoice” on such a Day (compare Deuteronomy 16:14 and 15). However, this permission would equally apply to the weekly Sabbath, as we are to “rejoice” on the weekly Sabbath as well, which is a delight and a feast (compare Leviticus 23:2-3; Isaiah 58:13).

The religious leaders of Christ’s day made religion a burden (compare Matthew 23:4). However, in speaking of God’s commandments, John stated: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).

In conclusion, to teach that it is a sin to eat out in a restaurant on the weekly and annual Sabbaths is not Biblical.

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