Can a Christian use the internet on the Sabbath day?


This article tries to give some directions, advice and insight to Christians who have concerns about using the internet on the Sabbath day. Can the internet be used on the Lord's day?

I will not touch on subjects like what day of the week is the Sabbath: the New Testament makes it abundantly clear the Lord changed the day from the seventh to the first day of the week, our Sunday. Nor will discuss whether a Christian still has to rest on this day: resting on the Sabbath is not something that was just for the Jews, it is God himself who set the example when he created the world and rested on the seventh day. The Sabbath was created for men, Mark 2:27, not just for the Jews. Christ is still Lord of the Sabbath, Matthew 12:8.

In this article I will discuss using the internet from two perspectives: is there a usage that is compatible with resting, and secondly, do I not cause someone else to work for me if I use the internet. A Christian should always consider both, as per the fourth commandment, not only we should rest, but also those who we employ, and we should not hinder or prevent them from resting too.

I'll start with the last issue, then discuss the first, and end with some directions and advice.

Do we cause anyone to work for us when we use the internet on the Sabbath?

Obviously this is a technical question: if we use a website, do we cause anyone to work for us? The answer is simply no: the volume of data and the speeds involved would make this impossible. So the internet works without any human involvement. It is like a giant machine.

In a perfect world that would be answer enough. But we all know that things break down. What if the internet was so fragile that things broke down every hour, so there were people repairing it every day of the week. That certainly would be cause for concern, and probably sufficient for Christians to avoid using the internet. But that is not the case: every outage is a problem. Companies work very hard to avoid them. Fixing an outage after the fact is too late. So the internet uses an engineering technique called replication, or duplication: instead of using just one piece of hardware, it uses two. Or three, or more. If one breaks down, the other one still works, so no one notices a problem. And the broken piece can be repaired at leisure.

No doubt many companies replace broken infrastructure on the Sabbath, but that is not necessary. We live in the expectation that a day will come when Christianity will be almost universal. And Sabbath obeisance will be universal in those days too. And companies will find that they can easily postpone unnecessary repairs till another day of the week.

On the other hand: some repairs may be necessary and in our days can be counted under the acts of necessity and mercy. The internet is used by hospitals, the police, and the military. Doctors use it to send scans to other hospitals, request advice, or prescribe medicine. The internet is used for remote monitoring and managing of patients. Examples are managing the doses of patients with severe asthma or remote ECG monitoring; this is known as telemedicine. When the police arrests a criminal, the internet is used to query various databases, such as fingerprint scans, license plates, or to check if the particular person has any criminal history. The military uses it to send reports from satellites and other monitoring devices across the globe to facilities which process this information. The internet is close to becoming a utility like electricity: so necessary for modern life, that it will cause widespread issues if it does not function.

The internet can also be used to limit necessary work: if a doctor can send a scan from his computer to another doctor, there is no need for someone to take a scan, and drive or take it somewhere. There are many more examples, especially around caring for the sick, so it can be a labour saving device too.

Do we work when we use the internet on the Sabbath?

Readers might have noticed that in the previous section I only looked at the internet as a technical infrastructure. It's like a road. On the Sabbath you can use that road to drive to church or to a shop. The first is laudable, the second strictly forbidden.

So the answer to the question if we work when we use the internet on the Sabbath is: it depends. It depends on how we use it.

But first: can you avoid using the internet? That might be much harder than people think. Take for example the phone. More and more people are using internet telephony (VOIP). If you have such a phone system, your phone will use the internet for various autonomous activities, even if you do not make any calls or receive any calls. Your mobile phone will use the internet. Your computer will use the internet to fetch security updates every day, usually automatically and without any user involvement. A modern fridge even uses the internet!

To really avoid the internet is already hard, but might become even impossible, unless you halt technological progress and live a life like the Amish. And in emergencies even they will go to the hospital which uses the internet, indicating they're serious, unless things get serious.

But I don't think computers using the internet by themselves and communicating among themselves violates the Sabbath. We are to rest, our employees are to rest, and the beasts of burden are to rest. The command does not apply to our machines. And when machines are used for a purpose compatible with the Sabbath, no further complication arises.

So the issue is in using the internet consciously: activities like reading email or browsing the web. And there we arrive at how we use it. Take email for example. I find it hard to believe that it is possible to read email without violating the fourth commandment: no email is so urgent it cannot wait a day. And on holiday people typically try to get away from their email, so certainly on the day of rest, one should too.

Email is like reading mail. The internet is only secondary. And so it is for social uses of the internet. That the internet is used, is irrelevant, so in my opinion social uses of the internet are to be avoided: if we use Skype (or other forms of “chatting” or talking) on the Sabbath with friends far-away, because we have been too busy with our work during the week, this seems to me contrary to the spirit of the commandment. It's a day where our time is spend in religious activities, for visiting the sick, and for rest, not for catch-up of things which rank lower on our importance scale during the week.

The final issue is web browsing, or what most people would call “using the internet.” Obviously shopping or catching up with the political events of the past week are not compatible with a day devoted to God. But in my opinion using an internet dictionary, reading a religious book or listening to a sermon are compatible.

To summarise: my main point is that I don't believe the internet by itself determines if the thing is incompatible with the command to keep the Sabbath, and actually quite irrelevant to answer that question. The question is: what are we doing, and is what we are doing compatible with keeping the Sabbath.

Directions and advice

Despite my answer in the previous section that using the internet by itself is not incompatible with keeping the Sabbath, it introduces new complexities, which those, who desire to keep the Sabbath, might not be aware of. So in this section I want to give some further guidance to those that use the internet on the Sabbath for a purpose that is compatible with the Sabbath. Because even if all this is granted, there are still cases where I think caution is advised.

The fourth commandment forbids buying and selling. And the crux of the matter is that we might be engaging in buying and selling if we use the internet on the Sabbath, even if our purpose is well-ordered.

For example if we use metered internet, if we pay for using the internet every time we use it, we are engaged in buying, and our provider is engaged in selling. To determine if this is the case you need to answer the question if you pay more if you use the internet on the Sabbath or not. If you do, I am of the opinion that the internet should not be used in this particular case. This situation is not common. Most families are on a fixed price plan, and pay a fixed amount per month. But it occurs with certain mobile phone plans. If you pay a monthly flat fee, you would not be engaged in buying or selling. But if you are on a prepaid plan you might be.

There is another situation: if you listen to a sermon on the internet, and the site you are accessing is ‘ad-supported’ you also engage in buying and selling: the site you visit makes money from visitors, even on the Sabbath. In such cases I suggest the sermon is downloaded before the Sabbath.

Be aware that ad supported sites are frequent so careful consideration must be given when using sites. And such sites include dictionaries or books from Puritans. It is probably a matter of debate if using ad-block software (such as Adblock Plus for FireFox) is sufficient.

Finally, the most complex issue has to do with timezones. Most people in Europe are only vaguely aware of timezones, definitely more in America, and certainly those in the Pacific. What I mean is that it might not be Sabbath at your particular place, but it might be for the owner of the site. Or vice versa, it might be Sabbath at your place, but not for the owner.

The issue arises when listening to music over the internet. Listening to a classical music station on the Sabbath does not appear to me compatible with the purpose of the fourth commandment, but what when we do so on a Monday, but the music station itself is in a location where it is still Sabbath? We are listening to classical music on a Monday, but the host is announcing or discussing music while breaking the Sabbath.Those who delight in the Sabbath will seek to avoid such usage.

So it might be surprising, but in my opinion the internet can cause us to break the Sabbath while it is not the Sabbath. The same issue arises with social use (Skype) or online business meetings. The internet user beware!

It is my desire to be of service to those seeking council on this matter. Please feel free to contact me.

An end of all perfection
here have I seen, O God:
But as for thy commandement,
it is exceeding broad.