Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Xmas or Christ-mass?

Good Evening. A Puritan’s Mind brings you the old time radio program The Wild Boar News Podcast from Sunny South Florida. Welcome, I’m Dr. Matthew McMahon.

There are many articles and papers written to show that Christmas, and other holidays like Easter, are thoroughly unbiblical, and are intended to sway the Christian community away from practicing such “man-made holy-days.” No doubt the authors of such papers have the best interest of the Christian Church in mind, and are not simply jumping upon the bandwagon of “reformed thought” in order to add another notch to their theological belt. However, when these articles begin to substantiate the claim that Christians should have nothing to do with the holiday of Christmas, the weightiest arguments they bring forth are two fold: 1) The appeal to the pagan roots of idolatry, and 2) the history and witness of the Christian Church.

First, writers appeal to the pagan roots of the holiday as a means to deter Christians from practicing such abominable vestiges even though the a 21st century Christmas is not blatantly practicing the same rites as the Babylonians or druids of old once did. For instance, the Christmas tree is set up in some corner of the living room, decorated and lighted, and gifts abound and grow under the tree as December 25th draws near. The appeal is then made to Jeremiah 10:3-4 where idolatry is condemned. It says, “For the customs of the peoples are futile; For one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple.” Here we see idolatry based in the practice of cutting down, setting up, and decorating a tree. Or they quote Jeremiah 2:20, “For of old I have broken your yoke and burst your bonds; And you said, "I will not transgress,' When on every high hill and under every green tree You lay down, playing the harlot.” Here the evergreen tree was used to promote false religion and idolatry. God was angered at the Israelites for their religious syncretism and their participation in these practices. Idolatry is certainly condemned by God and no Christian should ever be disobeying and transgressing the first table of the Law of God (commandments 1-4) by profaning the worship of God with idols.

The second appeal is made to the history of the church and its practices. Surely this is an important note to make, and that petition to such testimony is warranted. We could cite the reformers such as Luther and Calvin, the pastors of Geneva city-state, the Waldensen Confession, the Puritan Divines such as Edmund Calamy, Samuel Rutherford, James Durham, Increase Mather, Thomas Vincent, John Owen, Andrew Clarkson, Ebenezer Erskine, William Wilson, Alexander Moncrieff, James Fisher, John Willison, John Brown, Robert Shaw (and many more), The Westminster Confession, the Directory of Publick worship, The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and their confession, and various other creeds and confessions. These diligent writers will make it known that the church did not practice this holiday until sometime after the 4th century, and show varied proofs that most opposed the practice altogether, condemning it out rightly. Christ-mass following the Roman Catholic Practice is anti-biblical. Here we see the siege to discourage the practice and participation of Christmas is usually based on these 2 points. I would agree.

Before I give my own view, I would like to address the two avenues above which are the usual lines of reasoning in dissuading Christians from partaking in the Christmas holiday.

The first argument is certainly important. Christians are certainly never to participate in idolatrous worship. However, the case against Christmas on this point is not that Christians are out rightly bowing down to a tree and worshipping it, or profaning Christ by setting the Yule log on the fire, or desecrating the glory of God by exchanging gifts with one another. I have never met a Christian who blatantly setup a green tree in their home to practice idolatry. The argument presented in the first point above is not directed by those writers against people who setup idols in their home and bow down to them after supper for family devotions. Rather, the argument stems from the pagan practices which lie behind what Christians do with those Christmas trees, Yule logs, wreaths, etc. in days of old. Scripture everywhere condemns idolatry, but the argument that because something has pagan roots is no argument against Christmas. Why is this? Some may believe I am going to appeal to Romans 14 and the Christian’s liberty with holy days as the argument against this. But that passage does not address the situation rightly, and, as a matter of fact condemns such days. Rather, I appeal to 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. It asserts the following:

Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. 2And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. 3But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him. 4Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. 5For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), 6yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. 7However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse. 9But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. 10For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? 11And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? 12But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

Did Paul have any problem eating meat sacrificed to idols? Not at all. Paul ate the meat. Even though the meat had pagan origins, he still ate it. Even though the cow or bull was offered as a sacrifice for devils, slain and drained of its blood, cut up and used in the ceremony, Paul still had no problem eating it. Paul’s determent to eat meat sacrificed to idols was the consideration of a weaker brother in front of them knowing where it came from.

Christ-mass (yes I spelled it correctly) cannot be condemned because it has pagan origins. Christmas, as pagan as it might be, and as many pagan ideologies it may possess, cannot be condemned because 1000 years ago or 500 years ago or 5 days ago someone bowed down to the tree and committed idolatry with it. People hang picture frames through their home to display photos, made from wood – should that deter them since they knew it was once a tree, and someone 500 years ago worshipped trees? What about planting an evergreen tree in your yard? The Christian is not bound by such instances.

Secondly, the appeal to men may be helpful, but the opinions of men, no matter how renown they may be, should never be the basis of setting the Christian's conscience. Scripture should. The Christian conscience should be captive by the Word of God alone. However, Christians should always weigh and consider the prominent and distinct men of the church (the gifts of Christ to His chosen people) in difficult areas of theology and doctrine. It is certainly helpful and edifying to the soul to see what the councils, creeds, puritans and magisterial reformers thought. In the case at hand, most of church history is opposed to the involvement of the Christian in the celebration of Christ-mass. Even the city-state of Geneva in 1546 stated they would reprimand anyone who observed the day, believing it was a retreat to Romanism – the heretical monster they were breaking away from. (“Those who observe the Romish festivals or fasts shall only be reprimanded, unless they remain obstinately rebellious.” - Register of the Company of Pastors (Geneva, 1546)). However, the break from the Roman Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation is wholly another point to speak about in comparison to the Christmas celebration many desire to invoke today without any reference to the Catholic Church. I am unaware that Calvin ever wrote against Rudolph’s shiny red nose.

At this point you may wondering what my position is. It was needful to state the former arguments and positions before going onto what I believe is the crux of the argument against Christmas and other like “holy-days.” Knowing that one cannot utilize pagan origins, nor the opinions of men (perse), as arguments against the practice of Christmas, what biblical grounds would I have against it?

Take Christ out of Christ-mass and there you have it. If Christ was taken out of the picture altogether, XMAS would be acceptable to the Christian. Like Father’s day or Mother’s Day, holidays to exchange gifts and have parties together with family and friends is quite acceptable. The contention that arises is when one places Christ within the Christmass scheme to use it as a day to commemorate and remember His birth, that it becomes a direct violation of the Regulative Principle of worship. Upon the violation of this principle of worship lies the ground by which every Christian should see Christmass as abominable. It is true that extreme debt, excess financial strain, Christmas party debauchery, a-whoring after material wealth, unbridled children demanding certain gifts and throwing tempter tantrums when they are refused them, and the like, also are added into the bag of those things which Christians should oppose during the “jolly season.” However, it is upon the principle of God’s command in worship that Christmas becomes detestable.

I'm all for Frosty the Snowman, Jack Frost, winter wonderlands, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, exchanging presents, eating candy canes, enjoying really good egg-nog, stuffing stocking, watching "Elf" with Will Ferrel, or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer with that classic sung by Burl Ives, as well as all the other holiday festivities. Why? Well, they have nothing to do with Jesus Christ and the birth story, or the incarnation. They do not violate, in any way, the Regulative Principle. They are fictional characters.

If you are not familiar with the Regulative Principle, there are a host of articles on A Puritan’s Mind explaining it. Briefly, the Regulative Principle teaches that worship is construed only by the direct commands of God in His Word. You, friend, don’t have the right to set up a day of worship about Jesus Christ that God has not set up. God chose the Lord’s Day. There is nothing about Christ-mass in Scripture. To allow into worship what is not expressly commanded in the Bible, whether that is for a day or for the regular Sunday service, is false worship. It is a worship fabricated by men, and this violates the principles of worship that God has commanded. For instance, if men say that drama or mime is acceptable in worship because God has not expressly commanded that it not be done, they are violating the Regulative Principle. God expresses states what He does command and does not need to expressly forbid what He does not.

Scriptural examples abound for this principle abound, and you can go and study the longer article version of this podcast under Christmas on the What’s New Page in order to read it and ponder it slowly.

The principle is ratified in passages such as Deuteronomy 4:1-2 which says, “Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I teach you to observe, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers is giving you. You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.” Jesus said, “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. (Matt. 15:8-9)” When men introduce their own ideas into worship, they have violated the Regulative Principle that Christ has given. Paul calls this “will-worship” in Colossians 2:23 which states, “These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, [translated literally “will-worship”] false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.” Here we see that self-imposed religion, or the worship of one’s own will, violates the principles God has expressly set.

Secondly, we must define whether or not Christmass actually falls under the category of worship. Is setting aside a certain day, once a year to honor Christ’s birth, a violation of the Regulative Principle and worship? Apart from asking this question, the Christian should be the first to realize that giving gifts, Santa Claus, Christmas Trees, Yule Logs and the like, have absolutely nothing to do with the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The closest in any of these is the giving of gifts, but we do not give gifts to Christ as the Magi did (which was for a specific purpose) but rather, we give them to one another. How is this honoring to Christ? I have yet found anyone who can justify any of these things in a lawful connection to Christ and His Word. It just does not exist. Instead, they are following, blindly, the Roman Catholic institution of the Christ-mass. Father’s, check your church history before making Christmas day to teach your children about Christ’s birth, or disregard it if you are trying to be more Roman Catholic.

If one were to take one day a month to meditate on the incarnation in their private devotions, there would be no contention. It is the formalizing of a specific day to honor Christ which is the problem. Public or private worship is still to be regulated by God’s Word and not the imaginations of men’s minds.

I’ve received a number of letters, much like St. Nick, about Christ-mas. OK, they were really emails, not letters. But in today's technologically savvy world, it’s much the same thing. No, no, these are not about what people would like for Christ-mas in terms of presents, but they are wondering whether they ought to celebrate Christ-mas at all at HOME apart from the church, or create some special time at HOME apart from anything the church fails to do or not do during "advent" and Christ-mas time. In thinking about how many Christians deal with "Santa Claus" and all that Xmas represents at HOME, there are some considerations to take into account that way heavily on this idea of "the holiday of Christ-mas." Christians must continually think about how ideas that are formulated in our society affect the way culture works in and out of the church, and in and out of the home. The best case scenario is that a godly church does not mimic the world or its culture, but rather arrests that culture with the Gospel. In the instance of holidays and special days that may be part of the American Culture, or any culture for that matter, still, the Gospel should arrest those ideologies and submit them to a godly action.

One must remember how things usually work out - what the church teaches usually filters into the homes of Christians . (Godly teaching should affect the church in a godly way, and unbiblical teaching or error hinders the work of the church). For example, if corporate worship includes something that violates the Regulative Principle of Worship, Christians that have thought through what God requires of His people in church should never teach their children, or anyone else in their family, that error. Parents must help their families "screen" things like that, even if it is an error propagated by a godly pastor. However, if one has a church that teaches that Christmas is not OK for corporate worship, then there should be no problem whatsoever developing some family "traditions" during the holiday season that surround things at HOME, and not church, on Christ's incarnation. Those traditions, though, ought never to include "paganistic ideas" or that Christians should "recapture" those paganistic ideas for the sake of family fun. For example, the Christmas tree, in this instance, is a pagan religious idea (simply put) that has nothing to do, whatsoever, with Christ's birth. Christians should not include Christ-mas trees in their homes if they are going to incorporate them into some religiously significant event. But teaching children, or family members about Christ's birth during the month of December is also not prohibited by the Scriptures in any way. One simply must be careful not to equate the "worldly ideas" or "paganistic ideas" of Christ-mas with Jesus Christ. He simply does not belong there. The two do not mix. One could, for argument's sake, teach their family about the birth of Jesus Christ at ANY time of the year. (And they should!)

Some people believe Xmas trees, mistletoe, Santa, Rudolph, the Bumble and Frosty the Snowman are paganistic idols. They believe that taking those things out of Xmas and turning things to Christ, or introducing foreign ideas that have no place in the Christology of Jesus Christ to their family at "Christmas", is OK. It is really the reverse. Santa is as much an "idol" as Nemo was in Finding Nemo, or "Jiminy Cricket" was in Peter Pan. If one has a problem with Santa, or his elves, then one must accordingly have a problem with any other fictional character from Johnny Tremain to the legends behind Davy Crocket, Superman, or Kit Kittredge. However, if parents are using Santa and his gifts to lie to their children, that is a very different matter. It is sinful against both their children and Jesus Christ to lie. Parents should not lie to their children at any time; especially about a fat man in a red suit that rewards children based on works.

If someone wants to create some religiously significant time with their family as it is dictated in the Bible, there is no sin there. If, for example, a father wants to use the month of July each year to teach his family a four week teaching on the cross of Christ, he should do it. It could become a family tradition to do so. If a mother wanted to teach her children about the Holy Spirit in November, then by all means, she should do so. Christians, however, should be cautious to "equate" what is done at home with what the church will wrongly give a "stamp of approval" for during the season of "Christ-mas". In other words, "Jesus is the reason for the Season" is just a load of bunk. Jesus Christ is not only Lord of the season, but He is Lord of every day and every minute of every day, and, in fact, upholds everything in every moment and is the One in whom "we live and move and have our being" every day of the year. His incarnation extends to every moment of every time in the monumental significance of human and creative redemption. The incarnation is not just for December 25th, July 8th or March 12th, dates that have absolutely no religious significance whatsoever, unless they fall on the Lord's Day and are, in fact, observed as the Lord's Day. Christians must be careful about how they use something lawful and good at a time when it can be misconstrued. The incarnation is lawful, good and theologically necessary for salvation. But December may be a "cliché" month to visit that topic. One may measure their bondage to that cliché by their ability or non-ability to use ANOTHER month to teach their family about the incarnation. Reader, could you celebrate the meanings that you hold in Christ-mas in, say, August, or February? If not, you may be more bound to the secularization of Romanism than you may be willing to believe.

This writer continues to vote for taking Christ out of XMAS so there is no confusion on the issue, and instead teaches about the incarnation and birth of Christ ALL YEAR ROUND. In that way, every "theological" base is covered, and one may still be able to enjoy "Elf" on TV during December, a candy cane or two, and a nice honey baked ham during the secular holiday of Christ-mas - a fun time if one uses it lawfully.