A Reformed Pastor's Thoughts on the Observance of Christmas
The last two weeks of each year are not easy ones for many Reformed Christians. Our culture's Christmas observances make us feel extremely uncomfortable. We loathe the materialism and worldliness associated with Christmas. We are troubled that so many churches feel the need to modify their worship services and physical appearances in order to "celebrate" the season. People sometimes ask why our church does not hold candlelight vigils on Christmas Eve, perform Christmas cantatas one Sunday near Christmas, or decorate a Christmas tree. Most Christians cannot imagine what could be wrong with these innocent traditions. Family members and friends view reformed Christians who have opted out of Christmas observance at all levels with intense suspicion. In addition, differences of practice within the Reformed community often cause us to view one another with a censorious attitude or hurt feelings. For these reasons and others, it has been my observation that many Reformed Christians experience anxiety and uncertainty respecting the Christian's proper attitude toward Christmas. As a Reformed pastor who has struggled with the issue, I have a few thoughts to share with you on the subject. The majority of them are mainstream Reformed principles respecting the inappropriateness of observing Christmas as a religious holiday. It is also my conviction, however, that Scripture nowhere forbids family gatherings, feast days, giving of gifts, and home decoration. These are matters of preference or taste that are not under the province of the regulative principle of worship, and provided they are observed according to the general guidelines of modesty, sobriety, and good taste taught in the Bible, are legitimate for the Christian to enjoy as one of God's many gifts to his people and an expression of the Christian liberty granted to us through Christ Jesus.
The Observance of Christmas as a Religious Holiday
The regulative principle of worship forbids our observance of extra-Lord's Day holy days.
The Church has one King and Head, Jesus Christ, who rules over her by his Word (Eph. 5:25). In that Word, we learn in both Testaments that God is jealous over his worship (Ex. 20:3-5). We may only worship God in the manner he has commanded (cf. Deut. 12:32; Lev. 10:1ff.; 1 Chron. 15:13; Mark 7:6.7; Col. 2:18-23). As our Confession teaches, "But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture" (Ch. 21, Para. 1). Under the new covenant, by the example and teaching of the apostles of Jesus Christ, the Church is to meet for worship on the first day of the week, Sunday, now called the Lord's Day (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1,2; Rev. 1:10). The theological reason behind the change of our weekly Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday is the significance of Christ's resurrection for world history. We now build God's kingdom on the foundation of his accomplished work and in the grace he continually provides. Sunday is thus our only and weekly holy day, the day prescribed by God for her solemn assemblies of worship. Nowhere in Scripture are we commanded to worship God by setting aside a special day to commemorate the observance of Christmas, Easter, or any other holy day except the Lord's Day. Accordingly, we must reject the observance of these in the Church as inconsistent with the will of our Head Jesus Christ and unsanctioned by his apostles. Despite the prevalence of the practice in evangelical churches all other the world, we cannot in good conscience participate in the religious observance of Christmas. We neither censure those who disagree with us nor view them with animosity. We humbly affirm this position because we sincerely believe it is the one that our Savior dictates to us in his inspired, all-sufficient Word. We also mourn the doctrinal laxity that is directly responsible for errors in worship and practice in many evangelical and Reformed churches.
The Westminster Confession of Faith and the entire Reformed tradition do not allow the observance of extra-Lord's Day holy days in the Church of Jesus Christ.
In so affirming, our denomination fully concurs with the Westminster Divines' statement respecting the "Days and Places for Public Worship." "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." In the same place, the Directory states: "Nevertheless, it is lawful and necessary, upon special emergent occasions, to separate a day or days for publick fasting or thanksgiving, as the several eminent and extraordinary dispensations of God's providence shall administer cause and opportunity to his people." Some has seen in this statement an opening for the introduction of the observance of Christmas and even the liturgical calendar in Reformed congregations. This small passage, however, does not sanction such observances. Only special fasting and thanksgiving days are sanctioned, being commended and recorded in Scripture and practiced by God's people in all ages, are allowed. These are clearly dictated by the special needs of God's people as they face particular, extraordinary needs. Regular days like Christmas and Easter do not fit into this description, and therefore, this passage does not support their observance. Our Confession, Catechisms, and Directories forbid the religious observance of Christmas or any other holy day because Scripture does not enjoin them upon us. As a group, the Reformers of the 16-17th centuries rejected the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church, with its multitude of holy days, feasts, fasts, observances, and rituals. While they did not dispute that that corrupted communion practiced these for 1,000 years, they correctly denied that the observance of holy days other than the Lord's Day was practiced in the apostolic church, commanded in Scripture, or binding upon the consciences of Christians. Through their influence and example, the Church returned to a much simpler worship service, in which the preaching of the Word was the focus. The life of the Church was no longer dictated by the liturgical calendar but by the teaching and example of Scripture.
The clearest Reformed statement on the Christian's observance of holy days was developed by the great American Presbyterian of the last century, Dr. Samuel Miller. In his "Presbyterianism the truly Primitive and Apostolical Constitution of the Church of Christ," he wrote: "We are persuaded that there is no scriptural warrant for such observances, either from precept or example. There is no hint in the New Testament that such days were either observed or recommended by the Apostles, or by any of the churches in their time.....We believe that the Scriptures not only do not warrant the observance of such days, but they positively discountenance it. Let any one impartially weigh Colossians 2:16 and also, Galatians 4:9,10,11; and they say whether these passages do not evidently indicate, that the inspired Apostle disapproved of the observance of such days.....It being evident, then, that stated fasts and festivals have no divine warrant, and that their use under the New Testament economy is a mere human invention; we may ask those who are friendly to their observance, what limits ought to be set to their adoption and use in the Christian Church? If it be lawful to introduce five such days for stated observance, why not ten, twenty, or five score? A small number were, at an early period, brought into use by serious men, who thought they were thereby rendering God service, and extending the reign of religion. But one after another was added, as superstition increased, until the calendar became burdened with between two and three hundred fasts and festivals, or saint's days, in each year; thus materially interfering with the claims of secular industry, and loading the worship of God with a mass of superstitious observances, equally unfriendly to the temporal and the eternal interests of men. Let the principle once be admitted, that stated days of religious observance, which God has no where commanded, may properly be introduced into the Christian ritual, and, by parity of reasoning, every one who, from good motives, can effect the introduction of a new religious festival, is at liberty to do so. Upon this principle was built up the enormous mass of superstition which now distinguishes and corrupts the Romish Church."
The Jewish argument from the Feast of Purim does not support the religious observance of Christmas.
Support for the Church's observance of Christmas and Easter in her worship and rituals is sometimes sought from the Jewish Feast of Purim that was observed by the Jews from the time of Esther to the present (cf. Esther 9:18-32). This feast commemorates Esther's deliverance of the Jewish people from the malicious plot of Haman. God in Scripture, the argument states, did not positively command this feast yet the Jewish people felt the liberty to institute and observe it to this very day. Therefore, the Bible allows the Church to institute new observances and holy days as she deems necessary or useful. In response to this argument, we ought to observe that nations and peoples in general are free to set apart special days to commemorate great deliverances of God in their history. God has never placed the same restrictions upon national days of feasting and thanksgiving that he has placed upon his worship. In verses 29-32 of the aforementioned passage, Esther and Mordecai describe the feast in terms of the established Jewish practice of national periods of fasting and lamentation. Even in the theocratic nation of Israel, kings, prophets, and priests could call for special periods of thanksgiving for deliverances and lamenting for sin. These days were observed corporately by the nation and were frequently joined with sacrifices. The nation, could not, however, institute new holy days or rituals for temple worship that God had not commanded. By analogy, while Christians observe the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving as national days commemorating God's many mercies to our nation, we do not observe them as holy days or incorporate them into our worship. We are free to do the former, but we lack any positive command to do the latter. We might also stress that simply because an observance or practice was part of the old economy, this is not an argument for its observation in the new. We may as well assume then that animal sacrifices, a human priesthood, and others old covenant shadows are relevant to the new covenant worship of God's people. Samuel Miller summarizes this argument ably: "The observance of Fasts and Festivals, by divine direction, under the Old Testament economy, makes nothing in favor of such observances under the New Testament dispensation. That economy was no longer binding, or even lawful, after the New Testament Church was set up. It were just as reasonable to plead for the present use of the Passover, the incense, and the burnt offerings of the Old economy, which were confessedly done away with by the coming of Christ, as to argue in favour of human inventions, bearing some resemblance to them, as binding in the Christian Church."
The observances of popular American Christianity are not a binding model for our worship, doctrine, or practice.
But hasn't American Christianity always observed Christmas and Easter as holy days of worship and ritual for the Church and God's people? No. Samuel Miller's position was characteristic of American Christianity from the landing of the Puritans and the establishment of the Presbyterian Church here in 1729 until the mid- to late 19th century. Only then did such observances creep into the Reformation churches. Godly pastors and Christians strenuously resisted the trend. Moral and doctrinal laxity, theological liberalism, and the social gospel are responsible for the introduction of these into the worship of God. Despite the regularity with which Christmas and Easter are observed in American churches today, we must ask ourselves, "Is the practice of God's people and acceptable worship to be derived from the traditions of men or from the principles of God's Word?" Jesus' words in Mark 7 speak clearly to the issue at hand: "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men." Undoubtedly these convictions are far from mainstream at the present. Adherence to them will gain little respect in today's liberal ecclesiastical environment but rather the charge of fanaticism, coldness, and narrowness. This is an unfortunate and difficult cross to bear. However, faithfulness to our God and love for his Word demand that we reject innovations in his worship, the observance of extra-Lord's Day holy days in his Church, and other rituals that are not commanded in Scripture or clearly given as models for our new covenant practice.
Christmas is a good season for the Church to present the whole counsel of God pertaining to the person and work of Christ.
Christmas is undoubtedly the highlight of the year for many millions of people, young and old, in our culture. Christian and non-Christian alike participate in it. While the Reformed Churches should not observe it as a religious holiday, and should not make additions in their worship services not commanded in Scripture, we cannot be silent on the issue. This is because a fundamental plank of the Christian worldview is openly debated, discussed, and celebrated during the month of December ~ the Virgin Birth of Christ, the Son of God. The situation is the same at Easter -- practically everyone in our culture except the most ardent unbeliever attends some sort of religious services on this day and pays some lip service to the resurrection of Christ from the dead (however understood). The Reformed churches cannot keep silence when these two events are openly discussed. We must preach passionately on these subjects as time and circumstances allow. What right have we to complain that the culture is learning about these only in sound bites from broadly evangelical churches, unless we are zealously inviting our friends and neighbors to learn the whole counsel of God concerning the significance of the birth and resurrection of our Lord. We take the same view of elections, national disasters, and other issues that touch directly or indirectly on some point of doctrine of Scripture. We want the citizens of the United States of America to turn to the Reformed churches to learn the biblical principles related to all these areas. We greatly desire for men and women to be confronted with the claims of the powerful Word of God, repent of their sins, and submit to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Accordingly, this past Spring I preached a series of sermons on the Resurrection around the Easter season. I did not adopt this precedent in an effort to move toward gaudy Easter services or introduce novelties into the worship of God. I did so because if we do not preach, teach, and speak to the important issues and controversies at hand, as long as the Scriptures have a direct bearing on them, we are not being relevant, practical, and useful servants of Jesus Christ. We are not being a light set on a hill, pointing the world and many churches away from the darkness of will worship, mysticism, and autonomy, to the glorious liberty of the perfect law of God revealed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
The Dangers of Observing Christmas as a Religious Holiday
It lessens the glory, importance, and centrality of the Christian Lord's Day.
The most dangerous aspect of the observance of Christmas and Easter as religious holy days is its inevitable tendency to undermine the centrality of the Lord's Day in the Christian's life. This is the day ordained by Christ and observed by his apostles for rest, worship, and works of mercy. By divine appointment, this day is to be the highlight of the Christian's week. This is the day we celebrate the glories of Christ's birth, life, death, and resurrection. By faith, when we observe this day unto the Lord, we enter into Christ's rest, his finished work, and receive strength to live for him throughout the proceeding week. By elevating the Christmas or Easter seasons as "special or holy days," we undermine the uniqueness and all-sufficiency of the Lord's Day. It alone is our special or holy day of the year. I am convinced that those who enter fully into the privileges and duties of this day will find other "special" seasons wholly unnecessary (cf. Isa. 58:13,14). Likewise, it is our neglect and misuse of the Lord's Day that has led the evangelical Church to look to other special times to fill the void of missing joy, spirituality, and peace. For the excitement, satisfaction, and purpose that many find in the Christmas or Easter season is enjoyed by faithful Christians throughout the year, as they renew each week the glories of Christ's glorious person and saving work. Do we need practical proof of this dangerous tendency? The same Christians who view it as a sacrilege to shop, work, or garden on Christmas Day do not hesitate to engage in these and similar activities on the weekly Lord's Day. Everything is closed on Christmas and Easter, while commercial interests continue unabated even in the Christian community fifty-two Sundays each year. Most children who grow up in churches that celebrate Christmas find much more emotional and spiritual excitement on the Sunday near Christmas than that during the God-ordained Lord's Day each week of the year. We do well to heed Dr. Miller's wisdom on this point: "The observance of uncommanded holy-days is ever found to interfere with the due sanctification of the Lord's day. Adding to the appointments of God is superstition. And superstition has ever been found unfriendly to genuine obedience. Its votaries, like the Jews of old, have ever been found more tenacious of their own inventions, of traditionary dreams, than of God's revealed code of duty. Accordingly, there is, perhaps, no fact more universal and unquestionable, than that the zealous observers of stated fasts and festivals are characteristically lax in the observance of that one day which God has eminently set apart for himself, and on the sanctification of which all the vital interests of practical interests are suspended." I hold it to be an unassailable point of practical piety that if pastors, parents, and employers encouraged the proper observance of the Lord's Day with all its significance and joys, our congregations, children, and laborers will not need or desire extra "holy" times of the year that are not commanded for us to observe anywhere in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament.
It compromises the purity of our worship.
Worship is the highlight of the Christian’s life. Above all he is glad when it is time to enter the house of the Lord and offer his sacrifices of praise (cf. Ps. 122:1; Heb. 13:15). He is also concerned that the worship he brings is consistent with the Lord's revealed will. He knows that only God can inform us of the manner and means by which he is acceptably worship. This commitment is overturned when we introduce Christmas and Easter observances into the Church. For God has no where commanded us to observe them. In Pauline words, it is "will worship," i.e., worship that originates in the mind of man rather than the will of God (cf. Col. 2:18-23). Tragically, many Christians equate emotional satisfaction with acceptable worship. We must insist, however, that "sincerity is not the test of acceptability with God." Simply because it makes us feel good, or we believe that God would be pleased with it in his worship, does not entitle us to introduce it. Even supposedly "worthy" causes such as the birth or resurrection of Jesus Christ do not permit us to usurp God’s authority over his worship by creating special remembrances, rituals, and holy days in his Church. Therefore, all who are interested in promoting purity of worship among God's people will resist the introduction of holy days, liturgical calendars, or other interesting rituals into his worship. We do so not out of narrowness or meanness but out of sincere love for God and a desire to bring out worship into conformity to his revealed will. We cannot forget Jesus' words in Mark 7 ~ our worship is vain, i.e., useless, worthless, conceited, when we worship God according to human traditions rather than his Scriptures.
It jeopardizes the Church's moral leadership in society.
The Church is to be a city set on a hill (Matt. 5:14). Although her salvation is not yet consummated, she is already beautiful through Christ's righteousness, filled with his Spirit, and endowed with every gift and grace necessary to accomplish Christ's command to disciple the nations (cf. 1 Cor. 1:30; 12:13; Eph. 4:8-16). In standing for the interests of Christ in this world, it is necessary for her stand for him in a way that shows submission to his Lordship. We are to set apart Christ as Lord of our own thinking and living as we defend his truth in the world (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15). Only then can we anticipate God’s blessing upon our discipleship efforts. How does this principle apply to Christmas observance as a religious holiday? Simply stated, it is wrong to adopt evangelistic means that deny the very truth we are seeking to defend. Christmas and Easter observance by the Church is often viewed as one way we can "reach" out to the world with the truth of the gospel. Does Scripture allow us, however, to adopt worship observances and practices that are not commanded in order to win the lost? No. Does the end justify the means? No. Does winning the lost mean we compromise the regulative principle of worship? No. In so doing, we are living in rebellion against our Head ostensibly to win people to him. This is inconsistent. It is, however, far worse than inconsistency. It is a blatant denial of a fundamental tenet of the Christian worldview that true salvation entails submission to Jesus Christ as Lord in every area of life (Rom. 10:9). In observing Christmas and Easter as religious holy days we are compromising the truth. We thereby set an example of insubordination. We lose our moral high ground when we so act. How can we call the world to repent of rebellion against the will of God when our own worship practices demonstrate the same sort of autonomy? The world will look at us and say that we are denying our own principles. "You tell me that I must submit to Christ, yet you adopt principles of worship and religious observances that he has not commanded." The Church is called upon to leaven society, not by living as closely as possible to its principles, but in pointing the way to escape from them through submission to Jesus and his Word. When the Church displays the same sort of materialism, gaudiness, and giddiness as encouraged by the merchants and entertainers of our society, we not pointing the way to righteousness, but walking with the unbeliever in the path of darkness and unbelief.
The Compromising Tendencies of Current Christian Christmas Observance
It presents only one side of the gospel story.
One extremely dangerous aspect of Christmas and Easter observances in the Church is the tendency of many preachers and churches to present the Christian message in "sound bites" that are palatable to unbelievers or infrequent attendants of divine worship. Some Christians undoubtedly feel that one advantage of Christmas worship services is the likelihood that unbelievers will frequent services on that day and "get saved." Then, all sorts of efforts are made to accommodate their tastes and expectations. The message is generally one of "good will" toward all men. Now it is true that the gospel message, or for the sake of presentation, the "Christmas" story, does reveal God’s goodwill. We must never lose our wonderment at the angelic announcement of the birth of the Son of God and Savior of the world. However, a careful study of the angelic announcement in Luke 2 reveals that God’s good will is toward those upon whom his favor rests, i.e., his elect. The birth of Christ does not hold good tidings for everyone. Mary, Zecharias, and John the Baptist, the original preachers of the "Christmas" story, understood that the gospel message holds a message of judgment for those who remain in unbelief (cf. Luke 1:50-55,71,72; 3:15-17). Many modern presentations of the Christmas story are thus exposed as Arminian in their tendencies. They do not emphasize the particularity of the gospel -- that Christ came to save his people. While the offer of the gospel is universal, the intent of Christ’s saving work is very specific -- to save his people from their sins (cf. Matt. 1:21; John 10:11,15,25-28). Accordingly, "Christmas" messages that stress the universality of God’s love often miss the mark. They interpret the birth of Christ as indicating that God loves everyone the same, and that God has a wonderful plan for every person. This is wrong. It is a denial of God’s judgment against the reprobate and of the particularity of his redemptive love for his elect, those whom he chose in Christ before the foundation of the world (cf. Eph. 1:3-11). I am not surprised by this turn of events. While bad doctrine leads to faulty worship, it is equally true that adoption of unbiblical worship will adversely impact the proclamation of sound doctrine. In the final analysis, our efforts to gain the lost through Christmas and Easter services in the Church are often accompanied by a truncated gospel that is confusing, one-sided, and impotent to do the sinner any saving good.
It misrepresents the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Contemplation of the Son of God being born in a stable is indeed a reason for the Christian to stand in awe and rejoice in the faithfulness of God. I do not object to the Christmas tradition reminding us of this great reality that continues to shape the course of human history. However, I am afraid that very often the Church gives a very imbalanced view of the Christ-child during the Christmas season. The Bible does emphasize that Jesus had a human lineage; he was a son of Abraham. It presents him at the same time as the Son of God. Some Christmas presentations exaggerate either his manhood or his deity. We must have both in order to be saved. It is not uncommon to hear that we should allow the love and mystery of the birth of Christ to characterize our thinking and living all the year. This is imbalanced and dangerous. The Christ-child had a mission to fulfill that was not all love, sweetness, and celebration. He had a cross to bear. We must not forget that Jesus grew up. When he did, he drove the moneychangers from the temple, ridiculed the Pharisees for their wicked perversions of God’s law, and spoke of the need for faith and repentance. Those early believers saw past the baby to the reality behind the baby -- that God had become incarnate through the Virgin in order to save his people from their sins and judge all enemies of his kingdom.
It tends toward mysticism.
The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines mysticism as "belief characterized by self-delusion or dreamy confusion of thought." It is just this sort of thinking that is encouraged through the observance of Christmas or Easter as religious holy days. These are the times of year when we encouraged to "capture the magic of the season," have the wonder of a child, and expect miraculous transformations of our lives. One often hears the dangerous teaching that you must find Christmas in your own heart and other such emotional, mystical drivel. Popular Christian musicians are notoriously guilty of this sort of mysticism. While neither the Bible nor the Reformed faith are against emotions, excitement, or wonder at the saving love of God in Jesus Christ, they deny that the way to emotional fulfillment is to walk around in a "Christmas haze" that causes one to lose focus on the fundamental duties of the Christian life and become absorbed in the "spirit of the season." This breeds dissatisfaction with our normal lives and callings as God’s people. It tends toward unrealistic expectations, depression, and frustration. This is the dreamy confusion of thought that leads many churches to mix pagan traditions and Christian teaching in their services and abandon the passionate proclamation of the whole counsel of God in favor of musical productions and stage plays. One overall tendency of Christmas observance as a religious holy day is the impression it leaves that the normal privileges God grants to us and the ongoing Lord’s Day worship are insufficient to meet our emotional needs. The Christmas season, however, will not change you or make you a happier person. Only the grace of God working through the ordinary means he has provided in the Word, sacraments, and prayer can make you happy, balanced, and fulfilled.
A Reformed Perspective on the Family Observance of Christmas
Christians must distinguish stated worship that is regulated by the positive commandments of Scripture and daily Christian living in which liberty of conscience is given by Jesus Christ.
If we are to gain clarity of thinking and peace of conscience in the area of Christmas observance, we must make a careful distinction between the religious observance of Christmas as a holy day and the observance of Christmas in our families and homes. Many Reformed Christians erroneously believe that if something is not commanded as a part of our religious worship, it is likewise forbidden in our daily lives. This is not an accurate application of the regulative principle of worship. The theological mooring of the RPW is that religious worship is a special activity in which we engage as Christians that is specifically regulated by Scripture. If we cannot find support for a given practice in the Bible, it is off-limits to us. Daily living is not bound by the same type of command. In Christ Jesus we are free to do whatever we desire provided our desires are not forbidden by Scripture, either expressly or by necessary consequence. We do not need positive commandment to eat biscuits, go to the zoo, or read a novel before it is permissible for us. This is the classic Reformed view on the Regulative Principle of Worship. In worship, we can only do what God commands. In every other area, we may not do what Scripture forbids, but are free within the bounds of Christian charity, the general framework of Scripture, and common sense to enjoy life as God’s redeemed creatures. As families and nations, for example, we may celebrate Independence Day, but it would be sinful to turn our July 4th Lord’s Day worship into a patriotic service. In our homes, we may enjoy "acting out" some of the more notable events in holy Scripture, but religious drama has nowhere been commanded by God for us to observe in Lord’s Day worship. Accordingly, within certain limits, while we must resist observing "Christmas" as a religious holy day, it is a matter of Christian liberty for each family to determine how it will or will not observe Christmas within the home.
Paul’s teaching to the Romans clearly supports this distinction between religious worship and daily living, and establishes the principle of Christian liberty in things not forbidden by Scripture. In Romans 14 he notes the division that then existed in the churches between those who followed the Jewish calendar and dietary laws and those who did not. Paul’s response to the dispute is clear -- in non-worship areas not forbidden by God as sinful, men are free to eat or not eat, observe or not observe according to their own convictions and preferences. The Jewish ceremonies were no longer a positive commandment of God in the same way as they were in the old covenant, and accordingly, Christians were free to observe or not observe them, in whole or part, according to their own preferences and common sense. They are not to be viewed, however, as necessary unto personal salvation or sanctified living. Paul forbade the Roman Christians to judge one another for personal choices in these areas. Each man will give a justification before God for his decisions. Who are we to condemn a brother for whom Christ died who is living in the enjoyment of his liberty before God with a good conscience? At the same time, we are to live in love with one another and avoid placing a stumbling block in our brother’s path. While Christ alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from the traditions of men, the strong in the church, those whose consciences allow them to eat and drink all things with joy before the Lord, must not encourage the weak to sin against their consciences. By analogy, the observance of Christmas in the home as a day of feasting, gift-giving, and home decoration is an area of liberty in which Christians are free to or not to engage in according to their own taste and convictions. God in Scripture has forbid none of these practices, either specifically or by application. Since our daily lives are not bound by the regulative principle of worship, we are free to enjoy God’s bounty and the traditions of our culture without sinning against God.
But what about the pagan origins of Christmas observance or the sinfulness that so often accompanies it in our culture? Consider Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 10:23-33. The issue in Corinth was whether or not Christians could eat meat that had been dedicated to an idol in a pagan worship service. Such meat was usually sold in the meat markets the next day for a discounted price that made it attractive to the average consumer. Paul affirms that Christians may legitimately purchase and eat this meat. This was undoubtedly an astounding revelation to these early Christians. Paul’s reasoning is clear and cogent. Everything belongs to God. He quotes Psalm 24:1 twice in this passage. Therefore the Christian may legitimately enjoy all of God’s good gifts. It is true that unbelievers put God’s good gifts to sinful uses. However, since an idol is nothing, Christians may even eat meat dedicated to idols, provided their consciences do not condemn them. Consider what this means for us. First, simply because a certain event or object is put to an evil use does not make it off-limits for the Christian (naturalistic fallacy). Unbelievers tend to pervert every one of God’s gifts, and we cannot allow their abuses keep us from enjoying what God has provided for our enjoyment and refreshment. If something is off-limits to us because the wicked are doing it or initiated it, then we should immediately boycott birthday celebrations, calling the days of the week by the names of ancient gods, watching the evening weather forecast, and many other such practices that had questionable if not wicked origins but are really indifferent in themselves. The Christian path in a given situation is not determined by choosing the opposite of what the wicked are doing. We live by Scripture. We may eat the same meat that the wicked dedicate to idols. We, however, dedicate it to its rightful Lord, the living God of heaven and earth. I believe Christmas with its attendant gift giving, feasting, and fun times is a similar issue. As noted above, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with gift giving. If so, why do Christians give gifts at birthdays, weddings, and graduations? There is nothing sinful about feasting. Jesus himself came eating and drinking. It is not sinful to decorate your home with trees and lights. It really doesn’t matter, Paul teaches, why the wicked are engaging in such things. We are not liable for the evil choices and motives of the unbeliever, nor are we called upon to God to cease from a given practice or observance simply because unbelievers observe it as well. The Christian has much higher motives and concerns - the glory of God and the thankful enjoyment of God’s good gifts.
Christians can legitimately observe "Christmas" by a family time of sharing, feasting, and home decoration.
Accordingly, because not forbidden by God in Scripture and consistent with the general principles of Scripture, I believe it is permissible and even enjoyable for the Christian to observe Christmas as a family time of sharing, feasting, home decoration, and any other legitimate way you can make the time enjoyable for your family. We feast at graduations, birthdays, weddings, and funerals. There is certainly nothing wrong with an end of the year celebration of God’s bounty toward us. One does not have to bring in Santa Claus or the baby Jesus. It is foolish, however, to keep silent about either one of them. Many in our culture do attribute divine like status to Santa Claus. To the Christian, he is part of Western folklore, much like future generations will view Superman, Bugs Bunny, and Mickey Mouse. He is not real. He’s like the idol in the Corinthian passage - a fictitious figure. The fact that others have a mistaken or exaggerated view of him or even worship him is really of no consequence to us, except that it ought to make us vociferous in calling our deluded culture to the true giver of every good and perfect gift, Almighty God. Likewise, it would be extremely separatistic not to teach your children that Christmas is the time of the year in which the Church has historically celebrated the birth of Christ since around the fifth or sixth century. You can then stress that neither the apostles nor the early church had any such practice, did not know or record for us the exact time of Christ’s birth, and that since no such practice is commanded to us in Scripture, we do not religiously celebrate the event on a special day of the year. They will see nativity scenes and questionable public figures mentioning the "sweet baby Jesus," so you had better explain the situation to them in a way they can understand and appreciate. Remind them that we are thank God for the birth of his Son every day, and that we have been given a wonderful day each week in which to celebrate his person and work through divine worship, feasting, and holy rest. If enjoyed modestly, knowingly, and thankfully, the last two weeks of the year can be a profitable time for your family to rejoice in God’s goodness, provision, and watchcare over the previous year, and anticipation of his faithfulness in the new.
Christians must not judge the practices of others in areas not forbidden by Scripture.
Differences in conviction and practice concerning Christmas is a good opportunity to remind ourselves that Christ through his apostles forbids us to judge our brothers in matters of Christian liberty. This has always been a great threat to the unity of the Body. Paul addressed the subject repeatedly in his epistles, in issues of drinking, observing the Jewish calendar, and eating meat sacrificed to idols. There is always the tendency to make our personal convictions in these areas normative for everyone else. This is a tendency that we must avoid. It is true that these differences are undesirable and improperly handled weaken the brotherhood of the visible Church. Until all of us reach greater maturity in our Christian walks and understanding of the Christian faith, however, they will exist, and we had better become accustomed to it. How then do we exist in the Body? Maybe we should follow the evangelical model and start new congregation for every new occasion of disagreement that arises? This is not the solution. Rather, we should accept the reality that the Church will always have strong and weak Christians. The strong are the ones in Paul’s epistles who ignored the Jewish ceremonies, ate meat sacrificed to idols, and drank wine. They perceived the great liberty that we have in Christ to enjoy God’s good gifts without a twinge of guilt or uncertainty. Christ has redeemed us both from the ceremonies of the old covenant and the tyranny of men. Others in the body, however, due perhaps to background, education, or personal conviction, cannot engage in these without a pang of conscience. They should not so act, then, Paul teaches, because whatever is not of faith is sin. Between these two groups in the Church, love must reign supreme. The strong must not flaunt their liberty in front of the weak. The verses in Corinthians do not mean that the strong cannot practice their liberty, lest the weak find out about it and become offended by them. It means that the strong must not exercise their liberty in a manner that encourages the weak to sin against their conscience. On the other side, the weak must not judge the strong. They must recognize and respect the opinions of these brothers, strive to understand their position, and bring their own position more in line with Scripture. It is necessary to note that Paul sides with the strong in the area of Christian liberty. He observed or refused to observe the Jewish ceremonies as the situation dictated. He ate and drank whatever was offered to him. Even if we cannot come to unity of believe and practice in issues like Christmas observance, let us endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, think charitably of one another, and endeavor as a congregation to reform our practices continually in the light of the Bible.
Christians must avoid the materialistic and debt-driven practices of our culture.
One common reservation expressed about family Christmas observance is its tendency to promote worldliness or materialism in adults and children alike. This is certainly a legitimate concern. The manner in which a large percentage in our culture spend beyond their means and lavish their family members with frivolous gifts or unnecessary luxuries will certainly promote a selfishness, materialism, and greed that are contrary to the explicit teachings of Scripture. The Christian family should have nothing to do with this. For a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions (Luke 12:15), and because riches make themselves wings and fly away (Prov. 23:5), we should not set our affections upon them (Matt. 6:19). Scripture, moreover, regularly forbids a covetous, greedy, and discontented spirit (Prov. 1:19; Jer. 6:13; 1 Cor. 5:10,11; 6:10; Eph. 5:5). At the same time, God is the source of all legitimately derived prosperity. He promised to bless his people in the Old and New Testaments for faithfulness to his covenant (Deut. 28; Matt. 6:33; Mark 10:30). In the final analysis, moderation is to be observed in all things (1 Cor. 9:25; Phil. 4:5). We should also remember that it is not our prosperity that makes us covetousness. It is the heart of man from which proceeds greed, covetousness, and all other sins (Mark 7:21-23). We are not environmentalists. Man is responsible to respond to his circumstances, good or ill, with a right attitude that leads him to honor God in them all. Accordingly, provided we make a moderate use of gift giving, give all praise to God for prospering us, and teach our children by precept and example to give thanks to the Lord for his goodness, we can enjoy a period of gift giving without the attached sins that are so prevalent in our culture. Again, I would remind you that if it tends toward greed and covetousness to give gifts during Christmas, we ought to avoid all occasions for gift giving throughout the year. As a matter of principle, I believe that Christmas time gift giving can be an extremely profitable teaching opportunity for ourselves and our children. Our children should be vividly reminded that every good gift comes from our heavenly Father. We deserve none of his bounty. Every gift received, be it a new bicycle or a new sweater, should be one more incentive to love and adore our Lord and Savior who demonstrate such tangible kindness towards us. Properly observed with moderation, seasons of gift giving in the home can foster a sharing spirit, direct the heart in humble thankfulness, and provide those things are necessary for the body and home so that we can serve God more readily and ably.
Ebenezer Scrooge is not the Christian's role model during the last two weeks of the year.
There is undoubtedly a little of ol’ Ebenezer in all of us as we contemplate the ridiculous consumerism, wistful emotionalism, and frivolity of the Christmas observances of our culture. The Spirit convicts us that such attitudes and practices are alien to the biblical worldview and undermine true piety before God. Be that as it may, it is equally sinful to act as if the truly Christian response to Christmas is to walk around with a scowl on our faces. Calvin once wrote that Christians ought to embrace the world with a feeling of universal love. When we see the pathetic tendencies of men apart from Christ, what response do we make? Do we harbor ill will toward those who walk in darkness? Do we turn a deaf ear and blind eye to their desperate search for meaning and fulfillment? These are hateful, separatist attitudes that are contrary to the good will of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the free offer of that gospel to all men. Without condoning sin, we ought to point the way to true joy and fulfillment not in a season, but in a person -- Jesus of Nazareth, the ascended Lord of glory. I’m afraid, however, that in attempting to destroy Christmas, we may be trying to beat something with nothing. For if our lives do not display the charity, happiness, and winsomeness that befits those professing faith in Jesus Christ and filled with his Spirit, we can rant and rave against commercialism and greed all we want. Our cries, however, will fall on deaf ears. We will win our culture not by lynching Santa Claus, but through a year long, loving, and persevering presentation of the wonderful good news of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world. This, by the way, is the only way to defeat the sinful tendencies so often associated with the family observance of Christmas and the idolatry attached to the Church’s observance. We must point men to life, light, and salvation through submission to Messiah the Prince. Only then will they give up materialism, unnecessary debt, and will-worship. May God fill our congregation with the love, grace, and peace of the triune God today and throughout the year, that all men will know that we are Christ’s disciples by the love we have toward one another and the joy that we continually experience in hearing, believing, and living the good news of Jesus Christ.