Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Christmas: Unbiblical and Pagan?

There are a number of websites and groups who tell us that Christians should not celebrate Christmas. Are they right? As often happens with this kind of issue, there is truth mixed in with mistaken interpretation and it is important to be aware which is which.

1) They are right, Christmas is not Biblical. Nowhere in the Bible are Christians told to celebrate Christmas. The earliest Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23-26) and Baptism (Matt 28:19) and these are the key celebrations of the church which we are commanded to do in Scripture. More to the point it seems that celebrating Jewish festivals was not encouraged by the apostle Paul because it could lead towards a legalistic faith (see Gal 4:10 and Col 2:16).

So, it should be clear that there is no Biblical requirement to celebrate Christmas. No church should insist that everyone celebrates Christmas. But does that also mean it is wrong if you do celebrate Christmas? Think about it. My church has a special Sunday each year to thank volunteers, or to pray for missionaries, or to celebrate our community work. Those things are not commanded in the Bible. Are they wrong too?

I think some of the confusion here comes from the fact that people think of Christmas as an isolated festival rather than realising it is part of the ancient Church Year. Before the invention of printed books normal Christians did not have their own Bibles. They had to go to church to learn the Gospel message or hear the Scriptures read. The ancient church began to shape its year around the story of Jesus, his promised coming (Advent), his birth (Christmas), his temptation (Lent), his death and resurrection (Easter), and the coming of the Spirit (Pentecost). This way, Christians who came to church would hear the whole Gospel each year. It also meant that Jesus stayed at the centre of church worship. Nowadays, Christians have their own Bibles at home, but they are not always very good at reading them! The Church Year remains a good way of making sure the whole Gospel story is taught. So, while we are not commanded by the Bible to celebrate Christmas every year, having a special Sunday where we tell the good news of God sending his Son to be our saviour is a good thing to do.

2) They are also partly right that Christmas is pagan. Many of the arguments against celebrating Christmas begin with the historical roots of the date for Christmas. The origins of this date are not clear and it is impossible to say with any historical accuracy why December 25th was chosen. It may well have been intended to replace a pagan festival on the same date, but that is not certain. I am more concerned with how Christmas has become more “pagan” today, in the sense that consumerism, gluttony and wastefulness characterise our society’s celebration of Christmas. Overspending, overeating and getting drunk to celebrate Christmas is clearly unchristian and wrong. Likewise, a focus on “Father Christmas,” magical reindeer, and elves, trivialises and obscures the true meaning of Christmas.

So, if Christmas is partly pagan should Christians avoid it altogether? Well, for some Christians that may be the best option. There are many things in life which Christians must discern whether they will be involved or not. For example, the internet is a terrible thing which allows pornography and fake news to be spread, but many Christians also use it for good to spread the Gospel and communicate. Popular music is used to promote licentiousness and consumerism, but the same musical styles can be reclaimed for music that praises God. If we celebrate Christmas, we do not have to engage in the activities that make it (somewhat) pagan – we can celebrate Christmas in a way that honours God.

If Christmas replaced a pagan festival with a Christian one that hardly makes it pagan; if anything, it makes its anti-pagan. Either way, the choice of date for Christmas centuries ago hardly affects our celebration of it today when we have no idea what, if any, festival it has replaced. Fear that our Christmas celebration might be tainted by the date, or that, somehow, we invoke evil when we are sincerely trying to honour God is unhelpful superstition. Don’t forget, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Any connection to an ancient pagan festival cannot harm those who belong to Christ.

More importantly, by claiming Christmas for Christ we can take advantage of one of the few cultural openings for the Christian faith in modern Western society. At Christmas time people are more open to hearing about God and the message of Jesus. By hosting Christmas celebrations churches have an opportunity to share the Gospel and to direct people to the Christian meaning of Christmas.

3) Christmas is unbiblical and it can be “pagan”, but neither of those things require that Christians should not celebrate Christmas, as long as they do so in a way that honours God. And that really is Biblical. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 14:5-6,

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.

Paul is very clear that we shouldn’t quarrel about “disputable matters” (Romans 14:1) and we shouldn’t judge each other about them either (Romans 14:13). So, if Christmas is still a problem for you, that is fine. Your abstaining from Christmas can honour God, just as my celebration of Christmas can honour God. We should not let such differences divide us. Our unity should be in that we both honour God in what we do.

So, Christmas is an ancient and useful tradition to teach Christians and others about Jesus, but it is not compulsory! Christmas should be celebrated in a way that honours God, so not every Christmas tradition should be accepted uncritically by Christians. A Christian who seeks to honour God has nothing to fear from sincere celebration of Christmas. But most importantly, Christians who disagree about Christmas should not judge each other but should remain united by their shared desire to honour God.

Let me know what you think. :-)

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