Scotch whisky and Christmas trees.
Few topics can separate brethren as quickly as alcohol and Christmas. This is especially true in the Reformed and Presbyterian community. This time of year, those with the minority conviction of not celebrating Christmas often find themselves to be the object of snickers and well-meaning banter. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul calls us to exercise charity toward one another, to not flaunt our freedom. How do we do that when convictions and opinions are so strong?
How would the gospel have us respond to those with different convictions about Christmas? To understand that we need to step back and ask ourselves what we believe concerning the observance of the day and why. And we need to use charity as we discuss an issue that quickly stirs emotional responses from all sides in the discussion.
Essentially there are only three views on the observance of Christmas.
Commanded Christmas Observance
Can we turn to the New Testament and prove that the church of Jesus Christ must celebrate the birth of our savior? I honestly have never met a serious Christian who believes that we are commanded to celebrate the birth of Jesus. This position is outside of the scope of the Reformed and Presbyterian family of churches.
Forbidden Christmas Observance
This is the historic position of the Presbyterian tradition. In my own denomination, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, Synod has upheld the rejection of Christmas “on the books” in number of rulings (See Minutes of Synod 1905, p.130; 1925, p.93-94; 1972, p.18-20). Many appeal to this standing position as evidence that we must continue to uphold the “forbidden” position.
In 1947, JG Vos wrote an article in his magazine Blue Banner of Faith and Life, concerning The Observance of Days. The same article resurfaced in the Blue Banner in 1952. Vos gives the biblical rationale for not celebrating Christmas and then gives historical insight into this forbidden tradition:
We should understand the principles involved in this question. In former times the Reformed Presbyterian Church was solidly opposed to the religious observance of Christmas, Easter and other special days of the same kind. But in recent years this opposition has begun to weaken, and here and there a Covenanter congregation is beginning to copy the big denominations and do more or less as others do in this matter of observing days.
Three hundred years ago the Westminster Assembly of Divines met in London, England, to compile the Confession of Faith, Catechisms and other standards that have become the heritage of all churches of the Presbyterian family throughout the world. Let me quote what the Westminster Assembly said about the observance of holy days… This is what they said: “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.” 300 years ago that was the accepted belief of all Presbyterians. Since then, the majority have gradually adopted the customs of the Episcopalians and Catholics, and today they observe a variety of special days in their religious services. But we should realize that we Covenanters, in opposing the observance of Easter and other “holy” days, are only holding to the original principle which was once held by all Presbyterians everywhere. It is not the Covenanters that have changed.”
Forbidden Christmas is the historic Presbyterian position, although not how many currently interpret the observance of the day. Most Presbyterians have changed. Many Covenanters, since Vos’s day, have also changed.
Christmas Observance is Neither Mandated nor Forbidden
Today’s most popular view concerning Christmas is not that it is commanded by Scripture and not that it is forbidden by Scripture, but that it is a thing that Scripture calls adiaphora, or “things neither mandated nor forbidden.” This is the prominent view in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches today. Those who hold this position will say, “We can’t command Christmas. We don’t forbid Christmas.” Most believe that Christmas is a personal choice. A personal choice to be celebrated at home—or not. Like many who consider the question of alcohol consumption to be a question of freedom, for these Christians the observance of Christmas is a matter of the liberty of conscience.
For many of those in the Reformed and Presbyterian community who claim the freedom to celebrate Christmas, it is not a “holy day” of worship, but rather a season to reflect more on the advent of Christ who tabernacled among us, and is an opportunity to share the truth of the gospel of Christ at a time when many may be more open to hear.
To the majority of Reformed and Presbyterian Christians, Christmas is neither mandated nor forbidden (I Corinthians 8; Colossians 3:17). “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men…” Westminster Confession 20.2a
So how should we personally respond to the celebration of Christmas? How ought we to respond to those who choose not to celebrate the day? Again, there are three ways that we can approach this. And our differences give us opportunities to display our love for God and neighbor. In our response to differing brothers and sisters, we can display the fruit of the gospel of peace that Christ has purchased.
If Christmas is commanded, then we must observe the day. This is not a significant position in the Reformed and Presbyterian community.
If Christmas is forbidden, then we must obey God rather than man and not observe the day. This was the position that JG Vos wrote about in 1947. In his article “The Observance of Days”, he observed that “It is not easy to be different from the majority. It is not easy to hold unpopular convictions. It costs to stand with a minority and bear witness for an unpopular truth or principle. But it is worth-while, and, what is far more important, it is right. Let us not be afraid to be different, so long as we can give a valid reason, based on the Word of God, for our conscientious convictions.”
If it’s forbidden then we must not observe the day.
But the current thinking on Christmas in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches is that Christmas is adiaphora, therefore we must be charitable in our interactions with those who are not free to observe the day. God alone is Lord of the conscience.
If it’s a thing indifferent, we must care for the tender consciences of the weaker brethren. Scotch whisky and Christmas trees. We do not flaunt liberty, but enjoy it with discretion.
Charity ought to be our approach in all things, but often what happens is that when we do not understand an unpopular position, we write it off as extreme or we mock it as something that is beyond the scope of the Scriptures. Let us go out of our way to understand the positions of those who have tender consciences concerning Scotch whisky and Christmas trees, to hear their consciences and respect them, even if it is in disagreement. You may even find that you come to love and honor Christ more when you seek understanding through the eyes of a tender conscience.
If you hold that Christmas is forbidden, hear out the views of those who believe it is adiaphora and have chosen to celebrate it. Charitable example and gentle challenges will speak louder than clanging proclamations. Conversely, if you believe it is adiaphora, and a brother or sister in your congregation holds that Christmas ought not to be celebrated, then you should actively care for his or her conscience on the issue. God alone is Lord of the conscience. Hold onto your day with an open hand; hold onto your brother or sister with charitable application.
Scotch whisky and Christmas trees can be divisive issues in the Reformed and Presbyterian world. Let us charitably dwell at peace and even learn to hear from those who hold practices different than our own applications of the reformed tradition. Understand where you stand according to the Scriptures. Seek to understand that we are all called to charity as we seek Christ and the Truth. That is something that we can all agree on.