Of Scotch Whisky and Christmas Trees

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.

19 Comments

  1. poorpuritan December 4, 2015 at 3:12 pm #

    Okay, but I am not sure I have the wherewithal to show charity toward your choice of font type. 😉

    Mine eyes! Mine eyes!

  2. Sherry December 5, 2015 at 11:33 am #

    It is forbidden and it is plainly spelled out in Scriptures. Therefore, we have no liberty in this matter. If Israel was divinely punished for their syncretism (golden calves) then why do we, on this side of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, believe we can get by with it? Jesus does say to many, Away from Me, you workers of iniquity! I never knew you! The Christ Mass is wickedness right down to its very pagan roots! Acts 19:19 shows what those who converted to Christianity did to their books of witchcraft and so should we do with the modern Wiccan look-alike “holy” day’s celebration. We are far from abstaining from even the appearance of evil when we set up our homes and churches in Yuletide fashion.

    To say that we have liberty to celebrate X Mass is to subtract from God’s Word where He has forbidden it. And do you make Paul, or any apostle, to say it is a matter of liberty to worship God through pagan means? Adding to God’s Word is what you do.

    Discernment seems to take a back-seat to the Siren’s song of the X Mass spirit.

    • Nathan Eshelman December 7, 2015 at 6:48 pm #

      Thank you for your comment, Sherry. Of course, in this article I did not expressly give my position- although I am sure that you could read between the grinchly lines. 🙂 The point of this article was to discuss how we talk about these differences within the church. My fear is that those of us that hold the minority position (not historical, but minority) do get earn an audience because of the way that we have chosen to discuss this matter with our brothers. I am convinced that my position is correct according to the Scriptures, but I still see myself as a weaker brother because my conscience will not allow me to participate. Coming to a “fight” in a position of weakness may not seem like the most logical place to be, but it’s for sure a reflection of how our Savior demonstrated humility. That’s all I am trying to say in the article. How should we respond to our brothers?

  3. Maria Tatham December 5, 2015 at 2:40 pm #

    Pastor Eshelman,
    If as you’ve said elsewhere you keep the only holy day given by the Lord – the Christian Sabbath – why not write about your own Biblical principles? These are my principles also.
    It is humbling to be labled as weaker but that is not the problem. This label is misapplied here and so it is untrue. Syncretism in worship can’t be an indifferent matter.
    Because of circumstances, my husband and I worship in a non-Reformed Baptist assembly where we not only have a tree but statues of the nativity in the sanctuary. When I read at Reformed blogs I’m hoping for Biblical truth. I know love is our goal but Biblical principles can’t be sacrificed.
    Sincerely in the Lord,
    Maria

    • Nathan Eshelman December 7, 2015 at 6:44 pm #

      Thank you Maria for your comment. For sure, I am not indifferent to syncretism, and have opposed the “holy” day since I became a Christian at the age of 18. The article was not indeed to give my position, but instead my approach for how to discuss this matter with reformed Christians with varying traditions. Surely, the brothers in Continental churches have maintained the day (except during the Dutch Further Reformation), and we have to be able to communicate in such a way that we win an audience. My principle remains the same, but the form in which that is presented is equally important to me. If you are going to tell a brother that you believe he is in sin, you’d better do it with tears.

      • Maria Tatham December 7, 2015 at 6:50 pm #

        I do understand and thank you. Perhaps you don’t realize how difficult it is to look to those who are called to teach and with whom we don’t completely agree on this issue. If I’ve been out of line please forgive me! About weeping when telling a brother about this, that is good advice. My tone may sound like I’m either rebellious or hardened but I’m not. As I see these controversies continuing, I’m becoming very sad.
        Thank you for your courtesy to a woman old enough to be your Mom probably.
        God bless you, Pastor Nathan!

        • Nathan Eshelman December 7, 2015 at 7:00 pm #

          I understand the difficulty, Mrs. Tatham. I have not always been a teacher in Christ’s church, I sat for many years with my minority position; as a congregant and as a theological student. It’s not easy, but may Vos’s words towards the end of the article comfort you.

          May the Lord hasten the day when the unity of the church is as abundant as the oil that anointed Aaron’s beard and the dew of Mr. Hermon that refreshes Zion.

          Thank you for considering the words of a teacher in Christ’s church that may be young enough to be your son. 🙂

          • Maria Tatham December 7, 2015 at 10:22 pm #

            Amen! May that day come soon!
            Thank you for being gracious, Pastor Nathan. I will print out this article for my husband and me to reread together.

  4. Jared December 6, 2015 at 6:28 am #

    http://gentlereformation.com/2012/12/03/holidays-and-holy-days/

    Probably worth re-posting here this great article from Michael about Christmas.

    Great article, Nathan. I appreciate the call to graciousness on all counts.

    • Ryan December 7, 2015 at 10:11 am #

      I think I’ll leave this comment here, rather than on the article from 2012.

      We believe that the OT civil law contained core principles that still apply today. We also believe that the ceremonial law contained principles that apply today. So why then do we draw a line at a Church calendar? God instituted an annual calendar of days meant to order the life of his people and orient their lives towards him: reminders of what he had done for his people and what he would do.

      We would obviously all agree that the requirement for the Festival of Booths no longer applies. But why do we ignore—or, as in the case of many Reformed folks, strongly reject—the principle of a Church calendar that orders our community life around God: what he has done, is doing, and will do?

      • Nathan Eshelman December 7, 2015 at 6:40 pm #

        Ryan, Thanks for your comment (and I understand its connection to the 2012 article as well). I think that the church does have a calendar that we follow. It’s a calendar that goes through the cycle of toil and redemption: Six days of work and one day of rest. This is the only calendar that the NT knows as Jesus fulfilled the feast days.

        I found this Geneva OPC article very instructive on a number of points. I would commend it to you:

        http://www.genevaopc.org/articles/means/45-why-dont-we-use-the-church-calendar.html

  5. Maria Tatham December 7, 2015 at 2:05 pm #

    Ryan, as Reformed Christians we should react strongly against the church calendar for many reasons; as a former Roman Catholic it may simpler for me to see this. This calendar is the mainstay of their worship, adopted and adapted from paganism – a pragmatic, syncretistic thing. No one knows when the Lord was born, and He did not command us to have a calendar as He did with the church during the Old Testament period, so why keep one? I can’t pretend to have the best arguments or to be the most charitable, but having been raised and educated in RCC schools, perhaps I can remind people that God’s children were called out of this system. It reeks, it’s sad, it’s blasphemous.

    • Sherry December 7, 2015 at 7:33 pm #

      amen! It is of another “Jesus” which Paul warned us to be careful of-even calling the teachers of such accursed.

  6. James December 13, 2015 at 11:20 am #

    Brother,

    Let me caution you. I am thankful for your position against Christmas and Easter. It is idolatry. You cannot mix truth with error and end up with truth. You cannot mix Pagan idolatry with Christianity and come up with Christianity. It is Pagan idolatry. But should we have the attitude of leave everyone to themselves because God is the Lord of the conscience. The times of the Judges was a time of great immorality and idolatry. It was characterized by the repeated phrase in Judges 17 to the end of the book “everyone did that which was right in their own eyes.” This is essentially what Christians are teaching when they refer to the passages of meats offered to idols and of eating meats vs eating just herbs. But what many seem to overlook is that in the greater context, Paul condemns meats offered to idols as sin (1 Cor 10: 17f). So the passage often referred is not saying that eating meats offered to idols is OK if you feel that way. It is still sinful. He is teaching that you don’t have to ask if it was offered to idols for your conscience sake, because all meat is given by God for our benefit. But if it is known that it is offered to idols, that would be sinful to eat and it would cause your brother to stumble into sin thinking it is OK. This is the consistent condemnation of meats offered to idols found in the rest of the New Testament (Rev 2:14, 20). From another angle, what does this mean about church discipline. One of the 3 marks of true church is church discipline. But 1 Cor 5:11 says not to even eat with a brother who is an idolater. Christmas and Easter are idolatry. Putting 2 and 2 together, we should never eat and fellowship with any Christian who celebrates these idolatrous practices. I am not saying this is in any way an easy passage to consider with our present situation. So many have fallen away! And I reflect on what the prophets and faithful Israelites had to do in the midst of idolatrous Israel. But to say, let everyone do what they think is best is not the answer. Church discipline should still be in place. And Christians need to be cautious of how they interact with their error brothers and sisters, definitely with love…definitely with tears (as you said).

    • Sherry December 13, 2015 at 6:35 pm #

      That is a good word, James-and a hard one, too. Obedience is not always an easy row to hoe but our love to God makes the burden lighter. I once heard the counsel of doing as Naaman was told to do when he had to hold up his master in the idol’s temple-that it would be OK to attend family gatherings without coming into agreement with the holiday. But I see from what you said that it ought not to be done if it is among Christians. Perhaps it ought not to be done at all. Eating meat sacrificed before the idolators wouldn’t have made a godly impression either. What we do matters to the witness of Christ in us before others. To God be the glory! \o/ God bless~

  7. Iain December 22, 2015 at 10:42 pm #

    The Idolatry, Superstition & Sinfulness of Xmas

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=1222151043110

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