Not to change your mind, but to inform you of fellow believers, three types of Christians emerge during the Christmas season:
The first Christian is bright-eyed and filled with holiday cheer.
The second is the stone cold curmudgeon that wants everyone to know that he or she hates Christmas and everything merry and bright.
The third type of Christian that emerges at the end of December is that which cannot in good conscience keep Christmas, but attempts to not destroy Virginia’s longing to know the meaning of the day.
I vacillate between being as "cuddly as a cactus, charming as an eel" to sometimes wishing I could just go all out; but conscience does not allow me to dance with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. The Apostle Paul tells us that whatever is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23); and that is in the context of elevating days. I must admit that you see me saying, "I am the weaker brother, although I wish I were strong." Yet, I am thankful that Jesus's death allows me to not observe the day.
Most of the articles that you find here and in the reformed blogosphere will be more pro-Christmas, but I wanted to take the time to explain from the Word of God why your local reformed believer may be more bah humbug than you may prefer.
Holy days have been celebrated by much of the church throughout time, and a small percentage of believers--although in good company--might rather just return your “Merry Christmas” with a “Thank you very much.”
Holy Days that are common in our circles include Advent, Christmas, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. Some other traditions that we are close to would include Maundy Thursday, The Feast of the Circumcision, and other less popular holy days. In many Reformed Presbyterian churches you will show up as December 25 comes and goes with the pastor continuing to preach his series without having a special Christmas service. Why do some not celebrate? Maybe you go home and you talk with your family and you say:
“What just happened?”
"Why would a church not have a Christmas service?"
We need to think about this question: Why ought not the church observe special holy days? Before I answer that question, I want to give two nuances that are really important:
First: I want to note that Reformed Presbyterian believers are not opposed to Christmas and Easter worship services because we are curmudgeons or kill-joys. The Christian life is a life of joy and celebration and we ought not present as joyless irritable Christians. It’s unbecoming of saints.
Secondly: I also want to state that we don’t celebrate Christmas and Easter and other days because we do not believe in the essentials of the faith; we do! We fully confess the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead—everything that the Bible says about both the birth and death and resurrection of Jesus.
So why be odd? Why make people uncomfortable by not celebrating Christmas?
I would like to give you three reasons why some Christians are unable to celebrate the day with a good conscience. And again, this is to inform your heart more than change your mind. This is to help you to understand the odd fellow in your congregation that seems to be a bit of a grinch (he even may be your pastor). Why not celebrate Christmas? Why not celebrate other holy days?
Holy Days are Unwarranted
The first reason that some Christians do not celebrate holy days is that they are unwarranted. They are unwarranted in the Word of God. It is outside of the church’s authority to bring that which is unwarranted into the worship of God. God’s desire for the church and his will for the church is that we would worship him according to his Word, doing that which he has commanded and avoiding that which he has not. This is a common reformed principle of worship that is seen as an interpretation of the second commandment. God’s worship is regulated by his own voice and will. And we do not see in the New Testament that any of these days—Christmas, Easter, or others—have been commanded by God to be kept by those that love the Lord Jesus.
Some may look to the New Testament and say, “We are told to not judge based on whether we keep days or not.” And that’s true, but when we look at the church’s call concerning holy days, we need to understand that the New Testament was in transition between the old economy of the Old Testament and the new economy of the New Testament and there were folks that were understandably struggling to know what to do with Passover and Booths and the other old holy days that were commanded.
Elementary Principles, Shadows, and Bondage
When we look at how the New Testament speaks of these Old Testament days we see that they were considered elementary and were a yoke and a bondage that was intended to point ahead to Jesus Christ and the fulness of spirituality that comes with faith in him. Galatians 4 says that the Old Testament church was “enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.” Colossians 2 says, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” These Old Testament days and festivals were shadows—but the real substance belongs to Christ. They were a picture, we have the real thing!
So special days—holy days—were a type of bondage of the Old Testament Church that was intended to point to Jesus. And there is no warrant to create these new bondages, or shadows, or elementary principles that the church ought to observe in her public worship.
Why? It is outside of the call of the church to do so. In Matthew 28 the Lord Jesus says to the Apostles right before his ascension: “Teach them—converts and disciples of the nations—to observe all that I have commanded you.”
That’s the basics. Christianity 101 is to be discipled in all that Jesus has commanded the church.
Where did he command Christmas services? Where did he command Easter Services or Good Friday candle light vigils? Friends, he did not and because of that, the church ought not to bring them into the observance of the church’s piety. Our call is to be faithful to what the Bible says, not to innovate new days and times and seasons which are, according to the New Testament, bondage and elementary.
Someone may object and say, “Christmas is the beginning of our redemption! Why wouldn’t the church want to commemorate that?” And that’s true—in the fullness of time God sent forth his son; but interestingly only two Gospel writers even mention the birth of Jesus. There’s no command for a special day.
“Teach them to observe all that I have commanded.”
Magisterial vs. Ministerial Service
And one other aspect of these holy days being unwarranted is that they are not only outside the scope of the church’s call to teach all things Christ has commanded, they are also outside of the church’s power to invent such days. Christmas is quite old—in the 5th century it became a practice in the church. Easter observance is actually older than Christmas. But the question of “what right did the church have to make them anyways” has to be considered. The church’s power and authority is not magisterial—we don’t change and make laws and times and seasons, that is the work of antichrist according to the Scriptures—the church’s authority is ministerial. We are servants with a two-fold ministerial responsibility—to be faithful to the Bible and to faithfully serve the church. We serve Christ through his Word’s instruction and we serve the church through the Word’s instruction. The church was never given the power to make days and times and seasons.
To the elders among the church, I Peter 5 says, “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”
We are not to domineer over the flock—but to serve. And service does not include making extra-biblical days of worship. The authority of the church is limited by the Word of God—and when it comes to holy days, they are unwarranted in the Scripture.
Holy Days are Unholy
But we also see that besides Christmas being unwarranted, there are other reasons that the church not observe holy days in piety. The second reason is that they are unholy. That may sound like a shocking statement, but Christmas is unholy.
How can I say that? The answer is in what we call syncretism. Syncretism is the merging of different beliefs or cultures or ideas. Syncretism takes two different things—and brings them together. Syncretism is not always wrong, sometimes it is a good thing. Chef Roy Choi of Los Angeles owns the Kogi food trucks that have become famous for his Korean tacos.
That’s not wrong--but good, in fact!
Or we can think of the merging of languages—German and Hebrew were syncretized to make Yiddish.
That’s not wrong, its nothing to kvetch over! Oy vey!
But when it comes to the religion of the Bible, we are told that syncretism is wrong and the church is warned over and again about it.
Deuteronomy 12:29-32 makes this very clear: “When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.”
This is a clear command that the Old Testament church go into the land and they are not to practice syncretism—which is unholy. They are not to look the other religions and the other gods and say, “How do they worship so that we can incorporate that into our worship.” It’s called an abomination.
And yet we know that the church did this. The golden calf was an example—and Moses made them grind it and eat it and turn it into dung via the digestive system. The Samaritans would become masters of this—mixing religion. So much of Jeroboam’s violations of the regulative principle of worship were this—syncretism and the mixing religions.
The New Testament Church warned the new converts to avoid this and to put off the old idolatry of their cultures and religions and to hold tightly to the Scriptures alone. I John 5:21 says “Little children, keep yourself from idols.” John wasn’t worried that the church would run off and become Buddhists—he was worried that the idols of the surrounding religions would find themselves coming into the church.
And over time, this is exactly what happened in the church. As the church grew and expanded throughout the ancient world it had to make decisions on practical theology matters such as evangelism and how to incorporate new people into the life of the church. And eventually what happened was that the Roman Catholic Church used syncretism as part of the evangelism strategy of the growth of the church.
For example, Jesus was not born on December 25th. We don’t know when he was born and that date is quite unlikely despite the desperation of some blogger apologists. We do know that many of the ancient pagan religions had festivals of light—solstice and Saturnalia celebrations on that date. And much of their celebrating and worship included things that we associate with Christmas—decorated trees, candles in branches, trees in the home, yule logs, and gift giving, —all of the customs of the nations were incorporated into this Roman Catholic day of syncretism.
And that’s true of Easter as well. If we really wanted to celebrate the day of the resurrection, we only need to look at the Jewish calendar and pick the Sunday in Passover. But that’s not what was done. Ancient pagan practices were scrubbed and deemed holy. Festivals of fertility and new life were replaced with celebrations of resurrection. And we see that even in the symbols that are common today for Easter: what do lilies and eggs and bunnies have to do with the resurrection? Nothing. They are phallic symbols and pagan fertility imagery that the Roman Catholic Church deemed holy and acceptable because of syncretism.
Call to be Separate
And what does God’s Word say? “Learn not the way of the nations—the customs of the heathen are vain.” That’s Jeremiah 10. 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 says, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.”
Maybe you did not know about the roots of syncretism in these practices. Maybe you had never cared to study it or just think that it is extreme or weird. But friends, the gospel’s call is that the church would be separate and that our worship would be holy and that we would throw off that which is unclean from our corporate worship and piety. And no matter how many generations have passed since these practices were incubated into the church, the world knows that these practices were originally their’s. And the world loves these things even in their present baptized states.
The world loves Christmas. Loves it. The church is unequally yoked when it looks on the Jesus of Christmas celebration and says, “We can take that one. We love that version of Jesus.” We lose our testimony to the world when we are unequally yoked with it in this way. Temple and idols. Clean and unclean. Holy and unholy. Righteous and lawless. Light and darkness.
Syncretism is the melding of different religious beliefs, practices, or customs. It is condemned in God’s Word and yet it became the evangelistic strategy of the Roman Catholic Church as they baptized these days and called them holy.
And you might say, “Well, it’s not that big of a deal, we have Christian liberty and it really doesn’t matter as it’s so old that no one really thinks about those things anymore.” And you are right on this—we have Christian liberty and that’s another reason why the church ought not to incorporate these days into her piety. They are unhelpful.
Holy Days are Unhelpful
The church ought not to observe holy days in her public worship because they are unhelpful.
One of my favorite theologians, Francis Turretin, argued that having these days as part of the cycle of the church is not holy but helpful. I believe he was wrong and that they are actually unhelpful because when they are imposed on the consciences of the worshipers they trample Christian liberty.
The Westminster Confession of Faith says (WCF 20.2): “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in any thing contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.”
You see God is lord of the conscience and if any doctrines or commandments of men that are imposed onto your conscience, that cannot be proved from the Word of God, is a destruction of your liberty in Christ. It is unhelpful. This is very important to the Presbyterian and hopefully to all who would believe in Christ—we are free and we are not to be bound by the traditions of men.
Romans 14 says, “…It is not good to do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”
You are free to not have judgment passed on you for not observing days that are not commanded in the Word of God. Christmas and Easter cannot be proved—and they ought not come with guilt or shame for a Christian not practicing them: because they are not commanded and you are free.
You are free.
How often does liberty get trampled and the traditions of men get elevated in the name of something being helpful or useful to the Christian? In Matthew 15, Jesus talked to the Pharisees about how they elevated the traditions of men which led to them putting off the commandments of God.
Human ordinances ought not to bind the conscience of the Christian—you are free from the commandments and traditions of men. The Larger Catechism says: “We are not to add to worship, or take from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever.”
Why? Because pastors and elders, presbyteries and synods of the church are to do whatsoever we can to protect your liberty in Christ—and not to impose on it the traditions of men, whether they be ancient customs, well intended, or in the name of good devotion. If something tramples Christian liberty—and is imposed on the church’s public worship and piety, it cannot be helpful.
George Gillespie said, “When the authority of the church’s constitution is forced to bind and restrain the practice of Christians in the use of things indifferent, they are bereaved of their liberty, as well as if an opinion of necessity were borne in upon their consciences.”
No matter how much the church might tell you that Christmas and Easter are helpful and not required—once you say that you don’t celebrate them—you will see how necessary people believe they are. Not celebrating is often not an option.
The job of the church is to keep free what Christ has purchased with his blood—he purchased your liberty of conscience so that it not be bound. And your call as a believer is to be a good Berean. Search the Scriptures to see if these things be so. I John 4 says to test the spirits. Friends, do this—search the Scriptures and seek to find the setting apart of New Testament days for worship.
And if you find them and they are required according to the New Testament, let me know and I will make them a part of my worship and practice. But if you search the Scriptures and you cannot find Christmas and Easter or other holy days being a part of the ordinary worship of the Church—then they ought not to come into worship and piety. Why? Because you are free. Don’t give up your freedom, but walk in it. This is why Christ purchased you.
They are unwarranted and that means that it goes beyond the authority of the church to include them.
They are unholy—the history of these days is a history of syncretism.
They are unhelpful—your Christian liberty was purchased at a great price—the blood of the precious savior. To him give thanks for your freedom—for you free indeed—free from the commandments and traditions of men.
Again, I doubt I will change your mind, but I do hope to instruct your heart as to why some brothers and sisters do not celebrate Christmas. Be kind to those that have tender consciences and maybe sit down with the Bible open trying to see where this brother or sister is coming from. That’s all I ask. Jesus died to free me from the traditions of men. I know you can respect that.