What shall we do with Christmas? A quick glance at the store-fronts and an ear perked to the songs in the air would seem to suggest that this is the time for pagan revelry instead of pious rejoicing. Some Christians believe the whole thing has been pagan from its inception. Yet others simply ask, “Is it not good to celebrate the coming of our Savior?”
This disagreement is not new, of course. In American history, those who came from the English Puritan or Scottish Presbyterian tradition refused to celebrate Christmas, but people from the Church of England, Lutheran churches, and the Continental Reformed churches did celebrate it. Heinrich Bullinger, a leading second-generation reformer from Zurich, wrote in the Second Helvetic Confession, “If in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly” (Chapter 24). On the other hand, Puritans argued that such ceremonies were not necessary. More than that, they believed that they did not edify. And even more than that, some believed that they were not matters of indifference; rather, they believed it was unlawful (or, as we might say, “unbiblical”) to have such ceremonies. The Puritan opposition to Christmas can be stated most simply by a direct quotation from the appendix to the Directory for the Publick Worship of God (1645): “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.” This disagreement over Christmas seems to have produced a bit of a tension in the new world colonies, for in 1659 Massachusetts outlawed the celebration of Christmas. If you were caught celebrating Christmas, you would be fined five shillings! Although the law was rescinded in 1681, the New England tradition of not celebrating Christmas continued well into the nineteenth century.
For the purposes of this post, I am going to assume that we can make a biblical case that it is good and right for Christians to celebrate the incarnation of Christ. Assuming that is the case, then Christians may observe the day to the Lord or may not observe the day to the Lord (Rom 14:6). Christmas is not an essential matter. Clearly, someone is right and someone is wrong in the Christmas debate, or perhaps both are wrong, but it ought not to be a matter over which Christians destroy the work of God. We ought to welcome one another for the glory of God (15:7). But I would also ask, if it is true that the strong in Romans 14 and 15 were biblically correct and the weak were biblically incorrect, doesn’t it makes sense that we should strive to be biblically correct?
If then it is right and biblical for the people of God to publicly and corporately celebrate the incarnation of Christ, even though not strictly necessary, are there principles which give us wisdom in how we might go about such a celebration in such a way as to glorify God without capitulating to the idolatry around us? Here is where 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 comes in. This text teaches us precisely how to live for the glory of God and the good of others while in a pagan, idolatrous society. I would like to draw five lessons from the text for our celebration of Christmas.
(1) Let love lead (1 Cor 8). Start from a position of loving the Lord exclusively and loving your brother fully. If you start from a position of “I have a right to…,” then your moral judgment is already skewed in the wrong direction. Without pure love, your celebration of Christmas is a noisy gong and a clanging symbol.
(2) Look out for your brother’s eternal salvation (1 Cor 8:7-13; 9:19). We ought not to hang on to our Christmas traditions simply because of all the wonderful memories or the family gatherings or the great fun it is for the children. Those things may well be fine, but we can always find other ways to create memories and have family bonding times. Instead, love your brother with an eye to his eternal well-being. If you celebrate Christmas as a Christian, you ought to do so in such a way as to draw men to Christ. You celebrate to serve them for the sake of the gospel. You celebrate to glorify God.
(3) Building off of what has already been said, surrender your rights and serve others for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor 8, 9). If your attitude is, “I have a right to celebrate Christmas. I’m free in Christ, and you can’t take it away from me, you nasty legalist!” then you need to watch out. That’s a very selfish perspective, and it will turn your celebration of Christmas into a selfish affair. I don’t think God is pleased with our selfishness parading as piety.
On the other hand, remember that the issue with regard to your brother is causing him to stumble. In other words, it is causing him to fall away from Christ and get sucked into idolatry. The issue is not whether he likes your celebration of Christmas or not, nor is it whether he agrees with your celebration of Christmas or not. He may disagree vehemently with your celebration of Christmas, but if he is not in any danger of falling away from Christ because of your celebration, then you do him no wrong by celebrating.
Perhaps those most vulnerable to true stumbling at this point are our children. The way we celebrate Christmas should not draw them into the idolatry of mammon and covetousness, so surrender your rights and serve them in the way you celebrate.
(4) Look out for yourself (1 Cor 9:24-10:22). It is not only our children that we must consider in the way we celebrate Christmas. Watch out that you do not become ensnared in the idolatrous humanism that expresses itself in consumerism. Give yourself to worshiping Christ, not indulging in the flesh.
(5) Last, and perhaps most controversial, don’t worry about supposed historical associations (1 Cor 10:25-26). These past associations are not what determine whether something is right or wrong. I would argue that rejecting Christmas for its supposedly pagan origins actually obscures real discernment in the present. We are much more in danger of bowing to the idol mammon and the idol Americanism at Christmas time than we are in danger of bowing to the sun god.
George Gillespie, one of Scotland’s Commissioners to the Westminster Assembly, had another argument regarding Christmas’ historical associations. He wrote in A Dispute Against English Popish Ceremonies: “… by communicating with idolaters in their rites and ceremonies, we ourselves become guilty of idolatry…. Forasmuch, then, as kneeling before the consecrated bread, the sign of the cross, surplice, festival days [such as Christmas – JDP], bishopping, bowing down to the altar, administration of the sacraments in private places, etc., are the wares of Rome, the baggage of Babylon, the trinkets of the whore, the badges of Popery, the ensigns of Christ’s enemies, and the very trophies of antichrist, — we cannot conform, communicate and symbolise with the idolatrous Papists in the use of the same, without making ourselves idolaters by participation. Shall the chaste spouse of Christ take upon her the ornaments of the whore? Shall the Israel of God symbolise with her who is spiritually called Sodom and Egypt?
I would suggest that there is an important point at which Gillespie’s argument fails to match the Scriptural reasoning in our text. Paul does not teach, “If you do the actions that idolaters do, then you are idolaters, too.” He does not teach, “If you use the symbols idolaters use, then you are idolaters, too.” Rather, he teaches, “If you participate with idolaters in their idolatry, then you are participating in idolatry, whether that is your intention or not.” Gillespie argues that if we use the symbols that the Papists use, then we are participating in their idolatry. I don’t believe that works. Are we participating in their idolatry when we use the same symbols that come out of our mouths (i.e. words and sentences) as they use? Using the same symbols does not automatically mean that we are participating in their worship. Gillespie failed to make the distinction that the apostle makes, namely, that it is not association per se which makes symbols problematic but participation. If I take something that is a good gift from God, but which is associated with idolatry, and use it in a different context with a God-honoring meaning, then I am not participating in idolatry. I am actually fighting against idolatry by reclaiming what is rightfully the Lord’s and was illegitimately twisted by idolaters (1 Cor 10:26). You and I will inevitable do many of the same things that idolaters do in their worship, because we are all created beings working with the created materials that God has given us. Abuse does not take away rightful use. A good symbol is a good symbol. It is ours in Christ, and we are free to use it provided that we do so for the glory of God and the good of others.
If we fail to get that point, then we will tend to withdraw from the world. We will make the subtle error of defining ourselves as over against other men and not according to Scripture. We will not advance the gospel, for we will always feel the need to isolate ourselves from those around us and attempt to create some kind of a parallel existence. We are not trying to create a parallel culture but a “cross culture”—one which intersects with the world around us and bears witness to what they ought to be and can be in Christ. Christmas is just such an opportunity to bear witness to the truth. Of course the demons will try to twist it to their advantage, but why should we listen to their false claims? Spite the devil. Make the cosmic claims of Christ’s incarnation evident, and celebrate the coming of Christ publicly with great joy!
What does “food offered to idols” teach us about celebrating Christmas? I believe it gives us a great deal of wisdom in how to fully rejoice in God’s good gifts without compromising with idolatry. May your celebration of Christmas fulfill this Scripture, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (1 Cor 10:31-33)!