Commentary

Challenging Christmas

Do you celebrate Christmas? 

If I asked you this question in person, your response would likely be a long stare with squinted eyes and a stuttered, “Um yes, does anyone NOT celebrate Christmas?” 

Over the past year at Gordon, I’ve tested this question on a handful of friends and received nearly this same response every time. It has occurred to me that the celebration of this holiday is rarely challenged. And if it is, the challenger must endure pressure from an overwhelming majority of Christians who feel the need to defend their beloved tradition.

But what better place than a small, Christian liberal arts college such as Gordon to challenge beliefs and ideas? This is why I decided to write an article on my war with Christmas; to spark a conversation that challenges the religious practices of fellow believers.

From my observation, Christmas is a Christianized pagan holiday that does not have Divine authorization from the Bible. As such, I believe it should be analyzed carefully before it is intermingled with corporate Church worship.  

Christmas is of the world 

“We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons. Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas. First, because we do not believe in the mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be sung in Latin or in English; and secondly, because we find no Scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Savior; and consequently, its observance is a superstition,” – Charles Spurgeon

There is no evidence that the early Church adopted a celebration of Jesus’ birth on a particular day of the year. Rather, it was in the fourth century that John Chrysostom convinced the church to convert the pagan celebration of the winter solstice, Natalis invicti, into a celebration of the Nativity. Since then, Christmas has evolved, and spread around the globe to become one of the most widely celebrated holidays in the world. 

In 1 Corinthians 8:8, Paul states that we are no worse off for eating food sacrificed to idols than if we do not. There are countless areas of culture, traditions, and practices that have pagan roots, and Paul encourages Christians to glorify God when exposed to these things. However, we are not permitted to succumb to cultural or historical lies, especially in the Church. It is the avoidance of such lies that drove the the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland to make this declaration about Christmas:

“As with the date of the Saviour’s birth, much of what people associate with Christmas is simply untrue. Christianity, however, is concerned with the truth above everything else.” 

Christmas and the Church

Worship in the Bible is clearly vital to the Christian life. From the beginning, God sets up His standard of sound worship:

“You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, so that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I am commanding you.” -Deut. 4:1-2

Dr. C. Matthew McMahon, founder of A Puritan’s Mind, elaborates on this when he wrote in reference to the observance of Christmas in the church, 

“To allow into worship what is not expressly commanded in the Bible, whether that is for a day or for the regular Sunday service, is false worship. It is a worship fabricated by men, and this violates the principles of worship that God has commanded.”

This may seem a bit extreme. After all, just because God didn’t say we should celebrate Christmas doesn’t mean we are forbidden too, right? Aren’t there many things observed by the church which the Bible doesn’t mention?

While it’s true that there are many details that are not described in the Bible for regular church worship, most churches hold to particular Biblical ordinances such as prayer, singing, reading the Word, communion, and the like within their worship services.

Biblical scholars call this the Regulative Principle of Worship: the view that worship should consist solely of practices that are explicitly described in the Scriptures. This principle comes from various examples of God condemning unauthorized forms of worship in the Bible, such as in Genesis 4, Leviticus 10, and 2 Samuel 6. Furthermore, Jesus concludes his earthly ministry by commissioning his disciples to “follow all that I commanded you” (Matt 28:20). 

When following the Regulative Principle for corporate church worship, it becomes difficult to justify a celebration of Christmas. Any day set aside (“holy-day”) for worship must come directly from the Word of God, and there are no cases in the Scripture in which the birth of Christ is recognized after it happened, nor are there any direct commands to celebrate it. Jesus’ earthly life and ministry are expanded upon in Paul’s epistles, but the focus is on his death and resurrection, not his birth (1 Cor 11:26). Of course, the theological significance of God becoming man and dwelling among us is profound and should never be overlooked. However, setting aside a day or month to observe a holiday with pagan roots and with no direct Biblical recognition is questionable, to say the least.

“[W]hen we insist on establishing a service of worship based on our whim, we blaspheme God, and create an idol, though we have done it all in the name of God. And when you worship God in the idleness of a holiday spirit, that is a heavy sin to bear, and one which attracts others about it, until we reach the height of iniquity.”  -John Calvin

Approaching Christmas as a Christian 

As Paul warned the Roman Church and James warned his readers, Christians must be wary of becoming conformed to the ways of the world (Rom 12:2, James 4:4). We must analyze our beliefs and traditions from God’s perspective, rather than our own (Col 3:2).

“It is an easy thing to float with the tide of popular opinion; but it takes much grace, diligently sought from God, to swim against it.”  -A.W. Pink

That being said, Christmas is a time, maybe the only time, when many people expose themselves to Christianity by going to church or hearing the story of Jesus. In this way it can be a beautiful opportunity to share the rest of the story with friends and family who may not be as reachable at other times of the year.

While I believe corporate worship should consist of only that which God deems acceptable, I do not see the annual celebration of Jesus’ birth to be consistent with this principle. Christmas can be observed similar to any other worldly holiday; an opportunity to glorify God and spread the gospel, but it is not something that should be intertwined with the holy, corporate worship of the Church. 

“No Christian should be theologically lazy about what God requires of them.”  -Dr. C. Matthew McMahon


Works Cited:

10, harpdivaSeptember, et al. “Calvin’s Response to Being Forced to Observe Christmas.” The Heidelblog, 29 Oct. 2015, https://heidelblog.net/2015/09/calvins-response-to-being-forced-to-observe-christmas/. 

26, Kevin McGraneDecember, et al. “A Brief History of Christmas.” The Heidelblog, 24 Jan. 2017, https://heidelblog.net/2014/12/a-brief-history-of-christmas/.

McMahon, C. Matthew. “Christmas, Christmass or Xmas?” Reformed Theology at A Puritan’s Mind, https://www.apuritansmind.com/puritan-worship/christmas-and-the-regulative-principle/.

Pink, A. W. “XMAS.” XMAS by A.W. PINK (FREE BOOK on Why CHRIST CONDEMNS CHRISTMAS at Still Waters Revival Books), http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/christmas-awpink.htm.

Schwertley, Brian. “The Regulative Principle of Worship and Christmas.” THE REGULATIVE PRINCIPLE OF WORSHIP AND CHRISTMAS by BRIAN SCHWERTLEY (FREE BOOK on Why CHRIST CONDEMNS CHRISTMAS at Still Waters Revival Books), http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/christmas.htm.

“Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?” Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, https://www.fpchurch.org.uk/about-us/how-we-worship/no-christian-festivals/should-christians-celebrate-christmas/. 

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Deborah Cumbee

“…The celebration of this holiday [Christmas] is rarely challenged. And if it is, the challenger must endure pressure from an overwhelming majority of Christians who feel the need to defend their beloved tradition.” How very true! Thanks for this contribution, and keep kindling the fire that such questions pose! 😉

Emily

Great article, Emma! I was so excited to see you had written something for the Gordon review. Good food for thought!

Aaron Jacob

This was a brilliant article. I can still see how it does make sense and how it is necessary to challenge. Our Theology is developed from our Faith which we seek to increase in understanding the word of God and I feel that a Liberal arts college helps all to have different theologies which in turn helps us all together as one body of Christ have a better understanding of what we do and why we do so. Great work and well researched. Happy Hols.

Anne A Shearer

This is a very well written article and you present a strong argument! You are right that there is no better place than a small, Christian liberal arts college to challenge assumed beliefs, so thank you for taking the time to do this. I still think that the Incarnation is something which should move us to worship God, and I wonder how you would propose we do this if not in corporate worship? I’d also highly recommend this podcast episode which takes a stance opposite to the one you pose here: https://open.spotify.com/episode/5b0KdddTuFQekHSmjKEB96?si=2dc91422d93348a9.

Mariva M DeBorde

This is an interesting article for sure, and I have spent a great deal of time trying to understand of Christmas is worthy of celebration in the Church. Thanks for sharing your opinion. However, I am struggling to understand how we can celebrate Christmas and glorify God with it but not include it in a worship service? I’m also perplexed by what your definition of “worship” involving Christmas would be… I definitely think the Pagan argument is one of the weakest ones I’ve researched considering we used a calendar riddled with Pagan terms (this month, January is related to a pagan god’s name), and many of the practices we do (including bathing regularly) were considered pagan by the early church for a long time. I think it’s important to challenge that discussion because we find ourselves in a precarious position if we hang such an argument on pagan practices. Additionally, I would also ask if you lift your hands in church? Cast out demons? Heal the sick? I have no idea what your faith background is, but, before we attack Christmas (which exposes, as you mentioned, millions of people to Christ every year), let’s worry about if we’re actually doing what Jesus commanded us to in Matthew 10:7-8, which has FAR greater consequences than whether or not we worship Jesus during Christmas. Those acts actually ARE commanded by Jesus, as well as lifting holy hands 1 Timothy 2:8. Lastly, I am curious if you oppose Easter, considering that we don’t know for sure what day Jesus was resurrected? Easter also has deep pagan roots (the goddess Eostre is behind the celebration), and we didn’t start celebrating that holiday till the 2nd century…

Once you start to deconstruct Christmas, you have to challenge other things as well– which becomes tricky. I would caution against anything that is in opposition to the majority of Church tradition, not because we cannot challenge history, but for well over a thousand years the majority of Christians have not found an issue with Christmas, which is something we need to keep in mind. Thanks for the opposing perspective and I hope you had a great Christmas season!