Last week, it finally hit me that Christmas was fast approaching. Yes, there was Christmas music in the grocery store and holiday decorations in the aisles; yes, Jone and I began gathering gifts for my nieces and nephews, but even then, the nearness of Christmas didn’t really sink in until I saw the news story. In The Week ‘s “Good Week, Bad Week” section (18 November 2011), the headline read: “The War on Christmas.” The paragraph continued to explain why it was a “bad week” for the war on Christmas: “Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker declared that the tree set up in the Capitol Rotunda this December will be known as a ‘Christmas tree,’ instead of a holiday tree.” I knew then that Christmas was close at hand.
The cultural war over Christmas has been ongoing for as long as I can remember. Even in high school, I remember billboards attacking the shorthand “X-mas” as anti-Christian, and two years ago I saw a number of online petitions to request retailers to keep the designation “Christmas tree” instead of “holiday tree.” I certainly understand the fervor to pursue public demonstrations of Christianity, but I wonder if we are really fighting the right battle. Instead of expending our energy coercing the public into false displays of Christianity, which T. David Gordon suggests is actually a form of using God’s name in vain, perhaps we should better pursue right relationships with God, i.e., people reconciled to God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This so-called culture war, perhaps borne out of our natural tendency toward legalism, is a distraction from the true mission of Christ’s church: to preach the gospel. Moreover, I think the war over Christmas only reinforces the legalistic view the world seems to have of religion in general and, in the words of the apostle Paul, it returns us to the elementary principles of the world which enslave us (Gal. 4:9). Therefore, this year, as we have already celebrated the first Sunday of Advent, I thought it appropriate to issue a “friendly caution” to not be sucked into this culture war over Christmas waged by popular evangelicalism. Instead of joining that war, which seeks to see the world treat Christmas as a “holy-day,” let’s raise the banner of Jesus Christ reconciling sinners to God.
The apostle Paul regularly rebuked the Jewish-Christians for trying to subject Gentile-Christians to the holy days and religious festivals of the law. For example, in Galatians 4:8-11, Paul writes: “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.” Paul fears that his labors for the Galatian Christians were in vain, because they have exchanged the gospel of Christ for the elementary principles of legalism. John Stott summarizes Paul’s frustrations: “In other words, your religion has degenerated into an external formalism…it has become a dreary routine of rules and regulations.” Why would those who, through Jesus Christ, have been delivered from the strivings of the flesh return to such slavery? Yet, I fear that popular evangelicalism teeters on the brink of such a return to elementary principles by treating Christmas and Easter as holy days. Philip Ryken comments on this passage to the Galatians: “It is also a warning sign that many Americans are really pagans, for our national spirituality focuses on major holidays rather than on living for Christ every day.” Moreover, we reinforce that very mentality when we impose such legalism on the world. Ryken continues, “There are still far too many people who think that all they have to do for God is to go to church at Christmas and Easter.” Is it possible that this misunderstanding of Christianity is the result of the example set by the evangelical world? Have we preached a message that Christianity is simply about the right way to celebrate Christmas and Easter?
I want to reiterate Paul’s rebuke to the early church: “do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (Col. 2:16). Accordingly, we should be careful in our conversations that we do not judge others by so called “holy days.” Celebrating Christ at Christmas or not celebrating Christ at Christmas, does not make one a believer or unbeliever, nor is it a proper tool for evaluating the sanctification of each other. Paul is very clear that we should not use holy days and festivals as a standard to evaluate the faith of others, and that should include our modern holy days of Christmas and Easter. Moreover, if we are not to judge our brothers and sisters in Christ for their observance or lack of observance of holy days, neither should we apply that same judgment to the world. Certainly Christmas and Easter are great opportunities in the life of the church to remember and celebrate the incarnation and resurrection, and certainly they are great opportunities to preach the gospel and to confront the idols of our hearts—especially materialism!—but let’s make sure we are preaching the gospel, not a message of “the proper celebration of Christmas.”
As my former professor, Dr. Jack Collins is fond of saying, “Please don’t hear what I’m not saying!” Having begun with such a message against the culture war over Christmas, I do want to be clear that a celebration of such days as Christmas and Easter is not prohibited by scripture. In fact, Paul pointedly remarks: “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). Philip Ryken comments: “There is nothing wrong, of course, with taking a day to praise God for the birth or the resurrection of his Son. Elsewhere, Paul says, ‘The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord’ (Rom. 14:6)…But there is an eternity of difference between the optional observance of such a day and making it mandatory as a means of justification.” Those who wish to use Christmas and Easter—or any other time—to celebrate the work of God for us in Christ, great! As Paul wrote, do so for the honor of the Lord. I am simply reminding us to not judge our brother or sister or even the unbelieving world by whether or not they choose to do the same. Such judging , Paul points out, returns us to the elementary principles, to slavery, even to a message contrary to the gospel of Christ which gives freedom.
Therefore, if you want to celebrate Christmas as a time to remember the incarnation of our Savior and to worship God for all he has given us in Christ: praise God! If you want to celebrate Christmas with Santa, family, and food: again, praise God! If you don’t want to celebrate Christmas in any way at all: praise God! Our salvation, and the salvation of those around us, depends not on the religious observance of special days and festivals, but on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It does not matter how any of us or how the world celebrates certain days. What really matters, as Paul said, is whether we know God, or rather are known by God!
Please hear me clearly: Christmas and Easter are good opportunities to preach Christ incarnate and Christ resurrected, and they are great opportunities for evangelism. However, I want us to remember that the message of the gospel is not “put Christ back in Christmas” but rather that Jesus Christ came to live, die, and rise again to reconcile us to God. Let’s avoid the preaching of holy days and instead focus on the gospel of Christ.
-Rev. Kris Holroyd
Gordon, T. David. Why Johnny Can’t Preach: the Media have Shaped the Messengers. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2009.
Philip Graham Ryken. Galatians. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2005.
John R. w. Stott. Galatians. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1984.