Paganism and Christian Liberty

Every year about this time, articles and pictures appear (especially on social media) condemning the observance of "pagan" holidays such as Christmas. It is often claimed that the names of these holidays (as well as the day chosen by the early church for their observance) are pagan and correspond to pagan festivals. It is not my intention here to prove or disprove whether such allegations are true. They may well be. The connection between pagan festivals and Christian days may be exaggerated. There is, by no means, a scholarly consensus among historians on the matter.

My point is much simpler than that: the pagan origins of something do not disqualify the Christian from using it. To state the contrary is to commit a logical fallacy, the so-called “genetic fallacy.”

It might be true that "Christmas trees," "Easter eggs and Easter bunnies," and other customs have pagan roots, but that does not make trees, eggs, and rabbits inherently pagan: "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof" (I Cor. 10:26; see also I Timothy 4:4). Therefore, a Christian is permitted to decorate a tree in his house in December, if he so desires. He may also refrain from doing so. Jeremiah 10:2-5 does not apply here because the Christian does not worship the tree. Jeremiah warns against the practice of cutting down a tree, forming an idol from it, adorning it with silver and gold, fastening it to the ground, and then worshipping it. Similarly, the second commandment does not forbid the mere making of a likeness (sculpture, painting, and other artistic expressions per se are not forbidden). The making of an image in order to worship it or use it in worship is prohibited. Similarly, a Christian is permitted to eat an egg or a bunny made of chocolate in March/April. We are free in Christ to eat or not eat chocolate, whether a square chocolate bar or one shaped as a bunny or an egg.

Many Christians who object to such things do not fully understand their liberty in Christ, and have excessive scruples about indifferent matters. Paul deals with Christian liberty in Romans 14, I Corinthians 8, 10, and other places. Let the reader study carefully these chapters. “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any" (I Cor. 6:12). "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not" (I Cor. 10:23).

It is difficult for us to understand the extent to which the culture of Paul's day was saturated with paganism. If Paul had had the scruples of some modern Christians, he could not have lived in that day without hiding himself away from the world (see I Cor. 5:10), for there were, almost literally, idols on every corner. Every public building or amenity was dedicated to an idol. The meat sold in the market places was ritually slaughtered and offered to idols. Even ships and other forms of transport were dedicated to idols. For example, in Acts 28:11 the ship which took Paul from Malta was dedicated to two idols, “Castor and Pollux.”

For us today, of course, idolatry is less overt. It is easy to avoid eating chocolate eggs (which is not idolatry or even close to idolatry, unless one becomes a glutton [Phil. 3:19]), but much more difficult to crucify the lusts of the flesh, and especially the idols of money, pleasure, and self. Those are the real dangers of the Christmas season, not the “snare” of the Christmas tree!

About such idolatry Paul says, first, "We know that an idol is nothing..." (I Cor. 8:4) Therefore, it makes no difference at all whether the meat you eat is offered to Zeus or some other pagan god (I Cor. 8:8; 10:25). The only exception he makes is for a Christian who is eating with a weaker brother. You must not cause a weaker brother (with an over scrupulous conscience) to sin by flaunting your liberty in front of him (see I Cor. 8:7, 9-10; I Cor. 10:28, 32, etc.). Moreover, a Christian may not eat dedicated meat in an idolatrous temple because to do so would be to partake of idolatry and even to have fellowship with devils (see I Cor. 8:10; I Cor. 10:19-21). Similarly, today, a Christian should not be partaker of the “accursed idolatry” of the Romish mass (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 30, Q&A 80).

The application is simple: something with a pagan origin is not by that very fact pagan. Let us imagine that your congregation is seeking a new building in which to worship the triune God. You are offered a building previously used by a cult or a satanic group. You do not have to burn the place down and exorcise it before it can be used to the glory of God.

We could apply this further. It is widely reported that the word “Easter” is derived from the name of a pagan goddess of fertility and that the name “Christmas” comes from Roman Catholic roots (“Christ’s mass). That might be true. I have not investigated the claim very thoroughly. Historians have differing opinions on the matter. But my question is: does that matter

The names of the week are derived from pagan gods: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday are named after the gods Tyr, Woden, Thor, and Frigg respectively. The names of the months of the year could fall under a similar condemnation: January (Janus); March (Mars), etc. Indeed, we could probably find pagan origins in a great many words: Nike shoes are named after the god of victory; the Olympic games were (originally) saturated with paganism. Even some theological terms in the Greek New Testament (used by the apostles who were moved by the Holy Spirit to use them) have pagan roots.

The New Testament Christian is free. He may eat whatever he wishes (even meat offered to idols, without by that very fact worshipping idols), and he may observe whichever days he wishes, or he may refrain from observing days. This does not mean he may disregard the fourth commandment, of course—that is still binding with the other nine. And this year, when the world observes Christmas on Sunday, December 25, the Christian is obligated to worship God whether his family approves or not, and whether it “disrupts” the family celebrations or not.

We enjoy such glorious liberty in Christ because Christ has redeemed us by his blood and because as mature saints in Christ we have the Holy Spirit. However, the Christian may not flaunt his liberty in front of his weaker brethren, or use his freedom as a pretext to sin (Gal. 5:13).

A few years ago, there was controversy because of allegations that certain supermarkets in the United Kingdom were selling halal meat (meat for Muslims, dedicated to Allah). In light of I Corinthians 10, there is really no religious issue for the Christian. He may eat such meat with a good conscience.

Paul did condemn the Galatians for observing certain days, but he warned the church because the Judaizers had made the observance of certain days binding on the conscience and conditions of salvation (Gal. 4:10-11; see Col. 2:16). Elsewhere, he makes days a matter of indifference and Christian liberty.

What has this to do with Christmas or Easter? First, if a church decides to have a special sermon on "Christmas Day" on the birth of Christ, that is good and not to be condemned, as long as the worship service itself, as to its elements, is in accordance with the regulative principle of worship. And the Christian may eat whatever he wishes, because the Old Testament food restrictions no longer apply. 

If a church, in addition, decides to observe other days with special services (New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, etc.) and on those days (not demanded by scripture) meets for worship with appropriate sermons (again without violating the regulative principle as to the elements of the worship), why should any condemn the practice? Is it wrong for the church to worship her Lord more than on the fifty-two Lord's Days per year? Better to be in the Lord’s house on those occasions than elsewhere!

Consider a Christian who wants to join such a Reformed church that holds services on those days. The Covenant Protestant Reformed Church (Ballymena, N. Ireland) and Limerick Reformed Fellowship (Limerick, Republic of Ireland) have chosen not to hold special services, but this does not imply sin in our brethren in the Protestant Reformed Churches in America who have chosen, in accordance with the Church Order of Dordt, to observe them. If a Christian has certain scruples about the practice, he is not obliged to observe them, and the church does not have the right to bind any man's conscience (see Belgic Confession, Art. 32).

However, such a man should inform the consistory privately before becoming a member that he has such a difference with the congregational practice, should be willing to display a teachable spirit, and should agree not to agitate in the congregation against the practices of the majority. The weaker brother is commanded not to condemn or judge the stronger brother, which calling must also not be overlooked (Rom. 14:3-4). 

Such a man could not be an officebearer, and certainly not a minister, in that congregation, however, because an officebearer binds himself willingly to the creeds, confessions, and church order of the church which he freely chooses to join. And in that case, the minister would be required to preach sermons on the special services of Christmas, Easter, etc.

This applies only to the observance of special services, of course. The church makes no judgment on chocolate eggs or bunnies, on Christmas presents, decorations, trees, or turkey, or on other such issues. There a man is free to celebrate as he pleases or to avoid celebrating as he pleases, all to the glory of God, as long as he avoids the excesses and sins of the ungodly world with their drunkenness and covetousness. And as long as, this year in 2016, he remembers the Sabbath day to keep it holy on December 25!

"Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God" (I Cor. 10:31).

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. If you have a question or comment for Rev. McGeown, please do so in the comment section.

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