Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Sing-a-long: Seriously Though, Sing With Me!


Last Sunday, I began teaching 35 elementary aged children about The Magnificat: Mary's Song of Praise. For our opening illustration, I began singing the first few lines of We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and Jingle Bells . The children immediately burst into song, smiling and laughing as they thought about Santa, Christmas, and presents.

What was particularly striking to me, and has resonated with me throughout this month leading up to Christmas, was that minutes earlier, the same children sat mostly silent as our children's music leader led them in Joy to the World and O Come All Ye Faithful, two very well-known Christmas melodies sung for decades in the Church.

This post is not to encourage families to bunker down and remove themselves from all secular expressions of Christmas. It is not a warning that God hates all gingerbread houses, snowmen, and elves on shelves. It is however, asking the question of why the next generation has lost many of the songs of Christmas? Those simple melodies that bring our focus and priorities back to the joy that is experienced only through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of that little baby from Bethlehem.

Luke 1 points us to Mary's priorities. As Mary hears the news that she is to bring the Savior into the world, her focus immediately becomes on her need for God. Mary says, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is might has done great things for me, and holy is his name."

Why does Mary's soul magnify the Lord? Why does she sing with joy? Because of who God is, because He is Savior, caring, and holy.What does this have to do with our children singing? Mary's priorities and focus were on her Lord. And out of that focus came the overflowing passion to sing! What are your child's and your family's priorities? If they are like most of us, our priorities are on ourselves... what do I get, how do I stay comfortable?

When our priority is ourselves, then we focus on Santa, because Santa gives us what we want. It makes total sense that our children get excited to sing about Rudolph and the jingling of bells because they are taught that it is through "getting" that one is made happy.

What if we took a page from Mary and made the Savior a priority? What if we sang and taught our children Christ-focused lyrics, pointing to the fact that it is only through Jesus that a person in this world can receive joy.

We love our children at Willow Creek Church! We love them so much, that we are committed to helping them sing the song that they were born to sing, the song of Jesus Christ the King.

Be blessed.
-Drew Taylor
Willow Creek Church Director of Children's Ministry

Friday, December 12, 2014

Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday? A Response to Eight Common Arguments

Every year Christmas (and Easter) are assailed by a small, but very vocal group of very sincere and pious Christians that allege that many of us are participants in paganism. Some of those persons are my close friends. 
What follows is a response I once wrote to a dear friend that holds this position. Here, I reply to the eight most common objections to celebrating these occasions on the "Christian Calendar." 

1. The etymology of both the words “Christmas” and “Easter” is problematic; Christmas contains the root “mass,” a false and abominable sacrifice of the Roman Catholic Church, and Easter is derived from the name of a pagan god, worshipped in ancient times.
RESPONSE: While the etymology of many words is important, it is not ultimately determinative for the meaning of any given word. Moreover, words can and do change meanings over time, and the meaning that was once imputed to a word does not necessarily govern its current meaning. Much more so with words many centuries old. For instance, the word “gay” once meant happy. Rarely does it have that meaning anymore. Although both the words Christmas and Easter have suspicious roots, it can hardly be argued that the common evangelical usage of the word “Easter,” for instance, is in reference to the pagan god. So too with Christmas; most evangelicals do not regard the word as having reference to the sacrifice of the mass as practiced by the Roman Catholic Church either before or after the Reformation. 

Obviously, the sacrifice of the mass is not a part of Protestant worship at all. Neither does the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, held on the day commonly called Easter, retain any aspects of pagan worship whatsoever. To hold otherwise is disingenuous. If the common evangelical is asked today about the meaning of either word, he is far more likely—almost certain in fact—to respond with regard to the birth and resurrection of Christ. We ought to allow the simple fact that these two words have dramatically changed meanings today from ancient times for evangelicals, and no longer bear any resemblance of their ancient etymological roots. If this objection above be granted, we must also immediately abandon the names of certain days of the week (i.e. Saturday) and some of the months of the year (i.e. August) which have historical roots with the god Saturn and Augustus Caesar respectively.

2. Neither the practice of Christmas nor Easter are commanded in Scripture and therefore are not warranted by the Regulative Principle of Worship (See the Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1). 

RESPONSE: I regard this charge to be largely misdirected. Both the birth of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus inspire our worship and are encouraged to be pondered deeply in Scripture. The magi, angels, and shepherds worshipped the new born Christ. So too Simeon and Anna. Certainly the gospel writers hold these examples up as commendable, and not as counterexamples. Too, the disciples and the early church worshipped the resurrected Christ. Thomas is a notable example (John 20) as are the whole group of apostles in Matthew 28. These two doctrines (the incarnation and resurrection) are both worthy of much preaching and instruction and should be brought to the attention of the church regularly, even seasonally. Both are intricately tied to the very Gospel itself. The fact that they are celebrated at certain times of the year is arbitrary. It should be kept in mind that the Reformed tradition makes a distinction between “elements” (the practices of gathered worship such as preaching, prayer, benedictions, blessings, sacraments etc.) and “circumstances” (where to meet, what time, how long sermons should last, what passages to select for preaching or study, how much of a passage is to be read etc.). If this objection above be taken to its logical conclusion, it would be impossible to call a meeting at all today as Scripture nowhere commands us what specific location or times the church is to meet regularly.

3. Both Christmas and Easter contain pagan symbolism; the former retains the use of the so-called “Christmas Tree” and Easter retains usage of the “egg” and other fertility-cult symbolism. 
RESPONSE: If this objection be taken to its logical conclusion, neither could the Christian church utilize the rainbow since it is used by homosexual groups as their symbol, nor the cross since it too is often perverted and misused by the wicked.

I find this objection ironic as both the tree and the egg are created by God and pronounced to be “good” in the Genesis account along with all other creatures. They cannot be regarded as intrinsically evil, as to make this claim would be to deny the goodness of creation. If we hold a general principle that any article that was once used in paganism can never therefore be redeemed for Christian worship on that account, not much is left for use in worship at all. The name of God would be off limits as it has been grossly blasphemed. If it be argued that trees are immoral because pagans have used both the tree and the egg in their false worship, then we can hardly use anything created at all in worship; not even our bodies (as they too are worshipped by pagans), could be used in worship.

The tree, to which much strenuous objection has been given, however is positively a symbol of life, eternity, and justice in Scripture (see both the Genesis and Revelation accounts of the Garden of Eden and the New Heavens and New Earth). Surprising to some, trees were even one of the few symbols used in decorating the temple of God (1 Kings 6). If it be argued that evergreen or pine trees in particular have become essentially pagan by their usage in historical paganism, one wonders where that line of argumentation could possibly stop. What genus has become "off limits"? What species? Would it be true of all trees in general? Even all plant life? Can we allow evergreen trees on our church grounds at all? On our personal properties? Should all evergreen trees be destroyed? Are we obliged to cut them all down wherever they be found as the OT saints cut down Asherah poles? Here the objection verges on the ridiculous.

If it be alleged that Christians actually worship Christmas trees, as it is slanderously reported that we do, I would deny this in the most emphatic terms. We do not pray to them, impute power to them, come to them for healing, attempt to obtain merit from them, make sacrifices to them or from them, or any other form of inward or outward worship. We use them as decorations. Nothing more. To assert more than this on the part of our detractors is simply unfair and goes beyond the bounds of Christian charity.

4. Both Christmas and Easter are often attended by ridiculous and childish customs i.e. Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, which detract from the worship of the Trinitarian God. Many churches that purport to be "evangelical" have even brought such nonsense into the very sanctuary and perverted the holy worship of God! 
RESPONSE: I grant that this is entierly inappropriate and sacreligious. Yet this objection as an argument against Christmas and Easter may commit the logical fallacy of the straw man. In this fallacy, the worst and most easily defeated example is held up and given as representative of the whole. However, we ought not to judge any one practice or belief based solely by the worst and most blatant practitioners of the same.

For example, it is true that some Presbyterians ordain homosexuals (the PCUSA). But this does not mean that we should no longer practice ordination because it is or has been misused by some. This objection assumes that if a certain belief or practice (such as Christmas) has been misused or perverted by some group, it is impossible to be redeemed by others who could practice it more responsibly. Clearly this is unsustainable logic. In the case of Faith Church, it would be impossible to maintain any objection against us that we have used such ridiculous and stupid characters such as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny in our worship services. To hold us accountable for the stupidity of others is unfair in the highest degree.

5. Both Christmas and Easter are practiced by the Roman Catholic Church which has so far distorted the Gospel as to be no Gospel at all and therefore their historical practices ought not to be carried forward by Protestants. 
RESPONSE: This objection commits the fallacy of the “fruit of the polluted tree.” Briefly, this fallacy holds that if Mr. X has a particular belief (or practice), and Mr. X is a very bad man, then the given belief (or practice) is also bad too by extension. This fallacy is easily exposed, though, when we consider that the Roman Catholic Church also holds some very orthodox doctrines, such as that of the Trinity and the incarnation of Christ, and that it professes the Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed, and Chalcedonian Creed, as we do. If we are to reject everything the Roman Catholic Church has ever done, on the sole condition that they have done it, surely we would be throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. On the contrary, the individual beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, heretical though that branch has become as a whole, should be considered on their own weight and rejected if and when they are shown to be unbiblical.

6. Both Christmas and Easter encourage consumerism and materialism and ought to be rejected upon the grounds of being a distraction from the Gospel
RESPONSE: This objection is granted. But this writer does not believe that the complete abandonment of the practices of Christmas and Easter is the best response to this problem. I believe, on the contrary, that better preaching and catechetical instruction, along with exhortation and admonishment, is a better course to correct the misapplication of these Gospel events (viz. the birth and resurrection of Jesus). If we reject any practice that has been utilized in some misguided way, we ought to reject the preaching of sermons too, since many contemporary sermons are unhelpful, unbiblical, and even heretical. My contention is that the best response to misapplication is better application! Paul does not reject the practice of the Lord’s Supper en toto on the basis that the Corinthians have grossly distorted it. On the contrary, he corrects and reproves their behavior, while affirming the practice.

 7. Both Christmas and Easter are inconsistent with the practice of the English Puritan heritage from whence the American Presbyterian heritage derives. 
RESPONSE: This objection is granted. But neither is the English Puritan heritage the sole influence of American evangelicalism in general or Presbyterianism in particular; nor is it the authoritative arbiter of the same. Our heritage also has been greatly impacted by the Continental Reformers who along with German Lutheran groups did in fact retain the practice of the Christian calendar year. Moreover, although we greatly regard our English Puritan forefathers, we do not regard them as infallible, and in retrospect find them to sometimes verge on legalism, as for instance, in their practice of the Lord’s Day Sabbath. Even our Puritan heritage, greatly beloved as it is, is not beyond our dissent and even correction.  If English Presbyterianism is to be heeded as authoritative, so too should we disapprove of all decorations in the sanctuary including: stained glass, crosses, and even wedding rings (historically rejected by the Puritans as “Papist”). These great exemplars, our Puritan forbearers, even insisted that all table tops be covered with cloths as exposed wooden table legs might insight a man to sexual lust! No historical expression of the Reformed faith is to be regarded as authoritative or normative unquestioningly.

8. Both Christmas and Easter are practiced during times of the solar year related to the solstice, at which times pagan festivals have been historically linked. 
RESPONSE: This too is related to the “fruit of the poisoned tree” fallacy (see above). If we ought not to worship the Lord Jesus on times, dates, and seasons that have been historically used by pagans, we would have no available dates in which to worship God at all since every conceivable time, month, cycle of the sun and moon, and occasion has at some time in history been used for pagan worship. On the contrary, we ought to redeem these pagan times by diverting attention from false gods and giving our attention to the one and true Lord.

It it be suggested that Christmas is inappropriate because we do not know the day or date on which Christ was truly born, I would ask whether we may only preach events on the very day of the year in which it historically happened. Obviously this is false, for them we would only preach the cross on Good Friday.

We must insist that all days of the year, including whatever day the solstice happens to occur, be devoted to Christ our Supreme King. How appropriate, then, is the preaching of the Gospel on these formerly paganized days, as we claim all things in Heaven and on Earth for the honor of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Concluding Text

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God (Romans 14:4-6).

   -Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. He is the author of several books, including his newly finished eBook trilogy, Unprecious, Unknown, and Undeserved.