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Volume 14, Issue 5: Presbyterion

Christmas and the Church

Douglas Wilson

The question of Christmas is a vexed one for some, and a sunny matter of no controversy at all for others. Some, who hold tightly to the "regulative principle," say that whatever is not commanded in worship is forbidden. Christmas observance is not commanded, and so is therefore forbidden. Case closed. But this is too facile. The real issue here is a hermeneutical one. How does Scripture command and forbid? How are we to interpret these commands and prohibitions?

All faithful Protestants have to be regulativists of some sort. Worship must be in accord with Scripture. And the word worship itself, indicating service to God, shows that we must serve Him in the way that He wants, and not in the way that we want. We have addressed these questions concerning the regulative principle in these pages before.
But there is an additional consideration that we in our modern circumstances have to take into account. In the original Reformational debates over such questions of worship, they were dealing with what sort of thing should be imposed. In our context, we are asking about what sort of thing may be voluntarily done. A moment's glance should reveal that the former presents a concern about liberty of conscience, while the latter does not.
Holy days, at that time, were days that brought certain civil obligations with them. There was no sharp divide between church and state. The Puritans insisted (rightly, in my view) that a man's conscience could not be bound contrary to, or outside of, the Word of God.
If we hit the fast-forward button, we can perhaps illustrate the problem in a modern setting. Imagine some ideal Christian republic, down the road sometime. That nation has, as our nation used to have, blue laws, regulating or restricting what sort of businesses could be open on the Lord's Day. All well and good, and the Puritans would have been happy with us. Certain people are required to do things that they might not agree with, but this is not being done contrary to the Scriptures. The Scriptures require us to regulate certain behaviors prior to the time when we might have universal agreement on them.
Now, suppose that in our postmillennial paradise there are a handful of merchants who have not grasped that the central miracle in all human history, the Incarnation, is worthy of annual commemoration. Labor Day, sure, Fourth of July, fine, but God become man? Why would we do that? One of them decides, bah, humbug, to open his hardware store on Christmas Day. When asked about it, he demands to be shown a verse that requires the commemoration of Christ's birth on December 25. There are none, and so he doesn't change. What do we do about it?
The answer is that we cannot bind his conscience on such a thing without warrant for the Word of God. We can feel sorry for him, but this is not the same thing as bringing any civil or ecclesiastical action against him. We might feel sorry for him because he is viewing the text with a tight hermeneutic and narrow eyes—eyes narrow enough to look through a keyhole and use both of them. But regardless of how he mishandles the text, the Church has no authority to discipline in such matters.
But flipped around, how do we respond to his charge that the Church is sinning through such observance? Does the Church have the authority to hold worship services on Christmas Eve? Of course. There is a vast difference between what you may do, and what you may force others to do. I would never want to be part of any disciplinary action against anyone that did not insist upon a high threshold of proof—two and three witnesses, clear and non-controverted texts, and so on. But to insist on the same threshold of proof for non-prohibited actions, freely undertaken, is quite another matter.
Esther proclaimed the festival of Purim, an annual event to commemorate an event that the Old Testament law never required her people to remember (Est. 9:27-29). The Westminster divines thought this was really cool and used her example as a basis for saying that the Church had the authority to set aside certain days for particular observances. Our American fathers established Thanksgiving in the same way, according to the same logic—and what a good deal that is, too. The Jews overcame Antiochus Epiphanes in the intertestamental period, and cleansed their Temple in the first Hannukah, their festival of lights. Jesus had no scruples about celebrating this "illegal" festival (Jn. 10:22), apparently not having had the opportunity to read smudgy xeroxed articles sent to Him anonymously that proved that Nimrod was the actual founder of the festival and that Judas Maccabeus was really another name for Tammuz.
Christ has come, and the Church should be overwhelmingly glad. This gladness is an occasion for a celebration, and never to be used as a club on those who do not have the eyes to see it. If someone balks at participating in such celebrations, let them be. Live in peace. Don't quarrel on Christmas or over Christmas. Christ has called us to a feast, and not to a fracas over debatable things. At the same time, if we understand the ramifications of the Incarnation, then we must have a feast sometime. If not December, then sometime. Otherwise, we would explode.

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