The weeks around Christmas seem to bring out the Christian curmudgeons. On one end, we have people telling us all of our Christmas festivities come from paganism, with the implication that our celebration of the birth of Jesus is somehow Satanic; on the other, we have the more sophisticated argument that celebrating Christmas is pagan, not in the technical sense, but because it is nowhere commanded in Scripture and thus violates what’s known in some circles as the Regulative Principle.
The Regulative Principle is at the heart of conservative Reformed approaches to worship, but all Christians can learn from discussions about its application. It states that the only worship that is acceptable to God is that which is expressly commanded in Scripture. If it isn’t authorized by the Bible, and especially the New Testament, it is forbidden.
The alternative, known as the Normative Principle, is the more common practice and says that Scripture gives us guidelines and principles for worship, and we have freedom within these to use any means not expressly forbidden in the Bible in our worship of God.
The Regulative Principle governs practice within worship services as well as when worship services are to take place. Thus, Scripture tells us that we are to sing, read the Scriptures, pray, collect alms, celebrate the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and hear preaching and teaching when we meet.
On one end, we have people telling us all of our Christmas festivities come from paganism, with the implication that our celebration of the birth of Jesus is somehow Satanic; on the other, we have the more sophisticated argument that celebrating Christmas is pagan, not in the technical sense, but because it is nowhere commanded in Scripture
In strict interpretations of the Regulative Principle, singing is restricted to Psalms sung a capella, a point which illustrates the primacy of the New Testament to adherents of the Regulative Principle: Psalm 150 would seem to authorize the use of a wide range of musical instruments, yet, because instruments are not mentioned in the New Testament, they are considered forbidden by this reading of the Regulative Principle.
In the same way, the Old Testament sacrifices and Feasts are no longer to be celebrated because they were pointing toward Christ and find their meaning in Him. Paul explicitly teaches that the various Old Covenant festivals are no longer binding on us:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Col. 2:16-17)
Rather than the Sabbath, we now celebrate the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, the day Jesus rose from the dead, the eighth day marking the start of the New Creation. Paul tells the Corinthians to collect the offering for the church in Jerusalem on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:2), indicating that was when the church met as confirmed by the Didache, a first century Christian work.
All this means that according to the Regulative Principle, there is no room for celebrating any Christian holy days other than the Sabbath. Aside from the theological principle explained above, an annual celebration would inevitably become more special than a weekly celebration, and so our human-instituted holiday would overshadow the day God has specifically commanded us to worship Him; this would make our ideas and traditions more important, more significant in practice, than God’s commands.
So the celebration of Christmas is not essential. Does that mean we should not do it, especially in the light of the absence of a biblical command to celebrate it?
In contrast, the Normative Principle argues that throughout the Old Testament, God commanded that his actions be commemorated among his people. Over and over, he tells us to set up monuments to remember what he has done, and to repeat the stories to our children. This is why the Jews celebrate Purim even without an express command from God.
Would the same principle not apply to the New Testament? With the possible exception of the Resurrection, is there anything that can compare in its Earth-shattering significance to the Incarnation? Certainly, God would want us to commemorate the Nativity!
The Normative Principle makes sense in many ways, but it can be taken too far. I once attended a church in a multi-faith center where the neighboring congregation was singing, “One Toke over the Line, Sweet Jesus” in their worship service. Still the argument for celebrating Christmas sounds good.
Except that the early church didn’t celebrate the Nativity.
It wasn’t until the second century that people started trying to figure out the date of Jesus’ birth, and it only emerged as an important feast later, after its date was set.
So the celebration of Christmas is not essential. Does that mean we should not do it, especially in the light of the absence of a biblical command to celebrate it? Is it a sin to worship in a way not commanded in Scripture, to offer God “strange fire” in the words of Lev. 10:1 (KJV)?
Not so fast.
In John 10:22, Jesus is in Jerusalem celebrating the Feast of Dedication, also known as Hanukkah. The story of Hanukkah takes place during the Intertestamental period and is not in the Hebrew Bible. This means either that Jesus engaged in false worship by participating in a religious festival that was not commanded in Scripture, or that this strict version of the Regulative Principle is more restrictive than Jesus is.
The question is, should we be more scrupulous about worship than Jesus?
We can draw some key conclusions for our own practices but looking at how our Lord lived. If Christ could participate in Hanukkah without violating His conscience, we are free to remember His birth by the same principle.
Celebrating Christmas is adiaphora, an indifferent matter. If you celebrate it, have a blessed holiday. If you don’t want to celebrate it, don’t, but pause before you think to accuse those who do of engaging in false worship.