Question: I really am enjoying your site and am learning so much! I am a fairly new Christian, though I went to church my whole life. I have a problem which I would like to ask you about. My friend, who I guess is a Christian, has told me that if I celebrate Easter, Christmas or any of the like holidays I am breaking the first commandment. His reasoning is that pagans celebrated these in some manner as we do now. I told him that it didn't matter because we aren't worshiping their gods. It matters what's in our hearts. He says intent doesn't matter because we are still copying pagan traditions, and that God says we shouldn't learn their ways. Since I put up a Christmas tree or have Easter baskets in my house I am mixing these things in with worship with God. I will do anything that God has asked me to, I have changed my whole lifestyle around. I have even lost another friend because of my faith (at least so far she hasn't spoke to me since). I have no problems giving up anything to Jesus because I love him. I just don't think I am doing anything wrong. Am I? Thank you so much for any help you can give me. Keep posting your articles online! Your fellow servant in Christ Jesus
Response: It is safe to say that it is an extreme position to claim that Christians who follow any of the traditions associated with Easter and Christmas are somehow "violating the first commandment". It is certainly true that becoming involved in pagan idolatry is forbidden by scripture, but it is equally true and equally important to observe that pagan worship on any level is the farthest thing from the minds of virtually everyone who partakes of Easter and Christmas traditions, whatever the original origin of such traditions. In ancient Corinth and Rome, some of the more experienced Christians made it a habit of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols (that is almost exclusively how meat came to be in the market in those days), and this was offending some of the newer Christians. It should not be surprising to us that we find the apostle Paul criticizing both groups, for misapplication and ignorance respectively (Rom.14:1-23; 1Cor.8:1-13; 10:14-33). So on the one hand we do not wish to give offense to our brothers and sisters in Christ in the sense of truly "tripping them up" by the things that we do, even when those things are otherwise legitimate. On the other, Paul is also extremely "short" with those who attempt to use their own private interpretation of scripture as a tool to bully others (Gal.2:11-14; cf. 1Cor.1:10-17). So if it is not a case of immature believers who are being emboldened by our actions to do things that might destroy their good consciences and lead them into sin (specifically, idolatry in the cases described above), then we need to take care not to hand over our will to others who are not in any sort of authority over us. We do not want to cause our fellow Christians to stumble, and we must not. We do not want to shatter the unity and peace of fellowship we have with them, and we ought to avoid doing so whenever possible. But we also must guard against odd and aberrant behavior of any sort, whether of omission or commission, that comes as a result of yielding to the bullying of so-called Christians who have taken it upon themselves to decide for us all what is right and what is wrong in areas that are not spelled out in scripture.
No one is perfect, and no one's application of the principles of scripture to life has ever been perfect, save the sinless walk of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We all strive to follow in His footsteps (or so we should), but we all fall short at least to some degree, partly through weakness, partly through ignorance. Eating from the tree of "knowing good and evil" gave our first parents and us by lineage a capacity to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong, but that capacity must be informed by the truth of the Word of God. Scripture is quite clear that a good heart and a desire to do all that Jesus would have us do sometimes leads to error when it is not mixed with a mature understanding of the Bible developed by diligent study over time. Ideally, we should all become mature through the Word and thus cease to be "tossed to and fro" by every wind of false teaching (Eph.4:14-16), and instead walk in love towards our brothers and sisters (1Jn.3:16), acting out of the conviction of faith (Rom.14:23), and getting better day by day at making these hard judgments between what is truly right and what is really wrong:
Solid [spiritual] food is for the [spiritually] mature, those who by [diligent] practice have trained their [moral] perceptive faculties (i.e., consciences) to distinguish between good and evil.
All this we should do in regard to our own behavior, but in regard to the behavior of others, Jesus' words should ring loudly and clearly in our ears: "first remove the plank from your own eye" (Matt.7:3-5), "judge not that you be not judged" (Matt.7:1); and Paul's too: "who are you to judge another's servant?" (Rom.14:4), and "why do you judge your brother?" (Rom.14:10).
As is often the case with the application of scripture to life situations, several principles may apply, and it takes discernment, "practice" as the quotation from Hebrews above puts it, to correctly discern what is good and what is evil. For example, it is certainly true that if I see my brother engaging in a course of action that will result in his doom and say nothing, I have shirked my responsibility to him (cf., Prov.24:11-12). But on the other hand, if I try and impose my thinking on everyone else, I should first be very careful to consider my own motives (cf. 1Cor.10:29).
In all such matters, it is inevitably only the person involved who can answer the question "which way?", and it can often require soul-searching, prayer (cf. Jas.1:5), the guidance of the Spirit, and a search for scriptural guidance to find the answer (as you are now doing). It is true that many of these traditions you ask about have pagan origins, and also true that they are not biblical. However, over the centuries, many fine Christians who have contributed much to the Church of Jesus Christ have celebrated Christmas and Easter in the traditional way. They were apparently not spiritually harmed by doing so, and apparently had no pangs of conscience as a result.
I would say for those of us who want to please our Lord and have people on both sides of this issue confronting us (as you clearly do) that the situation is at least uncomfortable. For we may understand that if we put up a tree on Christmas it is of no spiritual use or harm, and likewise if we refrain we are not harmed or benefitted in any way. But some of our family my take offense if we so "celebrate" (as if we accepted some pagan element in the holiday by so doing) while others are hurt if we do not (as if we were making some statement about their own practices and rejecting longstanding traditions which they still hold dear). One thing I think is crystal clear in a case like this: for those of us who do not invest any spiritual significance in these rituals and traditions the only real significance here is how our actions relate to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Here again there are two extremes to avoid. On the one hand, we do not want to give any offense (as far as possible), and on the other we do not want to hand our freedom over to bullying legalism of the sort which will only use such victories to forge an ever intrusive yoke of slavery to their version of the Law, thus taking away our freedom in the Holy Spirit (Gal.5).
In my view, therefore, the real issue here as far as I understand the situation is not about Christmas or Easter at all. For it clearly makes little difference if we do or do not have a tree or a basket as long as we are not investing any spiritual significance in these things. The real issue is how on the one hand to do everything possible to maintain for the traditionalists a genuine Christian witness of being very clearly focused on what is truly important (i.e., the birth, death, and resurrection of our Savior rather than trivial incidentals), and on the other how to demonstrate to the iconoclasts that our participation is devoid of any spiritual significance (i.e., we are looking to Jesus, not to any tree or eggs).
This doubly difficult course of action takes wisdom, flexibility and tact. It must always avoid confrontation, anger, and strife. We should salt our words with grace, and wait for the proper opportunity when a well-placed wise word will turn away wrath and call attention to the truth that lies beneath all such superficialities. This is what our Lord did, time and again interjecting the perfect truth at the perfect time. We should not expect everyone to fall in line behind us (indeed, they rejected our Lord), but we can through this approach minimize in love the friction between us and our fellow believers while at the same time holding fast to the truth as we know it. They are our brothers and sisters in Jesus and we owe them that, even when they are wrong. The only true danger for us when we "know we are right" is becoming wrong by being a little too right.
Here some links that treat related issues:
The Last Passover.
Easter Customs and True Christianity.
Easter and Christ's "Three Days" in the Grave.
How is the date of Easter computed?
Is it valid to celebrate Christmas?
Some questions about Nimrod and Christmas trees, Tongues, and Healing
Combating Legalism VI
Combating Legalism V
Combating Legalism IV
Combating Legalism III
Combating Legalism II
Combating Legalism I
I hope this is of some use to you. Please feel free to write me back if you would like to discuss the issue further, and thanks again for all your good words.
In the One who humbled Himself for us, even to death on the cross, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.