Paganism and Christian Liberty

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Every year about this time articles and pictures appear condemning the observance of "pagan" holidays such as Easter (and we could add Christmas at the appropriate season). 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. My point is much simpler than that: the pagan origins of something do not disqualfy the Christian from using it. To state the contrary is to commit a logical fallacy. 

 

It might be true that "Christmas trees," "easter eggs and easter bunnies" and mistletoe, etc, etc. have pagan roots, but does that make trees, eggs and rabbits inherently pagan? Of course not!  "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof" (I Cor. 10:26; see also I Tim. 4:4). Does that mean that a Christian may not have a tree in his house in December and that he may not eat an egg or bunny made of chocolate in March/April?  Am I not free in Christ to eat or not eat chocolate, whether a square chocolate bar or one shaped as a bunny or an egg? 

The Christians today who object to such things are the ones called by Paul "weak in the faith." They do not fully understand their liberty in Christ, and have excessive scruples about these things. 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 by paganism. If Paul had had the scruples of some modern weaker brethren, he could not have lived in that day without hiding himself away from the world (see I Cor. 5:10). There were, almost literally, idols on every corner. Every public building was dedicated to an idol. Every public 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 "Castor and Pollux," two idols! 

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), but much more diffficult to crucify the lusts of the flesh, and especially the idols of money, pleasure and self! 

What does Paul say about such idolatry? First, he says that "we know that an idol is nothing ..."  (I Cor. 8:4). He says that 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: do not cause a weaker brother (with an overscrupulous conscience) to sin by flaunting liberty in front of him (see I Cor. 8:7, 9-10; I Cor. 10:28, 32, etc). Moreover, a Christian may not sit in an idolatrous temple and eat meat while they are worshipping because that would be to partake of idolatry and even to have fellowship with devils! (see I Cor. 8:10; I Cor. 10:19-21). 

So, the application is simple: something with a pagan origin is not by that very fact pagan. Take, for example, this scenario. A church is offered a building previously used by a cult or a Satanic group. Do they have to burn the place down and exorcise it before it can be used? No (see Acts 19:9).

We could apply this further, for often such weaker brethren, who want to condemn others for celebrating "pagan" Christmas and Easter, are not consistent. It is widely reported that the word "Easter" comes from the name of a pagan goddess of fertility. That might be true. I have not investigated the claim very thoroughly. But, my question is: so what

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 month 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: agape, logos, etc. were used by the pagan Greeks long before the Christian Scriptures assigned "Christian meanings" to them. 

What I am trying to do here is to explode the "pagan origins" fallacy.

The New Testament Christian is free. He can eat whatever he wishes (even meat offered to idols, without by that very fact worshipping idols) and he can observe whichever days he wishes or he can refrain from observing days (this does not mean he can disregard the 4th Commandment, of course: that is still binding with the other nine). That is glorious liberty in Christ, ours 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 (Ga. 5:13).  A few years ago, there was a furore because of allegations that certain supermarkets were selling halal meat (meat for Muslims, dedicated to Allah). In light of I Corinthians 10, there is really no issue for the Christian. He can eat with good conscience.

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

What has this to do with Easter and Christmas? First, if a church decides to have a special sermon on "Easter Sunday" on the resurrection of Christ, that is good and not to be condemned, as long as the worship service itself is in accordance with the regulative principle of worship (i.e., no easter bunnies, eggs, etc. in the worship service). All that church is doing is having two worship services on the Lord's Day as normal, albeit the sermons are especially on the subject of the resurrection. And the Christian can enjoy an "Easter ham" if he desires, because the Old Testament food restrictions on pork do not apply. 

If a church, in addition, decides to observe other days with specal services (Good Friday, 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; no Christmas trees and candles, no special choirs, etc. during the worship service) why should any condemn the practice? Is it wrong for the church to worship her Lord more than on the 52 Lord's Days per year?

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

However, such a man would have to tell the consistory privately before becoming a member that he has such a difference with the congregational practice, would have to be willing to show a teachable spirit, and would have to 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 (Rom. 14:3-4).  This calling must not be overlooked. 

Such a man could not be an officebearer, and certainly not a minister, however, because an officebearer binds himself willingly to the creeds, confessions and church order of the church which he freely chooses to join. 

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 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. 

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