The Bible says that our times are in the Lord’s hands, and I’m thinking he must’ve thrown most of March out of the window, because I can’t believe it’s almost April! And that means that Easter is just around the corner. It also means that, depending on your church’s denomination, you might be participating in Lent right now. Maybe you went to an Ash Wednesday service. Perhaps you’re currently planning your family’s Easter egg hunt and buying candy for those Easter baskets.
Or maybe you don’t participate in one or any of these traditions. I know that many Christians take issue with certain contemporary holidays and traditions, believing them to be unbiblical. Things like Easter bunnies and Christmas trees are said to have their origins in pagan practices, and therefore are seen as idolatry and avoided altogether. It’s often argued that to participate in any traditions that aren’t explicitly commanded in Scripture is to go beyond the Bible — which, it is asserted, equals going against it.
Now, I’ve been in a lot of discussions about this topic lately, and I’ve realized that whatever position you take depends on some very crucial theological assumptions. So it affords me a nice opportunity to talk about how we all “do theology” in our everyday lives. (Remember — Everyone who thinks about God is a theologian; the only question is, are you a good one??)
So, to the question at hand: Are modern Christian holidays and traditions “unbiblical?”
Again, how we answer this question says a lot about our theology, and about how we move from reading the text of Scripture to applying it. It also has very practical ramifications for much more than just which holidays we should celebrate. It affects what we do in church services — like whether or not to use instruments in church, or a host of other traditions and practices that aren’t specifically spelled out in Scripture.
But first, a disclaimer…
I know this is a topic that some people have very strong convictions about, so please know from the outset that my intention is not to belittle anyone’s personal views. I myself am convinced that this subject is a matter of personal conscience, with room for us to agree to disagree if necessary (I’ll explain why below; please hear me out!). But know first of all that my heart’s desire is to see believers treat one another with Christlike love and understanding, especially when we have differing convictions on things like this.
So if you choose not to celebrate a certain holiday — any holiday! — or tradition because you genuinely believe that to do so would dishonor God, then more power to you! My purpose is not to convince you to do otherwise.
But I do want to make sure we’re all examining the reasoning behind our stances. And I want to challenge everyone reading this to subject your own conclusions to the same amount of scrutiny as you would the views of others (it’s only fair, after all!). If we can’t hold our convictions “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:16) when it comes to matters of conscience, then we haven’t earned the right to be heard.
The Key Question: How Are We Defining “Unbiblical?”
This really is the main question behind the question.
When you break it down, there are two options you can take when approaching the topic of contemporary Christian practices that aren’t mentioned in the Bible (this includes some holidays, traditions, worship styles, technology in church, etc.).
Option A is to say that we can only do what is directly prescribed in Scripture; anything else is unbiblical.
Option B is to say that we are free to do anything that is not expressly forbidden in Scripture, so long as it doesn’t hinder good order or the mission of the church.
Here recently I’ve come across more and more people who want to argue that we shouldn’t celebrate any holiday or practice any tradition that isn’t explicitly commanded in Scripture. These folks are following Option A. They’re saying that since holidays like Ash Wednesday or traditions like Christmas gift-giving aren’t specifically instituted by Scripture, they therefore go against what the Bible teaches.
But here’s the problem: that argument itself is, in that sense, “unbiblical!” As in, it’s not in the Bible!
There is no verse that explicitly says, “You shall not add a new holiday,” or “You shall not have mid-week worship services,” or “No adding new celebrations,” etc. Those who would forbid anything not commanded in Scripture are advocating a man-made principle not commanded in Scripture.
Sure, those who follow Option A (the regulative principle) can point to some verses that might imply that we can’t add any worship practices or traditions not prescribed by Scripture (such as Leviticus 10, Matthew 15:1-9, or Colossians 2:8-23). But it’s highly debatable that this is the application we’re meant to take from these passages in their specific contexts.
And other passages seem to teach quite the opposite — like 1 Corinthians 10:30-31 — “If I partake with thanksgiving, why am I criticized because of something for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”
This means that, no matter which way you slice it, we all end up relying on our human reasoning and experience. So we have to look at each holiday, practice, or tradition in question and consider whether or not it is constructive.
Oh, and I should mention that I’ve often seen Revelation 22:18 quoted in support of the regulative principle. That verse says: “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book.”
So, the argument goes, if you’re celebrating a holiday or tradition that isn’t mentioned in Scripture, you’re adding to the Bible and incurring God’s wrath!
Just one big problem: as pretty much every qualified scholar on Revelation has agreed, that verse is referring only to the book of Revelation itself — not the whole Bible. It’s talking about people tampering with John’s prophecy or ignoring it to follow the false teachers he warns against. Therefore, this verse should not be used to shut down discussion on the topic of contemporary practices and matters of conscience.
Christian Liberty and Loving Dialogue
Obviously we should want our reasoning to be informed by Scripture, and we should submit our opinions to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But if you and I disagree on whether or not to celebrate a holiday, I’m going to say that that’s a matter of opinion and conscience. It’s a matter of using our God-given logic to determine if that holiday is helping people glorify Christ and take time to refocus on their relationship to him, or if it’s an unhelpful distraction.
But this will ultimately be a matter of individual conscience on the subject. It is not enough to simply say “It isn’t laid down in Scripture.” The argument has to be settled on other grounds.
Consider the words of Paul in Romans 14:5-6, 10 (CSB):
“One person judges one day to be more important than another day. Someone else judges every day to be the same. Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it for the honor of the Lord. Whoever eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; and whoever does not eat, it is for the Lord that he does not eat it, and he gives thanks to God. . . . But you, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”
I, for one, find that a great many of our contemporary holiday traditions can be seen as ways of celebrating the blessings God brings us through the gospel. They can be a source of rich joy or of meaningful contemplation. They provide an opportunity for families to come together and focus on something besides the vicious pace of day-to-day life. And if used responsibly, they can also be opportunities to bear witness to family and neighbors who, on other days, might not give God a second thought.
And as far as the argument about certain holiday traditions having pagan origins, I would offer the following points for consideration:
- The origins of many traditions are unclear and hotly debated. They may not have pagan roots at all. But even if they did, most people today don’t naturally associate contemporary Christian practices with pagan idolatry; they associate them with Christianity! In other words, the practices have totally different connotations in our modern context than they supposedly did back then.
- More importantly, the fact is that a great deal of what we do on a regular basis has pagan origins. For example, most of our calendar dates are named after pagan gods. Are we going to refuse to use words like “Wednesday” and “Thursday” because they refer to the Norse gods Odin and Thor, respectively? In other words, where do we finish drawing the line?
Maybe you still disagree. And that’s totally fine! But let’s have the conversation.
Let’s admit that we’re using our God-given reason to disagree about something the Bible leaves up to our own consciences.
And let’s make sure our dialogue is done lovingly and respectfully as brothers and sisters in Christ.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples: if you love one another.”
— John 13:35
Now if you’ll excuse me, there are some Easter chocolates calling my name!
See you down the path.