By Hoyt H. Houchen
Question: I have always celebrated Christmas by having a tree and gifts with my family but not as a religious day, not as the birthday of Christ. A brother in the local church says a tree in a Christian’s yard offends him. Is my practice wrong?
Reply: There are some things which are right within themselves but wrong religiously. The washing of hands, burning incense or using instrumental music are not wrong within themselves but wrong if used as acts of worship. Simply because some have engaged in these practices as a religious rite or as acts of worship does not make the practice wrong per se.
Much of the world observes Christmas as a religious holiday, regarding December 25th as the birthday of Jesus. The word “Christmas” is not found in the Bible. One has to go to secular books, not the Bible, to learn when and how this religious observance began.
The word “Christmas” is composed of two words: “Christ” and “Mass.” The word is derived from the Catholic mass said each year in honor of Christ’s birthday. The Catholics believe and teach that Christ is sacrificed in the mass. The doctrine of the mass is opposed to the teaching of the Bible: “So Christ also, having been once offered (emphasis mine, H.H.) to bear the sins of many. . . ” (Heb. 9:28). Although the observance of Christmas is of Catholic origin, many other human churches also observe Christmas as the birthday of Christ. They feature pageants, special musical programs and special sermons on the birth of Christ. Churches of Christ are not to engage in such practices not authorized by the Bible.
The date of Christ’s birthday is not known. The Bible does give us an account of his birth and the circumstances surrounding it, but not one word is given as to its date. And, there is no record that the first century Christians observed any day as the birthday of Christ. If God intended for us to observe a holiday as the birthday of Jesus, he would certainly have revealed the date to us. The Bible simply says: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king” (Matt. 2:1). So, the Scriptures do not authorize us to observe Christmas as a religious day.
Some brethren feel that it is impossible to observe Christmas without it having a religious connotation. But the fact that certain customs originated in paganism or Catholicism does not necessarily make the proper use of them wrong. And, has it occurred to these brethren that we use the names of the days of our week which are of pagan origin? “Sunday” is derived from the sacred day of the sun; “Monday,” from the sacred day of the moon; “Tuesday” is from Tiw’s day; “Wednesday” is from “Woden’s Day” (Woden was one of the chief idols of mythology); “Thursday” is the day of the war god, Thor; “Friday” is from Frigg’s day and “Saturday” is from Saturn, an ancient god of agriculture. But these days have no religious significance to us. Furthermore, because one eats fish on Friday does not necessarily indicate that he is a Catholic. Likewise, Christmas can be celebrated properly (as a civil holiday) without it being a religious observance whatsoever. It is the religious attachment to practices, which God never intended to be religious, that makes them wrong. Paul wrote: “Ye observe days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid of you, lest by any means I have bestowed labor upon you in vain” (Gal. 4:10,11). There were religious observances in the Galatian churches, involving not only circumcision but days, months, seasons and years as well. Paul approved circumcision, but with no religious attachment (Gal. 5:6). Because some observed it as a religious rite, it was not therefore made a religious rite when practiced by those who did not so regard it.
Instruments of music in worship originated, with the Roman Catholic Church. The testimonies of Encyclopedias attest to this. For example: “Pope Vitalian is related to have first introduced organs into some of the churches of western Europe, about 670” (The American Encyclopedia, Vol. 12, p. 638). We do not employ instruments of music in worship because they are not authorized by the New Testament. We do not reject them, however, out of the realm of worship. We have them in our homes, and we may enjoy them for entertainment without any religious significance. Because the Catholics introduced them into worship does not make their use wrong outside the realm of worship.
Christians should regard Christmas as a civil holiday, as a season of the year for families to get together, have meals and exchange gifts as tokens of love. Schools and businesses are closed. It is not to be regarded as a holy day, but as a national holiday and a joyous season for all, especially children who enjoy the excitement that goes along with it. We grew up in this kind of atmosphere, knowing that Christmas has nothing to do with the birthday of Jesus. The church and Christ are left out of it and this is what we taught our boys.
There are sincere brethren who believe it is wrong to decorate a tree, exchange gifts or celebrate Christmas in any way; so they have nothing to do with it. This is especially true of those who have Catholic backgrounds. They are disgusted with all the religious significance which has been attached to it. One certainly should not violate his conscience, but at the same time he should not make an issue of it and attempt to force his views upon others.
Should a brother be offended by seeing a Christmas tree in the house or yard of another Christian, he should carefully consider the word “offend.” Paul wrote: “Wherefore, if meat causeth my brother to stumble, I will eat no flesh for evermore, that I cause not my brother to stumble” (I Cor. 8:13). (The word “stumble” is “offend” in the KJV.) The context of this passage is clear. In heathen temples of that time, animals sacrifices were offered and then the meat was carried to the marketplace and sold. It was good food but some brethren believed it was wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols (I Cor. 8:9-13). But if a brother could conscientiously eat such meat, knowing that there is nothing in an idol and the meat itself was all right to eat, he should be careful not to cause a weaker brother to stumble. This would be done when he would violate his conscience by eating this meat because he had seen the stronger brother eating it. The Greek word skandalizo, translated “to stumble” (ASV), “to offend” (KJV) is defined by Arndt and Gingrich: “cause to be caught or fall, i.e. cause to sin” (Greek-English Lexicon, p. 760). Neither Romans 14:21 nor 1 Corinthians 8:13 merely means hurting a brother’s feelings. It means to destroy him because he has been made to sin. “You do not destroy a Christian by violating his prejudices or notions” (R.L. Whiteside, Commentary on Romans, p. 272). If having a Christmas tree does not cause a brother to sin, then it is obvious that he is not one of a weak conscience. He is not made weaker by seeing the tree, nor is he made to fall.
We should have respect and love for one another, but we are not to suppose that every act we may perform that hurts someone’s feelings must cease. If one can celebrate Christmas without any religious attachment, while another cannot celebrate it in any sense, each may express his views-, but they should be held as his own convictions. Neither should force his views upon the other. If this procedure is followed, there should be no trouble over these matters.
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 2, pp. 39-40
January 21, 1988