The Observance of Christmas
Stephen D. Doe
There is no argument against having a church calendar or observing "sacred days" in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or general Protestantism. It is only in the Reformed branch of Protestantism that the question has arisen. Simply stated, the question is this: should (or may) our churches do anything special to mark the notable events in Jesus' life when the Christian church in general, along with secular society, commemorates those events?
For example, should the pastor preach on the birth of Jesus in December, as the rest of Christendom and our society move toward Christmas? Should the session schedule a Christmas Eve service or a Good Friday service? Is a sermon on the resurrection of Christ appropriate on Easter Sunday? Or are such things at least permitted?
On the other hand, do we forfeit our claim to be Reformed according to the Word of God if we do these things that are nowhere specifically commanded in Scripture? We are not talking about Christmas trees and lights, wreaths, or the sending of cards. We are talking narrowly about whether the church of Jesus Christ may take note of particular events in Jesus' life on dates not set forth in the Bible, and may give herself to worshiping her Lord at times other than the weekly Sabbath.
The Regulative Principle
The regulative principle of worship is a uniquely Reformed idea. It is expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith (XXI:1) like this: "The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men." We are to worship God in the way he has commanded, and not according to our own desires.
Having said that, we have to acknowledge that the application of the regulative principle has varied widely within Reformed circles. The continental Reformers did not go in the same direction as the English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians. For example, the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 states (XXIV): "Moreover, if the churches do religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord's Nativity, Circumcision, Passion, Resurrection, and of his Ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, according to Christian liberty, we do very well approve of it."
The old Dutch Reformed Church, at the famous Synod of Dordt (1618-1619), adopted a church order that included the observance of various days on the Christian calendar (art. 67). To this day, it is the practice of many of the continental Reformed churches to use such a calendar. This should at least give us pause in how we seek to apply the regulative principle in these matters, since the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has fraternal relationships with a number of churches which follow the Order of Dordt.
Within Presbyterian churches bound by the Westminster standards, there has also been considerable variation. Certainly in our day there is diversity within and without the Orthodox Presbyterian Church on the question. None of this, of course, proves anything beyond the fact that what Christians are to do with these "sacred days" is a contested point in Reformed circles.
The Arguments against Observing Sacred Days
Many of the arguments about the origins of these days focus on the abuse of them in history and in current society. However, arguments based on abuse are not very helpful, because the mere abuse of a thing does not tell us whether or not it may be used rightly. Marriage, for example, is subject to abuse because of man's sin, yet marriage is inherently good as instituted by God.
Nor can we use the association of sacred days with the Roman Catholic Church to settle the question. The Reformers did not condemn everything the Roman Church said or did. Infant baptism, for instance, was and is practiced by the Roman Catholic Church. That in itself did not lead the Reformers to reject infant baptism or even to deny that baptisms performed in Roman Catholic churches were valid.
The main argument against sacred days is that the observance of them violates the regulative principle of worship, since their observance is not specifically commanded in the Bible. This would seem to be an irrefutable pointwere it not for the fact that, as already mentioned, Reformed churches have, down through the centuries, differed on their application of the regulative principle to this matter.
Let me here also challenge what is often said to be an accepted fact, namely, that John Calvin himself took no notice of any Christian calendar. T. H. L. Parker (in Calvin's Preaching [Louisville, Ky.: Westminster, John Knox Press, 1992], pp. 160-62) marshals evidence from extant records to show that in the years 1549, 1550, and 1553 Calvin broke off the sermon series he was then preaching and delivered messages specifically on Christ's nativity, on his death and resurrection, and on Pentecost at the "appropriate" times. Now the fact that John Calvin did something does not mean that we are free to do it as well, if it violates Scripture. Nonetheless, there is an important point here. The company of pastors of Geneva abrogated the celebration of festivals, but those pastors, including Calvin, were still free to preach about the events of Christ's life on certain occasions.
Is the regulative principle to be construed to say that God commands a pastor not to preach about certain things at certain times of the year? That cannot possibly be true. The church is commanded to teach everything that Christ commanded (Matt. 28:20), and the church has always understood that to include all of Scripture (cf. 2 Tim. 3:15-17; 4:2; Acts 20:27). The preaching of the redemptive-historical significance of all of Christ's life is profitable for God's people. A case could be made that an emphasis on Christ's nativity arose when the church was doing battle over the true humanity of Christ, and that the church today faces a battle as well over the reality of the Incarnation as an event in time and space. The birth of Christ is part of the whole counsel of God, which must be preached.
The real issue is one of liberty. This is the question with which James Bannerman wrestles when he deals with "ecclesiastical holidays" (in The Church of Christ [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974], pp. 406-20). Does the church have the authority to establish certain holidays and to command pastors and sessions to observe them? The question of the imposition of these things was the real issue lying behind the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Its framers were used to the burdens imposed on their worship by the established Church of England, which required such things as prayer books and vestments. It was the imposition of these things, rather than the things themselves, that constituted the issue. For example, Puritan ministers would wear gowns, but not if they were commanded to do so. Such was a matter of Christian liberty (cf. WCF, XXI).
Does the church have any warrant to obligate God's people to anything beyond the weekly Sabbath when it comes to the matter of a church calendar? No. Does the regulative principle as stated in our Confession of Faith mean that since God has not commanded a pastor to preach on the birth of Jesus Christ in the month of December, he may not do so? No. If I, as a pastor, do not have the liberty to preach what I see is good for the people of God from the Word of God, then the regulative principle is being misapplied. And if a session is not free to provide for the worship of God's people to celebrate the mighty acts of God in the life of his Son on any certain occasion, then we have bound the church of the new covenant more than the church of the old covenant. That church exercised her liberty in worship by establishing the Feast of Purim (Est. 9:18-32). The apostolic church exercised her liberty by meeting on many occasions other than the Lord's day to worship and act as a community (cf. Acts 1:14; 2:42-47; 4:23-31; 5:42; 13:2; 20:7-38). This is a foretaste of the church in glory, when she is always worshiping (Rev. 4).
God commands us to worship him once weekly in a corporate manner, but allows us to apply biblical principles to worship him at other times. The church under the new covenant does not have less liberty than the church under the old covenant; we are not the underage church, but the church which has been baptized in the Spirit of Christ. If we were to apply the regulative principle without clearly understanding these things, then we would have to condemn the apostolic church for meeting daily, since God had never commanded such meetings. Instead, they understood that what God was commanding was for them to worship him acceptably (cf. John 4:24; Rom. 12:2; Heb. 10:25; 13:15).
This balance is seen in the example of our Savior, who exercised his liberty of conscience, while not violating the regulative principle, when he attended the Feast of Dedication (that is, Hanukkah; cf. John 10:22). That was an extrabiblical feast not commanded by God in Scripture, but begun by the Jews to commemorate the rededication of the temple after the close of the Old Testament. Jesus was free to go up to Jerusalem or not to go up. God commands us to worship, and Jesus was using that occasion to obey the command of God.
May the church command God's people to attend a Christmas Eve service? No. May the church worship on that occasion without requiring attendance? Yes. May a minister preach on any passage of Scripture at any time of the year? Yes. Must he preach about the Incarnation in December? No.
Stephen D. Doe is the pastor of Covenant OPC in Barre, Vt. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 1998.