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Paganism — Where Should Christians Draw the Line?

Paganism is a highly controversial subject. Can we use pagan customs in the church of God? We already do. Simply because something has a pagan origin does not mean that it is sinful to use it, even for a religious use.

  • Wedding rings were and are a pagan custom, and there is no biblical command for them, but we use them in church-sanctioned ceremonies.

  • Wedding ceremonies themselves were also a pagan custom, and are not commanded in Scripture.

  • Funerals include pagan customs, too, based on erroneous ideas about the afterlife. Scripture says nothing about putting flowers on graves, etc.  Egyptian mythology said that the dead should be embalmed, and Joseph participated in this custom (Gen. 50:2-3) despite its pagan origin.

  • Pagans created statues — of animals and people, both life-size and miniatures. They had statues in their flower gardens and statues in their homes. But statues have lost their "pagan" connotations because people do not believe in such gods and goddesses anymore.

  • Money has pagan designs on it. Some U.S. coins used to have the goddess "Liberty" on them. Dollar bills have an eye over a pyramid.

  • Pagans assigned days of the week to different gods, and we still use these names.

So the question arises, How careful must we be in weeding paganisms out of our lives? Where do we draw the line? The answer is, different Christians draw the line in different places. We need to allow some diversity on these issues.

Some conservative churches used to forbid wedding rings. Some forbid Christmas and Easter. They are careful to do what God says, and if God tells them to avoid paganism, then they carefully do it. Some are so careful that they err on the side of forbidding too much — but they err. They make commands about things that God doesn't command. That is a sin.

Example of the Corinthians

In the first-century Church, gentile Christians were told to avoid meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols (Acts 15:29). However, Paul told the Corinthians that they could eat meat sold in the public market even though that meat may have been sacrificed to an idol (1 Cor. 10:25). He told them not to eat in the pagan temple. In other words, he told them to avoid blatant paganism, but they did not have to superstitiously avoid everything that paganism might have touched at some time in the past.

In Corinth, some Christians were more careful than others, and some more liberal than others. Paul told them they could eat the meat, but he also told them to be cautious about causing offense (verses 32-33). However, love does not mean that we all have to abide by the strictest person's conscience. No matter how many people think we ought to be circumcised and to keep the law of Moses, we don't have to (Acts 15). Even if some Christians think we should be vegetarians (and some do), we don't have to abide by their conscience (Rom. 14:1-8). Paul says that we have freedom, but we are to use our freedom in a sensitive way.

Now let us imagine a first-century potluck in the Corinthian church. Everyone has brought their food and everyone has eaten a little bit of everything. Suddenly some overly zealous convert, anxious to avoid the paganism he recently came out of, starts asking questions about the meat. The Smith family, he finds out, bought their beef from Marcus Agorus, and Marcus always has his cows killed at the temple of Zeus. The casserole has been tainted with pagan-tainted meat, and everybody has eaten some of it!

What should the zealous convert do with this information? Should he announce it throughout the congregation, leading to an ever-more-diligent search for pagan-tainted foods? Of course not. The sensible (and the Christian) thing to do would be to keep quiet — but overly zealous converts sometimes aren't sensible. Their zeal overcomes good sense, and although they think they are acting in love, they are actually causing an unnecessary and unhelpful disturbance with their "knowledge." That's what happens today when people preach that wedding rings are pagan.

It is possible to be too zealous in avoiding things that have connections with paganism. Yelling about idol-tainted meat doesn't do anything to strengthen anyone's faith in Christ. All it would do is cause doubts and irritations. That is basically what some people do in their vociferous condemnations of Christmas. People today generally learn about Christmas as a Christian custom, not as a pagan custom. It's like they saw the meat in the market and there was a sign saying "OK for Christians." So they bought it, and then someone comes along and tells them it was tainted.

Some people don't think that the example of meat can apply to holidays; some people do. So, they draw their lines in different places. People generally consider themselves as strong and others as weak, but how are the weak and the strong to get along with each other? Not by enforcing conformity, but by allowing some diversity.

When was Jesus born?

Some people have claimed that Jesus was born near the fall festivals. That is possible, but it is not proven. Luke 2:1-3 says that "everyone went to his own town to register." Why would "everyone" go to such trouble? Apparently it was required. However, it is not likely that Rome would risk a rebellion by requiring each person to go to his own city at the same time as the local religion required everyone to go to Jerusalem. Most likely, an empire-wide census would take several years, and would be administered locally, by local customs, taking into account local religious festivals.

Many people have objected to the idea that Jesus was born in December, since there were shepherds staying in the fields (Luke 2:8), and shepherds didn't normally do that in December. But the Jewish Mishnah Seqal. 7:4 reports that flocks were kept in the fields near Bethlehem, even in winter. The weather there is sometimes cold, but sometimes quite mild in December.  Of course, this doesn't prove that Jesus was born in December, but it shows that the chief objection to a December birth isn't conclusive.

In the early third century (long before Constantine), Julius Africanus and Hippolytus came up with December 25 as the date of Jesus' birth. They don't tell us how they came up with this date, but John Chrysostom does. His calculation may have been innocent, or it may have been contrived. We do not know what his motive was. Therefore, we cannot say that the December 25 date was contrived simply because a pagan festival already existed on that date.

When the church first began celebrating Christmas, it had nothing to do with trees and holly and reindeer. All those were added centuries later in northern Europe. The fact that non-Christian customs were later associated with the festival does not prove that the date itself originated in paganism. It may have been based on calculation instead.

However, for the moment let us suppose that Christmas originated as a deliberate substitution for Saturnalia, a pagan holiday. Many of the people who attended church were recently-converted pagans. Some were not-yet converted pagans. They were attracted to the Saturnalia festivities, and sitting at home alone was not a desirable option when merrymaking could be heard in the streets all around. So, the theory goes, the church provided a clean alternative: going to church.

Would it be wrong to have a church service in deliberate opposition to Saturnalia? Of course not. There is no question of the church trying to worship God by the customs of the heathen — the church is fighting against the customs of the heathen. Only the date is the same, and there is good reason to have church services on that date, on which members can invite their unconverted friends and family into church and away from paganism. At some point, Christians could have made the comparison: on this date, pagans celebrate the birth of the sun god, but we are worshipping the sun of righteousness (Mal. 4:2). We can celebrate his birth, too.

That may have been the way Christmas started. Apparently in the early centuries it was primarily a church service. And the strategy seems to have been successful: no one celebrates Saturnalia any more. Christians don't observe Christmas in honor of the sun god, just as they don't worship the little figurines that they may have in their homes or gardens. Although December 25, like many other dates, was once used for idol worship, it isn't anymore.  

Consider the case of Christians in Korea, for example. December 25 was not a pagan holiday there. And yet Christians there now observe December 25. Why? Because missionaries introduced the holiday. For them, it has a Christian origin, not a pagan one. Should the scrupulous Christians go in to tell them that December 25 was once sacrificed to an idol and should therefore be avoided? That approach creates doubts, not dedication. It does not edify or encourage. 

Scriptures

Two scriptures have often been used to argue against Christmas customs. Jeremiah 10 has nothing to do with Christmas trees. That custom originated in northern Europe and had nothing to do with Jeremiah centuries earlier. Deut. 12:30 has also been appealed to, but the verse simply doesn't forbid everything the pagans did (for another article, click here.) God does not object to all worship practices of the pagans (such as prayer, sacrifices and temples), but only the abominations that they did in worship.

Basically, if it's wrong, it's wrong on any day of the year. That's the kind of customs we need to beware. But if a custom is harmless in July (decorating the house with colored lights, for example), then we needn't condemn it in December. We can't let centuries-dead pagans dictate what we can or can't do. They have no authority over our calendar.

Eastern Orthodox Christians observe January 6 as a festival for the birth of Christ. They were not influenced by Rome or Saturnalia. Does anyone feel a compulsion to dig into history looking for something bad about this day so it can be disqualified? Does anyone feel a compulsion to ask whether the date was once sacrificed to an idol? I hope not.

Let's summarize:

  1. It is not wrong to rejoice at the birth of Jesus.
  2. It is not wrong to do this every year.
  3. It is not wrong to add a religious festival.
  4. The date of Dec. 25 isn't necessarily pagan.
  5. Even if the date is pagan, it isn't automatically wrong to use things that used to be pagan, such as wedding rings, funeral customs, statues, and the names of days.

If the date is permissible and church services are permissible, but certain customs are not, then people ought to specify which customs are ungodly rather than just condemning everything associated with the date. If a fat man in a red suit is permissible, but fables about him are not, then we need to identify the sin without condemning the harmless. Of course, different Christians will draw the lines in different places, and we need to get along with each other. 

Conclusion

Paganism is an emotion-laden subject. Conservative Christians have a history of being dogmatic, legalistic, and of misusing the Scriptures when we argue our point. With that history, of course, it is impossible to discuss this subject without somebody disagreeing. Each person thinks himself to be properly balanced — but each person's balance point is different. Equally sincere people draw lines in different places. What then are we to do?

Should the church legislate about which practices are OK and which are not? That is not our commission. We are not in the Talmud business. Each Christian should draw his or her own lines, and be tolerant of those who draw different lines. Do not judge your brother, Paul says (Romans 14:5-13). That is one of the most difficult commandments in the entire Bible!

No one has to participate in Christmas or Easter, but we should not condemn those who do. Some will do it one way and some will do it another. Whether you participate or whether you abstain, do it all to the Lord, and let him be the judge. This is the Christian approach to the cultural situation today.

 


 

Once pagan, always pagan? 

Does Deuteronomy 12:30-31 mean that it is sinful to have Christian celebrations on days that used to be celebrated in honor of false gods?

God, through Moses, tells us: “Be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, `How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.’ You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.”

Do these verses mean that we cannot do anything pagans did in worship? Of course not, for pagans prayed, sang hymns, played musical instruments, and some baptized by immersion. They also had priesthoods, special garments, temples, altars and sacrifices. They had annual festivals in conjunction with the agricultural seasons. None of these practices are wrong. Some are even part of Christianity.

Since Deuteronomy 12 does not forbid all pagan worship practices, then what does it forbid? The context clarifies the concern when it gives the reason for the prohibition: “because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates.” The problem isn’t worship—the problem is detestable worship practices. The example cited in verse 31 is child sacrifice; temple prostitution would be another.

If we go back to the beginning of the chapter, we will see the context. The primary concern throughout the chapter is the location of worship. God instructed the Israelites to destroy all Canaanite high places and altars and idols. Instead, the Israelites were to make all their sacrifices at one site. This would make it difficult for anyone to worship other gods. This emphasized the fact that there was only one God, not dozens of deities each having power over small areas.

In Canaanite religion, and in many other pagan religions, the people thought that various gods had power in various places. The god that was most influential in one area might not have as much influence in another. So people made sacrifices in their own areas to appease the local gods. If the people offered acceptable sacrifices, they expected the gods to respond by giving them whatever they wanted. In effect, their worship was an attempt to tell their gods what to do. That’s why they sacrificed sons and daughters in the fire—a costly sacrifice like that would supposedly guarantee that they would get what they desired from the gods.

Canaanite religion also included cultic prostitution. If the people wanted fertility, they performed sex acts in their worship. They thought that if they did their part, then Baal would do his. Anthropologists call it a system of sympathetic magic. It was an attempt to control and manipulate the gods.

The Canaanite concept of gods was defective, and their concept of worship was also defective. Their theology led to detestable practices, and that is why God wanted the Israelites to destroy the pagan altars and not to copy their worship methods.

Deuteronomy 12 clearly does not apply to every worship practice. The context connects it with places of sacrifice and with child sacrifice. It is concerned with things that are detestable or abominable—things that God hates. There is no hint in the text that the day of the year was of any concern. Actually, since OT worship days were connected to agricultural seasons, and Canaanite worship was also based on agricultural seasons, it is likely that there were some similarities in the days being observed. God’s condemnation of pagan worship practices was based not on dates, but on whether the customs were detestable irrespective of dates.

Canaanite religion was superstitious about worship locations and the effectiveness of sacrifices and rituals. But on the other side of the coin, it would be superstitious for us to avoid everything that pagans did simply because they did it—because that would include prayer, hymns and marriage ceremonies. We cannot let centuries-dead pagans dictate what we do or what we avoid.

It is not wrong to rejoice that Jesus was born; it is superstitious to think that we should avoid this subject on one particular day. It would also be wrong to think that we must celebrate a particular day the Bible does not require. It would also be a mistake to restrict our joy concerning Christ’s birth to one season of the year.

It is not wrong for families and friends to exchange gifts whenever they wish; it is superstitious to think that it is OK to do this on 363 days a year, but wrong on one or two. If a practice is detestable, it is detestable in any time or place. If wrong things are done on December 25, for example, then we should criticize whatever is wrong, not the date on which it is done.

 

Is it wrong to do things that were once part of pagan worship customs?

Pagan worship practices included prayer, music and offerings. Those practices are not sinful in themselves, and we see biblical examples of them being used in worship of the true God. Pagans conducted marriage ceremonies and used wedding rings, but we may also have them even though the Bible does not command them.

Pagans also had many funeral customs, such as embalming, ceremonies and giving of flowers. Even though these common customs were shaped by non-Christian ideas about the afterlife, and these customs continue to be used by non-Christians, we may, and do, use them in Christian ceremonies without indicating any agreement with the originating beliefs.

Pagans dedicated certain days of the week to their gods, and we use these names today without implying idolatry on our part. Pagans created statues of people and animals, but that does not mean that we cannot. These customs have lost their pagan connotations and have become religiously neutral. It is not sinful, for example, for an architect to copy the pillars found in Greek and Roman temples. Things that were once “pagan” do not necessarily remain pagan.

In the United States, no one would think it odd for a Christian to have a small ornamental figurine of a bird or animal. In Moses’ day, however, such statues would have been inappropriate. Whether something has pagan connotations is often cultural. What is acceptable in one nation or century may be frowned upon in another. But we do not have to be restricted by erroneous concepts of the past.

We can make decisions about embalming, burial, caskets, crypts, cremation and flowers without having to investigate which of these customs originated in paganism. It is even possible to use these things in religious ceremonies without fear of contamination or compromise.

Of course, some people are uncomfortable with customs such as wedding rings and cremation. Others are not. Different people draw their “lines” in different places, but they need to respect each other’s beliefs. The advice of Romans 14:6-13 applies to such matters: “He who participates does so to the Lord. He who abstains does so to the Lord. So then, why do you judge your brother? Each of us has to give our own account to God. Therefore, do not pass judgment on one another, and do not put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.”

The principles given in 1 Corinthians 8:4, 7 are also adaptable: “So then, about participating in customs that were once associated with the worship of idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they participate they think of an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.” Paul explained that Christians had freedom in this matter, but he cautioned them to be careful with their freedom (verse 9).

Basically, we can live and worship without worrying about what pagans did or did not do. If the behavior is wrong, it is wrong for us to do it whether or not pagans did it. If it is not wrong, we may do it whether or not the pagans did it first.

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