Rather than address the subject of Christmas directly, this article will consider the broader topics of paganism, pagans and pagan practices in light of the gospel. Once we properly understand these subjects, we can then formulate and apply principles to many customs, not just those associated with Christmas. Our ethics will have a sounder basis.
We need to begin by defining our terms. We do this because confusion arises when people try to communicate without understanding how the other person uses words. Some Christians talk of paganism without reflecting about what they and others mean by that term.
Paganism, as classically understood, refers to any polytheistic religion that is generally sensual and materialistic in its orientation. The key words here are polytheistic, sensual and materialistic. The ancient Canaanite religion is a classic example of paganism.
Pagan customs include all usages, practices and social conventions that are common to and regulate the life of pagans. Pagan customs may include such things as religious festivals, temple architecture, dress, greetings in the marketplace or anything else that is common to pagan life. Pagan customs may or may not be religious. They are simply the customs of pagans. Pagan religious customs are those customs specifically associated with pagan religious life. Christians have long debated whether the church can adapt pagan customs without jeopardizing the faith. How does one distinguish between the harmless and the deadly?
Since we have defined the terms, we are prepared to ask a critical question regarding any allegedly pagan issue: Are we talking about paganism, pagans or pagan customs?
Many Christians believe that at least some pagan customs can be Christianized, and that in doing so we strengthen the Christian faith. From this perspective, when pagan customs are transformed in Christ, then Christianity conquers paganism. Customs that were once dark now proclaim Jesus Christ. In so doing, they can become a good evangelistic tool.
The Roman Catholic Church and many Protestants have long held such views. However, some anti-Catholic writers (such as Alexander Hislop) have exaggerated the degree and nature of such syncretism in attempts to label Rome as Babylon and themselves as the children of God. Ironically, these writers have found allies among anti-Christian and agnostic writers who view Christianity as nothing more than another step in human religious thought.
Yet similarity in form does not prove common origin or similarity in substance. Both pagans and Christians had baptismal rites. Is baptism therefore pagan? No, it is only similar in form to some aspects of pagan practices. In many other respects, Christian baptism is different. Even if baptism were originally a pagan custom, would that make the Christian custom wrong? No.
From the earliest years of the Reformation, many Protestants challenged the Catholic view on mixing cultural practices. They attempted to eliminate what they thought were destructive Roman Catholic compromises with paganism. This purge took place in both doctrine and custom. In many minds, the Catholic Church was the Babylonian mystery religion spoken of in Revelation.
Because they could not agree on what were pagan doctrines and practices, Protestants could not agree on what they were to reject. Some believed that if the New Testament did not permit it, then it should not be done. Others believed that if the New Testament did not prohibit it, it could be done. Overall, Calvinists believed that Lutherans had not done enough to purge the church of Roman influences. Anabaptists thought the Calvinists were too compromising. In England people were labeled as Puritan if they sought to purify the state church. All Romanism must go, they thought. In their zeal, Puritans rejected many long-cherished customs, including Christmas.
In the 16th and 17th centuries religion was deadly business. Catholics and Protestants fought over control of the state. Martyrs died on both sides. In England, patriotism mixed with religion as Protestants urged the English to resist the power of a foreign pope. Had not Spain tried to invade England to reimpose the Catholic faith? Yet, with the help of God, they defeated the Armada.
Today, for most of the Western world, these religious controversies are in the past. Except among the most conservative descendants of the Puritan movement and their ideological offspring, anti-Christmas sentiment has largely evaporated. Harmless customs once forbidden are now practiced.
Paganism and the gospel
We will examine paganism and pagan customs in light of the gospel. Before doing so we should also reflect on what the gospel is. The gospel is the good news about Jesus yesterday, Jesus today and Jesus tomorrow. It is the story that Jesus, who is the Son of God, became flesh and lived among us. It is the story of his life and teaching, his suffering and crucifixion, all for our salvation. The gospel proclaims his resurrection, his ascension to heaven and his glorification at the right hand of the Father (1 Cor. 15).
Even now the Son dwells in his church. Jesus is returning. God dwells in his people, for they are his temple. The gospel is the good news that the kingdom of heaven has broken in among the kingdoms of this world. Jesus — the king of kings and Lord of lords — reigns. Believers in him are reconciled to God, given eternal life and receive the Holy Spirit. They have entered a covenant relationship with him. God writes his eternal law on their hearts and they are converted.
Paganism is at odds with the gospel. One cannot believe in paganism and believe the Christian gospel. The theology and ethics of the two are in complete opposition with each another. Where paganism is polytheistic, Christianity is monotheistic. Where paganism is sensual, Christianity is temperate. Where paganism is materialistic, Christianity rejects materialism. Reading Justin Martyr, one realizes how seriously the early church fathers understood this conflict and how antipagan they were. Paganism cannot be converted. One cannot have Christian paganism any more than one can breed a dog-cat. Polytheism is not Christianity. The gospel cannot transform paganism. It rejects paganism.
The gospel does affirm, however, that God is converting pagans. The Old Testament prophets proclaimed that pagans would reject their false religions and come to worship the God of Israel. When the Magi followed the star from the east to bow before the Messiah, this process began.
Although paganism cannot be converted, pagans can. What, then, of their customs? Specifically, what of their religious customs? Pagan religious customs have not only varied in form but also in kind. They have ranged from the most debauched behavior to rather innocuous traditions, such as the position one’s body might take in prayer.
When we think about pagan customs, must we place human sacrifice in the same category as seasonal festivals? Must we classify temple prostitution along with wedding traditions? Do we never distinguish between the substance of paganism (the polytheism) from the forms that paganism used? Are there not customs that, had they never appeared in a pagan religious context, people would never have considered wrong? For example, the use of certain plants and animals as fertility symbols. Do not most married Christian couples wish to be fertile? Are fertility and the symbolic portrayal of fertility wrong, or is it paganized views of fertility that are wrong?
Good things once corrupted are not forever lost. That is the message of the gospel. Through Jesus, reconciliation is possible. We must distinguish between form and substance. Past and present must be considered. What pagans corrupt we might put to good use. For example, in Malachi 4:2 God uses the sun, long a pagan symbol, to figuratively image Jesus.
The point is this: Some pagan customs reflect the heart and core of paganism. They exist only in a pagan context. One cannot have Christian human sacrifice or Christian temple prostitution. On the other hand, there are pagan customs that do not reflect paganism itself. They just happen to be forms used by pagans in some of their religious traditions. Placed in another context, these forms take on new meanings. For example, meat sacrificed to idols may be eaten. Greenery used in pagan religious festivals may also be used to decorate Christian homes. In Christian contexts these forms may take on Christian meanings.
What is the “way” of paganism?
So then, how do we understand Deuteronomy 12:30-31? “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.” The intent of this law — to shun paganism — remains.
The critical phrase in this passage is “You must not worship…in their way.” What is worshiping in the pagan way? Do pagans sing hymns? Do pagans sacrifice animals? Do pagans go to temples? Do pagans have harvest festivals? Do they decorate using God’s creation? Yes, they do, but these forms are not what God condemns. They are not “the way” of paganism. The way or substance of paganism is much more significant.
In Deuteronomy 12, the pagan way is to serve their gods by doing detestable things. God is not taking issue with outward forms that in other contexts are perfectly acceptable. He is concerned with immoral practices that support the perversions of an evil decadent polytheistic system. God illustrates what he means by detestable works by mentioning the pagan practice of human sacrifice. Such practices get to the heart and core of paganism. It is that rotten core that we are to avoid.
Not everything pagans do in worship is inherently evil. They sing. They go to a temple. They pray. These are customs of pagans, and they may do them even as they are sacrificing humans. What is critical to God is how they sing, how they behave in their temples, how they pray and to whom they pray. People can corrupt and misuse anything. Paganism’s polytheism and immorality are what disturbs God. Polytheism and immorality are the pagan way. Israel was not to adapt that way in its worship of God.
Jesus urged, “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (John 7:24). In trying to make a right judgment, sometimes Christians label others as pagan without understanding what a pagan is. By anachronistically imposing ancient settings on modern settings, we falsely condemn Christian customs. This occurs when we fail to appreciate their Christian substance. To confuse the past with the present is to misunderstand both. Further, when we concentrate on outward forms, we forget Jesus’ advice: “Stop judging by mere appearances.” A modern Puritan’s desire to serve God is commendable. Yet his or her understanding needs to mature.
Christian ethics should make distinctions between paganism, pagans and pagan customs. Paganism can never be converted. Pagans can be converted. Pagan customs may be converted if they are mere forms and not inherent expressions of paganism. In making such distinctions, we do not confuse the form with the substance. We do not confuse decency with sinfulness. We do not confuse what is Christian with what is pagan. That makes for sound Christian ethics.