Friday, December 16, 2005

Church Closings-- Damage Control by Mishandling the Bible

It is unfortunate that the Bible sometimes gets used to shore up an inappropriate decision by a church, but sadly we now have this in the case of the mega-church which has now handed out a 'Biblical' rationale for closing on Christmas to its parishioners. I would normally just let this go as another example of the misuse of the Bible, but this is such an egregious example that it needs to be addressed.

The text they are using to justify their behavior is Col. 2.16-17-- "Therefore do not let anyone judge you in regard to what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival-- new moon festival or a sabbath. These are a shadow of the things that are to come; the reality however is found in Christ."

Having just written a commentary on Colossians, I suppose the use of this text to justify closing on Christmas was likely to rile me up. Paul is talking about Christians not going to synagogues in Colossae or Hierapolis and being part of Jewish celebrations. He is not talking about Christian worship services or festivals at all!

Furthermore, what he is concerned about is Christians in Colossae who would suggest that other Christians, even Gentile Christians, were required to go and take part in such syagogue celebrations. I can't imagine a church today requiring their parishioners to go and celebrate Hannukah during Christmastide, although they might encourage them to go if their Jewish neighbors invited them.

But in any case Col. 2.16-17 cannot provide any rationale at all for closing church on a given Sunday, much less Christmas Sunday. That would be to take this text completely out of context. I can only assume that no one checked the commentaries before making this pronouncment.

But notice in the very verses cited that Paul says that these festivals are shadows of things to come, the reality of which is in Christ. Paul does not mean that Christ himself is the substitute for all previous rituals, as if having a relationship with Jesus was all that is required. The phrase 'in Christ' here refers not only to what goes on in Christ himself, but is likely (as elsewhere in Paul see 1 Cor. 12) to refer to the celebrations that go on in the body of Christ.

If one reads the book of Hebrews closely enough one will find this very sort of hermeneutic applied as well. Christian celebrations are seen as the fulfillment of the OT ones which are seen as foreshadowings, and so the Christian celebrations are the replacement of those Jewish celebrations for Christians.

In Hebrews, written by someone in the Pauline circle, it is clear that the author uses this same logic to urge the audience to attend Christian worship services rather than going back to Jewish ones. Notice for example Heb. 10.25 which reads "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-- and all the more as we see the Day approaching." The author is talking about failing to attend Christian worship and fellowship meetings in Rome, perhaps especially the failing to do so because of cultural pressure and persecution. There is something here worth pondering.


Pete Williamson said...

Hi Ben...

I have really appreciated your posts on this topic and your willingness to do so publicly. I've been concerned about this both from a biblical theology as a well as that of a pastor of a church plant...and most if not all of what you've argued has resonated very much with me. There are ominous signs present in this issue that not only have we lost the ability as Christians to see ourselves as the world sees us (let alone care what they think), but we've also lost our grip on thinking biblically.

Anyhow, thank you for your ministry and the grace that is evident in your work.

Dave said...

This has been an enlightening blog to read on the topic of special appears to be a modern day version of Romans Chapter 14. Ben, I must say I am a little bit surprised that you have not expounded much on what Paul has to say to his fellow Christians in this chapter of Romans.

Paul seems to address one issue using two examples in Romans Chapter 14, the issue being diputes of opinion about appropriate religious form, using the two examples of 1) eating meat and 2) special days.

It seems to me that Paul is pointing out that our failure in our Christian walk happens not because of the religious form we choose to take, but rather in how we treat or think of others who don't choose the same form.

Paul makes it food is necessarily unclean, and I think we could infer that no day is necessarily special.......but how we consider others who think otherwise is more important. In this case, perhaps the churches that will close on Christmas day should consider the weakness of their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and stay open. As well, the weaker brothers should not look down on their fellow Christians and speak ill of them for not following the weaker brother’s religious form.

I think Rich Kirkpatrick has said it best......lets reach people for Jesus.

I am curious about something Ben......judging from some of your responses in this blog, it looks as though you consider the Birthday of Christ as the Holiest of Holy days......and I am wondering if there is a limit to the extent of your adoration. Since in the past you were a pastor of your own congregation, I am wondering if you had your churches doors open for a service on Christmas Day, even if it occurred on Monday, or Tuesday, or Thursday or Friday! Seems to me that if it really is that special of a day, then you must have had your church schedule a service to worship the Lord on that day.....not a Christmas Eve service, but a Christmas Day service.

If not, take heart, I won’t hold it against you. However, our weaker brother who does have a church service on Christmas Day “Monday” may be blogging shamefully about us even as we speak.

By the way Ben, I just discovered you about a month ago, and I loved your piece on Evangelical Churches having weaknesses right at the point of their denominational distinctives. I come from the arminian line of thought, and have for some time realized that the very thing that my denomination holds in such high regard is the very thing that I have come to see as it's greatest weakness. (Nazarene, Entire Sancification). I plan on getting your book on this subject.

Have a Merry Christmas, where ever you may be on the 25th.......

Brian Russell said...

Hi Ben,
I hope that your sabbatical has been productive.

I have enjoyed reading your understanding of the "No Church" on Christmas Sunday controversy.
Thanks for teaching some basic hermeneutical principles along the way.

Merry Christmas!

Phil said...

I talked about this topic on my blog today.

I think a lot of it comes down to how we define church.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Dave: I would suggest you read my commentary on Romans, the relevant bits in Rom. 14. There is nothing there that supports the idea that Paul would not have been concerned about worshipping the Lord each week, and even on a particular day-- the day Jesus rose from the dead.
Paul is addressing Gentile Christians about how to treat Jewish Christians. The relevance of this, when he is primarily talking about Jewish celebrations, is doubtful. See my post on Col. 2.16-17.

Greg Simmons said...

Yeah...this whole situation is very sad. Churches using scripture to justify what they WANT to do. I've witnessed pastors using scripture out of context to justify all sorts of behavior.

What's even more condemning is where we see this behavior in the bible. Satan himself used scripture out of context in attempts to justify what he wanted to happen instead of what he knew was going to happen. What better example do we need to be cautioned on how we use and interpret scripture.

Great posts and comments.

Madison said...

Thank you for your blogs about this subject. They have been enlightening. It is no surprise to me that these mega churches would take a text out of context.

Tim said...

Dave, I'm an Anglican pastor and in our tradition we do indeed always have a service on Christmas Day, whatever day of the week it falls on. Furthermore, it's absolutely my favourite part of Christmas Day! I grew up in a pastor's home in England, and we always went to church as a family on that day. In fact, in England in my childhood the Christmas Day service was the main family service of Christmas, and the late night service on Christmas Eve was a rather eccentric practice of people who liked staying up until midnight. To me, going to church on Christmas morning is a helplful reminder that (a) the main theme of the day is the birth of Jesus, not opening presents and family gatherings, and (b) for a Christian, our primary family is our church community, not our blood relatives and friends.



Ben Witherington said...

Thanks for this post Tim. I couldn't agree more. Happy Christmas to you and yours.

sosad said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
sosad said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Paul B said...


I'm not Ben Witherington, but I'd like to address your query nonetheless. I find it frustrating.

Do you think it's never appropriate for Christians to challenge and hold one another accountable? You don't, obviously; otherwise you wouldn't have written these posts. So what makes Witherington's challenge inappropriate? Even the apostle Peter wasn't above a rebuke from the apostle Paul (Gal 2).

Do you think Witherington isn't self-critical regarding his own tradition? What's your evidence? See his post this month on "The Problem with Evangelical Theology."

sosad said...

I've deleted my comments....I will not return.

My dog is not in this fight and I'm pulling out.

I remain...sosad

Go ahead and blast me in my absence....I'm beginning to question my faith...thanks

Paul B said...


I am sorry to have made you feel "blasted." I am more sorry to hear that you are questioning your faith.

Please stick around. Join the conversations. We're all struggling in one way or another.

The Lord be with you.

Matt said...

not to be unpastoral or uncaring, but in regard to sosad's last post (to paraphrase socrates) "an unquestioned faith is not worth having."

anyway, i too am truly sorry if this discussion has hurt someone's faith, but i also wonder how that has happened. if we cannot be open and candid with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, then the battle seems already lost, or perhaps we just don't fully understand what it means for community and interpersonal relationships when we call ourselves Christians.

i would be curious to see why the 2 posts were deleted, however. while they may have been inappropriate, perhpas deleting them also said that certain viewpoints are not welcome in this discussion.

matt varnell

Ben Witherington said...

And I would stress that all viewpoints are very welcome on this blog, as long as they are expressed in a Christian manner which is respectful of other views, and not mean-spirited or simply degenerates into name calling etc.

ddiddle said...

Thanks Dr. W.

I never even thought about closing the church I pastor for Christmas. How have we gotten here?