Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Church Closings on Christmas--- Final Report

Now that the fur has flown and the dust has settled a bit, we do need to ask what we have learned from this flap about the church closing on Christmas. A few things are important in terms of ground rules:

1) There is absolutely nothing wrong with Christians dialoguing or debating with one another about issues important to the faith as long as it is a matter of speaking the truth in love, and is not mean spirited. This in no way falls into the category of the "judge not" provision of Jesus which had nothing to do with such critiques--- witness his own critiques of the Pharisees. The "judge not" statement of Jesus should not be used as some sort of security blanket to make one immune from any sort of constructive critique. This is just being defensive and not really entertaining that one may have done something inappropriate.

2) The Body of Christ exists locally, and should be held accountable locally by fellow Christians. When Paul speaks of the various limbs or members of the body of Christ in 1 Cor. 12 he is talking about all of the house churches in Corinth making up one full expression or microcosm of the body of Christ in that locale. "The Hand can not say to the foot, I have no need of you." Congregations, whether mega or otherwise, are accountable not only to the Lord but to their fellow Christians and should be held accountable where they live. Each congregation is but a part of the larger body of Christians. Churches should check with one another locally and ask probing questions if there is an important issue, like church closing on a Sunday, that might affect the larger witness of the Christian Church in that locale. It is not enough to check with other similar sized churches in other parts of the country as there are definitely regional differences in the situation and the clientele.

3) No one should suggest that the critique of mega- churches closing on Christmas Sunday is due to 'envy'. For one thing much of the critique has come from other large churches and large denominations. For another thing, one should not assume that simply because one's church is large this is a sign of infallibility or that all one's decisions have been pre-blessed by God. One should not even assume that it is necessarily the case that the size of one's church is a clear sign of blessing from God. This is not necessarily so. Sometimes its just a sign that your church mirrors the larger values of the culture, and so many people naturally feel comfortable there because they don't have to change much to be a part of such a fellowship. This may say more about the cultural captivity of the church than about its being blessed by God.

4) Attributing the critique of church closings on Christmas to 'Satan', besides being enormously defensive, makes no theological sense at all. It is Satan who wants churches closed, and especially on days when you might have more visitors than any other time of the year!

5) Perhaps, just perhaps, after Christmas when the dust has really settled, maybe we could all have a major talk about being more conscious of the fact that the world is indeed watching, especially on our holidays, and so we bear extra responsibility for what kind of witness we are presenting to the world on such occasions. Perhaps we could all do with a time of looking in the mirror and asking ourselves, what is wrong with this picture? In what way would God be displeased with our behavior? In what way are we behaving in self-centered ways that are a bad witness to a lost world? We should all think on these things.


Curt said...

I agree with you. Healthy discussion should never get into name-calling and mean-spiritedness. I am just concerned that some people see dissent, disagreement, and challenge as essentially wrong. If, in the name of “love,” we just take whatever comes down the pike, then we are in danger. Where would we be if Jesus had not dissented with the Pharisees? Did Paul go too far when he said the false teachers should mutilate themselves? Where would America be had the founding fathers not dissented? Where would we be if Martin Luther had not dissented? I am sure there were people then who thought, “Why don’t they just keep quiet?” “Why can’t we all get along?” Where people have the right to free thought it can get messy. Democracy is messy. But I agree with you, we should still dissent in agreeable fashion and not allow healthy argument to turn into petty bickering and fighting. Thanks for making the point.

Phil Dillon, Prairie Apologist said...

One of the most troubling apsects of the controversy to me is the idea being fostered by some that since having church services on Sunday isn't explicity outlined in scripture, that those who believe that churches should be opened on a Christmas Sunday are not relying on grace and are legalists.

I've also read commentary about the idea that believers can just as easily worship God at home, and hence don't need a Christmas Sunday service. I suppose that the same could be said for any Sunday. Why bother with getting together at all.

I suspect what some don't like is being held accountable for bad decisions, and closing a Christian Church on Christmas Sunday is a bad idea. That's what's at the heart of the "don't judge" defense.

Ben Witherington said...

I can only agree with these comments whole-heartedly. It is also humorous to me, a person who grew up and came into ministry in a church of over 4,000 members in the 60s and then one of over 5,000 members in the 70s in N.C, and one who has pastored six churches myself that some might think I have no idea how tough it is to make hard choices in a large church. I know very well what it is like. To larger more visible churches I simply say-- "to whom more is given, more is required" in terms of public responsibility for decisions good or bad. They therefore need to be contemplated and prayed about and consulted about carefully.

Mark Owens said...

A very helpful critique and analysis.

sam andress said...

I have posted on my blog regarding this very issue and have referenced some articles. You will find the post at:


Dr. Witherington, great dialogue and keep it up!

Brett Royal said...

It's a little ironic that we get worked up about "Saving Christmas" and preach that it is a Christian Holiday. The WORDS "Happy Holidays" offends us, while our ACTIONS are to stay home with our families on Christmas Morning. How can we teach that the meaning of Christmas is Jesus and not toys and family and Santa Claus, then turn around and spend Christmas morning with our families the presents that Santa left under the tree? There is a saying about actions and words. Is Jesus really the reason for the season?

Bryan L said...

Brett, are you suggesting that we not celebrate Christmas with presents and family? Some people choose not to do this. Some Christians even choose not to observe Christmas. That's what David Alan Black is advocating on his website. Are you in that boat?

Phil, as to your second paragraph, why don't we just instead always have church and never spend time with our families? Why bother being with our families at all? I suppose we should just attend church service everyday.
Has anyone in here ever missed a Sunday service? What about a weekday gathering of the church? Have any of you ever been on vacation on a Sunday? Why give others such a hard time for missing a Sunday?

As for the churches asking each other what they should do, is this really going on in any capacity, anywhere? Do the Methodist ask the Presbyterians down the block what they should do or do the Anglicans ask the Baptists etc…? How many of your churches even talk to the churches in their own neighborhood, much less eat together and share fellowship? Most churches would probably be happy to steal those members of the closed mega churches that were forced to attend their church instead.

By the way no ones stopping anyone from going to church on Christmas there’s gonna be plenty of churches open and happy to receive those extra dollars that the mega-churches aren't getting.
To all the people accusing the mega-churches of closing because it won't bring in enough money to stay open, I'm sure there are plenty of churches that can't wait till Christmas because it's probably one of their biggest offering days. I’m sure only mega-churches make decisions based on money, none of our churches do that.

By the way what if the world is watching? One minute there’s criticism of the church for caring what society thinks and then the next there’s criticism for not caring what society thinks. Which one is it?
Truthfully the world is watching and no matter what the church does some of the world will always think negatively about it anyway. By the way how many from the world did you talk to that were really upset about this decision? Since that's such a big concern, what the world thinks, because they're watching, what did they say?

If your worried about what the world will think of you for choosing to be with your family one Sunday instead of at church, then maybe you should have been worried about what your witness was all year long, that one day with your family would ruin your testimony for Jesus.

The comments about the cultural captivity of the church, and so on, don’t make sense to me. I didn't know you could so easily separate people from their culture. I thought Christianity all over the world in some way or another adapted to the larger culture. I thought the New Testament writers adapted to their larger culture (hence Greek instead of Hebrew or Aramaic). By the way Ben when did the early church worship? It was on Sunday which I’m assuming was a work day so did they forget about work and worship whenever they felt like it, or did they adapt to their culture and adjust their worship time around their normal times of work? It seems like you can find a lot of larger cultural values in the New Testament.

By the way it seems like the fact that we celebrate Christmas at all, points to the church being culturally captive. Christmas wasn't practiced by the first Christians. It's not even Jesus real b-day and I doubt he was mad that we weren’t celebrating it before we started. Wasn't it invented from a pagan holiday already in existence?

By the way Ben some people would think that you’re succumbing to the values of the larger culture based on your views of women in ministry or maybe the fact that you posted on John Lennon or your movie reviews. How would you feel if they implied negative things about you based on their disagreements?

Also not all Christians are making a big deal out of “Happy Holidays” and taking the Christ out of Christmas. Some of us don’t think He’s been in it for a very long time now anyway.
If the meaning of Christmas is Jesus, what do you think would be the most honoring thing we could do for Jesus on Christmas? Maybe justice, per Isaiah 58. Maybe mercy instead of sacrifice.

Anyway I know I’m gonna get flamed for this so just to let you know I don’t attend a mega-church. Just a church of a few hundred where I’m a youth pastor. I will be there on Christmas, and there’s a good chance that I won’t be with my family on Christmas (although hopefully so, God willing)
By the way Ben I really respect your work and love your blog. I own a few of your books and even have another one on my Christmas list that I’m really looking forward to. Please forgive me for the long comment.
God Bless

Ben Witherington said...

Bryan I:

This is an interesting post but I will make just a couple of comments: 1) the Christian is called to sift the culture, keep the good which comports with the Bible and reject the bad. This includes movies, music etc. Cultural captivity on the otherhand is doing precisely what Romans 12 says we must not--- allowing the world to squeeze us into its mold. There is a big difference. Cultural captivity is an unthinking following of cultural values even when they are in direct conflict with what the Bible says. It has nothing to do with the deliberate careful process of indigenizing the Gospel which involves a discerning of what comports with the Gospel and what does not. 2) women were already in ministry in the NT. Check out my books on this subject. This is hardly a modern agenda imposed on the church. One would have to ignore Rom. 16, Acts 18.24-26, and a host of texts to say that; 3) In case your were unaware, there is a ministerium in every city I know of where ministers regularly talk to each other and often get together. In my last church in Hendersonville N.C. I got together once a week with Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists etc. and we played hoops, had lunch, and went over sermon texts for the week, and sought each other's advice. If your minister does not do this, perhaps he is ignorant of the possibilities or simply ignores them.

Blessings on your youth work,

Ben W.

Bryan L said...

Ben, thanks for your comments.
1. I agree mostly. At the same time it seems like the issue of a church not being open on a particular day does not fall into your later category. I don't think you can necessarily make the case that this all boils down people being captivated by the culture, because going to church on Christmas is a very cultural thing in America, even if you aren’t Christian. I used to go on Christmas all the time before I was saved, even to things like midnight mass, which were very inconvenient, more so than a Sunday, because that was the culture I was raised in. It seems like, if you wanted, you could make a case that Christians that celebrate Christmas at all, other than just worship service, are captive to the culture. And many do make that case, and because of that choose not to celebrate Christmas at all. Is that where we’re going with this? Anyway, that’s just my opinion

2. I agree with your views on women in ministry. My point wasn't to attack them or challenge them. My point was that many in the church looks at you views on women in ministry or your views on inclusive language in the Bible as being captive to the culture and concerned with what the larger culture says. Many who probably even read this blog and would agree with you on the issue of Christmas. Many would even view the statement you made, "the ESV-- an attempt to push back the clock and the culture in the direction of the old KJV.", in your Buying a Bible on Christmas post, as being captive to the culture. I don't. My point is many would, and I don't think you would appreciate people implying negative things like that about you. Why? Because there's room for disagreement on these issues, and many more, and I think we would all appreciate a little grace when it comes to discussing them, instead of implying negative things about those we don't agree with.

3. I guess what I was meaning by this is the actual church body, not just the senior minister. I don't consider the senior minister as the church. I don't see a pastor of First Baptist and First Presbyterian who have lunch and go, 'wow First Baptist and First Presbyterian were having fellowship today', maybe the pastors of their churches, but not the churches themselves. And all though I am aware that these kind of meetings that you describe happen (my pastor is involved in them), I'm not aware of what goes on in them. Please enlighten me. What kind of advice do they give each other? I'm interested to know. Do they discuss what they should do at their own church? Or do they debate what other churches should be doing? What do you do when as the Pastor you don’t agree with what these other church leaders say you should? Just curious.

BTW could you please answer my question on when the early church gathered for worship on Sunday and if it was adjusted to fit the work schedules? This was actually a real question that I’ve been wondering for a long time and was hoping you could help me with. I wasn’t being argumentative.

Again Ben I hope I didn’t before, or haven’t now offended you. That wasn’t my point, just trying to discuss. I pretty much agree with everything you say and post on, just not this. But again thinks for your thoughtful comments. God Bless.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Bryan:

In regard to your Sunday worship question, much depends on whether we are talking about James' congregation in Jerusalem, or one of Paul's largely Gentile one's outside the Holy Land. Greco-Roman persons did not observe the sabbath, not surprisingly, and outside of the Holy land, non-Jewish ways of counting time, days. etc. were followed. The normal Roman work day began at dawn, stopped for a good while in the middle and hot part of the day, then resumed in later afternoon until about 5-6. Early Christian meetings, for example like the one Paul refers to in 1 Cor. 11 seem to have begun in the late afternoon, included a meal, and continued on into the evening (remembering the Euthychus episode in Acts 20.7-12). This was an accomodation to work schedules on the given day, in this case 'the first day of the week' as Paul calls it in 1 Cor. 16. But there is also evidence that Paul rented the Hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus and held forth there during the earlier part of the day-- probably during siesta hours since the fee was cheaper then. So there was some accomodation of time due to work, but no evidence of a change of days due to work. It is interesting to attend Christian worship in Israel today, when Sunday is a work day. Christians worship anyway on that day, with no accomodation to work schedules. Finally, it is interesting that Gospels written to Gentile audiences follow Greco-Roman counting of the days, not Jewish ones. By this I mean that the Roman day was from midnight to midnight as ours is, not from sundown to sundown. The so-called watches of the night are counted differently depending on whether one is counting in a Jewish or Roman way.



Bryan L said...

Thanks Ben for the detailed answer to my question. I've been wondering that for a while. I appreciate you spending time on this blog to interact and dialogue with some of us who are outside of the academic world and the seminaries. It helps a great deal. Have a great day and God bless.

Unknown said...

Biblically there is a lot of freedom to worship on Wednesday, Saturday or Sunday as is tradition. We are fighting what I call an "Artificial War" over Christmas signs, saying "happy holidays" and the cancellation of Sunday services. We are making statements about the motives of leaders where there is only preference issues and not essential doctrine involved. This is all very sad. It is good to discuss and disagree. But our real fight is for people who do not know Jesus--a supposed concern of us evangelical types. Let us all abdicate being "right" about this and reach people for Jesus. That is what we will be judged for, anyway.


Dennis said...

Thank you for your post Dr. Witherington. You have addressed several points I have been concerned over for some time: The first being the idea of not being able within the Body of Christ to discuss opposing views.

Above all the goal for the church should be to find God's call on any situation. I admit, it may be that God has some how called these churches to close for a day. (I doubt this, but it may be possible.) The question is simple: Is this God's will, or is it a response to culture?

Allan R. Bevere said...


A personal follow-up on the matter of churches closing on Christmas Day: I was under some pressure at my church to move from two services to one, and to make the one early so people could get out of worship in plenty of time for whatever they wanted to do with the rest of the day.

I stood my ground and refused to change our schedule. My rationale was that to move from two services to one sent the clear message that we did not expect many people to come to church on Christmas, and we were simply accommodating and justifying people's selfish whims.

As it turns out both services on Christmas Day were above the average in attendance; and we also had some visitors who had never been to the church before.

I hope that we remember this when 2011 rolls around and we face this matter again.


Unknown said...

Where did your family come from. I feel they have candian influences.Please tell me i sm wrong