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.


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 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 Chesterton 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.

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.