As Southern Baptists, we have long prided ourselves as “people of the Book.” I can recall this description used about our denomination my entire life. When I did a paper a couple of years ago about Baptist history, I enjoyed reading the tales of early Baptists who disputed publicly with people of other denominations, asking them to prove their doctrine from the Bible. Surely a denomination that prides itself on going “by the Book” would never do anything that contradicted Scripture or simply on the basis of “church tradition,” would we?
I am not even talking about the favorite target for those outside of SBC life of wine versus grape juice or things of that nature. I am talking about the biblical disconnect with our favorite Christian American holidays of Easter and Christmas. Hang with me for a couple of minutes here, because there is a bigger point to make.
Last Easter was an eye opening one for me. I was doing some digging to answer a church member’s question about why Easter was so early when I ran across the “Easter controversy” of the early church. I knew about it in passing, but had never studied it in depth. I have included the preceding link for those who wish to read more about it or don’t want to take my word for it, but the controversy basically boiled down to a debate over when to celebrate the Resurrection. The eastern churches argued it should be tied to Passover in accordance with the Gospel accounts and the western churches, led by the Roman bishop, argued that it should be unfettered from Judaism by any means necessary. This led them to base the observance of the Resurrection apart from any relation to the Bible. Is it a big deal to God? I don’t know really, but is the western dating of Easter biblical? No, it isn’t. There is no connection to the Bible that I can find at all. And don’t even think about the “pagan” traditions that millions of good Southern Baptists indulge in to celebrate the holiday either, like Easter eggs or “resurrection” eggs if we wish to “reclaim” them from their pagan roots.
Another funny thing last year was the emergence of a book called, Shocked by the Bible by Joe Kovacs, which I still haven’t had time to purchase or read. I was drawn in originally by his confrontation of unbiblical practices and beliefs surrounding Christmas. As a youth pastor, I used to give a “Christmas quiz” to my youth groups to see how much biblical fact they could separate from holiday tradition. Everything from the fact that the wise men didn’t show up the night Jesus was born to the question of whether or not Mary rode the donkey on the trip to Bethlehem. What I always found was that most of us are so steeped in the holiday narrative that we don’t know the story that the Bible tells and what we “know” based on what we have always heard. And we also seem to have no problem incorporating more pagan traditions in our observance. Even ones that are specifically condemned in the Bible:
2 Thus says the LORD:
“Learn not the way of the nations,
nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens
because the nations are dismayed at them,
3 for the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman.
4 They decorate it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
so that it cannot move. (Jeremiah 10:2-4, ESV)
In both Easter and Christmas, we find that many Christians have willingly adopted and followed unbiblical patterns, even Southern Baptists. In fact, the patterns we follow were established mostly by the Catholic Church over many centuries, but few have seen fit to question or change them. There have been some who did. The Puritans and others banned the celebration of Christmas when they first came to the New World on the grounds that it was corrupt and the practices associated with it were unbiblical.
The real question in all of this is “what does it matter?” Does celebrating Easter or Christmas with a bunch of pagan added traditions destroy the gospel? Not necessarily, although it can hurt it at times (see 1 Cor. 10:28-29 and Romans 14). Am I trying to put a damper on Easter Sunday? No, but I am trying to encourage those of us who claim the legacy of being a people of the Book to reflect on why we do what we do to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection.
My other reason for writing this post is the grief that I have felt over watching some brothers and sisters in the Lord recently exchange a host of verbal salvos regarding “unbiblical” practices that did nothing to edify and everything to entrench predjudice and bad feelings. If we stop to examine ourselves for a few seconds, we will find that we are not perfect people. We haven’t arrived at perfect doctrine (even in the SBC), because God will never conveniently fit in our perfect descriptions of Him. He even left the apostle Paul at a loss for words. (Romans 11:33-36) Therefore, we need to extend charity in areas that are not absolutely essential to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, especially to those who name the name of Christ as their Lord.