Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Is Christmas Christian? - Part XI

Continued from Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV,, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII, Part IX, and Part X.

A Parking Lot Parable
(Slightly Revised)

Once upon a time, Jeff Meyers and Tony Rollins—old friends who had not seen each other for a few years—met in the parking lot of a neighborhood church. They were dropping off their preschool children at the church for Mother's Day Out. (They were such conscientious and helpful fathers.) As they were walking into the church, Tony pointed at the church's sign with a grimace and a confident wag of his head: "Is that biblical?"

"What?" Jeff asked. "The sign?"

"No," Tony replied. "The sign says that this church has Advent services every Wednesday evening. Is that biblical?"

It was early in the day and Jeff was feeling frisky, so he answered with a few of his own questions. Somewhere in the middle of this conversation, the two conscientious fathers remembered to sign their children in. They continued their friendly discussion once they were outside again.

JM: Is there something unbiblical about having church services on Wednesday?

TR: No, no, that's not what I mean. I mean Advent services. Is that biblical?

JM: What makes meeting on Wednesday evenings for a month or so to commemorate the sufferings of Jesus unbiblical?

TR: It's not the Wednesday meetings that I'm concerned about. Let's leave that out of it. It's the celebration of the season of Advent. The Bible says nothing about such annual events. Presumably this church celebrates Advent for a period of time on Sunday, too. And they probably also observe Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and all of those other man made seasons. Right?

JM: Sure. So, let me get this straight. Because the Bible doesn't explicitly say anything about a yearly observance of Advent (that is, meeting together to commemorate Jesus' coming), therefore it is unbiblical? Furthermore, the Bible doesn't command us to reflect upon the birth of Christ in corporate worship, therefore Advent and Christmas are unbiblical and forbidden as well. Is that what you mean?

TR: Yeah, that's what I mean. The Bible does not command that kind of worship. It's unbiblical for a church to think it is pleasing God by observing Advent, or for that matter, Christmas, Lent, or Easter services. God has commanded no such thing.

JM: Wait a minute, let's not muddy the waters. It's not the "kind of worship" that is under discussion, but the time and theme of worship. This church does not get together on Advent to engage in a different kind of worship. Rather, the people gather to hear the Word, meditate, pray, sing—all the normal activities of worship. Advent does not actually change the worship, but the theme of the worship, especially the Scriptures that are read, the psalms and hymns that are sung, the content of the prayers that are offered up, and the subject matter of the sermons.

TR: That may be true. I don't have a lot of experience with these kinds of worship services.

JM: Well, let's assume for the sake of the discussion that no new elements of worship, no new worship practices are introduced. What if I frame the issue this way: during Advent some Christians focus their meditations, Scripture readings, and prayers on the coming of Jesus. Is that unbiblical?

TR: But that's the problem—the Bible does not command the church to celebrate a season of Advent.

JM: Granted. But does that make it wrong to observe such a season? Is it dangerous and unbiblical for the Christian community to set aside a particular time to read, meditate, sing, and pray about Jesus’ coming?

TR: Yes. When it comes to worship, whatever is not commanded in Scripture is forbidden. Advent, Christmas, and Lent are not commanded, therefore they are forbidden. When church leaders invent man made seasons like this and impose them on congregations, they are binding their people's consciences where God has not bound them.

JM: That's interesting. Tell me about your church, won't you? What has your pastor been preaching about?

TR: I'm a member of Calvin Reformed Memorial Church. My pastor is Rev. Regulative. He's been preaching through the book of Romans for quite some time. We've been in chapter 9 for a few months.

JM: How long has he been preaching from Romans?

TR: For about three years now. We believe in preaching straight through books of the Bible.

JM: Wow! How much longer till he finishes Romans?

TR: He estimates that it will take him about two more years’—five years total.

JM: Does the pastor choose hymns and compose his prayers each Sunday such that they support whatever theme he is preaching from Romans?

TR: Yes, that's the general practice.

JM: Is that biblical? Where in the Bible has God commanded that pastors preach through entire books of the Bible like that? Where has God commanded that a pastor select hymns and readings based on his own man made preaching scheme and then impose them upon the consciences of worshipers gathered on the Lord's Day for church?

TR: Oh, I see! You were trying to set me up, weren't you?

JM: I confess. You caught me. But, let's not get sidetracked. I asked you whether your church's way of ordering its worship was biblical. I am referring to the time and themes of your services. Where does God command that the pastor order the Scripture readings, sermons, hymns, and prayers according to this method of continuous preaching?

TR: Off the top of my head, I don't know. But this has been the Reformed way since the Reformation. Our church is being true to a venerable Reformed legacy when we follow the lectio continua ("continuous reading") method of preaching.

JM: A venerable legacy, huh? Isn't that kind of like an "old tradition"?

TR: It's more than just a tradition. We believe that it's the best way of teaching people the Bible.

JM: Maybe so, but my point is that it is nowhere commanded in the Scriptures. Is it? You say it's the best way, but I ask: Is it the biblical way? There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that either Peter or Paul preached verse by verse through entire Old Testament books. The Bible does not command pastors to select themes for their worship services—readings, prayers, and hymns—according to this method of preaching, does it? My bottom line question to you is: what really differentiates your church's way of ordering Scripture readings, hymns, and prayers from one that uses the traditional church year? Your pastor "forces" five years of Romans on his congregation's worship and this other church's pastor "forces" a year of the life of Christ on his. What's the essential difference?

TR: When you put it like that, you make it sound like the church year is primarily a way for the church to order its readings, prayers, and hymns over time. Are you suggesting that it's not all that different from what Reformed pastors do when they choose themes for their worship service based on their preaching texts?

JM: Exactly. The church is free to order her readings, prayers, and hymns according to the preaching texts chosen by the pastor and she is also free to order its readings, prayers, and hymns according to the life of Christ as embodied in the traditional church year. If your church can emphasize the truth of God's election (Romans 9) in a worship service with preaching, prayers, readings, psalms, and hymns appropriate to such an emphasis, then this church can also choose to commemorate the Lord's advent (Matt 1, Luke 2, etc.) and adorn the celebration with appropriate preaching, hymns, readings, and prayers. What's the difference?

TR: I guess that makes sense to me, but I'm not so sure that you haven't tricked me somehow. I've always been suspicious of the church year because Catholics and Episcopalians do it. Don't they force the churches to keep the church calendar? I don't think I would appreciate being mandated to celebrate something that the Bible doesn't command.

JM: Whoa, do we have to go through the Bible doesn't command it routine again?

TR: No, I don't think so. But I am concerned about binding people's consciences with extra biblical requirements.

JM: You mean like imposing the epistle of Romans on people for five years?

TR: Ha, ha. Very funny.

JM: I'm serious. Why do you submit to such an imposition on your conscience? The Bible does not command pastors to preach through Romans for five years. Your pastor has chosen to order your church's services according to a man made, extra biblical scheme. The people are subjected to a five year diet of Romans. Is that biblical? What makes this scheme more biblical than Lent or Advent? Why couldn't your pastor choose to preach through the life of Christ in a year and lead the congregation through meditations, Scripture readings, and prayers keyed into the life of Christ? That's precisely what the church year is designed to do! Why do you object to Lent and not to Romans? What's the difference?

TR: Hey, aren't you doing graduate work at that Lutheran seminary?

JM: You mean Concordia? Yeah, why?

TR: That's where you're getting all of these liturgical ideas! They'd never teach this kind of thing at a Reformed seminary, would they?

JM: Look, Tony, sometimes you need to step outside of your own tradition so that you can think objectively about it. Besides, why do you think Reformed Christians have such divergent liturgical practices? It may have something to do with the fact that Reformed seminaries don't teach students to think about worship and liturgy at all. I don't need to convert to Lutheranism to appreciate many of their insights into corporate worship. We seem to have forgotten that the Reformation itself was a liturgical renewal as much as anything else. By the way, I am not suggesting that the received church year is flawless; but I do believe that the Bible gives churches the freedom to use it if they so choose.

TR: Goodness, time has gotten away from me! I've got to run. My wife is helping to plan our church's Vacation Bible School today, and I promised to help.

JM: Is that biblical?

TR: What? Me helping my wife?

JM: No. VBS. Is Vacation Bible School biblical? If it's not commanded in the Bible, it's forbidden, right?

TR: Yikes!

JM: Well . . . where is VBS commanded in the Bible?

TR: You are ruthless!

JM: See you later, Tony. Go help your wife!

TR: Thanks. Let’s talk about this again sometime soon.

JM: Sure.

(This is slightly revised from chapter 18 in my book The Lord's Service

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