When I wrote my previous post on skipping church on Christmas I admit that I had a visceral reaction to the news that some mega-churches have decided to cancel their Sunday morning Christmas services this year. To me it smacked of selling out. I have a background and some presuppositions that informed my reaction to the news in the same way that these megachurches have presuppositions that guided their decision.
These presuppositions involve a high view of the Sabbath and a belief that we have a wonderful opportunity this year to actually honor Christ through corporate worship on the day that bears his name.
And so, my very visceral reaction was guided by these presuppositions. Having had time to cool down a bit, and read and hear from some folks who are cancelling church on Christmas I am willing to acknowledge that the tone of my prior post was unnecessarily harsh. I'm still convinced of my position on this matter, but want to tone down the rhetoric and acknowledge the concerns and positions of those on the other side of the issue.
In that regard let me say this about those who are cancelling their services. I'll draw from several sources here but I'll begin by saying that Scott McKnight offers one of the most helpful defenses of the megachurches in his post "When Christmas Falls on Sunday." From what I can gather, most of these churches are going to be having huge productions on the days leading up to Christmas. I think Willow Creek is having something like 8 services on Friday and Saturday. They will be going full bore in worship on those days and also making a full court press for evangelism. Further, many of the megachurches are aware that they are going to flat wear their people out before Christmas and want to give them a break. Many of these churches need hundreds of people to run church. Also, as someone points out, if Willow Creek had services on Christmas something like 60,000 people might come, and they have a building that seats 7500. If you do the math, you can see that you may need 8 services on Christmas day to accomodate all of those who would come. Now I am sure that those numbers are inflated but it is not unreasonable to assume that a church like Willow would need many services to accomodate all of the people who might come. As a preacher who loves his Sunday afternoon nap after only doing one service I can appreciate the wear and tear on a preacher and staff who have to do many services.
I am also mindful of Joe Carter's words in a post this morning. Actually this is a re-post of his - Wife Beaters: Christian Bloggers and the Culture of Critique, and he introduces it with this line, among others:
How do we hold our fellow Christian bloggers accountable? How do we respond to this “talk-radio”-style of debate in which no disagreement on even inessential matters (i.e., should churches be open on Christmas?) can be tolerated?
This is obviously directed at those of us who have bowed up so strongly on this and I again, I apologize for the over-stridency of my own tone. I know that Joe isn't trying to squash legitimate debate in the blogosphere - he himself is one of the leading debaters in evangelical blogging circles. And I agree, for the most part, with what he says in that post. I certainly don't want to be a wife-beater in the church. And I know in simply replying to Joe here and to Scott McKnight later I run the risk of looking like a wife-beater. But I will sally forth any way, asking the reader's indulgence and charity in assuming that though I disagree about some things here I do not intend to do so in a wife-beating way.
But I am concerned that we not take these words on tolerance too far. When Joe says we are engaging in a "talk radio" style of debate that can't tolerate disagreement over inessential matters I want to point out that there is a difference between tolerating ideas and tolerating people.
Just because I disagree with your position on an issue, i.e. I can't tolerate your view, this does not mean that I am intolerant of you as a person or more particularly as a Christian brother or sister. I am sure that I, and several others, are guilty of leaving that impression with the heat of our rhetoric. But this is important to point out - contrary to modern views of tolerance, strong opinions, strong rhetoric, and strong disagreements can be a sign of love. They can also be a sign of hatred and animosity, but this is not always the case. Husbands and wives and parents and children often have far more heated engagements with one another than they will ever have with a stranger because of their strong love for one another. So please don't automatically assume that, because some of us disagree strongly with our brothers and sisters in Christ on this matter, that we think of them any less as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Further, in regard to the idea that closing church on Sunday being "inessential" if the issue is framed that way I concede the point. Of couse no one is going to lose their salvation for not going to church on Christmas and I don't believe God is going to remove the lampstand of a church that closes its doors on Christmas.
But there are times when a small matter reveals something bigger and that is the point of view that we critics are taking here. I won't presume to speak for anyone else, but the two issues I am most concerned with in this thing are:
1. The inability and/or unwillingness to think theologically about the matter.
2. A failure to seriously consider the ramifications of the fourth commandment.
In regards to the first I point to the unfortunate words of Cally Parkinson, spokeswoman for Willow Creek Community Church. Poor Cally has gotten so much grief for this statement that I am sure she would love to rephrase it. But here it is:
"If our target and our mission is to reach the unchurched, basically the people who don't go to church, how likely is it that they'll be going to church on Christmas morning?"
At the risk of piling on here, I won't question impugn her motives but I will point out that theological concerns don't seem to be factored into this statement. This focus on target audiences and mission statements is straight out of the "sociologically driven church" manual. This kind of thinking is so accepted and widespread as to be self-evident to most. Yet, there are legitimate theological concerns in this matter that have not been addressed. I and others may be wrong in the theological concerns we raise, but I am especially bothered that there seems to be no interaction with the relevant biblical and theological data on the Sabbath.
And this brings me to my second concern, that the fourth commandment seems to be forgotten in this discussion. I am thankful that Scott McKnight has engaged the issue on this level even though I disagree with his conclusions.
Scott does a good work with the relevant issues here but one of the reasons I come to a different conclusion than he does is that I think he starts with the wrong questions. While he asks many questions the two main questions he addresses are - 1) Does the NT teach that we ought to have a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day service, and 2) Does the NT teach a Sunday Morning worship service. Scott answers both in the negative, and the implication is that there is no Scriptural obligation on these churches to have services on Christmas day.
I agree wholeheartedly with his answer to the first - we have no biblical obligation to hold a worship service on Christmas Eve or Christmas day. If it weren't for the fact that Christmas day falls on a Sunday this year I would never have addressed the issue at all.
It's on the second question that I disagree. Rather than asking it the way he did, I would ask "does the fourth commandment apply today and if so, how ought we to honor it?" Asking it that way expands the database for finding an answer to include the whole Bible, not just the New Testament. It also puts the questioner in the posture of active obedience, looking for a way to honor the commandment, rather than relying on sociological concerns in making the decision.
Scott's post is about as good as any you will find from the non-sabbatarian view and all of us sabbatarians should wrestle with what he says. I won't go into all the details now on my view except to say that I believe one of the key planks in his argument is Colossians 2:16:
As you might expect I'm not convinced this authorizes a non-sabbatarian view of the Sabbath. In the Word Commentary on Colossians - Philemon, Peter T. O'Brien says this:
For Israel the keeping of these holy days was evidence of obedience to God’s law and a sign of her election among the nations. At Colossae, however, the sacred days were to be kept for the sake of the “elemental spirits of the universe,” those astral powers who directed the course of the stars and regulated the order of the calendar. So Paul is not condemning the use of sacred days or seasons as such; it is the wrong motive involved when the observance of these days is bound up with the recognition of the elemental spirits.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
The fourth commandment has not disappeared any more than the commandments to not commit adultery or murder have disappeared. The fourth commandment has as much moral imperatival force as any other commandment. As R. L. Dabney says:
The reason that the ceremonial laws were temporary was that the necessity for them was temporary. They were abrogated because they were no longer needed. But the practical need for a Sabbath is the same in all ages. When it is made to appear that this day is the bulwark of practical religion in the world, that its proper observance everywhere goes hand in hand with piety and the true worship of God; that where there is no Sabbath there is no Christianity, it becomes an impossible supposition that God would make the institution temporary. The necessity for the Sabbath has not ceased, therefore it is not abrogated. In its nature, as well as its necessity, it is a permanent, moral command. All such laws are as incapable of change as the God in whose character they are founded. Unlike mere positive or ceremonial ordinances, the authority of which ceases as soon as God sees fit to repeal the command for them, moral precepts can never be repealed; because the purpose to repeal them would imply a change in the unchangeable, and a depravation in the perfect character of God. (HT - Laura Brumley)
I'll stop there for now as I see I am starting to become a runaway train on the Sabbath issue and am about to leave the track I started on. I only wish to point out that I believe the issue of the Sabbath is getting short shrift in this conversation. Yes, I believe that their are epochal changes between the Old and New testaments that change how the Sabbath is celebrated. But I am afraid that, in our day, we act as if there are no biblical prescriptions governing our observance of the Sabbath. I believe there are and we need to be wrestling with them as they are of more vital importance than the sociological concerns that have been raised.
And so, getting back to why I popped a cork on this issue in the first place I would summarize it by saying that here we have a day that, though not biblically mandated, has been recognized by the world as a day to celebrate the birth of Christ, a worthy and holy thing indeed. And this year that day falls on the best day of the week for Christians - Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, the first day of the week, the day each week that Christians celebrate the resurrection. There is a very real sense this year in which Christmas falls on Easter because every Sunday is an Easter celebration. And my own sentiments regarding the celebration of the Sabbath are once again summed up by Laura Brumley, when she says:
I am floored by God's readiness to grant people like us free access to hearing, singing, praying, and feeding upon his Word every week. And we're told to spend the whole day celebrating this reality, keeping in mind that it is a mere foretaste? I'm convinced that there are no blessings in this life comparable to a Sunday rightly spent.
I happen to think that a Sunday rightly spent is best spent with the people of God worshipping Him corporately and to me it seems that it can only add to the preciousness of Christmas to celebrate it with the people of God this year in worship on the Christian Sabbath.
So that's my story and I'm sticking to it. I hope this has not come off as condemning, and if so I apologize. I offer this for your consideration and am open to discussion. I have friends (and I hope Scott McKnight himself considers me a friend because I consider him one) who see things differently and I have no plans to beat anyone over the head with this. But I do offer these things for your consideration and hopefully edification.