Holidays are a funny thing. In the world Jesus Christ grew up in, holidays were linked with faith because the entire popular culture revolved around religion. Our American culture is different because of the centuries of world events which have shaped who we are as Christians, as races, and as a nation.
Without fail, I receive a message through my church’s social media presence or website every season telling me how Christmas, Halloween, and Easter are based on holidays celebrated by pagans in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, or some other obscure historical place. The message is always the same: “you’re sinning if you celebrate pagan holidays.” Let’s take a second to consult the Bible on this issue that seems to get people so worked-up.
Knowledge Is For Us; Love Is For Others
Paul talks about our interactions with pagan culture in his first letter to the Corinthians. Let’s unpack this piece of scripture.
Now regarding your question about food that has been offered to idols. Yes, we know that “we all have knowledge” about this issue. But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much. But the person who loves God is the one whom God recognizes. (1 Cor 8:1-3)
Let’s pause right there. Paul’s statement about “knowledge” versus “love” almost solves the issue in the first verse. You see, with things like the internet and more people attending higher education, we find ourselves in a situation where many Christians are very ‘educated’ but lack comprehensive ‘understanding’ of what Christianity is all about. “Knowing” is not “loving”. Christ’s gift of grace is not about us gaining factual knowledge; it’s about restoring a relationship between God and mankind.
When we obsess over whether something is truly appropriate or inappropriate for the average Christian based on whether the history of a thing is based on the pagans, it completely misses the point that we exist to love. If participating in a holiday helps us to be a part of our community, friends, and families while not sacrificing our relationship with God, then why is it even worth debating the history of the occasion?
You Don’t Gain or Lose By Participating
Paul continues talking to the church in Corinth by discussing eating meat that had been sacrificed to pagan Gods. Back in the days of the Bible, food was extremely scarce. Some early Christians, particularly those who lived in mostly pagan regions of the world, could easily find food used as a sacrifice to pagan gods. This resulted in a debate with some claiming it was a sin to eat meat sacrificed to pagan gods and others saying it caused no harm. Paul responds with a warning to both camps.
So, what about eating meat that has been offered to idols? Well, we all know that an idol is not really a god and that there is only one God. There may be so-called gods both in heaven and on earth, and some people actually worship many gods and many lords. But for us,
There is one God, the Father,
by whom all things were created,
and for whom we live.
And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ,
through whom all things were created,
and through whom we live.
However, not all believers know this. Some are accustomed to thinking of idols as being real, so when they eat food that has been offered to idols, they think of it as the worship of real gods, and their weak consciences are violated. It’s true that we can’t win God’s approval by what we eat. We don’t lose anything if we don’t eat it, and we don’t gain anything if we do. (1 Cor 8:4-8)
To those who were against eating meat sacrificed to pagans, Paul reminds them that their salvation is not found in eating meat or not eating meat. It’s not found in sanitizing their lives of everything based on pagan culture and tradition. It’s not based on any outward action or adherence to any secular or religious law. Salvation is based on Christ and Christ alone. Because of this, eating meat sacrificed to a pagan god does not constitute any sort of separation from God or ‘sin’.
To those who were for eating meat sacrificed to pagans, Paul reminds them to be mindful of those who are not saved. Be aware of how others perceive your actions and do not act in a way that might confuse them or make them think you a hypocrite. Therefore, it is necessary that Christians ask themselves if their actions could be confused with those of someone who worships a false god.
What do we make of these two responses which seem to indite both sides of the argument? Simply put, the action of participating in a holiday doesn’t help you to gain anything and it doesn’t cause you to lose anything. Therefore, your decision on whether to participate in these actions needs to be solely concerned with how you feel others will see your personal testimony.
Too Clever For Our Own Good
Sometimes when believers pick these fights based on book-smarts, street-smarts, or just what they think ‘sounds’ smart, they find themselves spiritually confused. Earlier in the same letter to Corinthians, Paul writes,
For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. As the Scriptures say, “He traps the wise in the snare of their own cleverness.” (1 Cor 3:16)
What Paul is saying is that we sometimes ‘think ourselves to death’ on matters not factually known and end up missing opportunities to live an abundant life as Christ intended. The challenge to all Christians should be to build relationships outside of their families, outside of their friends, and outside of their normal demographic. Interact with the saved, the lost, and the searching. Love one another the way only Christ could encourage us to love. And when we find ourselves trying to over-analyze a situation, instead ask ourselves if we’re chasing an answer that won’t actually leave anyone better in the end.
Let’s make sure God is proud of the people we love, we served, and we witness to instead of hoping that we will impress God with our knowledge of what holidays to celebrate. After all, the Pharisees were the utmost experts in their day on customs and how to ‘appropriately’ recognize social occasions in a way that didn’t violate God’s law and… I’m not sure how familiar you are with the Pharisees but, Jesus wasn’t a huge fan. Let’s be witnesses, not Pharisees.
Commentary on Halloween, Christmas, and Other Holidays
As we see in Paul’s letter, there is nothing right, wrong, or indifferent to celebrating these holidays based on pagan traditions. What would matter is if the holidays we celebrated still held meaning to those around us as pagan worship festivals. If the girls next door dawned a costume of a minion from “Despicable Me” and by that action they were literally worshiping at the alter of Pixar Films, then maybe it would be time for Christians to stop participating so that others would know that forgiveness and grace in Christ can not co-exist with the worship of another god.
With that said, it is doubtful that anyone is actually worshiping demons, celebrities, and pop-culture icons by dressing up for Halloween. Therefore, there is little risk of anyone assuming you, as a follower of Christ, are doing anything inconsistent with the teachings of Christ.
Taking this idea one step further, it’s worth mentioning that Halloween can be a great time to form relationships and witness to others. My wife and I hand out candy bags each year to trick-or-treaters with little messages in them. Typically the message is a piece of scripture or a note inviting them to church. As a participant, either child or parent, use these holidays as a chance to fellowship with non-Christians. You never know when someone will say something that gives you an opportunity to share Christ.