Posted by Adam Young, 17 Jan 2019
In the first of a mini-series examining Christianity and Christmas, Adam Young explores three areas where churches frequently make compromises at Christmas which they would not tolerate at other times.
Christmas; you either love it or loathe it.
This is true even for clergy, for whom Christmas is incredibly stressful and highly pressured. I doubt that any clergy are ever “ready for Christmas.” To make things worse I’ve found that the longer I have been in ministry the more my conscience and integrity have been challenged by what we are expected to do.
Christmas offers unrivaled evangelistic opportunity. At crib services our churches are filled with young families and children. At midnight we meet people who would never normally be found in church—mainly because they now have dutch courage. We have a ready-made excuse to knock on doors and sing worship to the Lord Jesus. It really is a unique and precious opportunity to reach out to our communities with the gospel and hospitality.
But I feel the nagging question: at what cost?
There are three things in particular which make me uncomfortable with how society and the church demand we do our Christmas worship.
Firstly, there is the music. For 51 weeks of the year evangelicals are rightly found guarding their flock from bad theology in sung worship. Last year there was a big debate over the Bethel hymn “reckless love” because biblically speaking God’s love can never be “reckless.” Many churches refused to use the song. Other clergy take issue with older hymns by the likes of Wesley noting that some of his hymns are promoting his unique brand of Christian Perfectionism. Even popular hymns are often changed to be more biblically faithful: in Amazing Grace many substitute “here” for “there” in the final verse to defend against a theology which ignores the importance of the bodily resurrection and renewed earth.
Then for one week in the year we throw all of this careful theological fencing out the window and sing about a baby who doesn’t cry and has radiant beams shining out of His face as if He were Doctor Who mid-regeneration! We maybe even play or sing “Mary did you know” when the plain biblical answer is categorically “yes, she did!” People love carols, I get that, but are we being faithful ministers if we allow people to sing, memorise, and adore bad theology?
Secondly, there is the biblical teaching. For 51 weeks of the year evangelicals are rightly found preaching truth from the Scriptures. We study and research The Word to make sure that what we say is 100% true, that the message we convey across all our ministry is fully faithful to Scripture. We don’t want lazy misrepresentations and dishonest anachronisms.
Then for one week in the year we have the “three” wise men or “kings” (no doubt with camels) in the “stable” (because there was no room at the “inn”) alongside the shepherds and often an angel above the stable. Oh and don’t forget Mary’s donkey! It makes a great and lovely story but most of these elements simply don’t come together or don’t exist in the Bible. Why are we promoting fake news, as it were, about the events around Jesus’ birth? Surely we should be teaching the Bible truth and only the Bible truth?
Thirdly, and most controversially perhaps, we have the use of images and statues. For 51 weeks of the year many evangelicals are very twitchy about the use of images of God or even of saints—especially if they are statues—in the context of worship if not in every context. Some would even say that images of Jesus are violations of the Second Commandment (or at the least the Ninth). Confessionally, Anglicanism is very clear on this. Article 22 denounces the “worshipping, and adoration… of images” as “repugnant to the Word of God.”
What does this mean? Let’s look at the three part Homily on Idolatry which Article 35 tells us contains “godly and wholesome doctrine.” In that homily we are told that there is no biblical distinction to be made between “idols” and “images” or between “adoration/worship of God” and “veneration” (Latria and Dulia). We are told that faithful ministers would not allow images, especially of Jesus, into the church because they promote or allow idolatry. Based on this the Church of England was, historically, just as iconoclastic as her fellow Reformed Churches such as Calvin’s Geneva.
Then for one week in the year we have statues of Mary and Joseph and angels and even Jesus himself paraded up and down the church by children who often then sit before them and sing a theologically dubious carol. If images of Jesus are as serious a matter as the Reformers held—actually being sin— then surely no amount of evangelistic potential can offset the potential for idolatry?
I don’t have the answers. The pressure from society, the church, even our families is seemingly insurmountable. The evangelistic opportunities are immense. But are they worth our integrity as evangelical ministers? Is it really a good enough reason to, for one week of the year, act and minister in a way utterly at odds with our usual ministry and beliefs?
Maybe I’m just a grumpy grinch. Then again maybe we really do need a Reformation of our Christmas services.
Rev’d Adam Young is Associate Minister at All Saints’ Church, North Ferriby
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