Shall We Observe Holidays?

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Today (the day upon which I write this essay) is Maundy Thursday. Tomorrow will be Good Friday and this Sunday is Easter.

In the liturgical calendar, each of these days has a special significance. Maundy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper, Good Friday the crucifixion, and Easter Sunday the resurrection. Christians have observed these dates for centuries, along with others such as Palm Sunday (commemorating the Triumphal Entry), Annunciation (commemorating Gabriel’s visit to Mary), and Christmas.

Some Bible-preaching churches observe all of these days, while others observe only the most important. A minority of Christians have refused to observe any of them. For example, many Puritans believed that observing Christmas was an instance of will-worship, and they rejected it entirely.

The notion of will-worship grows out of the so-called Regulative Principle. Perhaps the most fundamental rule of worship in the Reformed tradition, the Regulative Principle was adopted wholesale by both the Anabaptists of the continent and the Baptists of England. In brief, the Regulative Principle states that churches are permitted to employ only those elements of worship that are authorized in Scripture.

The Regulative Principle is what led many of the Reformed (including the Puritans) to reject the observance of days like Christmas. The New Testament nowhere instructs churches to observe the day, and it nowhere depicts its observance. The same would be true of other holidays like Maundy Thursday and Annunciation. Since the observance of these days is not authorized in Scripture, they were thought to be merely the product of human invention and self-assertion. After all, worship that is not required by God can only be offered to please the worshippers, which means that the worshippers are really worshipping themselves. This act of self-assertion is what the Reformed (following Col. 2:23) refer to as “will-worship.”

As a Baptist, I affirm the Regulative Principle. Indeed, I believe that many of the problems of contemporary churches (including fundamental Baptist churches) can be traced directly to the neglect of this principle. We have allowed much into our worship that pleases only ourselves. Since God nowhere authorizes it, we have no right to assume that it is anything but an offense to God.

One might assume that my commitment to the Regulative Principle would place me on the side of the Puritans on the question of holidays. They concluded that the lack of biblical authorization amounted to a prohibition of such observances. While I agree with the principle, however, I believe that this particular application is mistaken.

In the opening paragraph of this essay I mentioned several holidays: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Palm Sunday, Annunciation, and Christmas. Each of these days is devoted to an important biblical event and doctrine. These events and doctrines are somewhere near the center of the Christian faith. Without them, the gospel would not exist, Christianity would never have been, and we ourselves would not be Christians.

These events are so important that they are worth thinking about. We ought to ponder the virgin birth of Christ (the focus of Annunciation). We ought to consider carefully the nature of Jesus’ Messiahship (Palm Sunday). We ought to wonder over the incarnation (Christmas) and mull over the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ (Maundy Thursday and Good Friday). Not least, we ought to contemplate the resurrection of our Savior (Easter).

Of course, we do not need to restrict these meditations to holidays. Every worship service is a good time to emphasize the incarnation. Every service is a good time to emphasize the resurrection. And so it is with the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement, and so forth.

While services are appropriate for such reflections, we cannot possibly consider all of these things in detail during one service. The content is too vast and the mysteries too profound. So we find ourselves required to shift our focus from one to the next, thinking now about the incarnation and another time about the resurrection. To be sure, the entire complex of gospel doctrines is always in the background, but because of the smallness of our minds we must place only one or two matters in the foreground.

Let us take the sufferings of Jesus as an example. Our Lord’s body and blood are always part of the tapestry of our worship, even when we are not focusing directly upon them. From time to time, however, we must bring the remembrance of the body and blood to the foreground. We must make them the object of special attention. We do this every time we gather around the Lord’s Table. For some churches, this observance may occupy one service in several, and it will become almost the exclusive focus of the service. For other churches, the bread and the cup may be an aspect of every service, but this aspect will be separated from the rest of the service, allowing for a deliberate focus on the sufferings of Jesus. In all cases, the communion service draws our attention specifically to something that is always in the back of our minds.

Of course, the Lord’s Table is an ordinance and its observance is commanded by Christ, while special remembrance of the incarnation (for example) is not. Nevertheless, the same dynamic applies. It is impossible to understand the gospel apart from the incarnation. Therefore, the incarnation is always in the background of our worship. From time to time, however, we need to draw it into the foreground so that we may attend to it deliberately.

Focusing on the incarnation would be appropriate at any service, but it cannot be done (or at least done to the same degree) in every service. If we focus only on the incarnation, then we shall end up neglecting something else. Yet, if we do not plan in advance to focus on the incarnation, then we may end up neglecting it through inattention.

A thing that is lawful to do in any service is certainly lawful to plan to do in one, specific service. That is why we have Christmas. We have designated Christmas day as an occasion upon which we shall plan to draw attention to the incarnation of our Lord. At that time, if at no other, we shall ponder the mystery of the theanthropic person. Hypothetically, we could do this during any service, and we should probably do it during several services each year. By writing Christmas day into our calendars, however, we publicly discipline ourselves to concentrate upon the incarnation at least once each year.

So it is with the other holidays. One day each year is precious little time to devote to the virgin birth, the priestly office, or the bodily resurrection. Certainly we are not limited to the holidays if we wish to emphasize these truths. Nevertheless, if we place the holidays in our calendar, we are publicly and deliberately disciplining ourselves to heed these wonderful realities.

The Regulative Principle is important—far more important than most contemporary Baptists are willing to admit. Rightly applied, however, I do not believe that it rules out holidays that focus upon biblical events, teachings, or activities. Quite the contrary, I believe that those days are very useful in maintaining a fresh and vibrant Christianity.

Behold the Man!
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

Shall Christ hang on the Cross, and we not look?
     Heaven, earth, and hell stood gazing at the first,
     While Christ for long-cursed man was counted cursed;
Christ, God and Man, Whom God the Father strook
And shamed and sifted and one while forsook:—
     Cry shame upon our bodies we have nursed
     In sweets, our souls in pride, our spirits immersed
In wilfulness, our steps run all acrook.
Cry shame upon us! for He bore our shame
     In agony, and we look on at ease
With neither hearts on flame nor cheeks on flame:
     What hast thou, what have I, to do with peace?
Not to send peace but send a sword He came,
     And fire and fasts and tearful night-watches.

[node:bio/kevin-t-bauder body]

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JG's picture

It appears (though perhaps it is not conclusive) from John 10 that Jesus celebrated the Feast of Dedication. If He did not, why did John mention it?

If this is so, it suggests that any Biblical understanding of the regulative principle cannot apply to feast days/holidays. Not only is the Feast of Dedication never commanded in Scripture, it does not even commemorate an event that we are commanded to remember. Thus, if Christ celebrated the Feast of Dedication, doesn't it go even farther than the argument presented here, in demonstrating the permissibility of non-required holidays/times of remembrance?

Quote:
Rightly applied, however, I do not believe that it rules out holidays that focus upon biblical events, teachings, or activities.

If Christ celebrated the Feast of Dedication, this statement is correct but apparently too narrow, for that feast is not a holiday that focuses upon "Biblical events, teachings, or activities".

Wouldn't it be better to say we can freely celebrate any particular remembrance of God's goodness, whether God commanded us to or not? It is part of being thankful, which God always commands. I would argue that "In everything give thanks" provides all the Biblical mandate we need to celebrate these various days you have described, and others as well, if we so choose. How we celebrate must be in line with what God tells us is acceptable worship and pleasing to Him, but the choice to set aside a particular day to thankfully remember/celebrate is something that cannot be Biblically condemned.

The Feast of Purim may provide another example. There is nothing in Scripture to indicate that God actually commanded an annual feast of remembrance. Yet, its mention without any word of approbation gives the appearance that God was pleased. Why should He not be? Romans 1:21 indicates that much of the root of sin is unthankfulness. Surely, He must be pleased if we set aside a particular time every year to give thanks for some of the magnificent blessings He has bestowed on us.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Interesting idea, JG. It's a little different because, with Purim, we're not quite talking about a church observance and I'm not sure the Jewish community looked at it as worship exactly. But it does seem significant that Jesus participated. It may say more about what we do as individuals and families participating in our culture than it does about church observance of holidays.

As to the feast of Dedication... I have to admit I've got a gap there. Will have to look it up. I don't recall what that one was about.

I'm a little bit skeptical of the "regulative prinicple" in general, though. I believe it in principle but--as the essay kind of illustrates--I'm not sure how helpful it is ultimately because it comes down to how you apply it. Still, it's a way better starting point than "anything goes"!

Paul J. Scharf's picture

An excellent article on all counts! I agree completely.
The celebrations of Advent, Christmas, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Ascension Day, etc., made a deep imprint on my mind as a child in the Lutheran church. In each of these, I was able to see the "drama" of redemption portrayed in a very vivid way -- through teaching, memorization, hymns, cantatas, special programs, etc. -- that made an impression on me I have never forgotten.
(And, no, seeing these things on flannel graph in children's church would not have been the same -- at least for me ;))
This weekend I attended church on Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday morning -- and one of the programs in particular (in an independent Baptist church) rivaled anything I saw growing up in my Lutheran church both in terms of its own elaborateness and its value as a teaching tool for all who witnessed it.
I am glad and proud that people in "our circles" seem to be advancing Biblically on all points that Dr. Bauder touched on. A welcome sign.

Church Ministries Representative for the Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry

JG's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
As to the feast of Dedication... I have to admit I've got a gap there. Will have to look it up. I don't recall what that one was about.

It's now known as Hanukkah, a celebration of the restoration of temple worship under the Maccabees.

I read somewhere that Esther was always read at the temple at Purim, but I don't know whether that's true (seems likely). Was it considered worship? I don't know. I'm not sure that the Jewish community had the same worship/non-worship dichotomy that seems to pervade much of our thinking.

I'm somewhat dubious about the regulative principle, as well. It would be nice if we had a really clear statement of it in Scripture.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

... Hanukkah! It's Monday I guess. Thanks!

dan's picture

Romans 14:5 answers the question nicely.

"Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy."
G.K. Chesterton

Dick Dayton's picture

Yes, the book of Esther is read during the feast of Purim. The children in the synagogue are given dredels (noisemakers). When the text has the name "Haman," everyone boos. When Mordecai's name come up, they cheer, and the children run around with their dredels making lots of noise. Through the liturgy of the Sabbath and the year, the Jewish worship tells the story of God's working. Ed V. could fill us in on much more detail.

Dick Dayton

Shaynus's picture

dan wrote:
Romans 14:5 answers the question nicely.

Oh yay! Scripture.

Greg Long's picture

I agree with those who say that the Regulative Principle always sounds good in theory, but practically it's quite complicated. There always seem to be exceptions that are justified by long and convoluted arguments.

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

DavidO's picture

Greg Long wrote:
I agree with those who say that the Regulative Principle always sounds good in theory, but practically it's quite complicated. There always seem to be exceptions that are justified by long and convoluted arguments.

Yeah, the RPW is sort of like "Soap in Your Eye*" that way. :bigsmile:

*from the Thurber, which I won't link since it would do everyone good to look up and read more Thurber.

Paul J. Scharf's picture

Greg Long wrote:
I agree with those who say that the Regulative Principle always sounds good in theory, but practically it's quite complicated. There always seem to be exceptions that are justified by long and convoluted arguments.

Not sure I buy that one H:)
To me, the Regulative Principle is embodied in 1 Corinthians 4:6.
Also, question: If we don't have some type of a Regulative Principle, what are we left with? Each man doing what is right in his own eyes? (Of course, practically, the answer is -- YES!!)
Question #2: Do we really want to say that the Bible (or the New Testament) does not prescribe the proper way to worship God??

Church Ministries Representative for the Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry

Rob Fall's picture

While serving as HSBC's Russian liaison, I have learned the value of celebrating the many of the dates on canonical calendar. Resurrection Week good time look at and teach\preach on doctrinal significance of the various events of which occurred during that period. What better time to preach on the Second Coming and/or the Great Commission than Ascension Sunday? Pentecost is tailor made for preaching\teaching about the Holy Spirit and\or The Church.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

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