The Bible and Culture

It is unfortunate that the Bible sometimes gets used to shore up an inappropriate decision by a church, but sadly we now have this in the case of the mega-church which has now handed out a ‘Biblical’ rationale for closing on Christmas to its parishioners. I would normally just let this go as another example of the misuse of the Bible, but this is such an egregious example that it needs to be addressed.

The text they are using to justify their behavior is Col. 2.16-17– “Therefore do not let anyone judge you in regard to what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival– new moon festival or a sabbath. These are a shadow of the things that are to come; the reality however is found in Christ.”

Having just written a commentary on Colossians, I suppose the use of this text to justify closing on Christmas was likely to rile me up. Paul is talking about Christians not going to synagogues in Colossae or Hierapolis and being part of Jewish celebrations. He is not talking about Christian worship services or festivals at all!

Furthermore, what he is concerned about is Christians in Colossae who would suggest that other Christians, even Gentile Christians, were required to go and take part in such syagogue celebrations. I can’t imagine a church today requiring their parishioners to go and celebrate Hannukah during Christmastide, although they might encourage them to go if their Jewish neighbors invited them.

But in any case Col. 2.16-17 cannot provide any rationale at all for closing church on a given Sunday, much less Christmas Sunday. That would be to take this text completely out of context. I can only assume that no one checked the commentaries before making this pronouncment.

But notice in the very verses cited that Paul says that these festivals are shadows of things to come, the reality of which is in Christ. Paul does not mean that Christ himself is the substitute for all previous rituals, as if having a relationship with Jesus was all that is required. The phrase ‘in Christ’ here refers not only to what goes on in Christ himself, but is likely (as elsewhere in Paul see 1 Cor. 12) to refer to the celebrations that go on in the body of Christ.

If one reads the book of Hebrews closely enough one will find this very sort of hermeneutic applied as well. Christian celebrations are seen as the fulfillment of the OT ones which are seen as foreshadowings, and so the Christian celebrations are the replacement of those Jewish celebrations for Christians.

In Hebrews, written by someone in the Pauline circle, it is clear that the author uses this same logic to urge the audience to attend Christian worship services rather than going back to Jewish ones. Notice for example Heb. 10.25 which reads “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another– and all the more as we see the Day approaching.” The author is talking about failing to attend Christian worship and fellowship meetings in Rome, perhaps especially the failing to do so because of cultural pressure and persecution. There is something here worth pondering.

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