Saturday, October 31, 2009

How should Christians think about Halloween?

Halloween has its roots in ancient Roman and Celtic harvest festivals that also celebrated the end of the life cycle and so produced celebrations for the dead. As Christianity moved through the west, the church sought to reorient the basic identity markers of western culture from paganism toward Christianity. As part of this, in the eighth century, the church moved its “All Saints Day” festival from May 13 to November 1.

However, the older ideals held on for Europeans and the evening before All Saints Day came to be celebrated on October 31: Hallow’s even (which has come to be shortened as Halloween). Some of the practices associated with the older Roman and Celtic festivals continued on: lighting of candles to honor the spirits of the departed; the carving of lanterns from fall season vegetables; and harvest foods that reminded of the bounty provided by God (or the gods).

While through much of the past thousand years, the church has tried to pursue a strategy of accommodation when it has come to such festivals, many Christians find Halloween incompatible with the Christian faith. Others simply view it as a secular or community holiday that has no real religious overtones or meaning. Still others seek to replace Halloween with Harvest Festivals or, for some Protestants, Reformation Day, remembering the day the German Reformer Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church door in 1517 and so began the Reformation.

What is the right approach? It strikes me that there are two sets of biblical texts that could guide Christian thinking on how to deal with Halloween. One set of texts has to do with the freedom that first-century Christians have to eat meat offered to idols. In Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10, the Apostle Paul observes that Christians know that idols are nothing—there is only one true God who has come near to his people in Jesus Christ. And so, strictly speaking, nothing happens when food offerings are presented to idols. As a result, if one’s conscience does not object to eating that meat, then eat it.

And yet, there are two big “howevers” in these texts. The first has to do with an actual participation in the sacrificial system itself. 1 Corinthians 8:9-10 and 10:19-22 picture a situation in which believers were actually attending pagan sacrifices and then participating in the eating rituals. In those situations, Paul tells us that while the idols are nothing to us, the motivation of the participants is actually demonic: “I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not God. I do not want you to be participants with demons” (10:20). And so, Christians should not participate in activities in which those with whom they participate actually believe that they are engaged in acts of worship to false gods.

There is a second “however”: and that has to do with the consciences either of a weaker brother or sister or of an unbeliever who is watching you. If a Christian believer struggles with the whole notion of eating meat offered to idols, Paul instructs us not to eat so that we might not cause our brother to stumble: “Let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother…For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:13, 15). Love for fellow Christians is far more important than eating meat.

The same goes for an unbeliever. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10 that if an unbeliever invites you to dinner, eat whatever is put before you. “But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his” (10:27-29). At the end of the day, the Gospel and its effect in the life of an unbeliever is far more important than eating meat.

The second set of texts has to do with avoiding and reproving the works of darkness. For example, Paul says in Ephesians 5:11: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” In Ephesians 5, the context has to do with the practices of the temples of the gods: sexuality immorality and impurity (referring to the sexual practices of idolatry) and greed (referring to the motivation of idolatry). Paul demands that those who bear the name of Christ and so walk in the light reject the practices and people associated with false worship.

Likewise, in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, Paul raises the question: “What accord does Christ have with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” Both of these texts appear to urge believers not to participate in activities that are characterized by darkness or idolatry.

In the light of these two sets of texts, then, how might contemporary Christians think about participating in Halloween? Here are some observations.

First, Halloween, as practiced in most communities today, is a largely secular and community holiday. It has very little to do with its pagan and co-opted Christian history. As a result, it does not appear to fall under Paul’s strictures regarding participation in idolatrous worship. In this regard, it would be similar to other secular and community celebrations with which Christians do not struggle.

Next, for some people and communities—for example, those with a significant Wiccan community—Halloween does continue to have connections with its older pagan roots. If one lived in such a community, then Christians would do well to avoid participating in Halloween activities in order to avoid practices that are associated in the public’s mind with paganism.

Moreover, for some people and communities, Halloween becomes an excuse to engage in the fruitless works of darkness, even without association with the false worship of ancient gods. Parties that encourage sexuality immorality, impurity, greed, or coarse talking are to be avoided and exposed by believers.

Fourth, if there are believers within the congregation that have significant objections of conscience to participation in Halloween—because of some past association with paganism, memory of past evil practice, or some other reason—Christians should be determined not to participate in Halloween activities in order to preserve our brother or sister’s conscience. The Gospel is more important than anything else.

Likewise, if there are unbelievers in the community for whom Halloween is valued as a pagan activity or who are concerned that a Christian’s participation in Halloween activities in participation in a pagan activity, then Christians should be determined not to participate. Again, the Gospel is more important than anything else.

Finally, the general principle of 1 Corinthians 10:31-32 rules all Christian behavior: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.” We often think of the first part of this general principle, but not the latter; and yet, they must stay together. If we can participate in Halloween activities to God’s glory and not cause offense to unbelievers or believers, then we should participate freely without concern. For we know that Halloween is nothing and that idols are nothing, but that God has triumphed over all things in Christ, granting us freedom as sons and daughters of God.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

How to identify a reliable preacher

According to Tullian Tchividjian, senior minister at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church (PCA).

The Missing History of N. T. Wright

From Mike Horton:

Reared in a pietistic evangelical environment, I recall the revolution in my own faith when the eschatology of the prophets and apostles challenged the narrow concept of salvation that I had been taught. However, Wright had not yet written his first controversial tome. In fact, as a teenager, I had read with enthusiasm the little book that he wrote with two other Oxford undergraduates, The Grace of God in the Gospel (Banner of Truth, 1972). (On our first introduction, I told Tom that this was among the books instrumental in my “inviting Calvin into my heart” and he offered an equally tongue-in-cheek reply: “Now let me help you invite Paul into your heart.”)

It was the writings of Reformed theologians and biblical scholars like John Murray, Geerhardus Vos, Herman Ridderbos, and Anthony Hoekema who introduced me to the sweeping vistas of a redemptive-historical interpretation of Scripture. Of course, my own dispensationalist upbringing was dismantled in the process. Then, as a student of M. G. Kline, Dennis Johnson, Robert Strimple, and others at Westminster Seminary California, I came more fully to see how God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15 generated an unfolding drama that led to God’s single plan to bring salvation to the nations through Israel, concentrated on Jesus Christ....

In one conversation in Oxford, Tom Wright concurred that although he had not read the older covenant theologians closely, he too was deeply influenced by Vos and Ridderbos. Hence, my surprise when there are no footnotes to these writers [in Wright's book Justification], even when he is making their points, and most of the time Wright presents his views over against the whole Reformation (including Reformed) tradition. In my view, Wright is at his best when he elaborates and extends arguments that, however controversial in the field of New Testament studies or in popular evangelicalism, are familiar territory for Reformed exegetes.


Albert says he wants to stay a Cardinal for life. I hope so. Some day they'll put a statue of him on the side of the stadium opposite Stan the Man.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Back on Calvin Blog Again and Again

This is my week again over at Reformation21's Calvin blog. You can read the first one here.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sole Sistas

Great article on an effort by some ladies in our church.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"So how did you spend Halloween?"

"At church." "So what did you do?" "Burnt a few Bibles." Thankfully, the ESV wasn't lumped into the category of "perversions of God's Word" and "Satan's Bibles." Must have been an oversight??

Update: WLOS-TV out of Asheville interviewed the pastor of the Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, NC, who is serving as host of the book burning.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What? Darryl Hart says something nice about the Religious Right?

See it here.

"Why can't I just Preach?"

Great blog post by Tim Keller: "Preachers-only aren't good preachers"

The greatest temptation

From Samuel Rutherford (in The Loveliness of Christ [Banner of Truth, 2007], 4-5):

I find it most true, that the greatest temptation out of hell, is to live without temptations; if my waters should stand, they would rot. Faith is the better of the free air, and of the sharp winter storm in its face. Grace withereth without adversity. The devil is but God's master fencer, to teach us to handle our weapons.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I know what they are trying to communicate...

...but I'm trying to get rid of my counterfeit gods, not buy more.

Lucas and Derek Thomas video

For those who might be interested, this is a video of a conversation between Derek Thomas and me in the beautiful sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, MS. Among the topics we discuss are the transition from classroom to pulpit, how I set up my preaching, and the necessity of preaching grace.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

How to cope with evil speaking

From Charles Simeon (in Hugh Evan Hopkins, Charles Simeon of Cambridge [Eerdmans, 1977], 134):

The longer I live, the more I feel the importance of adhering to the rules which I have laid down for myself in relation to such matters.
1st To hear as little as possible what is to the prejudice of others.
2nd To believe nothing of the kind till I am absolutely forced to it.
3rd Never to drink into the spirit of one who circulates an ill report.
4th Always to moderate, as far as I can, the unkindness which is expressed toward others.
5th Always to believe, that if the other side were heard, a very different account would be given of the matter....

The more prominent any person's character is, the more likely he is to suffer in this way; there being in the heart of every man, unless greatly subdued by grace, a pleasure in hearing anything which may sink others to his level, or lower them in the estimation of the world. We seem to ourselves elevated in proportion as others are depressed.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A word for those who struggle with their hearts

From Charles Simeon [in Hugh Evan Hopkins, Charles Simeon of Cambridge [Eerdmans, 1977], 126):

You see yourself guilty of sins which preclude a hope of forgiveness. Your friends have endeavored to shew you that you judge yourself too hardly. In this they have erred for, if they have succeeded, they have given you a peace founded on your own worthiness, a peace that would last no longer than till the next temptation arose in your mind....if they have not succeeded, they have only confirmed you in your views.

I say to you the reverse. Your views of yourself (your own sinfulness) though they may be erroneous, are not one atom too strong. Your sinfulness far exceeds all that you have stated, or have any conception of. 'Your heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?'

But I have an effectual remedy for them all--'the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin.' I grant that you are lost and utterly undone. So are all mankind--some for gross sins--some for impenitence--some for other sins. You are lost for the very sins you mention, hardness of heart, indifference, etc...

Do this then, take a book as large as any that is in the Bank of England. Put down all the sins of which either conscience or a morbid imagination can accuse you. Fear not to add to their number all that Satan himself can suggest.

And this I will do. I will put on the creditor side 'the unsearchable riches of Christ' and will leave you to draw the balance.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Imagine what he'd think of email...

From Hugh Evan Hopkins, Charles Simeon of Cambridge (Eerdmans, 1977), 123-4:

Although he wrote so many letters Simeon was very well aware how much better it was, if possible, to talk rather than write, especially when a 'delicate or much-controverted point' arose. With his usual sensitivity to the feelings of others, he said, "If I speak with a man, I can stop when I see it is doing harm; I can soften off the truth so as not to fly in the face of his cherished views...Written words convey ideas, convey sentiments, but they cannot really convey exact feelings."

Simeon was a thinker who also 'felt' a great deal. He wrote when there was no other way of communicating with a person, but realised all the time the many limitations of letters, particularly in expressing emotions: "You cannot hesitate upon paper; you cannot weep upon paper; you cannot give upon paper the tone of love; you cannot look kindness upon paper," though he tried his hardest to do so. At any rate, the difficulties and drawbacks in communication in those days do not seem to have deterred him from putting his pen to paper almost every day.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Article about installation at FPC Hattiesburg

For those who might be interested in reading about my installation as senior minister at First Presbyterian Church, Hattiesburg, MS, an article from the local paper.