It happened in 2011, and it’s happening again this year in good old 2016. Christmas Day falls on a Sunday- and the spiritual lumps of coal are being lobbed all over the internet: If you’re a Christian who’s even thinking about taking the day off from church attendance or your church has decided to cancel services that day…well, you’ve firmly ensconced yourself on God’s “naughty” list.
So I’m innocently cruising around on social media, podcasts, and the blogosphere recently when what to my wondering eyes should appear, aspersions galore from those I hold dear. Seriously, scads of doctrinally sound Christians I love and respect have said things like, “Church attendance on Christmas will separate the wheat from the chaff,” and, “If your church is canceling services (or even modifying the regular Sunday schedule) on Christmas, it’s time to find a new church.”
Did I read that right? Are theologically-grounded Christians really questioning people’s salvation and the spiritual health of churches based solely on a once-every-five-to-eleven-years Christmas Day worship service?
I honestly don’t think I’m biblically out of bounds when I say that’s absurd and judgmental and it needs to stop. Like, yesterday.
Yes, probably a lot of the churches who are canceling services on Christmas are theologically wonky, but that’s because, statistically speaking, the majority of churches out there, period, are theologically wonky. Too many people are post hoc ergo propter hoc–ing this situation. Just because there are bad churches that are canceling services doesn’t mean every church that cancels services is a bad church. What about the rural church of 20 members (that hasn’t had a visitor since the last century) who have all informed the pastor they’ll be out of town for Christmas? Is he supposed to show up and preach to an empty room? What about churches who have moved their services to Christmas Eve so members can spend time with family on Christmas without missing weekly worship? Is there a passage of Scripture I’m not familiar with that prohibits a church from doing this every once in a blue moon?
Yes, there are doctrinally unsound churches out there, but they’re doctrinally unsound because they consistently teach unsound doctrine as measured by applicable Scripture, not because they cancel a worship service or shift their normal schedule around for Christmas- an issue nowhere mentioned in Scripture.
As for judging people’s salvation (or love for Christ, love for the church, commitment, spiritual maturity, etc.) based on whether or not they attend church on Christmas- if you’re going to question a Christian’s salvation for skipping church that day, are you ready to pronounce a pagan saved if he shows up for services on Christmas Sunday?
Of course not. Because that’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.
The people who are using Christmas Day church attendance as a spiritual barometer would be the first to tell you – and rightly so – that going to church won’t save you. Neither will missing one service (or a dozen) “unsave” you. Salvation is determined only by whether or not you’ve repented of your sin and placed your faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ to redeem you. And sanctification (spiritual growth) is a lifelong process – a trajectory – of becoming more and more Christlike through the years. Church attendance on Christmas isn’t a make or break for your salvation or sanctification.
Earlier this week in The Ten, we studied the fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” We discovered that, while God’s intention for the Israelites was simply to abstain from working at their jobs, housework, and commerce in order to rest and worship Him, the Pharisees later came along and added all kinds of micro-managing rules defining “work.” So by the time Jesus came on the scene, things like picking (“harvesting,” according to the Pharisees) and eating grain as you walked along, and performing miracles of healing were considered “work”- thus breaking the Sabbath. But these were man-made laws, not God’s law. It was oppressive and robbed people of the joy of worship God intended His people to bask in each week. “The Sabbath was made for man,” Jesus said, “Not man for the Sabbath.”
I can’t help but wonder if these “Real Christians will be at church on Christmas Day,” pronouncements aren’t similar. God has made no law for Christians that we must be at church on Christmas Day – or any other particular day – or we’re sinning. And, as for the churches who once every several years cancel services or shift their Sunday service to Christmas Eve, God has made no law that churches must meet on Sunday every single week or they’re in sin. What God has said for New Testament Christians is:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
“Not neglecting to meet together.” Reminiscent of the paucity of Old Testament explanations of what constituted Sabbath work, God doesn’t give a definition of this phrase or quantify it with a specific number of allowable and acceptable missed Sundays per year. It is left to the conscience of each individual Christian and the agreement of each local body of believers (but I can scarcely believe that a person who is at church every week unless Providentially hindered and opts to skip the Christmas service is “neglecting” to meet with the body by any stretch of the word). But when we by-pass issues of individual conscience and church agreement, make a law where no law exists in Scripture, and judge people’s relationships with God based on our own man-made law, are we not doing exactly what the Pharisees did?
What’s of far more concern than where your body is on Sunday, December 25, is where your heart is the other 364 days of the year. Do you love the body of Christ? Are you committed to serving the Lord and your brothers and sisters all year long at the church you’re a member of? Do you faithfully attend worship each week? Then deciding to spend Christmas Sunday at home with your family (especially if you’ve already attended the Christmas Eve service the night before) is not an indication that you’re backsliding or somehow “less” of a Christian than those decrying your absence.
But what if you answered “no” to those questions? What if you skip church as many or more Sundays as you attend because you just don’t feel like going, or you signed your kid up for a soccer team that plays on Sundays, or there’s a ball game on TV, or you’d rather go shopping, or you go out of town on pleasure trips a lot of weekends? What if your general attitude toward church is, “Meh, I’ll go when I feel like it and have nothing better to do.”?
That is much more problematic than skipping church the years Christmas falls on a Sunday. That’s an indicator that you need to examine your heart to discover whether or not you’re in the faith. To love Christ is to love His bride, the church. People who are genuinely regenerated love the church. As a general rule, they want to be at church worshiping, serving, learning, growing, and fellowshipping with their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Why, between 2011 and 2016 haven’t I seen and heard these same folks who are judging Christians about Christmas church attendance speaking out equally as boldly, and in the same numbers, about people being sporadic in their attendance and uncommitted to the body the remaining Sundays of those years? As Christians, we celebrate Christ’s incarnation every Sunday, not just when Christmas falls on a Sunday. Are those other Sundays somehow less important?
One day, out of the thousands that comprise your life span, is inconsequential. The Bible does not say that simply staying home from church on Sunday, December 25, is a sin. What’s important is pursuing Christ, hungering for holiness, and loving and serving the church every day, not just when Christmas Sunday rolls around.