“What should the Church Teach Disciples to Observe?” (or why we don’t observe holy days in worship)

In looking over the posts here at BOSC, it occurred to me that we don’t much material explaining why Old School Presbyterians like myself don’t observe Holy Days like Christmas and Easter. In the following days, I’ll try to remedy that by posting some essays and sermons on the subject. I’m going to start with a sermon that I preached on the subject back in 2005.

Matthew 28:16-20

“What should the Church Teach Disciples to Observe?”

“Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.  And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

I have come to refer half-jokingly to this sermon as my yearly Grinch sermon, because in it I try to explain why it is I and the rest of the mean old session have stolen Christmas. But I don’t want to just address the issue of Holy Days today, if I may, what I would like to do is speak to you from the heart about the guiding confession of this church and what it  is that directs us in our faith and worship. I am not lying when I say that this is the most difficult sermon for me to preach every year, because I know that I’m messing with tradition, and disconnecting tradition and emotion is virtually impossible. It’s also because people tend to be naturally conservative. We tend to resist change.

And it’s also personally difficult because I hate disappointing people. I’m not lying when I say that I really do want everyone in the church to be happy and contented all the time. After all, every week I ask you to make a decision that if taken will result in your being perfectly happy and well-content forever, and try to persuade you not to follow a course that will result in your being absolutely miserable for all eternity.

But I also know that I am a man under authority, and that someday I will have to give an account for my ministry, and I will have to give an account to Jesus for everything that I taught His sheep, because that is what you are brothers and sisters – Christ’s little lambs, not my little lambs. I love you all, and I mean that sincerely, but I didn’t die on the cross for your sins, and I am not the head of the church. And unlike Christ, I am not infallible. And so every time I am preaching, my mind goes over what it says in James 3:1 “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.”

You know its funny but, because of that warning, as more people join the church, my trepidation levels actually go up. John Brown of Haddington, once wrote to a bright young minister who was mortified that he had been called to minister a tiny church in the highlands. Regarding the size of his congregation he counseled, “assure yourself, on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account on them to the Lord Christ, at His judgement-seat, you will think you have had enough.”

So if someday, I am going to be called to give an account for everything I have taught or failed to teach to the sheep Christ gave me to care for, then I must be clear about what I should and shouldn’t be teaching them. What rules should I be teaching you to observe? Perhaps most basically, what should I be telling you we should do when we gather for worship?

That’s the critical question; what should the church teach disciples to observe? Do I, for instance, have an authority to create new commandments, rites, and traditions for you to observe if I think that they will be helpful?

Well, what did Jesus say to his disciples as he was about to ascend into heaven? He told them that they were to carry the gospel to all nations and then when the gospel had done its converting work and made new disciples – that is mathetes- pupils, learners – they were to baptize them in the name of the trinity and then teach them, what?  “to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Verse 20)

The church is commissioned to go and teach only what Jesus, the one who has all authority, commanded in His Word.

That “All things” in verse 20 is extremely important, it means that ministers like me are not allowed to selectively edit and leave things out. You remember when Paul was delivering his parting address to the Ephesian elders, he said “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable” and “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20:20, 26,27)  But sometimes doing that is extremely difficult.

You ever have some nice non-Christian you are friends with ask you “So you think I’m going to Hell???” Now there’s a question most of us would just love to dodge. Or how about when a Christian buddy hands you a book or a movie that is just theologically toxic and says, “you just gotta read this book by Benny Hinn!” that’s fun to answer isn’t it?  Well, it’s at times like that when you have to think to yourself, if I love this person I will not shrink, I will not shun. I won’t edit. I’ll tell them the whole truth. I’ll do it in love, but I’ll do it.

So even when we might like to, we mustn’t take away from the Word, but we also mustn’t add things to it. Now that has been a huge problem in the history of the church, when Jesus came to earth for instance, he was dealing with a covenant community that had been adding their own traditions to God’s word for hundreds of years, and when they noticed that Jesus and His Apostles weren’t observing their traditions they got downright furious. We see an instance of that reaction in Mark 7:5-13

5 Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?”
6 He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me.
7 And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
8 “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men — the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.”
9 He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.
10 “For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’
11 “But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban” — ‘ (that is, a gift to God),
12 “then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother,
13 “making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

Jesus here is rebuking the Pharisees for teaching their traditions, the inventions of men as if they were the word of God. Now keep in mind, the Pharisees hadn’t just made this stuff up yesterday, their fathers had done it, their grandfathers had done it, their great-grandfathers had done it. As far back as anyone could remember, they’d been observing these traditions. If you want to get someone mad, tell them they are wrong. If you want to make them hopping mad, tell them their cherished family traditions are sinful. You will often run into that if you do evangelism with RCs or Greek Orthodox, they will quickly realize you are saying their families have been wrong about the Christian faith for generations.

Unfortunately, within a few hundred years of Christ’s words on that mountain, when He told the church exactly what he wanted them to do, the church began to get the idea that they had authority to create traditions, and rites, and ceremonies, and rules of their own. So, for instance, as they moved into new cultures which had their own traditions, they co-opted them and Christianized them so that Christianity would be more acceptable to that culture. So as they moved into societies that had traditionally practiced the worship of Goddesses, the Virgin Mary gradually became more important in Christian worship and practice, until the humble handmaiden of the Lord was blasphemously close to become a member of the Godhead herself.

Also, as they moved into cultures that had traditionally observed religious feasts on certain days, they often created Christian Holy Days with similar emphases as substitutes to be held on the same days. This became so common that by the time of the middle ages there was hardly a day in the year that wasn’t sacred to some saint or a commemoration of some biblical event.

One famous example of this syncretism occurred in the fourth century when the Church began to observe the feast of the nativity of Jesus Christ at the same time as the Saturnalia, a pagan festival beginning on December 17th. We now know the feast of the nativity as “Christmas.”  And no, Jesus was almost certainly not born in December, he was probably born in April, nor did the Apostles celebrate Christmas. In fact, Christians did not celebrate Christmas for the first 300 years after the birth of Christ. Why was that? Because they weren’t commanded to do so by Christ.

Now when the Reformation came,  the Reformers rediscovered three critical principles regarding worship:

1)      That all authority had been give to Christ, not the church. He alone had the power to command men’s consciences

2) That Scripture was a sufficient rule and guide for all of our faith, life, and practice, and that by following it “the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:17)

3) That the traditions of men have “indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion” Col. 2:23 but were ultimately of no value no matter how antique they were.

So to quote the great Puritan Minister, John Owen: “In things which concern the worship of God, the commanding power is Christ, and his command the adequate rule and measure of our obedience. The teaching, commanding, and enjoining of others to do and observe those commands, is the duty of those entrusted with Christ’s authority under him. Their commission to teach and enjoin, and our duty to do and observe, have the same rules, the same measure, bounds, and limits. What they teach and enjoin beyond what Christ hath commanded, they do it not by virtue of any commission from him; what we do beyond what he hath commanded, we do it not in obedience to him; — what they so teach, they do it in their own name, not his; what we so do, we do in our own strength, not his, nor to his glory.”

So the Reformers set about returning Worship to its biblical simplicity, they said in essence, “let us do nothing in worship we don’t have a warrant for in Scripture, because we don’t have authority to command God’s people to do anything that he has not commanded.”

But doing that involved the monumental task of clearing away centuries of traditions that had no foundation in scripture. That was no easy task. Imagine, if you will, that for centuries you family has been going to confession – no more. For centuries the priests haven’t been able to be openly married – now your minister has a wife. For centuries they’ve said the mass in Latin – now they are preaching in the same language you speak. You’ve always celebrated this feast day at the Cathedral – no more. This reform involved change after painful change.

One of the things that the Reformed in the British Isles (and that includes the Puritans, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, and the Congregationalists) did away with, was the religious observance of Holy Days like Christmas and Easter, and their descendents in America continued in not observing any day as Holy, except the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath. So, here in the USA for over 200 years, unless you were Episcopal, Lutheran, or Roman Catholic, you didn’t observe Christmas in Church. And those denominations only observed them because they believe that (to quote the Episcopalian 39 Articles:) “The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies…”

Now that practice began to change in the late 19th and early 20th century for social rather than theological reasons – in fact the churches began to do more and more things that had no foundation in the commands of Christ.

But what about us? Well the session of this church is committed to the principle that we will not teach you to observe anything as part of worship that is not a command of Christ. That means no skits, no ballet, no flag waving, no hopping on one leg, no St. Swithins day, no Lent, and yes, no Christmas and no Easter.

Now we know exactly how weird that is in the modern context and I’m cognizant of the fact that many of you might have questions about this, so let me try to anticipate some of them. You should also feel free ask any others of myself and the elders whenever you want to, there are also several copies of an article I wrote that has been published in a couple of magazines and a book entitled “Why Do Presbyterians Observe Holy Days?”

Some Potential Objections:

Not observing Christmas is downright un-American!

The session is not telling you can’t observe all the cultural aspects in your home just as we would never tell you not to celebrate July 4th, Veterans Day, and so on. But remember this, for hundreds of years most Americans DIDN’T celebrate Christmas including men like John Witherspoon, Alexander Hamilton, Jonathan Edwards, R.L. Dabney, Stonewall Jackson and countless other American patriots and founding fathers. In fact, as a national holiday, Christmas only really started gathering speed in the late 1800s. For instance, the first year there was a Christmas tree in the White House was 1889.

Look at this way, by not observing Holy Days you are actually returning to the practice of the majority of the founding fathers!

Its harmless, and it does what Jesus wants in the first place, isn’t it a great evangelism tool?

Almost Every tradition that the church decreed for centuries had exactly that objective, all of them. They all presupposed that if men just added this and took away that, the gospel would be made more palatable to the world. But in the end the gospel was almost entirely obscured by a greater “farrago of useless observances” (to use Calvin’s phrase) and the traditions of men than the Pharisees had been guilty of.

Also please consider, was the worship of the apostles really incomplete? They never observed any of these holy days, and I don’t believe they missed out on anything.

Does this mean you are saying people who observe Christmas aren’t Christian???

Not at all. We are saying that Holy Days have no basis in the word, not that those who observe them aren’t Christian.

Well what advantages does this “no traditions of men policy have?”

  • Eliminates preferences
  • Ensures we aren’t blown to and fro
  • Safeguards your Christian Liberty
  • Means I won’t have something else to answer for.
  • Reduces Schism

[The Audio for this Sermon is Available Online Here:  What Should the Church Teach Disciples to Observe? ]


About Andrew Webb

I was converted out of paganism and the occult in 1993 and while I was initially Charismatic/Arminian in my theology, I became Reformed and Presbyterian through bible study and the influence of ministries like RC Sproul's. After teaching in local bible studies, and taking seminary courses part time, I began to feel called to the ministry in 1997. I was Ordained as an RE at Christ Covenant PCA in Hatboro, PA in 2000 and as a TE by Central Carolina Presbytery in 2001 when I was called to be the Organizing Pastor/Church Planter for Providence PCA Mission, Cross Creek PCA's church plant in Fayetteville, NC (home to Ft. Bragg and Pope Airforce Base). In 2005 when the Providence PCA Particularized I was blessed to be called by the congregation to be their Pastor
This entry was posted in Christian Liberty, Christmas, Easter, Holy Days, Old School Presbyterian Churches, The Puritans, Worship and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to “What should the Church Teach Disciples to Observe?” (or why we don’t observe holy days in worship)

  1. They are holidays not HOLY days. :p

  2. Kenna says:

    Thank you for the clarifications and well written explanations. This actually came up in conversation with a relative recently and I had a hard time explaining it. Now I can send them your article.

  3. Edwin Sineath says:

    I agree with everything you say in this article. Why won’t Christmas-keepers give a reasoned defense of their position as you give of ours? This is something I’ve never encountered and don’t understand.

  4. Baus says:

    Awesome. Keep ’em coming.

    I wonder if you will also address bad reasons for not observing holy days (viz, regulative principle is the good reason; “genetic fallacy” is a bad reason).

    And will you address “private” family observances?

    Here are some good references:

  5. Tom says:

    “But what about us? Well the session of this church is committed to the principle that we will not teach you to observe anything as part of worship that is not a command of Christ.”

    So, where did Jesus teach infant baptism?

    (Just a thought.)

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