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Christmas Trees in Worship – An Idolatry?

13/12/2022

Christmas Trees in Worship – An Idolatry?

Christmas Trees in Church

Should we allow a Christmas Tree to be displayed in a place where the worship of God is taking place? It’s a question recently asked by a Christian friend.  It’s important to remember, firstly that this question is ‘adiaphora’ – it is not a matter of saving faith, it is something over which Christians can disagree with each other without being disagreeable! Is there a specific verse that says, “You shall not have a Christmas tree…” NO! And having, or not having a Christmas Tree in church will not result in eternal loss, neither are those who take one position or the other in any way apostate or heretical.

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Secondly, what we are talking about here is a question of LOCATION. Personally I am not opposed to Christmas Trees per se, for example in a private home, or even in that church foyer, I suppose. It wasn’t a ditch I was prepared to die in! As I say above, that is a matter of personal choice and freedom of conscience, and like Paul’s argument about meat from animals sacrificed to pagan deities, – pagan deities are no deities at all, – so why not eat, unless it hinders a weaker brother? 1st Corinthians 8:4  

So, why was the Christmas tree acceptable in a church foyer, but not in the sanctuary? The answer is that anywhere, (and I include in this a minor hall where there is a Bible Study or Prayer Meeting), – anywhere that the worship of Almighty God, who is thrice Holy, is taking place must reflect that purpose and facilitate that worship, which is to be offered in holiness. 1 Chronicles 16:29 Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name: bring an offering, and come before him: worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. So, here’s some reasonable debating points, some issues regarding what we permit in our places of worship:


1. The Regulative Principle of Worship

For Reformed Christians this is the essential issue at stake here. We only admit into worship what God has specifically commanded and allowed.  Here’s Chapter 21 paragraph 1 in the Westminster Confession of Faith:

The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might.[1] But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.[2]

1. Rom. 1:20; Psa. 19:1-4a; 50:6; 86:8-10; 89:5-7; 95:1-6; 97:6; 104:1-35; 145:9-12; Acts 14:17; Deut. 6:4-5
2. Deut. 4:15-20; 12:32; Matt. 4:9-10; 15:9; Acts 17:23-25; Exod. 20:4-6, John 4:23-24; Col. 2:18-23

I would take this to mean that we cannot include in our worship any device that is of man’s invention, and I would include in that a Christmas Tree. Everything that sits in a building where an act of worship is taking place should only be conducive to that act of worship. So, we need a pulpit for preaching, and for reading God’s Word. We need a font or baptistry, we need a communion table, we need seats (debatable!) – but what does a Christmas Tree bring to our worship that will bring it more into line with God’s commands? Nothing! 

In fact the opposite is the case. The Christmas Tree, can at best be symbolic, and we reject such unbiblical symbols, just as we abhor and reject the Catholic practice of displaying crosses and crucifixes and statues of saints, also claimed as symbols. This is where the reformed stream differ from the Lutherans, who also allow statues, candles, incense etc into their place of worship. Luther would have argued that what the Bible does not prohibit, is admissible in worship – the opposite position from the WCF.

But for Presbyterians, Reformed Baptists and Confessional Congregationalist, on the basis of the Regulative Principle of Worship, set out as a biblical principle in the WCF, and subscribed by every Presbyterian Elder, no Christmas Tree, a device not expressly commanded by God, can be permitted in any place where the worship of our Holy God is taking place. (Incidentally, the Bible calls such an intrusion ‘strange fire’ and it has serious consequences.)


2. The Tree as a Pagan Symbol.

Some believers will argue that the tree should be excluded from a place of worship because it is at best a pagan symbol. Certainly its origins would seem to be pagan.  One website I accessed states “Evergreen trees and plants have been used to celebrate winter festivals for thousands of years, long before the advent of Christianity. Pagans in Europe used branches of evergreen fir trees to decorate their homes and brighten their spirits during the winter solstice. Early Romans used evergreens to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia… Evergreen fir trees covered in snow  “The idea of bringing the evergreen into the house represents fertility and new life in the darkness of winter, which was much more of the pagan themes,” Dr Dominique Wilson from the University of Sydney said. “That’s also where the ideas of the holly and the ivy and the mistletoe come from because they’re the few flowering plants at winter so therefore they hold special significance. “So the idea of bringing evergreens into the house started there and eventually that evolved into the Christmas tree.”” You can make your own mind up about all that, but  if it is a pagan symbol, then to allow it within the sanctuary (for want of a better word) would constitute idolatry. 

That’s where we need to read Jeremiah 10, a passage that is NOT about Christmas Trees, but IS about idolatry, Jeremiah 10:1-6   

And what IS idolatry anyway? No-one in our evangelical, reformed circles would dream of worshipping a false god, would they. But what about when the sermon gets a little difficult, and the pastor’s voice is beginning to fade out of your brain, and the lights, twinkling away in the tree start to attract your attention, and you start thinking about that instead, – about the kids, and the presents and the turkey, and what you haven’t got for Auntie Joan, and that card that remains unsent. Isn’t that distraction just a form of idolatry, putting your own needs and interests before what God wants to say to you in His word?

We are NOT to worship gods of wood and stone and metal – and if the Christmas tree really is pagan, then it is little more than another Dagon set up in the House of the Lord. And we are NOT to imitate the ways of the pagans, the heathen, or to adopt and promote their customs.


3. The Correct Use of Christian Symbols.

My third issue, concerns those that deem the Christmas Tree to carry some form of Christian symbolism. They will argue that the lights on the tree are symbolic of how Christ is the light of the world, who lights up the darkness.  John 1:6-9  One writer even suggested, “The Christmas Tree has ‘…became a symbol of Christ — being triangular in shape it represents the trinity — and from there came the idea that the tree should be a symbol of Christ and new life. That’s one of the main origins of the Christmas tree …

Personally, I find this talk of symbolism far fetched. In the incident at the church described above, one of my ‘secondary objections’ was that when the tree was erected in the ‘sanctuary’ one of the pieces of furniture used to facilitate the commanded worship of God – the communion table – was removed, so that the tree could take its place. The communion table itself is not a sacrament or ordinance, but its presence, (like the placement of pulpit in the centre of the church to speak of the centrality of preaching), is a reminder of The Lord’s Supper, which points to Christ’s death at the cross for sinners. And that’s the point. The ONLY symbols permitted inside the sanctuary are BAPTISM which is symbolic – a visual aid – pointing us to how Christ has washed away our sins in his own blood, and THE LORD’S SUPPER which points us to Calvary. There are no other symbols commanded by God. Certainly not a decorated tree.


4. Mission Creep!

It’s only a tree. It can’t do any harm, and the kids love it. And who knows, maybe it will encourage people to come to church, and attend a service.” You will hear that argument. But we must be careful. Once we permit one uncommanded novelty into worship, where will we stop? It’s only a tree, it’s only a drama group, it’s only a drummer, it’s only a woman pastor… These are not insignificant matters. Churches that through time have drifted into unbiblical forms of worship started with a first step, and the next step was less painful…  1 Thessalonians 4:7  

Reformed churches don’t make much of Christmas – some don’t celebrate it all, and those that do mark the incarnation of Christ usually do not include any of the paraphernalia of the secular celebration. Let’s stay with what God has ordained for us in worship, obeying his Word, and so remaining faithful to its precepts.

One Comment
  1. raymond1517@sky.com permalink

    Bob, When I click on the Podcast – its coming up 404 NOT FOUND Can you sort this as its an important subjectjust now ? Many Thanks,  Raymond Stewart

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