The Half-Gospel and the Celebration of Christian Holy Days by Orthodox Evangelicals in the Post-Christian West
Let us imagine that some interdenominational, Protestant, and theologically orthodox group in the West has been given the task of hosting a conference to address the celebration of Christian holidays—holy days. The task, we shall assume, is considered important for three reasons: (1) in the post-Christian, neo-pagan culture of Western countries, the non-Christian celebrations are taking over the festive practices of Christian holy days; (2) in the post-Christian West, the message of the Christian holy days is increasingly associated with abstract values that reduce the historical realities of Christian faith to mere metaphors for existential preaching; and (3) in the West, the culture has, over time, deformed wings of the loosely associated Evangelical movement such that there are those who actually preach a false or half-Gospel and fail to witness the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.
As to the first reason, think of the celebration of Easter. Firstly, this is, in the West, a moveable holiday rather than a fixed date on the calendar. This gives the Church some control as to when the holiday is to be celebrated. Even so, the day is represented in grocery stores and party stores with Easter eggs and bunny rabbits. In the case of Christmas, the retail stores begin promoting their version of the holiday over a month before, encouraging shoppers to go into debt to buy presents for the family, decorate Christmas trees and houses, and watch love-story movies around the celebration of a Christmas without Christ. Different people will assess the success of incorporating such practices into the Church in different ways, but the problem now faced is that the Christian message is increasingly lost and suppressed. The culture has firmly established their new, post-Christian versions of such holidays, and any association with the Church and its beliefs is now no longer needed. The old, pre-Christian practices of such holidays—Winter and Spring—have won the day in the culture. The Church no longer incorporates some practices from pre-Christian culture and Christianizes them; instead, Christians are allowed to add on their own celebrations in the privacy of their own homes and churches to what are, in public, non-Christian holidays.
As to the second reason, think of some of the sermons during Christian holidays. I recall a few years back attending with relatives a typical, Evangelical mega-church experimenting with ‘seeker services.’ The pastor was considered one of the leading voices for Evangelicalism in the city. His Christmas message explained the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas. I prepared myself to hear his articulation of the Christian belief in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, but it turned out that the ‘true’ message of Christmas was ‘love.’ A more recent sermon for Easter claimed that Easter was all about ‘second chances.’ What these sorts of sermons have in common is a tendency to abstract any historical aspect of Christian theology in order to produce a conviction expressed as an abstract value, and then this is applied to various aspects of human existence. In the case of the recent Easter sermon, ‘second chances’ applied to problems the denomination was facing in sexual abuse charges—for those accused, and for those who were abused.
One problem with this sort of preaching is, of course, it is not the message of the incarnation or the resurrection that Scripture gives. Too often, the preacher is driven to try to make a message relevant to his or her audience by existentialising the message. The preacher’s role is not understood as explaining the witness of Christian faith so much as the application of it. People are left to decide what they will about what the Church witnessed regarding the historical Jesus, but the emphasis of faith is placed on how this applies to their lives apart from any claims about history. Yet, Christian faith is not faith apart from history; it is faith in what God has done, is doing, and will do in history. Christian faith is inseparable from historical claims.
The Anglican archbishop of Wales is in the news this Easter for expressing doubts about what actually happened to Jesus after his death. (The surprise is not that he has doubts about the Christian faith but that he openly expresses them.) His doubts have opened wide the door of disbelief in the historical resurrection of Jesus. He appears to be more focussed on the question of how one discusses an event in time that occurred nearly 2,100 years ago than about how the Christian faith is based on eye-witness testimony to the historical events. This is the classic Modernist move to wipe away faith in order to establish foundational facts through ‘scientific’ (historical) enquiry first. But this move has involved, since people like David Friedrich Strauss in the mid-19th century, separating this search for certainty about history from some history-less claim of faith. The story of Jesus, like any myth on such a reckoning, speaks to a larger truth for human life than any historical claim. Yet, awkwardly for such perpetrators of a false faith, the early Christian believes made historical claims. They made claims about the virgin Mary, about Jesus’ crucifixion during the rule of Pontius Pilate, and about Jesus’ being physically raised from the dead with a transformed, spiritual body that was no longer subject to decay and death—that overcame Death itself. For people like this archbishop, the eye-witness testimony of believers in the New Testament to the incarnation, miracles, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is irrelevant. Only some existential message, with an illustrative rather than factual ‘story’ as a mythical backdrop, is important—and the cleverness of the preacher is to draw this message out of the myth and apply it to a gullible audience.
Half a Gospel
It is charitable to call this a ‘half-Gospel’—finding meaning apart from claims in fact. It is, in truth, no Gospel at all. Yet there is a significantly missing element—another ‘half’—even to affirmations of historical facts when the Gospel is rightly proclaimed. It is this: we do not simply state what happened as part of our Christian faith, we also affirm faith in God’s powerful salvation. Even Evangelicals often affirm a half-Gospel. While insisting on the historical truth of their faith, they all too often turn that faith into little more than doctrine—a belief that this or that happened. The Gospel is more than this: it is Good News, not simply Right News. The Gospel is about God’s powerful hand throughout history, in Christ Jesus, working through the Holy Spirit, and at work in our lives. It is not an existential truth, that humans can have second chances, e.g.; it is a Gospel truth, that through Jesus Christ God has acted decisively for our redemption and that, by His power, we are more than conquerors.
The half-Gospel is taught in Evangelical pulpits when the power of God is relegated to the events of Scripture but not understood as a power at work in us who believe. It is taught when the miraculous work of God in our day is doubted, considered to be for a former, apostolic time, or associated with far-away stories from the mission field that do not apply to the rest of us. It is taught when a counsellor encourages someone with a sexual deviancy or addiction to stop their practice without holding out the hope of God’s power to bring about change. It is taught when the Gospel is made to be about God’s forgiveness without it also being about God’s power—about forgiving grace without also transforming grace.
The half-Gospel is a Gospel that, on the one hand, separates history from faith and, on the other hand, separates faith about what God has done from faith in what God does. Christmas and Easter are Christian celebrations that make claims about God and history. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became flesh in the incarnation. Jesus Christ, crucified on the cross under Pontius Pilate for our sins, was raised on the third day with a transformed, physical body. The apostles witnessed to these truths, and our faith is based on this historical witness. Our faith is also, and especially, in God, who has done these things. We not only believe that these things happened, but also that God’s power is, through these events, accomplishing our salvation and sanctification and future resurrection. We are not merely part of Jesus’ historical incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and future coming; we are also part of God’s power at work through these salvific events in history. As Paul says,
Ephesians 3:20-21 (ESV) Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Practices of Faith
So, we return to our imaginary conference to restore holidays to Christian celebration of the Gospel. How might we witness in the world to the historical claims of the Christian faith through our practices? And how might we proclaim a Gospel that is not about existential applications of Christian myths but about the power of God at work in us through Christ Jesus to the glory of God? What might we do differently as believes on holidays such as Easter and Christmas? Here is a list of suggestions.
*Calendar: Bring back the celebrations into the Church’s worship. The pull during Christmas is toward family time in homes, and the pull during Easter is to have a brief holiday at the beginning of spring. The Church needs to figure out how to bring people back into the churches during these festive times. This may simply be a scheduling issue. I have suggested that, in the West, we leave a Winter holiday on the 25th December but move the Christian celebration to join with the Eastern churches on the 7th January. Hopefully, this would fall on a school and work day, and Christians would gather during the day to celebrate Christmas. (Yes, this means a forced holiday that we would expect school authorities and businesses to respect, as they do for other minority faiths.) Christian schools could help the celebration of Easter by separating Spring Break from Holy Week and reducing homework during the latter so that evening services could be attended.
*Reading of Scripture and Artistic Depiction of Events: The Churches should have public reading of Scripture related to the holy days. We should remember that we not only live in a post-Christian culture but also a post-literate, visual culture. This does not mean giving up literacy in the Church but reestablishing the reading of God’s Word in the churches. A post-literate culture needs to become literate, since God’s revelation is in written form. Wherever Christianity spreads, it leaves literacy in the cultures it transforms. We need to think of ways to have the Scriptures read publicly in the churches and, where possible, publicly outside the churches. The literary nature of revelation includes being able to hear the connections between Old Testament and New Testament passages, not just hear the story as an event per se. This is why films and plays of the crucifixion, for example, are a far cry from the revelation we gain in the written telling of the story of Jesus’ death, which is full of Old Testament allusions and quotations. Yet we might also have plays and films to capture people’s attention during this time.
*Festivals: Festivals have always been about food, music, and fun. These can be both within and outside churches. The Jewish festivals were powerful holy days that spilled outside of the synagogues themselves into family homes and into the city. They involved pilgrimage, meals, songs, worship, sacrifices, the reading of Scripture, enactments, symbols, and so forth. Some churches need to recover meaningful services for holy days, but most Protestants need to recover what was lost in its iconoclastic history. This could begin with something as simple as recovering neighbourhood Christmas caroling and erecting nativity scenes and crosses on church properties. It could involve festivals celebrated by (orthodox) Christian churches together in areas of the city or in towns—meals, music, open-air services, processions, and the like.
*Liturgy: Our imaginary conference could consider how to develop meaningful liturgical practices around the festivals. The early Church often baptized new believers on Easter, and this involved a long process of discipleship-making. Imagine if, on Easter Sunday, Evangelical churches gathered together at the river and publicly preached the Gospel and baptized new, confessing believers in Christ? (Those denominations still practicing infant baptism would still participate in such a practice as it would apply only to believers’ baptism. The minister/s of each church would prepare and baptize their own members, but the event could be held together with other churches.) The conference could commend certain prayers, confessions, Scripture reading, and practices without, of course, requiring anything of anyone. Yet liturgical elements are often incorporated into special services even in low church worship. Baptists and Pentecostals could benefit from considering some of the liturgical practices of Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians—why not confess the faith, pray the Lord’s Prayer, and celebrate the Lord’s Table on such occasions? Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians could benefit from considering hearing public testimonies of how God has transformed sinners’ lives and helped the faithful in times of trial, having an altar call to commit one’s life to Christ and to seek a closer walk with God through the Spirit, and having a time of free worship. This would also be a time to tarry before God, to enter more deeply into His presence, to seek His healing, transformation, assurance, and answer to prayer.
*Inclusiveness: Western culture celebrates inclusiveness through diversity, whereas the Christian message celebrates diversity through inclusiveness. The former wants everyone included just as they are, without any judgement or call to commitment or changed lives. The Christian message is about how all may be included and find unity in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the one body (Church), one faith, one hope, one baptism, and one God. Diverse gifts produce unity through the one Spirit who gives the gifts. To the extent that Christian festivals spill out over family and churches, they should find ways to ‘come together’ in ways that proclaim unity in their diversity, and unity over against the culture outside the Church. This may involve city-wide meetings that focus on the Gospel during the festivals, and the highlighting of ministries that run throughout the year and are supported by various churches—ministries of the Great Commandment (helping the needy through the Church as a Christian witness so that the love of one’s neighbour is an expression of our love for God) and ministries of the Great Commission (Bible translation, evangelism, church planting, discipleship and ministry formation throughout the world).
If our imaginary conference could come up with some more direction for orthodox, Evangelical churches in the post-Christian culture of the West, we might find our communities strengthened and able to bear a more significant testimony to the world. We might find ourselves engaged in far more exciting and meaningful celebrations than Halloween trick-or-treating, Hallmark movies about love at Christmas around lighted trees, and hopping Easter bunnies and chocolate eggs. If this is to work, the needful distinction of Evangelicals from the false Christianity of the new theology in mainline denominations must be appreciated, and the needful unity between orthodox Christians among Baptists and Pentecostals and Anglicans, etc., needs to be affirmed. In other words, ‘Evangelicalism’ has to arise as an orthodox, renewal movement across various expressions of the apostolic faith.
This will need to involve the painful rejection of some heretical movements that claim orthodoxy but are, in fact, not orthodox—ones that, despite lip-service to the Gospel, in actual fact deny the Gospel. They differ from what the Church has taught from Scripture always, everywhere, and by all (as St. Vincent of Lérins defined orthodoxy in the 5th century). The erroneous teachings are sometimes twisted truths, sometimes out-and-out false claims, and sometimes only half the truth. These include the Prosperity Gospel (Hagen, Copeland; a spiritual-power version of liberation theology, a spiritual extortion theology), the Power of Positive Thinking (Osteen; a theology that takes the focus off of Jesus Christ), Cessationism (MacArthur, Schreiner; a theology that denies much of the power of the Gospel outside the message of the Gospel for our day), the Existential preaching of Seeker-Churches (and liberal churches; a teaching that shifts Christian truths to a Platonic world of values and virtues), the Pseudo-Christian Evangelicalism of those affirming homosexual practice (a theology that denies Biblical morality and Christian clarity in ethics), and so forth.
Evangelicalism is only a relevant movement of renewal if it is Biblically sound, and this does not include new-fangled teachings that are expressions of Western Modernist and Postmodernist culture, such as those listed above. We who proclaim a whole Gospel, not a half-Gospel, need to find ways in which to witness to that Gospel not only in the privacy of our homes and churches but also in society—even a society turning against us. Perhaps one way to do so would be through rethinking our Christian holy days in the new world of a post-Christian culture.