Saturday, December 15, 2007

Cults and Christmas Trees (Part II)

photo courtesy of freefoto.com
Celebration of holidays within non-liturgical, Bible-based groups often poses matters of legalistic concern. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, reject the celebration of all traditional holidays, even including the specific celebration of the birthdays of their followers. Seen as legalistic and pagan practices, Jehovah’s Witnesses likewise reject consideration of the many feasts of the Jewish tradition practiced throughout the lifetime of Jesus. Scripture makes no condemnation of the observance of these traditional celebrations, and Jesus himself made no such protests in reference to their practice. Per the accounts of his life in the Gospels, at the least, Jesus observed both Passover and Pentecost. Many such cultic groups make an argument from silence that such traditions are not mandated by Scripture, but neither are they condemned within Scripture. Many groups generally go beyond the belief that they are not mandated to state that such practices and participation denote sin.


Although many doctrinally sound Christians take issue with the celebration of Christmas, this particular holiday presents an interesting example of another potential marker of both religious control and manipulation. Some Christians maintain that the celebration of Christmas ranges from questionable to pagan, originally deriving from adaptations of pagan holidays into Christian tradition. Some cite 1 Cor 11:23-26 as a Scriptural proof that Christians should not observe a celebration of Christ’s birth, but to only focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Another criticism concerning the holiday surrounds the symbolism of Christmas trees as a violation of Scripture. Old Testament proofs supporting this interpretation include but are not limited to Lev 14:37, Deut 12:2, I Kings 14:23, Psalm 37:35; -- all passages that reference green trees. Following a desire to yield the utmost honor to God, some Christians decline celebration of Christmas with decorations and, as previously stated, many decline celebration of the holiday altogether.
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Doug Phillips does not observe Christmas personally, stating that it is a Catholic holiday. Christmas was not formally observed at Doug’s local church per the statement of a former member of BCA:
“The congregation was split about half and half on the Christmas issue. There were definitely NO Christmas programs or any talk about Christmas, but it really depended on who was leading worship as to what hymns we sang. Sometimes we did sing a Christmas hymn or two, but they were VERY limited, as most of them contained words that many in the congregation did not agree with….
There was one family at BCA who had a Christmas party every year and everyone was invited, although not everyone attended. On the other hand, if you went to the Phillips’ home in December, you would find lots of poinsettias, nutcrackers, and green and red decorations. Beall decorates quite festively for someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas.”
This does not identify Phillips as a cultist, but it certainly serves as a possible marker for legalism. It is another “red flag” that often accompanies both very legalistic and unbalanced churches in addition to many Bible-based cults. Within my former spiritually abusive, cultic church, I was surprised at the many questions about whether my family decorated a tree. It was one of those strange, frequently asked questions that did not initially make sense. The odd nature of what seemed like a strange obsession with Christmas trees was soon followed by many other “unwritten” and informal ideals maintained by our Shepherding/Discipleship Movement group, another spiritually abusive system practiced by many denominations. In their attempt to be holy (literally “set apart” in the original Greek) and perhaps more importantly, in an attempt to appear holy, these legalists often demonstrate inordinate focus on avoiding or eliminating non-essential (not profound doctrinal or salutary significance) aspects of the Christian life such as celebration of holidays. They may even spend more time, energy and resources denouncing something like Christmas than most people expend in the celebration of such holidays. Such over focus and fixation clearly demonstrates legalistic behavior, thus expanding into control leading into manipulation, abuse and exploitation.

Upon leaving the aberrant group where we met, a dear friend of mine (not yet accepting of the concept of cultic Spiritual Abuse model) joined a similar Shepherding group that completely rejected the celebration of the Christmas holiday. Among these mentioned arguments, this church’s leadership maintained that they did not recognize Christmas because the date discrepancy. (Many sources state that Christ’s birth and/or conception did not occur in December.) In contrast, this church did honor all the major Jewish holidays and traditional feast days celebrating them in worship services and with other activities. (I greatly enjoy these types of observation personally, finding them helpful in the pursuit of understanding the Jewish aspects of Jesus’ life.) 

Perhaps Vision Forum’s honor of certain patriotic events could be interpreted in a similar way, with their quadricentenial celebration of the Jamestown settlement providing a similar example. Celebrated occasions demonstrate the groups’ preference or prejudice rather than a strict observation of Scripture. Celebration of such events or preferred traditions may reinforce the cult of personality, thus promoting the perceived unity both inside and outside the group. It is another display of the outward appearance of intimacy and unity among group members through superficial practices. These traditions serve as a demonstration of the cohesiveness of the group.