This providential alignment of the calendar has sparked some questions among Christians, and in some cases—heated discussions. Kevin DeYoung republished an article he penned back in 2016 as a plea to pastors not to cancel church on Christmas. This year, December 25th falls on a Sunday again and the debate is far more heated. Do Christians have the freedom to cite Romans 14 as their excuse to observe Christmas on Sunday in their pajamas from the comfort of their own homes?
According to a recent article in the New York Times, “O Come All Ye Faithful, Except When Christmas Falls on a Sunday,” there is a drop among evangelicals this year in comparison to 2016 regarding the commitment to gather for worship on Christmas. Perhaps this is indicative of the downward spiral of the church in America.
Romans 14 and Legalism
Just as the misuse of Romans 13 during the COVID-19 controversy should be taken seriously, the misuse of Romans 14 to cancel church for Christmas celebrations should be taken seriously as well. It doesn’t take long to find Romans 14 being thrown around like a license to close the doors of the church or to stay home and forsake the assembly of the church simply because Christmas falls on a Sunday.
What exactly is Romans 14 all about? The church in Rome was filled with both Jews and Gentiles. Think about that for a moment. Some of the church members had grown up observing every Jewish festival religiously. These days were important to Jews because they had specific meanings that pointed to the faithfulness of God. Some of these days included:
- The Festival of Unleavened Bread (Passover or Pessah) – This feast was held in the first month of the Jewish religious calendar. It was originally established to remember the Exodus from Egypt and how God saved his people from the slavery of Pharoah.
- The Feast of Weeks (Pentecost, Harvest or Shavuot) – This feast is often considered the main harvest festival celebrating the end of the wheat harvest. This feast was held seven weeks after the first barley harvest (see Exodus 34:22) which is fifty days after Passover.
- The Festival of Ingathering / Booths (Shelters, Tabernacles or Sukkot) – This festival celebrated the gathering in (harvest) of the grapes, figs and olives. It was the autumn harvest festival held in late September or October. Also known as the Festival of Tabernacles, Shelters or Booths.
- Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah) – This festival celebrated the end of the agricultural year (usually observed the beginning of the seventh month in the Jewish religious calendar).
- The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) – This festival was observed at the end of September and was a time for remembering past sins and pointed toward the hope of God’s saving grace that would one day be ultimately fulfilled in Jesus.
- Purim – This festival commemorated the actions of Queen Esther who was used by God to save the Jewish exiles in Babylon and Persia (see Esther 3:1-6 & 9:23-32).
- Lights (Dedication or Hanukkah) – This festival was initiated to commemorate the re-dedication of the Second Temple.
Therefore, when Paul is addressing the church at Rome in chapter 14, he is addressing division among the church over food regulations and the observance of Jewish festivals that would have been important for Jews while not so important for Gentiles. Paul writes:
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living (Romans 14:5-9).
Paul is making a very clear point. The Jews were free to gather with their families and celebrate the festival days of their Jewish heritage, but they had no right to obligate this for the Gentiles. The weak believers were feeling the necessity to mandate the observance of these festival days while the strong believers were insisting they had liberty to skip them altogether. This was a recipe for great division. That was why Paul insisted that some people in the church had freedom to esteem one day as better than another while others had liberty to esteem all days as the same.
Romans 14 has absolutely nothing to do with the worship of God’s people on the Lord’s Day. In fact, the church was to recognize that they had freedom to observe or skip the Feast of Booths, but they would gather together in unity of the gospel on the Lord’s Day to worship.
What about the charge of legalism? Some people are labeling Christian pastors as legalists because they insist that the church is obligated to gather together for worship on the Lord’s Day. Legalism is a technical term that has salvific implications. For instance, when Jesus charged the Pharisees with legalism, it was based on the fact that they were adding to God’s Word and mandating these practices as a means of salvation for those who conformed and damnation for those who refused. This was likewise the charge Paul issued to the Judaizers in Galatia who added circumcision to the finished work of Jesus (see Galatians 1).
Let’s be clear about the matter. If a church cancels worship on December 25 it will not result in their damnation. On the flip side of the equation, if a church gathers together for worship on December 25 it will not result in their salvation. The determination of salvation and damnation is based on whether or not a person is saved by the grace of God in Christ Jesus. However, that does not mean that we have a license to do whatever we want. We are slaves of Jesus Christ and he is not an evil taskmaster. He calls his people to “come to him” where they will find rest (Matt 11:28).
The Regulative Principle and the Lord’s Day
Following the reset of the church after COVID-19, many things changed. Ruth Graham writes:
While some pastors stressed the importance of worshiping in person during the Covid-19 pandemic, sometimes in defiance of public health recommendations, some in the same cohort also experimented with sophisticated online productions that have reshaped what it means to “go to church” in the 21st century.
That one little sentence points directly to the nerve endings of this debate. This debate about canceling church for Christmas is not about freedom verses legalism in the church. This is not about division between the strong and weak believers within the church. Really it all comes down to the issue of pragmatism. It’s an issue of authority. Who’s in charge?
Canceling the regular gathering of the local church on Christmas Day simply because fewer members will gather or because fewer volunteers will be available to serve in various capacities due to travel should not drive the decision. That’s called pragmatism and it has always been a dangerous slave master. The church should never operate by the line, “If it works, do it.”
It would be much better to cancel your normal Christmas celebrations on Christmas Day than to cancel the worship of God’s people on the Lord’s Day. Why? This is an issue of pragmatism verses sola Scriptura. Who regulates the operation of God’s church? Does the rotation of the calendar? Does the civil government? Does the church self-regulate? It should be obvious—the church is God’s church, and God regulates the operation of his people and we have an allegiance to his majestic throne.
The Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) serves as a helpful guardrail that prevents the church from wandering off course. Rather than coming to the debate by asking the question, “Does God forbid X in worship anywhere in the Scriptures?” we should ask, “What does God command about worship in the Scriptures?” This basic principle looks to the authority of Scripture rather than the preferences and desires of people to organize and settle the debate on the who, what, where, when, and why of worship.
In the New Testament, we find the phrase “On the first day of the week” repeated some 150 times. It’s the typical expression connected to the day that Jesus was raised from the dead. Interestingly enough, there are only two places outside the gospels where the writers refer to the first day of the week as special for the church, and in those two places this phrase “on the first day of the week” is repeated (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2). We also see John the Apostle worshipping God on the island of Patmos (separated from his local church under persecution for preaching the gospel). Interestingly enough, he is not worshipping on just any day of his own choosing. He was worshipping on the Lord’s Day when he received the grand revelation from Christ:
I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.  I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet  saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea” (Revelation 1:9-11).
From the early moments following the resurrection of Jesus, the church has been gathering together and worshipping God on the first day of the week. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, in chapter 22 and paragraph 7-8 states the following:
7. As it is the law of nature, that in general a proportion of time, by God’s appointment, be set apart for the worship of God, so by his Word, in a positive moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men, in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a sabbath to be kept holy unto him, which from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ was the last day of the week, and from the resurrection of Christ was changed into the first day of the week, which is called the Lord’s day: and is to be continued to the end of the world as the Christian Sabbath, the observation of the last day of the week being abolished. (Exodus 20:8; 1 Corinthians 16:1, 2; Acts 20:7; Revelation 1:10)
8. The sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering their common affairs aforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all day, from their own works, words and thoughts, about their worldly employment and recreations, but are also taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy. (Isaiah 58:13; Nehemiah 13:15-22; Matthew 12:1-13)
Ultimately Jesus is our rest. The reason why John the Apostle was worshipping on the Lord’s Day on the island of Patmos was because although he had entered the rest in Christ, he was living in the tension of the already and not yet of God’s church while on the island of Patmos. Hebrews 4:9-10 states, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” Notice that this is stated in the past tense. However, the writer to the Hebrews continues in verse 11: “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest.” In Christ we enjoy this rest, however, we must strive to enter it at the same time. Redemption is accomplished in Jesus, but it must be applied while we journey onward beneath the shadow of what remains (see Col 2:16-17 regarding the shadow that remains until Christ returns). It was Justin Martyr who said the following:
Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.
In a world that lavishes itself with materialism and is hyper-focused on pleasing the flesh, is it wise for the church to openly debate the importance of worshipping God on Christmas Day? It appears that many people have elevated a cultural day (Christmas) above the Lord’s Day (Sunday). Christmas celebration is optional for the church, but the Lord’s Day worship is not optional. It’s essential.
The moment that you misapply Romans 14 to the Lord’s Day for Christmas, you open Pandora’s Box. Suddenly, you’re forced to do the same for any other church member who would rather worship on Tuesday as opposed to Sunday, so he and his family go to the lake on Sunday and watch the recording of the church’s worship on Tuesday. When challenged by the church family on his obviously foolish and selfish decision, he simply cites Romans 14. This will never end well for the church. How can the body of Christ function if divided by a multiplicity of opinions on what day is best to worship God? Who gets to determine what day is best—the pastors, the deacons, or is it determined by congregational vote?
Don’t turn your pastor into the Grinch who stole Christmas from you if he and the elders of your local church determine to honor the Lord’s Day and gather for worship. Your pastor is not a weak believer for celebrating the birth of Jesus with the gathered church on the Lord’s Day. Your pastor is not a dangerous legalist for celebrating the birth of Immanuel on the Lord’s Day.
Pause your gift exchange. Put down your eggnog. Gather for worship with the church of King Jesus and celebrate the greatest miracle in the history of the world. John MacArthur properly observes:
If we could condense all the truths of Christmas into only three words, these would be the words: “God with us.” We tend to focus our attention at Christmas on the infancy of Christ. The greater truth of the holiday is His deity. More astonishing than a baby in the manger is the truth that this promised baby is the omnipotent Creator of the heavens and the earth!1John MacArthur, God With Us, Zondervan, 1989, 16
When Christmas fell on Sunday back in 1870, Charles Spurgeon gathered with his church at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. He preached a sermon titled, “The Sages, The Star, and The Saviour” where he pointed his congregation to their hope in Christ from Matthew 2:2. He closed the sermon that Lord’s Day with these words:
The Lord bless you, and may this Christmas Sabbath morning be a very memorable day to many out of the crowd assembled here. I am surprised to see so vast a number present, and I can only hope the blessing will be in proportion, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.2Charles Spurgeon, “The Sages, The Star, and The Saviour“