the obligatory anti-Christmas post

Folks, it’s that time of year again.

I know I have this rule that you should never talk about how rubbish Christmas is at Christmas time. August is best, I feel. But here we are, and August has slipped past again, and still Something Must Be Said.

So, Christmas.

1) The religious problem. As everyone knows, it’s a pagan festival, insinuated into the Christian church by way of exploiting the loose connections between heathen myths and the facts of Christian history. Whatever is the reason for this season, Jesus is not it.

2) The church angle. As everyone knows, the virgin birth actually happened. The Son of God did become man. This is immense. On the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection, all our salvation depends.

But the festivals and celebrations of the Christian church are constrained by what Christ has actually ordained. What Christ has ordained is a weekly celebration of his resurrection in the Lord’s day, a one-off symbolisation of regeneration for every believer in their baptism, and a regular symbolisation of ongoing dependence for every believer in the Lord’s supper.

Christmas isn’t in Christ’s list. Nor, for that matter, is Easter, or Lent, or any of the other days vulgarly called holy days. The Christian Church has no right to summon anyone to church services to celebrate Christ’s birth at this time of year. We have all year round to remember and worship on account of this amazing thing, that Christ Jesus came into the world, to save sinners.

3) The cultural angle. As everyone knows, this time of year is a riot of spending too much, eating too much, drinking too much, partying too much, and stressing too much. Whether it’s tacky Christmas, or sophisticated Christmas, or nostalgic Christmas, it’s synonymous with consumerism, materialism, and excess. Most people shopping for presents are not enjoying themselves. Most people preparing huge dinners are glad when it’s over. Most people listening to Christmas music on every possible radio station and in every possible shop eventually find themselves with earworm.

People who have been brought up in Christmas-free families should be deeply, madly, passionately appreciative of that fact. It means you know the gospel truth about the incarnation, untainted by sacrilegious nativity scenes. It means you can go to church all and only those times when God wants you to be in church, and not when tradition dictates. It means you don’t need to buy into an annual commercialised frenzy of tinsel, trees, turkey trimmings, Santas, stockings, sleigh bells, wreaths, crackers, carols, party hats, watch night services, work nights out, and fill in the rest of the paraphernalia for yourself. Or rather, don’t. Don’t be distracted from things that actually matter, by adopting cultural practices that are alien to your own worldview and lifestyle, and and that are in any case a burden grievous to be borne by people who don’t have the same heritage of religious liberty and freedom.

Instead, embrace and celebrate being Christmas-free. Rally your peers and support each other in your Christmas-avoidance when you get together. Let your gatherings be safe spaces where nobody needs to find excuses to get out of the Christmas party. Just think of how dispiriting it is to be struggling, isolated, in the office or at school or uni to behave with integrity and with courtesy – to walk that tightrope between violating your conscience before God and avoiding giving needless offence to colleagues and peers in all the delicate social situations that arise – only to be confronted with exactly the same dilemmas when you meet up with people who should be on exactly the same wavelength. Christmas is something you can safely stay at least a bargepole’s distance away from, without missing out on anything of religious benefit or cultural merit. And I’m putting a note in my diary to say the same again next August.

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stop calling it public

One of the biggest contributors to fuzzy thinking around the exclusive use of psalms in worship is, I think, inadequate terminology. I’ve lost count of the times that discussions have got hopelessly muddled because people got so hung up on defining “public” worship as opposed to “private” worship. So, the conundrum goes, if you think it’s okay to sing hymns in “private” worship, what suddenly changes to make hymns unacceptable in “public” worship.

But the scenario leads you up two separate garden paths. One is that the distinction isn’t really public vs private. It’s nothing to do with the numbers of people involved or what kind of building you’re in or how widely advertised your meeting has been. In fact, you could just about plausibly imagine somebody having morning devotions with their family of seven (“private” worship) then going off to church in some rural congregation of six (“public” worship). The numbers have nothing to do with it.

The distinction behind the public/private terminology is actually more like private vs corporate, or individual vs ecclesiastical. It’s the difference between what you do as an individual (or as a family) and what you do as the church. Christian believers are meant to gather together to worship God together – ‘meant to,’ in the sense of divinely required to: it’s what God expects his people collectively to do. A worship service doesn’t exist to let people socialise, or let people keep up a weekly routine, or give people the chance of a religious experience, or or or. Instead, it’s the church assembling as such to worship as such. It’s the church meeting as the church to do churchly things. That means confessing what the church confesses, submitting to the church’s authority, and benefitting from the church’s ministry, oracles, and ordinances, as these have been instituted there by Christ.

The other false scent in the “Well, you sing hymns at home” scenario is that it assumes that what you’re doing when you’re singing hymns at home really is worship. This is the murky, foggy, shapeshifting outcome of the principle piously formulated as “all of life is worship”. This assumes that anything you do, and especially the more overtly religious it is, should be regarded as worship (and affirmed and respected as worship). But the principle is too pious to be true – the kind of thing that’s designed to dissolve you into a little puddle of gloopy sanctimoniousness before you can direct so much as a critical thought towards it. All of life (eating, drinking, whatever you do) should be devoted to the glory of God, but not all of life is worship. All of life includes doing the dishes, doing the photocopying, going for messages, being on Facebook, changing nappies, taking phonecalls, and all the endless trivia of the everyday. All of these can and should be done to the glory of God – but they are not worship. It doesn’t matter how many Christian graces you exercise in these activities or to what degree – your devotional input, or the devotional impact they have on you, is never going to make them into worship.

That also means that doing an everyday thing in a religious context also doesn’t make it worship. Toilet cleaning doesn’t become a worship activity just because it’s the church toilets. Writing poetry doesn’t become worship just because it’s poetry about some theological proposition or some religious experience. Singing a song doesn’t become worship just because it includes the words “Jesus” or “grace”. In fact, the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and limited by his own revealed will in such a way that he may not be worshipped according to human imaginations and devices, or any way not prescribed in Scripture. That means that strictly speaking, if God doesn’t prescribe it, it doesn’t count as worship. Including singing hymns plus or minus instruments, on your own or with your family. Direct extrapolation from ‘good thing to do’ to ‘legitimate in corporate worship’ is wholly inappropriate. If you’re going to call it worship, it needs divine prescription.

Public worship is church worship. Rather than things being okay in “private worship” which aren’t okay in “public worship,” it might actually be more accurate to think of ‘private worship’ as including only a subset of things which belong to ‘public worship’. It’s only in a corporate, church, context that the element of worship called preaching can ever be experienced. Ditto for the administering and receiving of the sacraments. On your own, in private, as an individual, or in your family, the most you can do by way of worship is read the Scriptures, not preach from them – you can pray, and sing psalms, but receiving the sacraments privately is an irregularity at best. Armed with the twin convictions that ‘public worship’ is church worship, and that anything needs scripture warrant before it can properly be regarded as worship, people would be in a much stronger position to withstand the slushy, subjective, individualistic approach to “worship” that continues to harrass the church scene.

sing psalms

The Free Church is a force for good in Scotland. There can’t be many Free Presbyterians who don’t have dear friends and relatives in the Free Church, and even if our official and publicly displayed attitude to the Free Church is one of frowns and disapproval, there are still plenty people who respect the Free Church, value the Free Church’s testimony, appreciate the fellowship of believers in the Free Church, and wish the Free Church well. There are some of us who, on seeing a negative comment in the magazine, cry a little bit inside every time. We share the same fathers of the Scottish Reformation, we honour the Disruption testimony, we are grateful for every point of agreement in doctrine and every point of agreement in practice.

Right now, the Free Church is being featured in the news, both secular and Christian, for raising the issue of whether to continue with the practice of singing only inspired materials of praise unaccompanied by musical instruments, or whether to allow uninspired materials and/or musical accompaniment in addition.

The historical reasons in favour of the status quo are shared and endorsed by Free Presbyterians, who sing psalms only, a cappella. We sing the Psalms, because that’s what the Book of Psalms is for, and we don’t use instrumental accompaniment, because we have no mandate for it. This is consistent with scripture; it is required by scripture; it imposes nothing on the conscience of worshippers but what the scriptures allow; it is borne out by centuries of practice in the New Testament Church; it was the universal position of the Scottish Church at the Reformation and for hundreds of years thereafter; it is built into the ordination vows of our office-bearers. It is, in short, a warm-hearted commitment to¬† purity of worship. We are thankful to share this with the Free Church.

Needless to say, the general reaction to the hot news of the Free Church’s exploration of the worship issue is one of mass incomprehension – even among the Christian commentariat. Thus wild criticism comes from those who think that the practice is Hebridean, that it’s unbearably old-fashioned, that including uninspired hymns is a modernisation essential to the survival of a denomination, and that restricting yourself to the Psalms means you won’t be singing about Jesus. All of this is pitifully wrong (and when delivered in tones of scorn, says quite a lot about contemporary commentators’ grasp of the issues and disregard for what, even if quaint, is still a perfectly respectable Christian tradition in its own right; yes, trendy popular postmodern evangelical blogger who graciously spent some time in a Highland congregation and speaks from vast experience, I’m looking at you).

By having this debate, people in the Free Church have the opportunity to rediscover or reaffirm the principles involved. It’s not a question of clinging resolutely to outdated and offputting worship styles: anyone who prefers the unaccompanied singing of untutored congregations as an aesthetic choice is wide open to criticism; anyone who prefers it as an expression of cultural heritage is verging on the patronising and missing the scriptural point. If the Free Church doesn’t know why they exclusively sing inspired songs a cappella, there could be an argument that they might as well abandon it. But a return to the whole-hearted conviction that our historic practice truly equips us with what we are to praise with and how we are to praise would be an excellent step forward for the Free Church and the wider Church more generally.

O come, let us joyfully sing to the Lord;

To the Rock of salvation let us raise our voice.

Let us come before him expressing our thanks;

Let us with loud singing praise him and rejoice.