Saturday, August 06, 2011

Custom Vs. Worship

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day* and it made me start thinking about something that I think needs to be clarified for some Christians.

Valentine's Day is, of course, the holiday on which we celebrate love. Believe it or not, there are some Christians who oppose celebrating Valentine's Day because they say it has pagan roots, the same reason these Christians give for not celebrating Christmas and Easter. These Christians oppose birthday celebrations for the same reason. While I understand their reasoning I believe they are quite mistaken to oppose birthday celebrations or holidays like Valentine's Day because of their pagan origins.

It's true that Scripture tells us that God doesn't want His people to worship Him with heathen practices. That's why I agree with those "anti-holiday" believers who have a problem with Christmas and Easter. Those holidays are about actually worshiping God with pagan "holy" days, and that's wrong. Scripture tells believers not to worship the one, true God the way pagans worship their false ones. I understand applying that principle to things like Christmas and Easter, but it's misguided, I feel, to apply it to things like birthday celebrations and "neutral" holidays like Valentine's Day.

Yes, birthday celebrations and holidays like Valentine's Day and New Year's Day are rooted in paganism, but they are not celebrated today as ways ofworshiping God. Rather, these things have come down to us as customs. And that's the key. Worship and custom are two very different things.

Worship is how we relate to God, how we honor and praise Him in certain sacred settings. Custom is how we live our lives. Of course, if we are God's people then we will live our lives differently from unbelievers in many ways, but that doesn't mean avoiding everything in life that has pagan roots. In fact, we can't avoid everything in life that has pagan roots because paganism permeates human civilization.

Take the days of the week, for instance. Five of them are named after pagan deities. In English, four of those deities are Germanic and one is Latin. Tuesday is Tiuw's day, Wednesday is Wotan's day, Thursday is Thor's day, Friday is Freya's day, and Saturday is Saturn's day. The other two days of the week, Sunday and Monday, are named after the sun and moon, which were worshiped as gods by pagans. It's the same with the months of the year. Six--January, February, March, April, May, and June--are named after pagan gods or goddesses. Two more--July and August--are named after Roman emperors worshiped as gods.

So where does this leave believers if we are to avoid all things pagan? Are we not to say the names of the days of the week or the months of the year? Are we guilty of worshiping false gods if we do say those names? What about eating the main meal of the day at noon, a practice that I've heard has pagan roots? Should believers who live where that's the custom eat their main meal in the morning or the evening instead? How far is avoiding all things pagan supposed to go?

I think everyone can see that paganism touches all aspects of life and that avoiding it all together is just impossible. And that shouldn't be believers' goal. Rather, we should be discerning, as befitting followers of Christ, and make rational distinctions between acts of worship and mere custom. We should understand that we can celebrate a birthday, or Valentine's Day, or eat our main meal at 12 pm without accepting whatever pagan religious beliefs undergird those things. We must not use pagan religious practices to worship God. But participating in pagan-derived customs which do not involve worship is perfectly ok. So go ahead and attend that birthday party, send that Valentine's Day card, and eat your dinner at noon. God won't strike you down with lightning bolts if you do. He's saving those for the real sinners.

*I started this post on February 13.