Friday, December 18, 2015

COGWA's Christmas on Trial - The Defense's Closing Statement

December is a time that As Bereans Did really outdoes itself, and I feel free to say that because I have contributed very little to the blog's Christmas research. xHWA published an excellent Christmas FAQ last week that addressed every objection to Christmas that I've ever heard and a few I hadn't heard. The FAQ condenses his larger study, “The Plain Truth about December 25th. After reading them, I figured I'd just pour some cocoa and settle in for a long winter's nap.

But then I got the latest issue of COGWA's Discern magazine and read its cover story, “Christmas on Trial.” It's pretty creative, for a rehash of outdated material that's more than 60 years old:
“Imagine a courtroom where Christmas is on trial, charged with false impersonation of legitimate, godly worship," author Clyde Kilough writes. "Now it’s the prosecutor’s turn to make his closing argument.”
I'm sure the author was trying to be clever. But in reality, his approach was comically ironic. Why? Because for decades, the Churches of God HAVE put Christmas on trial  - in a kangaroo court. They've acted as the both the prosecution and the defense, putting forth only the arguments and evidence THEY choose to present. They’ve called confused witnesses - even false witnesses - and elevated their testimony to gospel truth. They’ve shouted out rebuttals, maligned innocent practices and slandered honest men. I know, because I did it, too.

Just like Kilough's article, they HAVE skipped ahead to the prosecutor's closing argument when it comes to Christmas. They've snatched the gavel and slammed it down, declaring the trial over without any chance for rebuttal. They are prosecution, defense, judge and jury. And they've used courtroom theatrics to bully us into accepting some pretty outrageous claims over the years, like ornaments originating from Nimrod’s private parts. Where are we, in a middle school boys locker room? Dear reader, you deserve better, more honest treatment than this!

If the defense were able to get a word in edgewise, it might sound something like this:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, it’s true that many ancient pagan holidays do fall near December 25th. No one denies that. But do proximal dates always indicate two events are related?  In 2016, Pentecost will fall during the Muslim Ramadan holiday. Does this mean that, next year, those who celebrate Pentecost will simultaneously be observing Ramadan? And would Muslims agree that they are celebrating Pentecost, even incidentally? More to the point, Easter always falls just days after Passover. Mainstream Christians would readily assert that the two are related. But would you?

Many COG objections to Christmas present a chicken-and-egg scenario. Some pagan celebrations the COGs try to link to Christmas can be traced back to centuries BC. Others, however, are dated much later than we were originally led to believe. Consider that Herbert Armstrong, the founder of today’s COG movement, wrote his first anti-Christmas booklet in 1952. The material today’s COGs put out is largely the same, graphics excluded.

Much has happened in the worlds of archaeology and anthropology since 1952. A lot of what has been found exonerates December 25th from its alleged pagan ties. Why do the COGs cling to outdated information?  Why hit “pause” on understanding simply because of information included in a 1950 edition encyclopedia? A resource is only as good as the information available at the time it is published. The same encyclopedia would list East and West Germany as two separate countries.  It wouldn't even include entries on space travel. If we stuck to 1950's research in technology, computers would still have 512 bytes of memory and weigh 13 tons. Would we make this trade because of mere emotion, tradition and superstition?

Still, much of HWA’s material was even more outdated than this. His assertions were largely based on the writings of Alexander Hislop, a minister in the Free Church of Scotland best known for his criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. Hislop's highly speculative pamphlet, The Two Babylons, was largely based in anti-Catholic conspiracy theory and was first released in 1853. Excavation of the ancient city of Babylon did not even begin until 1899.

So what? We're not just talking about antiquated writings, the prosecution might say. Did any of the jurors see the TV special on the pagan roots of Christmas that aired last week?  May I suggest the strong possibility that they are using many of the same outdated sources as HWA and today’s COGs. Which begs the question: what's their motivation? The media does little in a vacuum. When was the last time you found yourself on the same side of ANY argument as the media? You complain about the liberal, biased propaganda the media spews for  11 months of the year. But now, suddenly in December, they’re fair-minded and reliable, telling the gospel truth?

Here is something the prosecutor isn't telling you. Ancient church records show us that many Christians were trying to deduce the dates of Christ’s birth and death in the 100s and 200s AD – more than 100 years before the first mention of the “Sol Invictus” the COGs like to throw around. You can criticize them for concerning themselves with a birthday if you like, although there's no biblical prohibition for doing so. I suspect Christmas is one of the main reasons HWA originally damned birthday celebrations.

But anyway, many concluded Christ’s birth took place late in the year. For example, records from Clement of Alexandria (dated to roughly 198 AD) indicated Egyptian churches calculated Christ was born 194 years, 1 month and 13 days before the death of Commodus. Reliable sources tell us Commodus died December 31, 194 AD. Whether or not Clement is correct, it shows that early churches based their conclusions on calculations rather than just picking a pagan feast.

Hippolytus of Rome – one of Clement’s students - came to the December 25th date a different way in the first decade of the 200s AD. He was focused on determining the date of Christ’s death. He determined the year Jesus died (did you know when the COGs “determined” the year, they went on nothing more than examining days of the week to see which year fit their resurrection narrative?). Hippolytus calculated that Christ was crucified on Friday, March 25th, 33 AD, then added 9 months. Why nine months? Because Hippolytus held to the Jewish tradition that one’s date of conception or birth is tied to the date of one’s death.  Extrabiblical? Absolutely. Pagan? No. In fact, it directly ties Christmas to the date of Passover the year Jesus was crucified, not a pagan celebration. What else does this indicate? Christian scholars were zeroing in on December 25th before any mention of a public festival on December 25.

For more information on a Roman almanac that dated Christ's birth, as well as research showing that Christmas is NOT an iteration of Brumalia, Saturnalia, Yule or Winter Solstice celebrations, please see Exhibit A, Christmas FAQ and Exhibit B, The Plain Truth about December 25th, which have been submitted into evidence. We'll throw in Jeremiah 10 and Christmas Trees and On Nimrod and Christmas Trees, including parts 2 and 3 as a bonus.

Since we're feeling generous and don't want COGWA's rival, the United Church of God to feel slighted, let's address the claim that Palestinians kept their sheep indoors during the winter months, debunking a winter birth for Christ (from UCGs recent article, "Wait! You Just said: Jesus was not Born on December 25!"). There are so many sources contradicting this claim it's impossible to choose just one.  In reality, it is in the winter months that the sheep are kept in the fields. The winter rains began in October and November, causing the lush grass to grow in these fields, which were barren during the dry summer.

But wasn't it too cold for sheep? The latitude for Jerusalem corresponds to somewhere between Valdosta, Georgia and Lake City, Florida. It's hardly Siberia. A simple search on shows that the average low for Jerusalem in December is 42 degrees. And Jerusalem's altitude is significantly higher than the valleys outside Bethlehem, meaning temperatures would be even higher down in the valleys. And what can the good people of Bethlehem, Valdosta and Lake City put on during the cool evenings? Wool clothing. You know, the stuff that comes from sheep.

So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you can still reject Christmas if you so choose. Your freedom in Christ affords you the right to abstain from religious holidays. But let’s be clear as to why you’re abstaining:

You can choose not to like Christmas because it started out as a Catholic observance, or at least as an observance of what would come to be known as the Catholic church. That’s what the Puritans in colonial America did. No, the Sunday-keeping Puritans didn’t ban Christmas because they were a hairsbreadth away from the COG gospel truth. They left England to escape from a bitter feud with Catholics. It was ugly. It was like  the UCG-COGWA split that our prosecuting attorney and his cronies fomented. On steroids. Lasting for decades. Centuries, really. And instead of just a few million in tithes, this feud included control of European treasures, monarchies and parliaments. Oh no. The Puritans did not ban Christmas to keep the holy days. They banned Christmas because they banned all things Catholic.

You can sidestep Hislop if you like and instead reject Christmas based "research" in The Golden Bough, a resource more commonly embraced by the Living Church of God. This book, published in 1890, explores themes shared among ancient mythologies, pagan religions and the Bible. You can accept these arguments if you like, but doing so leaves you with little reason to accept the Bible as anything more than mythology.

You can still choose not to like Christmas because it isn’t listed in Leviticus 23 or other parallel passages. That’s also fine. But then you need to get rid of the Night to Be Much Observed. And give up Thanksgiving. And ponder why the Bible condones Purim, a totally man-made holiday. But that commemorated a miracle from God, you say. What on earth do you think Christmas celebrates?
Our prosecutor reveals his hand, his motivation and his flawed theology at the end of his closing statement.
“I urge you to remember that it's not really Christmas that is on trial – we are.” 
Try as he might to argue COGWA doesn't teach salvation by works, Kilough betrays himself here. For once, the message is clear: we are on trial for our actions. Celebrate Christmas, and God will judge you. Break the Sabbath, and God will judge you. I hear from COGWA members who fear that every misstep, every sin could land them in the Lake of Fire. COGWA, like its predecessor, Herbert Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God, teaches that, once one accepts Christ's sacrifice, his or her salvation is maintained through works.

It's like God offering you a strong 50-foot rope to cross a 100-foot chasm that spans the Lake of Fire. Would tying on a thread from your sweater get you safely across the remaining 50 feet? What if it were a 90-foot rope and a 10-foot thread? What if you only had to depend upon a foot of that thread? Would it keep you safe? The result is no different when we depend upon our own filthy garments to establish our righteousness. And though I've asked, no COG minister has been able to tell me the magic percentage of thread I need to hit to propel myself safely over the flames.

Yes, the Bible does teach that we are on trial. But we could never be found "not guilty." Not if we abstain from Christmas. Not if we perfectly obey Sinai Covenant provisions regarding the Sabbath. Not if we put out our eyes to avoid images that inspire lust, or become vegan to avoid any possible contact with unclean foods. No matter how strictly we follow any checklist we adopt, we are doomed to fail. We have a heart problem, and there's nothing we can do to fix it. Great news, right?

But there is good news! Our trial is over when we stop placing our faith in our own efforts and instead trust in God's promise to save us through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. When we enter the New Covenant, our sin is imputed to Christ and His righteousness imputed to us. After that point, no condemnation remains for us.

(Romans 8:1-4) There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh, but who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.

Obedience is still commanded; it is our reasonable expectation (Romans 12:1) and more given what was given up for us. But there's even more good news! Perfect God, not imperfect man, leads this process; regenerating our hearts, then molding us like pottery in His hands. We have our part to play, but it is cooperative, not sitting in the driver's seat. We should carefully follow the commands that are binding upon Christians as we work out our own salvation. We must make our own judgments and not allow others to bully us into adopting OR rejecting practices based on their superstition or misinformation. At the same time, we must conduct ourselves with speech with grace, gentleness, kindness and patience as ambassadors of Christ. After all, we will give account to God for every idle word we speak.

Over time, a true Christian's works will give evidence that he has been regenerated and has placed his faith in Jesus. If he doesn't, it indicates that he needs to try harder. It indicates that his faith was false and no change has taken place, as discussed in the second chapter of James. Even James and Paul agree that there is work for us to do:

(James 2:18) But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works. Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works."

(Ephesians 2:10) For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them."

We are God's workmanship. He created us to do His will. He calls us to Him. He gives us right legal standing before Him; the only standing in the universe that truly matters. He cleans up our dirty, sinful hearts. He removes our filthy rags and clothes us in garments of righteousness. He Himself guides our steps by indwelling our hearts. He promises that He will complete the good work that He began in us (Philippians 1:6). And it was all made possible by the birth of a baby, the Son of God, who was born to die for your sins and mine. If that isn't reason to celebrate, any day and every day, then I don't know what is.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

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