Should we celebrate different religious ceremonies?

By Paul Shunamon

Holidays are an important part of almost every culture on earth. Civil holidays mark significant moments in history, such as independence or a wedding. Religious holidays celebrate our deepest-held beliefs about God and our relationship with Him. Or not. Sometimes religious holidays become so commonplace they're barely associated anymore with their spiritual origins. Other times, civil holidays take on a deeper meaning when religious belief is used in their expression.

There is a lot of baggage regarding "Christian" holidays — should we celebrate Christmas and Easter despite the pagan influences on their origins? But Christians also have to consider what to do with the holidays celebrated by friends and family of other faiths. Are we allowed to join in their Ramadan break-fast meals? Or wish a friend "happy Diwali"?

It's important to live out our faith in all areas of our life, especially in our extended families, which may be the only "Bible" those unbelievers ever read. No one can make this difficult decision for us. But Scripture offers excellent guidance for us to take to the Lord in prayer, then apply what we believe in our life and relationships.

We'll look at two biblical approaches. The first suggests where there is room for compromise by us believers with unbelievers, while the second draws a very clear "line in the sand" so to speak, which no Christian should cross. We'll end with a few thoughts and questions intended to help you apply God's word to your own situation. The purpose of this is to inspire prayer, not guilt, as you seek the Spirit's guidance (John 16:13). And though the following is somewhat long, it only scratches the surface of what the Bible has to say on your interesting questions.

1. Scriptures that suggest where there is room for Christians to compromise with the world

As you now know, sooner or later all Christians who commit to living out their lives according to their faith will come into conflict with others (Matthew 10:22; 2 Timothy 3:12). Of course, that's never something we should seek. As Paul counseled, "Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:17-18). He also said living "peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:2-4). So living at peace with others keeps the door open for us to share the Gospel with them.

How far should we go in order to get along with others for the sake of the Gospel? Paul was clear in his own mind:
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share in its blessings. 1 Corinthians 9:18-25
Of course, Paul had strict limits in how far he would go to win others. He would never misrepresent the Gospel in any way, no matter how much he allowed himself to "blend in" with non-believers. For example, he publicly condemned Peter for "not acting in line with the truth of the Gospel" by acting like a legalistic Jew (Galatians 2:11-14). Paul also spoke of dealing with non-Jewish pagans in the matter of eating food sacrificed to idols. We believers have a great deal of freedom in Christ (1 Corinthians 10:23), so feel free to eat sacrificial food, but only if no one claims it is part of a pagan religious ritual — then you must not participate (10:25-30).

The Old Testament also touches on this situation with Naaman, the pagan army commander of Israel's neighbor Aram. When the prophet Elisha cured him of leprosy, he became a believer in the one true God and told Elisha,:
"Your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord. But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also — when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this." "Go in peace," Elisha said. 2 Kings 5:17-19
This Bible offers no further explanation of Elisha's response, and we can't build a doctrine on that one passage. Nevertheless, it implies God looked on Naaman's heart (1 Samuel 16:7) and credited his faith as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).

Again, you can enter places of false worship for a variety of reasons, but never to take part in their religious services, which are in fact proclaiming a false gospel. It may be possible to go to a wedding or a funeral without joining in the religious parts of the ceremony. If not, it may be possible to only attend the reception.

2. Scriptures drawing a clear line against compromise with the world

We'll continue with the Old Testament, the famous Scripture of Joshua public statement of faith:
But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. Joshua 24:15
We Christians are called to be salt and light to the rest of the unbelieving world (Matthew 5:13-16). In other words, we are to be noticed for how by God's grace we are different, not for how we blend in and get along. But a commitment to live as children of light (1 Thessalonians 5:4-6) guarantees conflict and persecution (2 Timothy 3:12), even from our own families. As Jesus warned:
"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.' Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me." Matthew 10:34-38
Yet we are not unprotected in those situations. As Jesus told Paul in a vision:
"I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me." Acts 26:17-19
In fact, Jesus counseled a man who wanted to wait to follow Jesus until after his father's funeral: "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:60). We Christians are not to be tied down by pagan customs, as Paul said: "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?" (2 Corinthians 6:14).

A final warning from our Lord: "Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels" (Luke 9:26).

3. Some thoughts and questions to pray about in more specific circumstances

As mentioned before, you may be the only "Bible" your unbelieving family and neighbors ever read. It's good to take that mission seriously!

Remember, whatever situation you find yourself in was precisely engineered by God before time began (Jeremiah 1:5; Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 1:9). It is not random, but rather part of his plan for you and ALL your family and friends. Why do you suppose He put you in these exact circumstances? What part of his plan for your life does this fit into?

As a believer, you know that all people are made in God's image (Genesis 1:25-27), with a sense of eternity in their hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and a God-shaped vacuum that drives them towards the Lord, a vacuum that nothing and no one but God can fill. God wants all people to seek and find him (Acts 17:27) and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9) because He loves everyone in the whole world (John 3:16). Other religions can point vaguely towards God (e.g., we should be good and not evil, we are spiritual beings and want eternal life, etc.), but they can never save. There is only one Way, one Name, that can (John 14:6; Acts 4:12) .

It may be that someone in your family understands that their religion is actually an "empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors" (1 Peter 1:18). And that one of them may say to you some day, "Thank you for being a faithful witness to Christ. I despised you at the time, but in my heart I knew you were right. Because of your courage and faithfulness I am now a Christian."

Paul was in the same circumstances when he arrived in Athens. He was greatly distressed by the false religion there, but he didn't want to be obnoxious to those who welcomed him as a visitor. So rather than tell them they were all going to hell if they didn't repent and believe the Gospel, he started from what they got right, then explained what they didn't yet know. Acts 17:16-31 is an unsurpassed model of tolerant Christian outreach to unbelievers.

One last thought: Christianity survived for over 2,000 years (not to ignore God's sovereign control) thanks to the faithfulness of God's people to bear true witness of the Gospel even unto death. Christians in the Roman Empire had a much harder choice to make than you or I do. If a Roman greeted someone, "Caesar is Lord," the other person was supposed to reply with the same words. Many chose to respond with the truth, "Jesus is Lord," which often brought a death sentence. Yet God used the persecution of these martyrs to spread the Christian faith in ways no human could have ever planned, down through history all the way to you and me. It continues today, in China for example, where faithful witnesses are helping bring some 20,000 Chinese to the Lord every day. The price they pay is often prison, beatings, labor camps and even death. Like the Apostles of long ago, they are honored to be "counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name." (Acts 5:41)

We'll give Isaiah the last word in this answer:
I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
     I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
     to be a covenant for the people
     and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
     to free captives from prison
     and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

Isaiah 42:6-7

Published 12-6-16