A very lively theological debate with a friend over the appropriateness of Christians displaying Christmas trees has led me to write a couple recent blog articles. (Here and here. ) This is the third installment of articles inspired by this ongoing conversation.
My friend’s passionate defense of his position has led me to take a page from the Berean Jews and examine the scriptures for myself to see if his claim could be true. In this article, I’ll be looking at the 12th chapter of the book of Deuteronomy because the fourth verse of that chapter forms the linchpin of his argument that Christmas trees are idols of pagan worship. I’ve honestly not spent much time in this book of the Bible yet so in fairness to my buddy I wanted to dig into it.
One of the best pieces of theological advice I’ve ever received was to “never read a verse of the Bible.” Instead, the advice goes on to say, read complete passages. Or better yet, complete chapters and books. In other words, don’t pull out a single verse and try to figure out what it means on its own. Context is everything. So I’ll start there and then move on to the examination of my friend’s argument.
The book of Deuteronomy contains three addresses Moses gave to the people of Israel near the end of his life after the Israelites had wandered in the wilderness for 40 years and just before they finally entered the Promised Land. Theologian Matthew Henry sums up chapter 12 nicely in his Commentary on the Whole Bible:
“Moses at this chapter comes to the particular statutes which he had to give in charge to Israel, and he begins with those which relate to the worship of God, and particularly those which explain the second commandment, about which God is in a special manner jealous.” —Matthew Henry on Deuteronomy, chapter 12
With that context in mind, let’s take a close look at the full passage from Deuteronomy 12, which spans verses one to seven.
Verse 1 says, “These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has given you to possess—as long as you live in the land.”
Here Moses is speaking to the nation of Israel, explaining that he is going to give them a list of decrees on behalf of God. Israel is to be careful to follow these decrees once they have taken possession of the Promised Land. And they are further told to follow them as long as they live in that land (NIV). Other translations say all the days you live on the earth (CSB, KJV).
Next, in verses 2 and 3, Moses provides the list of specific decrees. Below I’ve assembled the full list complete with alternate words used in different translations to help provide a more complete picture:
- Completely (utterly) destroy all the places where false gods are worshipped
- Tear down (break down, overthrow) their altars
- Smash (break, dash in pieces) their sacred pillars (stones)
- Burn their Asherah poles (Asherim, groves) with fire
- Cut (hew, chop) down the carved (sculpted) images of their gods
- Wipe out (destroy, obliterate) the false god’s names from that (or every) place.
After listing these decrees, Moses admonishes Israel, “Don’t worship the LORD your God this way.” Then, in verses 5-7, he goes on to tell Israel how they are to worship God instead.
The theme here is clearly the abolition of idol worship. God, through Moses, is telling Israel they need to purify the land they are about to possess from all false gods and idols. As Matthew Henry pointed out, this passage in Deuteronomy 12 is particularly focused on the 2nd Commandment, which says:
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6 and Deut 5:8-10)
Now, with that passage unpacked a bit, let’s take a look at my friend’s argument, which I summarized as follows:
- Deuteronomy 12:4 says, “You must not worship the Lord your God in their way.” This means that Christians are not to worship God in the same way the pagans worship their god(s).
- Pagans worship their god(s) using trees.
- When Christians put up Christmas trees, it is an act of worship because it is an expression of adoration for a deity.
- Conclusion: When a Christian puts up a Christmas tree, they are worshipping God in the same way that pagans worship their god(s), which is clearly prohibited in Deuteronomy 12:4.
I ran this summary by him and he agreed that this is exactly his position. I happen to agree with premise #2. And although I don’t completely buy it, I could probably be convinced to grant my friend premise #3 as well. Where I see a major issue is in his initial proposition:
Premise #1: Christians are not to worship God in the same way the pagans worship their god(s).
This premise hinges on the phrase “in the same way”. What does that mean, exactly? In what ways do pagans worship their gods? According to Harvard University, “Building an altar…is one of the first ways many Pagans begin spiritual practice…At the altar, one might leave an offering for a deity, enter into meditation, create an herbal charm, or undertake a personal cleansing or healing ritual…Pagan personal practice can be as simple as lighting a candle at the dark of the moon and meditating on the flame, or pouring a fresh cup of water for one’s ancestors and saying a prayer.”
So it turns out there are a number of ways that pagans worship their gods which are also prescribed to Israel when worshipping the God of the Bible. Pagans build altars, give offerings, meditate, partake in cleansing ceremonies, and say prayers. Israel was commanded to participate in those same activities when they worshipped God. In fact, in that same chapter of Deuteronomy, we read that Israel is to bring offerings, sacrifices, tithes, and gifts to God on His altar.
Therefore, Deuteronomy 12:4 can’t be interpreted in a universal sense to mean that anything pagans do during worship cannot be used by Israel (and by extension Christians) in their worship of God. Because some of the things pagans do Jews (and by extension Christians) are allowed to do, as well. Thus, if pagans “worship with trees”, it does not mean that Christians are not allowed to use trees in their religious celebrations. We are not allowed to worship the tree, of course, because that would be a false idol. But there is nothing in Scripture prohibiting Christians from putting up a Christmas tree in honor of Jesus.
So what could be meant in Deuteronomy 12:4 by, “You must not worship the Lord your God in their way”? In light of chapter 12 as a whole, I believe verse four could be referring to how the Canaanites would build altars to false gods and idols and do so anywhere they pleased with no understanding or acknowledgment of the One True God, Yahweh. So in this verse, God, through Moses, is telling Israel (and, by extension Christians) that we are not to blindly worship false gods or idols. Which is something I’m sure my buddy and I could both agree on!