Halloween is here! How can I tell? Because the big question making the rounds around the evangelical Christian world is “Do you celebrate Halloween? How do you protect your kids, or even your own soul, from the evil inherent in the season?”
OK…that’s not a direct quote, but it sums up the attitude. I know, because I used to be there. Halloween is seen around the evangelical world as one symptom of how far our country has drifted from God, what with Halloween’s pagan origins and all. I participated in my share of ‘reclaiming the holiday for Christ’ activities. I made a point to tell all of my non-Christian friends that I was not participating in the pagan festivities of jack-o-lanterns or trick-or-treating. I did my share of presenting a ‘good witness for Christ’. I handed out Bible tracts instead of candy. I tried to witness the Gospel to trick-or-treaters at my door.
And then I got Reformed, and started reading the Scripture the way it was written and intended to be read, and learned how to separate what the Scriptures actually say from the cultural lens of twenty-first century evangelical American Christianity. There is a difference.
It is true that as Christians were are not to follow pagan practices or customs, but I would contend that the holiday celebrated today as Halloween is so far removed from its pagan roots that those roots are meaningless in the context of today’s world. Most people today would have no idea of Halloween’s pagan roots unless they are taught them. Ironically, the people doing the teaching are usually Christians when they try to teach how evil Halloween celebration is. For the vast majority of Americans, however, Halloween is just a day to dress up in a costume, go to parties, and participate in the social game of trick-or-treat.
I am a firm believer that words mean things, and it is dangerous to make words so plastic that they can be interpreted to mean almost anything. However, words do change meanings over the centuries. Try reading Chaucer in his original language if you don’t believe me. And if words change meanings, then practices do as well unless they are carefully guarded by the group performing the practices. For instance, baptism and communion contain the original meaning they did for the apostles. Those practices have been carefully guarded by the church over the centuries. But what did the maypole originally mean? Can you answer that definitively without consulting Wikipedia? The same applies to Halloween traditions. Nobody has been carefully guarding the original intent of any Halloween practices, so they have faded into meaninglessness over the centuries. Rather, they have morphed into a different meaning from the original pagan context. Today they are simply social occasions. Once the pagan context is removed, there is nothing inherently unscriptural or unchristian about dressing up in costumes or even trick-or-treating.
At this point, Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 come into play. Let me start with 1 Corinthians 8:4…
So then, about eating meat sacrificed to idols…
Paul is here talking about a definite pagan practice, eating meat that had been sacrificed on the altars of pagan gods. This was not a pagan practice from a bygone era, the roots and significance of which had been forgotten by the population at large. This was something that occurred in Corinth every day. Everybody knew what the temple sacrifices were about. Then the meat which had been sacrificed and been a part of pagan worship was taken down to the market and sold for general consumption. Paul continues…
We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (and indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came, and through whom we live.
Paul says clearly that these idols, false gods, are nothing. They are not real. They are nothing to be feared in the light of the one true God, and we have no cause to feel threatened by them. Now, if Paul says this is true of active, ongoing pagan worship being practiced in his time, how much more so in our time over activities which no longer have any relation to their pagan roots?
But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, they are defiled.
Paul concedes that there are those new to the faith who have a hard time separating the meat from the sacrifice. How do we know Paul is talking about those new in the faith? He says “still so accustomed.” These are people who had not progressed very far in the doctrines of the faith, of the doctrines of grace. These people have ‘weak consciences’. They are not yet strong in the faith. They have not yet learned that idols are nothing in light of who God is. Paul makes his point crystal clear with his next statement…
But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
Even with food that had clearly been offered up as sacrifice to pagan gods, it did not truly matter one way or the other if a Christian ate that meat. Do we really think that it is more harmful for Christians today to participate in costumes, parties, or trick-or-treat than it was back then for Christians to eat meat that had a clear and present connection to pagan gods?
Then we come to a critical passage…
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
Three critical points can be seen here: freedom, stumbling block, and the weak.
Notice that Paul says the Corinthian Christians can ‘exercise their freedom’. They were free to eat or not eat the meat, whatever they chose. Ultimately, it does not matter either for the Christian whether or not he/she dresses up in a costume, goes to a Halloween themed party, or goes trick-or-treating. Romans 14, which I won’t go into here, tells us all about the Christian’s freedom to do whatever is not prohibited in Scripture and whatever the Christian can do with a clean conscience.
Then we come to ‘stumbling block’. ‘Not being a stumbling block’ is frequently cited as an important reason for forgoing any Halloween festivities, but just what is a stumbling block? Paul tells us…
For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brother in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.
Paul uses strong words here to describe the seriousness of using ones liberty too cause another Christian to act against his/her conscience and fall back into a sin he/she had left. So…what sin would that be on Halloween? Falling back into pagan ritual? If a Christian brother or sister had been a part of a coven which observed Halloween as a high holy day and offered sacrifices, maybe it would. Maybe if a person was a regular participant of San Francisco’s long running (but no longer) Exotic Erotic Ball, and my costume tempted him/her to think it was okay to run down to San Francisco to participate in whatever venue replaced it, maybe it would. But notice that Paul says we are to be careful of brothers and sisters who would fall back into that sin. He does not say that we have to adapt to brothers and sisters who are merely offended at what we do. The Judaizers were offended that Peter was eating with the Gentiles, so Peter withdrew from them…until called on it by Paul.
Notice that Paul is talking about the weaker brother here, not the Pharisee. The weaker brother is one who would fall back into a sin. The Pharisee would never do that. The Pharisee is too strong for that, and he’s going to make sure everybody else around him receives the benefits of his strength. For the weaker brother, I will gladly surrender my freedoms to help strengthen him in the faith. For the Pharisee…never.
Again, Paul says that the ones who had a problem with eating the meat were the ones with the weak faith. They do need to be nurtured, but a Christian’s goal is to grow in the faith and get strong, isn’t it? I would think that anybody who has been a growing Christian for ten or twenty years would be strong enough in the faith that Halloween social rituals would not be threatening. Think about that.
So…the bottom line…to Halloween, or not to Halloween, that is the question! Whether you observe it with costumes, parties, and trick-or-treat or not is entirely up to you, and I wish you well in however you decide to observe it or not. The problem is when we try to make our own convictions on this issue normal and binding for all other Christians. You can tell if you are doing that when you phrase your answer to this question in words like “A good Christian does not celebrate Halloween”, or “A good Christian does not go trick-or-treating.” Or anything else extra-biblical. A Christian of strong faith is not intimidated by other people excercising their Christian liberties.
How strong is your faith?