Thursday, October 15, 2009

Holidays, Birthdays, and Spiritual Gifts

Given the time of year, with several holidays fast approaching, is it a fact that many Christians and others are often confused about to what extent, if any, persons should participate in festivals or other celebrations. In particular, those persons who follow the directives of the Watchtower Society regularly publish information about such celebrations and festivals which is not accurate, and even misleading in several respects. 

For example, and as I presented in my book Three Dissertations on the Teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Murrieta, CA: Elihu Books, 2002), Third Dissertation, pages 208-209:

More recently, a similar question was asked about why Witnesses celebrate wedding anniversaries but not birthdays, which are essentially anniversaries of a person’s date of birth. The Watchtower pointedly stated that there is no need to celebrate either, but that it would not be a problem for Christians to celebrate their wedding anniversary since weddings are placed in a favorable light in the Bible, being a ceremony to commemorate a divine institution, namely, marriage. In contrast, the Bible is said to link birthdays with “cruel acts” of pagans.[NOTE: “Questions from Readers,” The Watchtower, October 15, 1998, pages 30-31.]

The two examples of “cruel acts” given by The Watchtower involve the birthday of Pharaoh during the time of Joseph (Genesis 40:20-23) and the birthday of Herod as recorded in Matthew 14:6-10. Regarding Pharaoh’s birthday, there is nothing explicit linking birthday celebrations in general to “cruel acts.” Naturally, occasions for celebration can provide an outlet for excessive or immoral acts. But in this case the “cruel acts” against the chief of the cupbearers and the chief of the bakers were in fulfillment of the dreams interpreted by Joseph. It is similar with Herod’s birthday celebration. The account in Matthew does not say that John was beheaded because of Herod’s birthday celebration. Rather, he was beheaded because of the request of Herodias and her daughter, and Herod’s oath to her. Indeed, there is nothing in Matthew’s account that explicitly states that John’s head was brought to the birthday celebration at all. It only says that his head was “given to the maiden, and she brought it to her mother” (Matthew 14:11). The presentation may have occurred at the celebration, but as with the account in Genesis 40 there is nothing tying such an act to birthdays in general.

The Watchtower Society regularly publishes such information, along with other arguments which are not convincing or which do not support its position concerning birthdays. For example, though C.T. Russell and the early Bible Students who later became Jehovah’s Witnesses celebrated Christmas and people’s birthdays until up to at least the late 1920s, one fairly recent issue of The Watchtower had this to say about the celebration of Christmas by early Watchtower Society followers (with my underlining added):

Bible Students [Jehovah’s Witnesses] also commemorated December 25 as the anniversary of Jesus’ birth, or birthday. It was even customary to have Christmas dinner at the Brooklyn headquarters. Of course, since then God’s people have grown spiritually in many respects. In the 1920’s increased light of truth enabled them to see the following: Jesus was not born on December 25, a date linked to pagan religion. The Bible directs us to commemorate the date of Jesus’ death, not the anniversary of his or anyone else’s birth. Doing so accords with Ecclesiastes 7:1 and the fact that how a faithful person’s life turns out is more important than the day of his birth. The Bible has no record that any faithful servant celebrated his birthday. [“Questions from Readers,” The Watchtower, October 15, 1998, pages 30-31.]

Yet, as I pointed out also in Three Dissertations (page 210): “There is no record of any faithful servant, in the Bible, celebrating a wedding anniversary, either. So this cannot be used as part of an argument against Christmas.” But it is used as just such an argument here by the Watchtower Society, an entity which for some unexplained reason does not speak about wedding anniversaries in the same way that it does about birthdays.

In the above quote fromThe Watchtower,we can see the Society claims increased understanding made the Bible Students in the late 1920s aware that Jesus was not born on December 25. In fact, however, Russell and the early Bible Students knew full and well that December 25th was not the actual day of Jesus’ birth long before the 1920s. Consider Russell’s own published words as far back as 1893 (with my underlining added):

We have elsewhere presented the Scriptural evidences that the date usually celebrated as the anniversary of our Lord Jesus’ birth is incorrect and that, instead of being Dec. 15, B. C. 4, it really was about October 1, B. C. 2; nevertheless this need not mar our pleasure, nor our appreciation of the great fact so generally celebrated on the wrong date; for its lessons are as appropriate to one date as to another. [“The Birth of Jesus,” Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, December 15, 1893, reprint page 1603.]

The footnote to the above quotation from Russell refers to Millennial Dawn, vol. 2, pages 54-62. See also “Christmas Hopes and Joys,” Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, December 1, 1902, reprint pages 3114-3116; “Christmas Review,” Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, December 15, 1903, reprint pages 3289-3290. It is clear, however, that the October 15, 1998, Watchtower was in error about its assessment of the reasons for why the Society decided to no longer celebrate Christmas. It was not because “increased light of truth enabled them to see the following: Jesus was not born on December 25.” The Society/Russell knew and published this as early as 1893, along with an explanation for why this difference in date should not really matter to those who take pleasure in the celebration of the birth of the Messiah. See my Q&A on this subject (link below) for some of the good reasons from the Bible which make clear why Christians are free to decide whether to celebrate Christmas or any other birthday, so long as it is “in honor of the Lord.”—Romans 14:6.

There is also a lingering question in the minds and hearts of many Christian Witnesses of Jah about use of spiritual "gifts," such as speaking in tongues or as it may involve some other manifestation of God’s holy spirit among us. Therefore, to help further the constructive discussion of these issues among Christian Witnesses of Jah and others, I have put together two brief Q&As on the subjects of holidays/celebrations and on the use of spiritual gifts or powers today. They are:

I hope they are helpful to all who are considering these issues.