Why Do Jehovah's Witnesses Avoid Pagan Customs?
True Christians must accept God's word over the desires of our hearts and the traditions of men. And we must learn from the lessons found in the Bible concerning the disastrous results of man following his heart's desire (and his own "reasoning") instead of obedience to God's word.
An example of "reasoned" disobedience to God's word: Moses was up on Mount Sinai for so many days that the Israelites feared that he must have died. So they made an idol in the shape of the golden calf that they had known all their lives during their Egyptian slavery. They made sacrifices to it and called it the very same God who had brought them out of Egypt. Even Aaron built an altar in front of the calf in order to have a festival to Jehovah.
Now God had commanded them to have only one God, Jehovah. So this festival and idol were really intended in His honor (or so they reasoned in their hearts). They were taking pagan religious customs and "making them clean and holy"! The only problem is, worshipers of the true God don't decide for themselves what is right or wrong in God's eyes. This is exactly the same terrible sin that Adam and Eve committed.
On the next day during the festival (to "Jehovah") God's wrath against such disobedient ones was partially fulfilled and thousands died. (Ex. 32.)
We may well understand the reasoning of the Israelites and their desire to fall back on customs and ceremonies that they had grown up with in Egypt and felt secure and comfortable with. But the whole point of this example is that they expressly disobeyed Jehovah's clear commandment (Ex. 20:4) and reasoned in their own self-deceiving hearts that they could make this action "clean and holy to God" by giving the pagan idol Jehovah's name and making the pagan celebration solely in HIS honor. Compromise, then, should have brought them the best of both worlds. Instead it brought the wrath of the only true God and death!
"The whole narrative of the golden calf (Ex. 32) reveals the extent of the contrast between the religion which stemmed from Mt. Sinai and the form of religion congenial to the unregenerate heart. These religions, we learn are incompatible .... it is a most significant thing that when Israel turned to idolatry it was always necessary to borrow the trappings from the pagan environment .... whenever the kings of Israel and Judah lapsed into idolatry, it was by means of borrowing and syncretism." - New Bible Dictionary, p. 504, Tyndale House Publ., 1984.
So Israelites didn't reject their God openly, but continued to "worship" him by adding (or reverting to) pagan customs in God's name. They "made" these customs, celebrations, etc. clean and holy to the one true God (or so they reasoned). But it was never acceptable to Jehovah who demanded pure, untainted worship.
Notice what the leaders of the only true religious organization on earth at the time of Jesus were doing. Jesus said to them:
"`Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men." You have let go the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.' And he [Jesus] said to them: `You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!'" - Mark 7:6-9, NIV.
Certainly the Israelites in their terrible hour of need at Mt. Sinai, when all seemed lost, understandably yearned for such things. And yet their reasoning is identical to that of those who wish to "make" pagan celebrations and customs pleasing to God.
But the only real consideration must be: Is it pleasing to God? Is it truly in line with His Word? We can know only by examining His word, the Bible! Obviously the Israelites learned that such reasoning was terribly wrong and worthy of death. They learned the hard way what Jesus emphasized to those religious leaders of his time who were also "setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!" - These later Israelites would lose the opportunity for eternal life also, because of their reasoning and traditions of men.
Martin Luther wrote,
"Thus we, although having the right faith, fall into new disbeliefs. This is what the devil brought about in olden times when he misled the children of Israel from the temple at Jerusalem to innumerable other places. It was all done in God's name, and with every appearance of sanctity; all the prophets preached against it, and were martyred for doing so. But, nowadays, no one preaches against it...!" - p. 458, Martin Luther, Selections From His Writings, Dr. John Dillenberger, Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1961.
Moses concluded with this clear warning by Jehovah: "See that you do all that I command you; do not add to it or take away from it." - Deut. 12:32. In other words, we are not to decide what is good and evil in God's "food" for us! We must, unlike Adam, the Israelites, and those who wish to "make" pagan Christmas celebrations and customs pleasing to God, obey all of God's word in spite of what we want in our hearts or what seems "reasonable" to us.
"The pillars and the asherah were both forbidden to Israel [and they were both frequently returned to time and again by the Israelites] .... The asherah was wooden, as we learn from its usual destruction by burning (Deut. 12:3; 2 Ki. 23:6), and probably originated from the sacred evergreen, the symbol of life. The association of these with Canaanite fertility practice sufficed to make them abominable to Yahweh [Jehovah]." - New Bible Dictionary, p. 504.
Notice how exclusive the worship of God must be: "Be careful to do everything I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips." - Exodus 23:13, NIVSB.
Yes, idolatry includes anything even associated with pagan gods. This would even include merely speaking their names in a conciliatory manner or raising an asherah pole, symbol of the sacred evergreen, (even if you "cleansed" it by using it in a ceremony "honoring" Christ and calling it a "Christmas Pole," for example).
"In the New Testament the word ... (idololatria), afterwards shortened occasionally to ... (idolatria) [`idolatry'], occurs in all four times, viz., in 1 Cor. 10:14; Gal. 5:20; 1 Pet. 4:3; Col. 3:5. In the last of these passages it is used to describe the sin of covetousness or 'mammon-worship'. In the other places it indicates with the utmost generality all the rites and practices of those special forms of paganism with which Christianity first came into collision." - Encyclopedia Britannica, p.71, v.12, 14th ed.
Notice how strongly this idolatry (which includes "all the rites and practices of ... paganism") is condemned in the NT: Rev. 21:8; Gal. 5:20, 21.
Even in the first century of Christianity many of those who believed themselves to be Christians let their hearts and "reason" seduce them into making certain pagan practices "clean" for Christians. Notice this quote from the Roman Catholic Bible The New American Bible (1970), St. Joseph edition: footnote for Rev. 2:14-15 -
"Like Balaam, the biblical prototype of religious compromisers..., the Nicolaitans in Pergamum and Ephesus accommodated their Christian faith to paganism."
And notice how strongly this was condemned by Jesus: He would come and "fight against them with the sword of [his] mouth"! (Rev. 2:16)
How Exclusive Should Our Devotion to Jehovah God Be?
Yes, God has always demanded that our "sacrifice" to him, no matter how small, must be pure and untainted. The principal was laid down repeatedly in the OT. E.g., "Do not sacrifice to the LORD [Jehovah] your God an ox or a sheep that has any defect or flaw in it, for that would be detestable to him." - Deut. 17:1, NIVSB, (Cf. Lev. 1:3,10; 3:1). Even in "grain offerings" when the grain was made into flour and baked before it was offered, there was to be absolutely no leaven or "yeast" in that offering. The leaven, then, was figurative of an impurity, comparable to a defect or flaw found in an impure animal sacrifice, and made such a flawed sacrifice detestable to God.
So, can we get away with a tiny bit of "leaven" in our "sacrifices" to God today? No more than we can get away with a tiny drop of cyanide in a glass of pure drinking water. Paul tells us of a saying that makes that very point:
"Have you never heard the saying, `A little leaven leavens all the dough'? The old leaven of corruption is working among you. Purge it out, and then you will be bread of a new baking. As Christians you are unleavened Passover bread .... So we who observe the festival must not use the old leaven, the leaven of corruption and wickedness, but only the unleavened bread which is sincerity and truth." Further explaining, Paul says: "you must have nothing to do with any so-called Christian who leads a loose life, or is grasping, or idolatrous.... You should not even eat with any such person." - 1 Cor. 5:6-8, 11, New English Bible.
No, God still tolerates absolutely no "leaven" mixed into the Christian "sacrifice" of true worship. "I the LORD do not change." - Malachi 3:6, NIVSB.
Note the example of the golden calf. It was made from the gold jewelry of the Israelites themselves. Obviously the Israelites were not allowed to keep that pagan image of the calf no matter how they "cleansed" it or "gave it a Godly purpose"! But surely they could recast that extremely valuable gold back into jewelry or even into utensils properly used in the worship of Jehovah!! But no, in spite of its great material value, it must never be used again by God's people in any form, for any purpose! - Deut. 9:21. What could be a more obvious demonstration of the exclusive devotion required by God and the lengths God's people must go to to ensure pure worship? We must not knowingly "purify" and "reuse" anything that has been made for paganistic false worship!
So, if pagan ceremonies, customs, god names, etc. are really mixed in with ceremonies, customs, etc. that we use today, they are not merely unacceptable - - - they are detestable to God. We must completely get away from these unclean things and not even "touch" them. (2 Cor. 6:17) Notice how exclusive the worship of God must be: "Be careful to do everything I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips." - Exodus 23:13, NIVSB.
Those who "make" pagan celebrations and customs pleasing to God are clearly, tragically, terribly wrong when they say things like: "My perspective gives these holidays a godly purpose. Pagans may have offered these holidays to their idols, but I offer them to my God and, therefore, they are God's days." If a holiday or custom is being deliberately participated in by a Christian, it must have absolutely no known pagan religion associations.
Consider the two examples concerning Luke and Paul. When Luke wrote in Acts mentioning the Areopagus ('Ares Hill' - Ares is the Greek god of war; 'Mars' is the Latin god of war), he didn't feel the need to change its already established name to something no one would recognize. Furthermore, Paul actually went to this place devoted to a pagan god and preached. And Paul accepted the Areopagite, Dionysius (Greek name for 'god of wine') and had him join him - Acts 17:19-34. Luke and Paul certainly did not become participants in something associated with pagan origins.
So these necessary things are not a celebration of pagan gods. But it would be wrong to incorporate anything used for pagan worship, into our worship or related activities. Holidays, for example, are "Holy Days" and are a part of "worship", by their very name.
While we today have no practical option but to use things like the Gregorian calendar (which uses the names of pagan Roman gods), we do have a choice whether or not to participate in customs which were originally devoted to honoring these gods. And according to Scripture, we should take advantage of that choice.
Jehovah's Witnesses and the Gregorian Calendar
(Defend Jehovah's Witnesses)
Can the Pagan Customs of Christmas Really Be MADE Acceptable to God?
(Defend Jehovah's Witnesses)
Jehovah's Witnesses and Holidays - Links to Information (Defend Jehovah's Witnesses)
Can a Pagan Holiday Be Made Christian?
(w07 12/15 pp. 8-9l; Watchtower Online Library)
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