Worship: Once Pagan, Always Pagan?

Does Deuteronomy 12:30-31 mean that it is sinful to have Christian celebrations on days that used to be celebrated in honor of false gods? Through Moses, God says:

Be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.

Do these verses mean that we cannot do anything pagans did in worship? No, for pagans prayed, sang hymns, played musical instruments, and some baptized by immersion. They also had priesthoods, special garments, temples, altars and sacrifices. They had annual festivals in conjunction with the agricultural seasons. None of these practices are wrong. Some are even part of Christianity.

Since Deuteronomy 12 does not forbid all pagan worship practices, then what does it forbid? The context clarifies the concern when it gives the reason for the prohibition: “because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates.” The problem isn’t worship—the problem is detestable worship practices. The example cited in verse 31 is child sacrifice; temple prostitution would be another.

If we go back to the beginning of the chapter, we will see the context. The primary concern throughout the chapter is the location of worship. God told the Israelites to destroy all Canaanite high places and altars and idols. Instead, the Israelites were to make all their sacrifices at one central site. This would make it difficult for anyone to worship other gods. This emphasized the fact that there was only one God, not dozens of deities each having power over small areas.

In Canaanite religion, and in many other pagan religions, the people thought that various gods had power in various places. The god that was most influential in one area might not have as much influence in another. So people made sacrifices in their own areas to appease the local gods. If the people offered acceptable sacrifices, they expected the gods to respond by giving them whatever they wanted. In effect, their worship was an attempt to tell their gods what to do. That’s why they sacrificed sons and daughters in the fire—a costly sacrifice like that would supposedly guarantee that they would get what they desired.

Canaanite religion also included cultic prostitution. If the people wanted fertility, they performed sex acts in their worship. They thought that if they did their part, then Baal would do his. Anthropologists call it a system of sympathetic magic. It was an attempt to control and manipulate the gods.

The Canaanite concept of gods was defective, and their concept of worship was also defective. Their theology led to detestable practices, and that is why God wanted the Israelites to destroy the pagan altars and not to copy their worship methods.

Deuteronomy 12 does not apply to every worship practice. The context connects it with places of sacrifice and with child sacrifice. It is concerned with things that are detestable or abominable—things that God hates. There is no hint in the text that the day of the year was of any concern. Since Old Testament worship days were connected to agricultural seasons, and Canaanite worship was also based on agricultural seasons, it is likely that there were some similarities in the days being observed. God’s condemnation of pagan worship practices was based not on dates, but on whether the customs were detestable.

Canaanite religion was superstitious about worship locations and the effectiveness of sacrifices and rituals. But on the other side of the coin, it would be superstitious for us to avoid everything that pagans did simply because they did it—because that would include prayer, hymns and marriage ceremonies. We cannot let centuries-dead pagans dictate what we do or what we avoid.

It is not wrong to rejoice that Jesus was born; it is superstitious to think that we should avoid this subject on one particular day of the year. It would also be wrong to think that we must celebrate a particular day the Bible does not require. It would also be a mistake to restrict our joy concerning Christ’s birth to one season of the year.

It is not wrong for families and friends to exchange gifts whenever they wish; it is superstitious to think that it is OK to do this on 363 days a year, but wrong on one or two. If a practice is detestable, it is detestable in any time or place. If wrong things are done on December 25, for
example, then we should criticize whatever is wrong, not the date on which it is done.

Is it wrong to do things that were once part of pagan worship customs?

Pagan worship practices included prayer, music and offerings. Those practices are not sinful in themselves, and we see biblical examples of them being used in worship of the true God. Pagans conducted marriage ceremonies and used wedding rings, but we may also have them, even though the Bible does not command them.

Pagans also had many funeral customs, such as embalming, ceremonies and giving of flowers. Even though these customs were shaped by non-Christian ideas about the afterlife, and these customs continue to be used by non-Christians, we may, and do, use them in Christian ceremonies without indicating any agreement with the originating beliefs.

Pagans dedicated certain days of the week to their gods, and we use these names today without implying idolatry on our part. Pagans created statues of people and animals, but that does not mean that we cannot. These customs have lost their pagan connotations and have become religiously neutral. It is not sinful, for example, for an architect to copy the pillars found in Greek and Roman temples. Things that were once “pagan” do not necessarily remain pagan.

In the United States, no one would think it odd for a Christian to have a small ornamental figurine of a bird or animal. In Moses’ day, however, such statues would have been inappropriate. Whether something has pagan connotations is often cultural. What is acceptable in one nation or century may be frowned upon in another. But we do not have to be restricted by erroneous concepts of the past.

We can make decisions about embalming, burial, caskets, crypts, cremation and flowers without  having to investigate which of these customs originated in paganism. It is even possible to use these things in religious ceremonies without fear of contamination or compromise.

Some people are uncomfortable with customs such as wedding rings and cremation. Others are not. Different people draw their “lines” in different places, but they need to respect each other’s beliefs. The advice of Romans 14:6-13 applies to such matters: “He who participates does so to the Lord. He who abstains does so to the Lord. So then, why do you judge your brother? Each of us has to give our own account to God. Therefore, do not pass judgment on one another, and do not put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.”

The principles given in 1 Corinthians 8:4, 7 are also adaptable: “So then, about participating in customs that were once associated with the worship of idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. But not everyone knows this. Some people are
still so accustomed to idols that when they participate they think of an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.” Paul explained that Christians had freedom in this matter, but he cautioned them to be careful with their freedom (verse 9).

Basically, we can live and worship without worrying about what pagans did or did not do. If the behavior is wrong, it is wrong for us to do it whether or not pagans did it. If it is not wrong, we may do it whether or not the pagans did it first.

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