Christmas 1914—Christian against Christian?

This holiday season marks the 100th anniversary of the World War I Christmas truce, in which opposing troops along the war’s western front spontaneously climbed out of their trenches to exchange gifts, sing carols, and play soccer. Especially in the United Kingdom, the anniversary has been the subject of much discussion. Prince William unveiled a new monument to the truce in mid-December, and a major supermarket chain has referenced the truce in its holiday ad campaign. The article below explores the spiritual realities reflected in that remarkable display of the Christmas spirit a century ago.

Silent NightAs they looked out across no man’s land, British soldiers were alarmed at flickering lights in the German trenches. Some of the British opened fire, while others readied their ammunition and weapons for fresh combat. A German cried, “Don’t shoot!” but there seemed no reason to trust him. Then from across the way came the strains of “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (Silent Night, Holy Night), and the English realized that those lights were makeshift, Christmas tree candles. They laid down their arms and joined in the carol.1

Christmas 1914 was bitterly cold for those at the Anglo-German front in northern France and Belgium, but that was cause for rejoicing. The mud had frozen, and the troops were able to dry out. Still, it was a miserable time, for they were locked in a war of attrition, one which would take the lives of almost ten million soldiers.

In the midst of this carnage, Christmas Eve proved to be an island of peace. While there were some skirmishes here and there, they were lighter than usual, and the overwhelming majority of troops enjoyed an unofficial truce. The music ranged from “Silent Night” on a French harmonica to Handel’s Largo on a German violin. A German regimental band even played the national anthems of both Germany and Britain.

The battle for Europe had given way to the “battle of the carols”:

They finished their carol and we thought that we ought to retaliate in some way, so we sang “The First Nowell,” and when we finished that they all began clapping; and then they struck up another favourite of theirs, “O Tannenbaum.” And so it went on. First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up “O Come All Ye Faithful” the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words “Adeste Fideles.” And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing—two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.2

Christmas dawn ushered in more of this extraordinary goodwill. As camaraderie and trust grew, opponents met in the open and exchanged such gifts as wine for cake. A German barber cut Scottish hair. One British private sent his wife a postcard with six German signatures.

Burial parties were arranged. The 6th Gordon Highlanders and the 15th Infantry Regiment, a Westphalian unit, joined in a moving ceremony for the dead. As Scotsmen, Englishmen, Saxons, and Westphalians lined up on both sides of a communal mass grave, the Reverend J. Esslemont Adams, minister of the West United Free Church, Aberdeen, and chaplain of the 6th Gordons, read the Twenty-third Psalm in English. A theology student then read it in German . . . The Lord’s Prayer followed, sentence by sentence, in both languages: “Our Father Who art in Heaven. Unser Vater in dem Himmel . . .”3

In many sectors, peace continued through New Year’s Day, in others through mid-January. Not surprisingly, the soldiers were reluctant to resume hostilities.4

Pacifists and other romanticists will cite this occurrence as evidence of the folly and dispensability of war. Certainly they are right that many wars are foolish and unnecessary, but they must ignore both man’s depravity and the demands of justice to denounce all war. There will always be Hitlers, and they must always be stopped.

This incident does, however, illustrate the scandal of supposedly Christian nations’ taking up arms against each other. Brass buttons on the leather German equipment belts read, “Gott mit uns” (“God with us”),5 and the British no doubt felt the same way about their cause. But God is not divided. Even without exploring the roots of the First World War and the rightness or wrongness of the sides’ perspectives, it is fair to say that at least one party missed the Lord’s directions, and so their involvement was deplorable. They needed to repent, not attack.

It has been said that democracies never go to war against democracies, a phenomenon borne out in history. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about nations and factions who claim Jesus as Lord. Whether at Belfast, Gettysburg, or Ypres, Christians have taken up arms against Christians and made a spectacle of themselves before a watching world—a sorry testimony, unlike the splendid testimony of carols sung across no man’s land on Christmas Eve 1914.

1 The bulk of this account is found under “Peace on Earth” in Morris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), 109-114.
2 Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, Christmas Truce: The Western Front December 1914 (London: Pan Macmillan, 2001), 58-59.
3 Eksteins, 111.
4 Brown and Seaton, 149. “The difficulty began on the 26th, when the order to fire was given, for the men struck. Herr Lange says that in the accumulated years he had never heard such language as the officers indulged in, while they stormed up and down, and got, as the only result, the answer, ‘We can’t—they are good fellows, and we can’t.’ Finally, the officers turned on the men with, ‘Fire, or we do—and not at the enemy!’ Not a shot had come from the other side, but at last they fired, and an answering fire came back, but not a man fell. We spent that day and the next,’ said Herr Lange, ‘wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky.’”
5 Ibid., 96.

The Intolerance of the “Tolerant”

Intolerance is the quickest route to social leprosy on the modern university campus. Intolerance simply cannot be tolerated. So argued University of Chicago Professor Allan Bloom in his courageous book, The Closing of the American Mind. By his account, a student could be known for promiscuity, drunkenness, profanity, laziness, and dishonesty and still be popular among his peers. But if he argued that homosexuality, Wicca, or any other deviant lifestyle or belief system was mistaken and harmful, then he was a marked man. At best, he was shunned, at worst, expelled and sued.

Bloom’s title was, at first sight, a curious one, for the book seemed to describe a very open-minded culture, one free from “Victorian” and “Puritanical” strictures. No longer restrained by “cold orthodoxy,” the university celebrated all sorts of formerly disparaged convictions and practices. But, as Bloom argued, their minds were so open that their brains had fallen out. Doubting the existence of truth, they found no cause to pursue it. So the mind stopped working, its activities replaced by those of the vocal chords, fists, and loins.

Traditionalists charged with intolerance are seldom guilty of that crime, for they passionately defend others’ rights to hold and champion their own positions, however bizarre or obviously self-destructive they might be. No, their crime is to claim that they have truths that others lack, much as Jeremiah proclaimed the faith of the Patriarchs at the expense of idol worship and as Paul preached the gospel at the expense of legalism.

Unfortunately, the issue is scarcely one of truth. It is, rather, a matter of feelings, esteem, and power—a post-modern pantheon. And so it was not surprising that Harvard Law School was convulsed at a professor’s claim that feminists, Marxists, and blacks had contributed little to a particular sector of legal theory. Instead of examining the claim for veracity, they formed a Committee on Healthy Diversity. A new sensitivity course was put in place, and a new speech code considered. It was as though a new right had been added to the original Bill of Rights, the right not to be offended.

Truth is taking a beating, but even more fundamentally, the canons of logic are dismissed. For centuries, logicians and rhetoricians have insisted on fealty to the principle of non-contradiction—one cannot both assert a thing and its opposite; you must be consistent. Now that is counted as an oppressive standard, one that serves only the interests of exacting, disciplined leaders, those more committed to persuading than emoting, those disinclined to “revel in contradiction.”

Through the years, professors have steered their students away from ad hominem argument (attacking the person instead of his case) and the genetic fallacy (dismissing something because it had a flawed beginning). These are no longer “sins”; now they are “virtues,” the very stock in trade of “deconstructionists,” scholars who read an oppressor and his victim into every line of text. When they hear, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . .” they can only muster contempt for the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Instead of appreciating fine words by a flawed man (Thomas Jefferson), they read the horrors of patriarchalism (“all men”) and religious bigotry (“Creator”) from the pen of a slave holder. Forget the objective truth of the text; focus on its nefarious subtext.

anti-christianAlas, this perspective operates beyond the walls of the academy. For instance, Canadian Hugh Owens was fined $4,500 by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission for placing a newspaper ad citing Scripture which was critical of homosexuality. Though such an act of “sensitive” intolerance may be shocking, Paul projected this sort of thing 2 Timothy 3:1-4, when he wrote, “There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves . . . unholy . . . without self-control . . . not lovers of the good . . . lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God . . .”

Under these circumstances, the Church would most naturally stand in stark contrast with the culture. The pastors would be prophets, their congregations, warriors. But Paul anticipated a shocking spectacle: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

As error flies all about the Church, the pulpit must become a fount of truth. If any churchman would presume to insist that the sacred desk avoid offense, then that man has gravely misunderstood both the times and the preacher’s sacred task. He needs to repent and then defend Paul’s mandate to his successors—“Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2).

The world will not tolerate this; the Church must tolerate nothing less.

Understanding the Times

world_missions23 These are the numbers of the divisions of the armed troops who came to David in Hebron to turn the kingdom of Saul over to him, according to the word of the Lord . . . 32 Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, 200 chiefs, and all their kinsmen under their command.

1 Chronicles 12:23, 32 (ESV)

A few wise men are more valuable than thousands of fools. Large numbers of people are helpful in the right context, but unless at least a few of those people are prudent, discerning, and able to lead, a powerful army may deteriorate into an angry mob.

David received the affirmation of the entire nation without exception (cf. 1 Chronicles 12:23-28). While thirteen of the tribal censuses recorded the specific number of fighting men, the account of the tribe of Issachar included “200 chiefs, and all their kinsmen under their command.” Who were these “chiefs”? Some have suggested that they were astrologers, but this is surely false. Divination and the magical arts were not tolerated, let alone celebrated, among God’s people (cf. Leviticus 19:26). The men of Issachar were singled out as men who had an extraordinary grasp of the political context. They understood the times and knew what Israel ought to have done.

David undoubtedly appreciated the thousands who came to his side at Hebron. The 7,100 mighty men of war from Simeon, the 50,000 seasoned troops from Zebulun, and especially the 120,000 who came from across the river were all crucial additions to his army. But without the 200 men of Issachar to provide the strategic wisdom, the army would be merely a mindless militia.

As leaders in the churches, pastors should be “men of understanding” who are able to lead God’s people effectively and wisely. Pastors must be discerning men of courage, vision, and faithfulness to the Lord. They should understand their times so they can lead God’s people to engage the world around them.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the nineteenth-century “prince of preachers” in London, used to say that effective preachers held a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Clearly he did not mean that the newspaper became the preacher’s text. What he meant was that those who ministered the Word effectively had to know their culture in order aptly to apply Scripture to the needs of the hour.

Christian cultural engagement is less about large numbers and more about understanding the times.

“The Boundary of a Christian Church”—Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014)

Wolfhart Pannenberg, a German theologian who died September 5, was one of the 20th century’s formative theological thinkers. When he rose to prominence in the 1960s, many theologians believed Christianity could only be accepted by faith but not studied or defended using rational thought. Pannenberg defied this trend by arguing that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was an objective fact that could be demonstrated with evidence. He likewise insisted that Christian truth by and large was rational and objective.[1] Pannenberg influenced many evangelical thinkers even though he did not believe all the miracle accounts in Scripture and dismissed the virgin birth as a myth. Despite his errors, he held the moral teaching of the Bible in high regard, and the results can be surprising to those who might associate his theological liberalism with ethical liberalism.

For instance, Pannenberg will long be appreciated by evangelicals for his defense of traditional sexual morality. He said a church that approves of homosexual acts ceases to be a true church. In 1997 he returned his Federal Order of Merit award to the German government after it bestowed the same honor on a lesbian activist.[2] In this article, he argued that homosexuality is “a departure from the norm for sexual behavior that has been given to men and women as creatures of God” and said heterosexual marriage is the only appropriate channel for sexual expression.[3] Though Pannenberg appears to underestimate the sinfulness of homosexual inclinations (which dishonor God in themselves like all inclinations to sin), his overall emphasis is a timely caution to the Church.

The mere existence of homophile inclinations does not automatically lead to homosexual practice. Rather, these inclinations can be integrated into a life in which they are subordinated to the relationship with the opposite sex where, in fact, the subject of sexual activity should not be the all-determining center of human life and vocation. As the sociologist Helmut Schelsky has rightly pointed out, one of the primary achievements of marriage as an institution is its enrollment of human sexuality in the service of ulterior tasks and goals.

The reality of homophile inclinations, therefore, need not be denied and must not be condemned. The question, however, is how to handle such inclinations within the human task of responsibly directing our behavior. This is the real problem: and it is here that we must deal with the conclusion that homosexual activity is a departure from the norm for sexual behavior that has been given to men and women as creatures of God. For the church this is the case not only for homosexual but for any sexual activity that does not intend the goal of marriage between man and wife—in particular, adultery.

The church has to live with the fact that, in this area of life as in others, departures from the norm are not exceptional but rather common and widespread. The church must encounter all those concerned with tolerance and understanding but also call them to repentance. It cannot surrender the distinction between the norm and behavior that departs from that norm.

Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

[1] David Roach, “Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg Dies,” Baptist Press Website, September 8, 2014, (accessed September 15, 2014).

[2] Michael Root, “The Achievement of Wolfhart Pannenberg, First Things, March 2012, (accessed September 15, 2014).

[3] Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Revelation and Homosexual Experience: What Wolfhart Pannenberg Says About this Debate in the Church,” Christianity Today, November 11, 1996, (accessed September 15, 2014).

Greatest Feats

GreatfeatsThe other day in a used book store, I came across a copy of a Greatest Feats: Sport’s Most Unforgettable Accomplishments. Turning through the pages, I was reminded of Bible characters who could fit the categories employed in the book:

1. Classic Performances: The authors listed Tom Dempsey’s first-ever 60-yard field goal; Roger Bannister’s 4-minute mile; Pele’s staring role in Brazil’s first World Cup championship; and Jesse Owens’ stunning medal sweep at “Hitler’s Olympics.” On the Bible side, David’s defeat of Goliath, Elijah’s besting the prophets of Baal on Carmel, Esther’s rescue of her people, and Stephen’s convicting sermon and martyrdom stand out.

2. Spectacular Seasons: The book honored the Miami Dolphins’ perfect season, Babe Ruth’s 61-home-run summer, and Manchester United’s “treble” (Premier League; European Cup; F.A. Cup). In Scripture, the early reign of Solomon was dramatic, attracting admiration from around the region, prompting a visit from the Queen of Sheba; it was a season of prosperity and spiritual renewal, including construction of the Temple.

3. Legendary Streaks: In the sports realm, we think of UCLA’s string of national basketball championships, where John Wooden coached such luminaries as Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) and Bill Walton. Then, looking to both the Old and New Testaments, we see literary streaks, such as the collection of Psalms David wrote and the sweep of Luke/Acts, penned by Dr. Luke. We might also think of David’s run of victories against the Philistine enemies of Israel, a record which embarrassed Saul and made him jealous.

4. A Lifetime of Excellence. Among the sports legends in this category are Hank Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record, Richard Petty, who was “King Richard” of the NASCAR track, Jack Nicklaus, whose record of major tournament wins still stands, and Rod Laver, who won two tennis Grand Slams (Wimbledon, US, French, Australian) seven years apart.

As for biblical characters, some stood out as exemplary from beginning to end—the long-suffering prophet Jeremiah and the apostles John and Paul. Some biblical figures shown bright, but, unlike Paul, they stumbled dramatically (e.g., David and Bathsheba; Peter and the Judaizers).

While a few of the sports greats covered in this book gave God credit for their talents and performance (e.g., Nolan Ryan), the vast majority didn’t (e.g., Cal Ripken), though, of course, God was the ultimate source of all their accomplishments. In contrast, the heroes and heroines of the Bible were keenly aware of God’s provision and claim on their lives.  Facing the giant Goliath, David shouted,  “You come against me with a dagger, spear, and sword, but I come against you in the name of Yahweh of Hosts, the God of Israel’s armies”—and then predicted victory, because “the battle [was] the Lord’s” (1 Samuel 17:45-47).

While we can celebrate the athletic achievements of sports heroes, whose accomplishments are far beyond our ability, we can study the lives of the saints in Scripture, confident that the same God who empowered them for the daunting tasks before them is our God as well. Of course, we can admire the “classic performances” of Athanasius at the Council of Nicaea and Luther at the church door in Wittenberg, and the “lifetime achievements” of William Wilberforce and Billy Graham. But we should also celebrate the Christian businessman who models integrity and shows genuine love for his employees, the doctor who leaves his comfortable practice to bring healing to a region rife with Ebola, and a high school senior who remains chaste and sober in the face of enormous peer pressure. These too are great feats, though the bulk of the applause may come from heaven.

When the Government Spoke of Pure, Sacred, and Noble Sexuality

As the lights dimmed in the local YMCA, a few last nervous giggles could be heard in the hall as a hush fell on the assembly of teenaged boys. The director switched on the projection “lantern” and the 50-slide show began. Though the program bore the title “Keeping Fit,” the boys had heard that it dealt with more than calisthenics and nutrition. It also spoke of sex.

Bride2It was the 1920s, and the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) was fighting the devastating spread of venereal disease, much of it traceable to American soldiers returning from war in Europe. Of course, the USPHS sought cures and wider distribution of the treatments already available, but the agency was convinced that the education of as yet uninfected adolescents was crucial. So the government published a series of pamphlets and booklets to discourage promiscuity.

Unlike most sex education today, the material was ethical and even religious. Though the USPHS addressed medical issues (and even flirted with eugenics, talking about the vitality of the “stock”), they were not at all embarrassed to mention God and chastity and honor. While contemporary sex educators are all too eager to trumpet the “virtues” of “safe sex,” these 1920s writers urged “no sex until marriage.”  It was a different time, but one well-worth admiring.

BrideBack to that slide show in the YMCA: The boys have seen slides on the importance of team sports and of labor at home (e.g., chopping wood and shoveling snow) and have read inspiring quotes from Robert E. Lee and Woodrow Wilson. But then the image of a bride appears, and they are asked whether they have the right to expect pre-marital celibacy from her when they are not themselves celibate.1 Though in the present era it seems quaint to speak this way, the government was not at all reluctant to talk of higher things when the topic was sex. Here are three themes common in the 1920s:

Bride31. Purity: Another slide insisted that a man show the same regard for a woman that he would wish a stranger show for his sister.2 Such was the standard that Keeping Fit presented the youth, a standard expressed in the words “purity” and “keeping clean.”

2. Sacredness: In those days, the government spoke freely of God, as in this “birds and bees” pamphlet for children. They had no problem with belief in “intelligent design”:

 [U]nless God had given all living things this power to reproduce, plants and animals and men would long ago have disappeared from the earth. That is why we say this story is not only beautiful and wonderful; it is sacred. . . . When a man and woman love one another very much, and each thinks the other the dearest and most wonderful being in the world, they get married and live together. Then, if they have followed God’s laws, they may some day make their home happy with loving children.3

3. Nobility: Literature teachers were encouraged to lift up examples of sexual nobility (e.g., the chivalrous example of Ivanhoe) and draw out the lessons of negative examples (e.g., Reverend Dimmesdale’s adultery and cowardice in The Scarlet Letter).4

This was not the confusion of Church and State but the appropriation of pertinent truth to fight a national scourge. In those days, the government was not yet required by the courts to wear absurd moral and religious blinders,5 so agencies could speak more sanely of pure, sacred, and noble sexuality. And in reviewing this record, nostalgia may well give way to indignation as Americans consider what they have lost.


1 U.S. Public Health Service, Keeping Fit: An Exhibit for Older Boys and Young Men (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1919), 10.

2 Ibid.

3 United States Public Health Service, The Wonderful Story of Life: A Parent’s Talks with Children Regarding Life and Its Reproduction (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1940), 2-3, 16.

4 United States Public Health Service, High Schools and Sex Education: A Manual of Suggestions on Education Related to Sex, ed. Benjamin C. Gruenberg (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1922), 72-79. The Project Gutenberg Website offers, for free, the complete texts of Ivanhoe ( and The Scarlet Letter ( (accessed March 20, 2008). Brief summaries are available, respectively, at Spark Notes Website ( and Cliffs Notes Website, (,pageNum-5.html) (accessed March 20, 2008).

5 Blinders are patches sewn onto horses’ halters preventing them from looking to the right or left, forcing to look straight ahead. This is a metaphor for artificial restrictions on understanding.