A friend of mine used to sound me out when he was trying to make up his mind about something. He’d ask my opinion, then quickly add, “And don’t do that professor thing: I don’t want both sides of the issue. I want to know what you really think.”
But that is what I really think, I’d protest. And then I would proceed to give him both sides of why he should look at both sides of the issue.
It’s a wonder he ever asked me any more questions.
So here’s the answer you might expect me to give to the question in the title of this post: “It depends.” What kind of participation do you mean? If you and a friend have been waiting for a convenient excuse to wear that matched set of Snoopy and Woodstock costumes to the office, who am I to complain?
But let’s be clear. If the question is whether it’s permissible for Christians to participate in Halloween activities, then apart from obvious extremes (e.g., various forms of high-spirited local vandalism), the answer is yes. Neither carving a pumpkin nor trick-or-treating are matters of salvation.
But should Christians participate? Well, let’s think about that: why would you want to?
I didn’t grow up in a Christian family, so this was a non-issue back then. My sister and I would dress up and go trick-or-treating. We wouldn’t have wanted to be left out of what the other kids were doing, and what kid doesn’t love a culturally-sanctioned (and commercially-driven!) excuse for going around collecting candy?
When I grew up and had kids of my own, though, my wife and I decided against participating in Halloween as a matter of Christian principle. One year, we even tried to go away for an overnight family vacation. But a drunken Halloween reveler tried for several minutes to get into our hotel room, unable to understand where he was. Now, we just put a sign up on our front door, politely letting people know that we don’t celebrate Halloween, and wishing them a safe evening.
We don’t do it legalistically, but believe we’re following the spirit of Paul’s words to the church in Corinth. In 1 Cor 9, he declares his freedom and rights as an apostle; for the sake of the gospel, however, he voluntarily sets these rights aside and subjects himself to a life of spiritual discipline. In chapter 10, he then addresses what appears to be a problem of spiritual arrogance in the church: Christians who think they are “standing firm” (vs. 12, NIV) in their religion are using their freedom to participate in pagan idol feasts. These Christians take a stand on their rights, drawing a correction from Paul:
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. (1 Cor 10:23-24, NIV)
So, yes, Paul says a believer is free to eat meat that was previously sacrificed to idols (vss. 25-27). But what if a fellow believer sees them doing this and objects? Don’t stand on your rights, Paul says, but give up that right for the good of the other person’s conscience (vss. 28-29), so that they won’t stumble in their faith (vs. 32). The overarching negative lesson is to flee idolatry (vs. 14); the positive lesson is “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (vs. 31).
I live up the street from an elementary school, so was treated to a mini-parade this morning as the kids filed past. There they go: a clown, a cat, a princess, all with parents in tow. But Halloween isn’t just about cute kids in costumes. There are differences of opinion on the origins of the celebration, but we can be pretty certain that it was never intended to honor God. Indeed, just the opposite. Ever been to a Halloween specialty store? The place seems to glory in evil, darkness, and death. Costumes encourage adults to dress up like extras from a zero-budget zombie movie–Apocalypse 2: The Revenge of Cheesy Latex.
So again, Christians are free to participate–but why? Not everything is beneficial or constructive. Not everything is done for the glory of God. And freedom doesn’t have the last word: if taking part in something questionable violates someone else’s conscience, Paul would advise us to forego our freedom for the sake of love and the gospel.
Afraid the kids will feel left out? Talk to them: help them understand what you believe and why. Look for alternatives: take advantage of a local church’s “Harvest Festival,” or be creative and come up with new family traditions of your own. Kids love things that mark their family as special in fun ways; take advantage of the opportunity to create lasting, positive memories for the future.
Just be thoughtful and intentional about your use of freedom.
And whatever you do, do it for the glory of God.