Starbucks, Christmas, and Christians

Nathan Busenitz | November 10, 2015

Facebook has been abuzz lately about angry reactions (particularly from a self-proclaimed evangelical named Joshua Feuerstein) to the new Starbucks holiday cup design. In case you’ve missed the controversy, in years past, Starbucks’ festive cups have featured vibrant images of reindeer, snowflakes, Christmas trees, and the like. But this year, the cup is just plain red.

Watch Jamie Jackson’s interview with Dr. Nathan Busenitz on the recent controversy regarding Starbucks coffee cups and Christmas.

Some concerned folks (though perhaps fewer than originally reported by the news media) have insisted the lack of Christmas-themed doodles represents a war on Christmas. So is Starbucks playing Scrooge? Or are the naysayers overreacting?

Yesterday, I was asked to give my opinion on the issue. While I generally try to steer clear of seemingly trivial issues (like the design of a disposable coffee cup), I think the hubbub created over this current controversy warrants a response.

Here are three thoughts in response to hullaballoo over the red Starbucks holiday coffee cup.

1. The true meaning of Christmas is not found in pictures of reindeer, snowflakes, Christmas trees, etc. Consequently, to remove those kinds of pictures does not constitute a war on Christmas.

To accuse Starbucks of starting a war on Christmas implies that, in years past, their cups have actually promoted the true meaning of Christmas. But such is hardly the case. A Google Images search of previous cups reveals doodles of snowmen, ice skaters, toy nutcrackers, and the like.

Some former designs featured words like “wish” and “gifts,” and even ambiguous references to “hope” and “love”. But there was nothing that pointed to the true, biblical meaning of Christmas—namely, that God the Son became a man so that He might save the world from sin. Hence, it seems inconsistent for people to be outraged about the design this year, when they had no qualms about this issue before.

For those who are upset about the word “Christmas” not being on a Starbucks cup, the reality is that most of the previous designs did not include that word either. Moreover, Starbucks still sells their “Christmas Blend”—which prominently displays the word Christmas on its packaging. And even if it did not, why should evangelicals be offended when a Roman Catholic term gets dropped in the product packaging of a secular coffee company?

But I digress…

The point (which I will phrase in the form of a question) is this: How can the removal of winter-themed doodles constitute a war on Christmas, when none of those doodles represented the true meaning of Christmas in the first place? For my part, I don’t think it does, especially when the company provides an explanation for its motivation that seems entirely believable.

It is also important to add that Starbucks is not a Christian company. Whether or not believers want to boycott Starbucks or any other business is a matter of their own Christian liberty. But it seems unreasonable to expect Starbucks (or any other secular business) to promote a consistently Christian worldview in the secular marketplace.

2. This supposed “war on Christmas” should not be classified as persecution against Christians.

I am not blind to the fact that American society, in the name of tolerance, is growing increasingly hostile to biblical Christianity. The Lord Jesus promised that His followers would be hated by the world, and so it should not surprise us when society seeks to silence or harass those who desire to honor Him.

But thinking the design of a Starbucks holiday cup constitutes persecution against Christians is simply unreasonable. When we consider what believers have suffered in the name of Christ, both throughout church history and in certain parts of the world today, it would be inappropriate to think that this situation approximates true suffering for the sake of the gospel.

Real persecution may soon be coming to the American church. But this is not that. When individuals like Joshua Feuerstein create a firestorm of controversy over something like this, they unnecessarily escalate feelings of antagonism and ill will in the eyes of the watching world. Rather than defending Christmas, these kinds of sensational outbursts do more to harm than help the church’s testimony to the Lord Jesus Christ.

3. A Christian response to the unbelieving world at Christmastime should focus on the gospel, not on a Starbucks cup design.

The true meaning of Christmas, as noted above, is the reality of the Incarnation—that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). As the most famous verse in the Bible rightly declares, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Born in a manger in Bethlehem, the Lord Jesus lived a sinless life and died on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for sin, so that those who embrace Him in saving faith might be forgiven and reconciled to God. That is the true message of Christmas: that God became man so that as a perfect man He might reconcile sinful men and women to God.

When believers allow themselves to get distracted by silly controversies about cup designs, they can easily lose sight of what this holiday season is actually all about. To reiterate our point from earlier: it is not about snowflakes, reindeer, and evergreen trees. Rather, it is about the reality that sinners can be saved eternally by believing in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

It should be our joy to share that message with the unbelieving world around us. Needless to say, if we are faithful to that end, the design on our coffee cup doesn’t really matter.

Nathan Busenitz avatar
Nathan Busenitz is the dean of faculty and associate professor of theology at The Master's Seminary. He is also one of the pastors of Cornerstone, a fellowship group at Grace Community Church.

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