For one of my classes, I’m reading Why Church History Matters by Robert Rea. In the first chapter, he answers the question, “What is tradition?” He offers several definitions, and these definitions depend upon how one capitalizes the word.
What is Tradition?
When we use the word Tradition (note the capital T), we may be referring to the Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox view (p. 28). In Protestant traditions, however, we may use the capital T or even the lowercase tradition to refer to the teachings, doctrines, and practices upon which most believers across the world agree (p. 28).
However, when we use the word traditions, we refer to the “developing teachings, doctrines, events, churches, and so forth within specific centuries, specific cultures and specific church groups” (p. 29). That is, traditions are what a particular group of believers may enjoy as normal within their specific culture.
Tradition: Good || Traditions: Good or Bad
Much tradition, Rea argues, has been very helpful to the church (p. 33). In fact tradition itself is good, necessary, and inevitable. As Rae says, “When sincere Christians try to live the truth faithfully as their Christian community understands it, they develop normative strategies and practices to live, love, worship and serve together – they develop traditions” (p. 31). For example, we have the core command to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, but how the celebration is conducted is not at the core of Christian faith and practice (p. 31).
So while tradition is good, particular traditions can be either good or bad (p. 33). That is, they can either be “helpful in understanding and implementing God’s will or counterproductive.”
When our traditions produce the fruit of the Spirit, they should be honored and considered good, but when traditions do not produce the fruit of the Spirit, we should reject them. Rea is careful to add, however, that, “The fact that we may disagree with earlier decisions or the conclusions of our contemporaries does not diminish the value of the work, for we need each other” (p. 34).
So, just because you reject a tradition because you find it counterproductive to the will of God does not mean that you have to reject the person or people who implemented that tradition or who want to keep it today.
Why Tradition? Why Not Tradition?
Tradition, as Rae says, is inevitable (p. 30).
Every sociological group develops standard practices and approaches that become, whether intentionally or accidentally, the normal or even “right” way to love out their theory and practice. At the same time, each group must continue to weigh those traditions carefully to be sure that the traditions that either emerged or were designed to improve their lives and to implement their mission do not come to impede their mission.Robert Rae. Why Church History Matters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), p. 30, emphasis mine.
So, while traditions are good, their relevance and usefulness can change as the world around us changes. The traditions may not be bad themselves, but if they impede the mission of the kingdom, they should be reevaluated, altered, or even discarded if necessary.
Rae gives several examples of where traditions can go wrong. First, Jesus made it clear that “loyalty to traditions rather than loyalty to what is written in Scripture is not only counterproductive but also an affront to God” (p. 32). Rae was referring to this popular quotation from Matthew 15: “He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?'” (Matthew 15:3).
When tradition keeps us from fulfilling the commandments of God, we should seriously consider where our loyalties lie. Here are some examples:
- “Tradition can proliferate and come to hide the vital truths of the gospel” (p. 32).
- “Tradition can lead us to trust our own practices and perspectives rather than Jesus Christ” (p. 32).
- “Tradition can dull our sensitivity to insights that God may be helping us to discover” (p. 32).
- “Traditions can incline us toward legalistic attitudes and actions in issues that are not at the core of the gospel” (p. 32).
- “Traditions help faith groups identify their own members, but this can happen in such a way that the traditions rather than the gospel itself become their standard and consequently a cause of division among Christians” (p. 32).
- “Traditions can become so important to us that we neglect the real heart of the gospel, even granting assurance to some that they are Christians when indeed they are not” (p. 32).
Which of these examples stands out to you? Which ones are you guilty of?
Personally, I find them all a bit stunning. Number five is a big deal to me because I’m part of a tradition which has excluded most of Christianity over issues that are not at the core of the gospel (which members of that tradition conveniently call “the core gospel heresy” – sigh). When we grant membership into our community upon the basis of common beliefs instead of faithfulness to Christ, number six comes into play. As long as someone quotes the right passages, makes the right arguments, and doesn’t break the mold, they are accepted, even if that is the only “fruit” they bear.
Traditions or the Gospel?
Rae observes, “When we elevate extrabiblical teachings and practices to the level of essential Christian faith, we are drawn from the gospel to something that we substitute for the gospel. When this happens, the results can be scandalous” (p. 33).
I think this is where the Church of Christ has gone very wrong as a whole.
Baptism is a core part of the Christian Fatih, but only fellowshipping those who agree on every aspect of it is not.
A cappella music is beautiful, but demanding that everyone conforms to the practice is not.
Weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper is a wonderful tradition, but judging others who take it in a different way or in a different frequency than yourself is a tradition that should be quickly discarded.
Desiring to believe and teach truth is commendable, but defining truth as every little peripheral issue to the point where the Church of Christ has dozens of divisions is not.
In the Churches of Christ, we have some wonderful traditions, but we also have some that have drawn well-deserved criticism. To call it persecution is scandalous because it is unnecessary and self-imposed, unlike the martyrdom of Christians in the first century. The problem is, we are so used to equating our traditions with the gospel of Jesus that it can be hard, and emotionally exacting, to learn how to differentiate between the two.
I still have trouble clapping after a baptism, raising hands, and clapping during songs (if it’s not a VBS song). But I’m working on it.
Why am I working on it?
Because holding traditions that impede our ability to reach people who need Jesus is a tradition I want no part of, and limiting my freedom in Christ because of unnecessary traditions is not something I want my son or daughter to see. Deciding what those are is difficult, yes, but avoiding the difficult work is not a good option either if we want to do God’s will. What we need is conversation. Rae said, “Our finitude, however, requires that we learn in community, and in regard to church history this community must include contemporary Christians and historic Christians” (p. 27).
To end, Rae says,
Our awareness of the emergence of tradition in the past reminds us to be careful in our decisions for current faith and practice, for what we do today could become tomorrow’s “traditions.”p. 34