Monday, November 02, 2009

Evaluating Traditions

The adage goes, "There are two types of people…" I know, I know, you are sick and tired of hearing this. But there are. "The type who categorize everything and those who don't." Well, categories are often helpful, rarely complete and never universal. With all that in mind let me attempt to give three classifications of religious traditions.

Why do we need an exercise like this? Traditions are both good and bad. They may pressure us to keep doing something which has long since worn out it's usefulness. At the same time they are very beneficial to keep us on track with the past and not allow us to be lured away by the latest "Big Thing" that come along. Every tradition needs to be evaluated periodically and the good ones should be kept while the poor or bad ones should be shelved.

The first type, which I will call Type A, is the best kind of Christian tradition. It is grounded in scripture. It has been affirmed throughout church history and to leave this practice would be absolutely wrong. A clear example of this would be praying in the name of Jesus. This is not just a tradition of men but is enjoined in the Word and has been the practice of the church for 2000 years. Another example that springs to mind is baptism. I went through a stage where I felt that baptism was such an outmoded thing that I began to feel it was not worth the time we take to celebrate it. As I grew and read though I realized that to abandon this ordinance would be disobedience.

The last type, C, is the kind of thing that the Reformation fought against. This is the tradition that has sprung from the mind of men without scriptural warrant and actually undermines the teaching of scripture. Our example here is purgatory. It is a wonderful tale that someone came up with that has no scriptural basis. Further it undermines the Gospel by teaching that people can atone for their own sins by suffering in this intermediate realm. These are the types of traditions that must be removed any time we discover them.

The middle type, B, is the most difficult. These traditions are often good. They may be standards of conduct or choices of entertainment. Sometimes they involve ecclesiology or missiology. The problem is that they are not biblically based nor are they anti-biblical so evaluating this type involves discernment. Often these traditions become a test of fellowship or even a criteria for evaluating others. An example of this would be modes of baptism. I have been a Baptist all my life and I am so because I believe that it is the best representation of what the Bible teaches. But, this cannot become a basis for me to separate from someone who is doing a different mode as long as they are actually baptizing people and discipleing them. Another example that has caused me to look at this subject is the traditions that we have around our worship music. This is a classic example where I can explain why I choose my conservative music and why I feel it is the best. But I have also come to realize that there are many good christian brothers that are honestly seeking to "let the Word of Christ richly indwell" them as they "speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs." These are areas where conflict often arises. I don't appreciate your tradition and you see mine as stupid, or pointless, or legalistic. But this is the exact place that we have opportunity to show unity and love. This is exactly what Paul is addressing in I Corinthians 8 & 9. This tradition gives us room to lay aside our tradition temporarily perhaps to help another. Or even to lay aside our criticism of another's tradition. There may even be times to jettison the tradition all together although I believe this is rarely the first or only choice. An excellent example is the song "In the Garden." I and others find this song sappy, saccharine and sentimental. It has none of the great theology of so many songs and hymns that fill our hymnals. It makes claims (i.e. "the joy that we share…none other has ever known") that seem suspect if not outright untrue. Yet for many brothers and sisters of another generation this song is part of their tradition and it encourages and helps them. So when we have request night at church and some sweet soul requests this vapid song I attempt to sing it for their benefit even though it does no more for me than an offertory of "Chopsticks."

I will not prolong my writing further to delve into how certain traditions cross these lines. I have alluded already to how Baptism is itself a Type A tradition and yet the modes that we use to conduct Baptism can become Type B traditions.

We need traditions. Actually we cannot do without them for a-traditionalism is perforce its own tradition. I think it is safe to say that nearly every local church has some traditions it needs to downplay or divorce. But at the end of the day, we cannot let our good traditions become idols nor can we use them to judge the Lord's true servants.