Lesson 3


Recap of first two weeks:

  • Definition of tradition: “that which is handed down, or delivered, from one individual or group to another”
  • We looked at passages from the gospels which highlight 1) Jesus’ high respect for the Law and the Prophets (the religious tradition of his day handed down in the Scriptures)[1] and 2) Jesus’ condemnation of man-made traditions, which in the hands of some of the religious rulers of his day trumped over the clear commandments of the Lord.[2] In this context we briefly considered the Jewish practice of Corban, which in essence was a promise of offering to God that served to place a ban on material goods or finances, reserving it for sacred use (in the Temple) and withdrawing it from use by another person, including one’s parents. Scholars disagree as to the actual intent of Corban: was it a religiously worded but flimsy excuse to shirk one’s God-ordained responsibilities to parents (as stated in the 5th commandment), or was the worshiper sincere in his/her intent to support the Lord’s work and to support one’s parents, but on account of the vow which was irrevocable, one was unable to repent of the vow. Regardless which interpretation of Corban is correct, it is clear that in both cases the man-made tradition stood squarely in the way of obeying the 5th commandment. For this reason Jesus accused them of “neglecting the commandment of God, and holding to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:8)
  • We looked at passages from NT epistles in which believers are exhorted to take tradition seriously. For example, Jude exhorts Christians to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Likewise, Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, encourages believers to “hold firm to that which was delivered over to you” (1 Cor 11:2). The verb translated variously as “delivered, entrusted, handed down” is from the Greek work παράδοσις which means “tradition”.
  • The thesis I put forth last week was this: There is a proper and necessary role for tradition in the life of the church.

To argue for a restoration of the proper role of tradition in the life of the church today is no easy thing. It runs countercurrent to the prevailing societal trends of our day, which generally speaking have little, if any, respect for tradition. Consider the rates of divorce, attitudes toward extramarital relations including homosexuality, abortion, you name it. We collectively do not act and think as our predecessors. There was a time not long ago when such practices were considered taboo simply because “that is not the way my family (or church) has acted in the past, and I respect our traditions.” The modern attitude snubs the past, with its collective wisdom that is encapsulated in traditions, be they civic or religious. This anti-traditional attitude found a voice in the chants of some students at Stanford University a few decades ago: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ. has got to go.”

The argument for a restoration of traditions also runs countercurrent to the prevailing trends in the modern evangelical church, for the church in many respects is but a microcosm of society at large. I quote Michael Horton: “That famous Stanford chant that rallied the student revolt finds its parallel in a conservative evangelical world in which that which is in the past, part of our heritage from the early church, the Reformation, the Puritans, and the Great Awakening, is rejected in favor of personal liberation and the triumph of the free spirit.”[3]

It is no coincidence or accident that “Cyber-church” and other churches with similar mission statements exist, for they are appealing to a generation that is willing to jettison traditions in the name of freedom. Herein lies the paradox: In seeking to be “free” by getting rid of the entanglements of traditions, the modern churchgoer only engages in self-deceit. In essence, he/she is substituting one set of traditions for another, although it may not be clear for some time what form the new traditions will take. But make no mistake about it, there will be a new set of traditions. Will the church meet on Sunday as its principal day of worship, or some other day? Will the congregation primarily use a published collection of songs (hymnal, song book, etc.) during its worship services, or have no music? Will there be a sermon at least once a week? Will there be a regularly scheduled time of communal prayer? And so on. The answers to these questions, which every church inevitably faces, constitute the beginning of that new church’s practices. If the church survives long enough to see another generation pass through its doors (or cyberspace as the case may be), then one can speak of those practices becoming traditions.

I know of what I speak when I say that new churches quickly develop traditions, or at least practices which given sufficient time become traditions. My first exposure to evangelicalism was in the late 1970’s in a nascent nondenominational house church “movement” that met in homes for Wednesday evening prayer meeting and Sunday morning service, and in a rented hall in an urban downtown storefront property on Sunday evening for what was referred to as the “rally of the churches”. Unlike the Cyber-church, which allegedly is “not bound by…tradition”, the church I was associated with was a curious amalgam of early Methodist and conservative Baptist theology and practice, although it never ran those denominational flags up the masthead.

While labeled “nondenominational”, to the observer who had studied even cursorily the history of Protestant denominations, it would have been obvious that certain influences were at play in that house church movement.

So what did I observe as far as the development of traditions in that particular church? Initially lots of experimentation, as one would expect of a church without denominational oversight, including the use of lay ministers with little or no formal theological education. The exigencies of operating house churches with the goal of doubling every year required lay leaders, and plenty of them. While the expectation was that they would go on to acquire more formal theological education (as time and resources allowed), this was not a requirement for initial employment. Thus the groundwork was laid for a tradition of lay leadership with varying degrees of education and ministerial preparation.

Experimentation was followed by codification, that is to say, “This is the way we intend to run our churches.” A manual for house churches was put together and disseminated throughout the house churches. It contained details galore, down to the color of the walls! (yellow, as I recall) Codification was followed by additional experimentation leading to modification of the original code. The pattern that developed looked something life this:

experimentation > codification > further experimentation > modification (revision of code) > repeat.

Before long this process resulted in a consistent liturgical style, though if you had asked us then to describe our form of liturgy, we probably would have denied that we even had one! We wanted so much to be different (dare I say better?) than other churches, those churches who met in traditional houses of worship and who were led by clerics with seminary training. We were a “New Testament church based on the book of Acts”. We wanted nothing more than to turn back the clock to the first century church, and do it like it was done then. While this motive may seem innocent and commendable at face value, behind the surface lay a presumptive attitude that we could do it better than others. It is true that pride goes before the fall. That group of house churches no longer exists.

In retrospect I believe that this evangelical church experienced its demise on account of two things: 1) a lack of godly spiritual oversight, and 2) a disdain on the part of its leaders for what they perceived as inferior (or at least unnecessary) spiritual rules and traditions found in other churches, particularly the churches affiliated with the Reformational denominations (Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians). In short, we naively believed that we could (and should) return to the practices of the church in the Book of Acts without much regard for the centuries of church history down to the present. To be fair, some regard was paid to church history, as evidenced by the inclusion of church history courses in the Bible “Institute” sponsored by the church. The content of these courses, however, was unabashedly prejudiced in favor of personalities and movements of the Arminian persuasion, and critical (or simply negligent) of those of the Calvinistic persuasion.

The point her is not to put a particular church on trial, but rather simply to illustrate how quickly a church develops traditions. Which brings me back to my original point, and that is: all churches have traditions, whether the adherents recognize it or not. Moreover, those churches which are forthcoming in acknowledging their particular traditions, and can articulate them well, are more likely to be faithful to the founding principles of that church/denomination.

If you are new to this church and may be wondering what our traditions are, you need look no further than the hymnal in the pew rack directly in front of you. Last week I read the hymnal’s preface and introduction for the first time, and was blessed in doing so:

“the hymnal is rooted in the rich tradition of the Reformation—with a zeal for the gospel, a high regard for doctrinal purity, and a focus on worship as defined in Scripture.”

In the back of the hymnal is a section containing the “creeds”: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Shorter Catechism. The hymns themselves animate these creeds to our hearts as we sing them week after week, year after year, decade after decade, even century after century.

(Sing “Faith of our Fathers” #570 “…contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” Jude 3


Questions for discussion

Q1 In what ways do societal trends influence the opinions and practices of the modern church?
(recall from last week that faith and practice constitute traditions)

Q2 How is “tradition” regarded in other churches that you have attended? Is my experience (told today) an oddity, or more the norm in nondenominational churches today?

Q3 In what ways has Trinity Hymnal helped you to better understand the traditions of this particular church/denomination?


Footnotes

[1] Matthew 5:17-18 “Do not think I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”

[2] Mark 7, Matthew 15

[3] Horton, Michael, “Is Style Neutral?”, Modern Reformation, Jan/Feb 1996