Tag Archives: Anabaptist history

125 Years of Seven Ordinances — Rough Draft

When a baby is born at 10 months, we don’t usually call it premature. When a writer has been promising for that long to release an essay, however, his “baby” may still be scarcely ready for the light of day. But everyone likes babies. (Right?) And everyone handles newborns gently. (Right?) And one can definitely only handle being pregnant for so long. So I’ve decided it’s time to release this overdue, unfinished essay into your hands.

Here it is, then: “that paper on the ‘ordinances.'” Click here to download, or find it on my Essays page.

Oh, isn’t he cute! He looks just like his daddy!

Now that I’ve given birth, I’d like to do two more things in this post: (1) Explain what I mean by “rough draft.” (2) Summarize the essay.

What Do I Mean by “Rough Draft”?

Though I’ve been working intermittently on this essay since the fall of 2011, I am aware of improvements that still should be made. For example:

  • My survey of pre-Reformation history is very brief.
  • I have still more Anabaptist-era primary sources I could peruse, to weigh my current survey for representative accuracy.
  • I could include more discussion of how the Coffman/Kauffman era was a time of transition, institution-building, and doctrinal formulation.
  • I should weigh more carefully whether the concept of ordinances is found in the NT, apart from the question of whether the word ordinance is used there as we use it. (In other words, is ordinance biblical in the same sense that Trinity is?)
  • A more nuanced discussion of sacramental theology would help, assessing it and contrasting it with other options such as a strictly symbolic understanding of the “ordinances.” I really don’t want to get too deep into this heated question (of which whole books are written!), but it is unavoidably related to the central questions of this essay.
  • My tone could be improved in places, better anticipating possible difficulties or challenges of readers and avoiding overstatement.
  • Technical details need help: Cleaning up footnotes, adding a bibliography, perhaps another appendix or two, switching to ESV as the primary translation, including Greek NT words in my exegetical discussions, etc.
  • Most importantly, I need to answer the “So what?” question. For this draft version of my essay I’ve included a list of problems possibly exacerbated by our concept of seven ordinances (see page 28). But I’m saving my discussion of these problems to share later. And should I note some benefits as well as problems?

I have been invited to share this essay at the Forum for Doctrinal Studies, probably in July 2017. After that I hope to post a fuller version here.

Your feedback is most welcome as I continue writing! Post your thoughts in the comments thread here or send me a private message.

Summary of the Essay

First (pp. 1-5) I summarize the pre-Reformation history of ordinances by noting three developments:

  1. The growth of formal ritual instead of simple obedience to NT commands;
  2. The development of the theology and vocabulary of sacraments; and
  3. The formation of a defined list of seven Roman Catholic sacraments.

Next (pp. 5-14) I discuss the early Anabaptist era, including their rejection of ritual and sacramental theology, their failure to fully restore all NT practices related to ordinances, and their various lists of sacraments/ordinances. This section is full of primary source quotes, including this gem from the Martyr’s Mirror, from the trial of an Anabaptist named Jacob de Roore:

Jac. If you want to imitate all the things which the apostles did, and regard them all as sacraments, why do you not also regard your aprons or handkerchiefs as sacraments, and lay them upon the sick, as Paul did? For what greater sacredness was there in the oil of which James writes, than in Paul’s aprons, by which he also healed the sick, as is written in the nineteenth chapter of the Acts of the apostles?

Fr. Corn. If the devil does not wag your tongue, I do not understand the matter. You accursed Anabaptists may yourselves make a sacrament of your filthy handkerchiefs or aprons; for you people have no sacrament, but we Catholics have seven sacraments; is it not enough, eh?

Jac. Yea, in troth; for since the term sacrament is not once mentioned in the holy Scriptures, you have only seven too many.

The third section (pp. 14-24) finally explains the origin of our own seven ordinances. I survey ordinances among early American Mennonites, then focus on J.S. Coffman and Daniel Kauffman, who appear to be primarily responsible for formulating and codifying the list we have inherited. (Thus the “125 Years” in my title, dating from 1891.) This section ends by asking what Kauffman meant by the term ordinance.

The fourth section (pp. 24-27) continues this linguistic focus by comparing Kauffman’s use of ordinance with biblical vocabulary.

The fifth section (pp. 27-30) proposes some responses to the previous historical and biblical discussion. I ask whether we can redeem the term ordinance and whether our inheritance of a theology and practice of seven ordinances is really anything to be worried about. (In other words, is this essay merely much ado about nothing?)

Finally, I’ve included three appendices (pp. 31-34) with more technical data:

  1. “Words Translated ‘Ordinance” in the King James Version”
  2. “Who Baptizes in the New Testament?”
  3. “Who May Anoint With Oil?

Again, I warmly welcome your help with this project! Those of us who are conservative Anabaptists have inherited these seven ordinances as a shared legacy. Our response to this heritage will also be a shared project.

How can we hold onto the best of the past while also making needed changes? How radical dare we be in our changes? How can we avoid overreacting? How can we let Scripture speak anew in our generation? What understanding and practice of “ordinances” do we want to leave to our children?

Please share your comments here or, if you prefer, in a private message.

For Christ and his Church,
Dwight Gingrich


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Tradition in the NT (1): Bad Examples

[For the sequel to this post, see “Tradition in the NT (2): Good Examples.”]

“I don’t have much Scripture for this sermon.” The speaker was a visiting minister and his topic was Beachys, culture, and tradition. As I recall, his main question for the evening was this: should Beachy-Amish churches retain their cultural traditions as a way to help pass on the faith to the next generation?

The confession came perhaps 5 minutes into sermon. Unfortunately, it was true. The speaker briefly cited only about three Scripture passages that were vaguely related to his topic. (One, if I recall correctly, was Deuteronomy 6:6-9. More on that later.)

But the confession, however true, didn’t result in any change of behavior. The speaker continued for another 30 or 45 minutes, filling the time mostly with his own rationalizations about the usefulness of retaining traditions as they were. For example, traditions help a congregation run more smoothly and efficiently, so that everyone knows exactly what is supposed to happen. I, being new to Beachys and fresh from a multicultural congregation in New York City, found my mind quickly supplying counter-rationalizations for each of the speaker’s points. For example, unexplained and entrenched traditions might make things run smoothly for those who have always been part of the group, but they can be quite confusing for newcomers. In the absence of relevant Scripture, the sermon became for me a contest of human reasoning.

When I arrived home after the service, it didn’t take me long to fill nearly a page with typed notes about New Testament passages discussing culture and tradition. (Here are my notes, lightly modified after the fact. I’ll discuss some of the same content in my posts here.) The problem, I concluded, was two-fold: On the one hand, the NT passages about tradition and culture didn’t say what the speaker wanted them to say. On the other hand, he also missed a lot of things the Bible does say about passing on the faith to the next generation. In my notes I wrote, “Thesis: The New Testament is not concerned with preserving cultural traditions… However, a topic that is emphasized in the NT is cultural incarnation: giving up our own culture for the gospel’s sake.”


Story two: The scene was a panel discussion at the Anabaptist Identity Conference. Under the mysterious title “The Turtle Wins” (given the previous talk, I expected the discussion to be about the benefits of organic farming!), the main speakers for AIC 2015 spent most of the time discussing Anabaptist traditions and culture. Many of their words circled around a knotty problem: The same church traditions that seem to help groups like the Amish retain cohesion and oncoming generations also seem to be hurdles for seekers who would wish to join. What to do about our traditions? (Here is my friend Arthur Sido’s reflection on the problem as discussed by the panel.)

Questions, stories, and sociological observations all added to an interesting conversation. But near the end—too late for me to submit a question to the panel—I suddenly realized that I couldn’t remember whether any Scripture had been cited. Perhaps I had missed some passing reference, but clearly Scripture wasn’t framing the evening’s discussion. Didn’t Scripture say a few things about this question? Why weren’t we turning there for answers? I hastily prepared a question based on 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, but was only able to raise it after the service with one panel member and a few fellow audience members.


Story three: This time Scripture was clearly present. In fact, the sermon was designed to be an expositional sermon. The text was Matthew 15, and I think it was read in full near the beginning of the sermon. So far, very good.

And there were a lot of other good things in the sermon, too. Yet half way through I started to become uncomfortable, and by the end this is what I felt: Much of the sermon (a quarter? a third?) had not been based on the text at all. In fact, a major concern of the speaker was to say what he thought the text did not say: Despite Jesus’ warnings against the traditions of the elders, not all tradition was bad. In fact, tradition can be very good and important, and we should not be too quick too discard our traditions.

Now, as I have summarized my recollections here, these statements are true. But they were not based at all on the text of the sermon. More importantly, by the end of the sermon I did not feel that we had been made to feel the heavy weight of Jesus’ strong warning. I did not feel we had been asked to take a hard look at our religious traditions to see if any of them are keeping us from obeying the word of God. The speaker had not let Scripture speak clearly into our lives.

(For my own attempt to preach the same account, from the parallel passage in Mark 7, see these sermon notes.)

If I had a better memory I could tell more stories. But these are enough for me to make an observation: conservative Anabaptists don’t always listen to Scripture very well when they think about religious traditions and culture.


 Alternatives to Listening Well to Scripture

What do we often do instead of listening well to Scripture? Here are four approaches I’ve heard:

1. Selectively or inaccurately cite Scripture to support our traditions. Often this involves pulling OT passages out of their literary and covenantal contexts. For example, sometimes Deuteronomy 6:6-9 is cited. True, this passage shows the timeless importance of parents teaching their children. However, much of the content of this teaching is very different under the new covenant than under the old Mosaic covenant. Under the old, parents were to teach their children not only timeless ethics but also divinely-commanded cultural practices such as avoiding unclean foods and marrying only fellow Israelites. Under the new, parents are to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4), something that can happen within many diverse cultural traditions, even multicultural ones. Another OT passage I’ve heard used out of context in this way is Jeremiah 15. (See here for more.) Even more obviously questionable is how Psalm 133:2 has been used to support the wearing of beards. And does Numbers 15 really provide any more basis for us mandating uniform attire as a means of reminding us we are God’s people (Num. 15:37-40) than it does for us mandating the death penalty for those who break the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36)?

2. Selectively or inaccurately cite history to support our traditions. For example, how many of us have heard something similar to these words from a Mennonite article published in 1957:

It has never been known that a church denomination has maintained simplicity of dress according to Bible standards for any length of time without the church prescribing what that dress shall be. This is simply a fact of history.1

If by “church prescribing what that dress shall be” was meant a church issuing general warnings against worldly clothing practices or even prohibitions of specific clothing styles, then perhaps the statement would be true. But the article was claiming historical evidence for a more rigorous approach: “the best way to help our members to maintain Bible modesty in dress is for the church to prescribe a form.”2 In actual historical fact, however, some streams of the Mennonite church (unlike the Amish) had maintained an emphasis on simplicity of dress for about three and a half centuries without teaching uniform attire. Here is historian Melvin Gingerich’s analysis, from Mennonite Attire through Four Centuries:

Centuries of persecution of their Anabaptist forefathers had convinced the Mennonites that an unfriendly society around them had different standards from their own… To be the salt of the earth required the maintenance of strict standards and high ideals in all areas of life, including the clothes they wore. The people of God were to be a separate people that could be distinguished from those conforming their lives to the standards of secularism. They therefore believed that a Christian should look different from the non-Christian. This conviction was held deeply even by those Mennonites who did not dress uniformly.

When the language barrier [German] was surrendered and geographic isolation was lost [urbanization], a final effort was made to strengthen the third separation device, that of simple dress… This simplicity was to conservative Mennonites the final citadel which must be held at all cost. It is this image and fear which explains in a large part the series of conference regulations of the first four decades of the twentieth century. A uniform costume was pleaded for, demanded, and ruled on by conference action. Detailed descriptions of plain costume were made part of conference regulations, in contrast to a simplicity earlier maintained largely through tradition.3

Gingerich summarizes the practice of “Mennonites in most times and places” like this:

They wished to avoid legalism and thus were reluctant to endorse detailed regulations. By stressing the life of humility and naming the articles of clothing and decorations that they believed violated biblical principles of simplicity, they often became a “plain” people rather than the “gay” people. Living in communities, they came to regard certain items of clothing as conservative without any attempt being made to prescribe by church edict the exact costume or garb that must be worn.4

It is easy to underestimate the challenges that Mennonite conference leaders faced in the early twentieth century. I do not want to hastily condemn them. The clothing culture in society around them (even among Christians) was on a rapid descent into godlessness and sensuality, creating new challenges for church leaders. However, I do want to point out the historical sleight of hand in that 1957 article: A history of simple clothing traditions and warnings against ostentation was re-read as being a history of prescribed uniform attire. But the two are not the same. In fact, they are very different.

Perhaps a better lesson to learn from our vantage point in history is that regulations about uniform attire will not produce the same spiritual fruit as a voluntary “natural” participation in a simple clothing culture. The force of tradition is often more powerful than the force of law, and adopting the latter when the former begins to be questioned is a dubious solution, a stop-gap measure likely to raise societal pressure until a cork blows somewhere. (And are either regulated costumes or cultural norms really Christian means for achieving Christian behavior? Don’t we usually question attempts to Christianize people by either legal codes or behavior modification via culturalization?)

Other examples of selective historical citation could be shared, but must wait for another time.

3. Cite recent Christian authors who discuss culture and tradition. All truth is God’s truth, so we should willingly learn truth no matter where we find it. But sometimes we perceive truth when a careful biblical comparison would reveal that it isn’t actually there. And sometimes we become so preoccupied with searching for truth in extra-biblical places that we forget to mine the Scriptures for wisdom.

Mennonites looking for truth about tradition and culture read a variety of authors. For example, some who want to hang onto conservative Anabaptist church traditions listen to thinkers such as Cory Anderson, who draws on his training in sociology to discuss culture and change in conservative Anabaptist churches. (Anderson has “a Ph.D. in rural sociology” and his research has focused on “the social structure and social change of the plain Anabaptists, with a particular emphasis on the Amish-Mennonites.”) Thus Anderson uses sociological observations to “build… a rational case” (his words) that the head covering should do much more than what is described in 1 Corinthians 11. It should be a distinctive religious symbol (not merely a hair covering) that ties the wearer into a recognized historical religious tradition (Anabaptism), thus preserving a wide range of religious values, not merely the headship truths that Paul presented. (Listen to these talks to hear more. Please tell me if my memory of Anderson’s emphases is incorrect.) Now, I agree, as best as I can understand Scripture, that the headship veiling is for today, and that it should be taught in our churches. But with Anderson’s approach I can’t help wondering: Are we becoming more exciting about sociological methods for culture-building than about obedience to Scripture and the Christ of Scripture?

Others who are less bound to preserving recent Anabaptist traditions might read elsewhere. Those with a similar separatist vision might affirm the Benedict Option recently popularized by Rod Dreher. In this view, Christians should withdraw from an increasingly hostile surrounding culture and transmit a robust Christian subculture across the generations within their own communities, much as monks preserved Christian intellectual and moral life in monastaries through the European Dark Ages. Other readers prefer authors such as Richard Niebuhr (Christ and Culture), Andy Crouch (Culture Making), or James Davidson Hunter (To Change the World).

Please don’t misunderstand me. While I have not read these particular books (just summaries and reflections from other readers), I certainly do affirm the value of reading widely. And while some of these books appear to be based significantly on sociology, philosophy, or other fields of study, some do wrestle earnestly and productively with Scripture. My concern is not that people are reading such books, but that some readers may not be investing equal energy in searching for themselves what Scripture has to say about tradition and culture. Are we as excited about tracing what the apostles thought about Christianity, tradition, and culture as we are about debating the views of thought-shapers such as Francis Schaeffer, Jerry Falwell, Bill Gothard, N.T. Wright, Albert Mohler, Shane Claiborne, Stanley Hauerwas, or Timothy Keller? Who is referenced more in your writing or preaching: Paul or your favorite Christian culture maker/analyst/prophet?

4. Selectively cite Scripture to reject any positive role for tradition. This is a parallel but opposite error to the first I listed. The temptation is huge. There are many examples today of religious traditions hindering people from obeying the word of God. It is easy to spot “Pharisees” in our pulpits and pews—people who demand external conformity to religious traditions but appear unable or unwilling to address matters of the heart. And it is easy to conclude that the word “tradition” is entirely negative, even evil. But mere rejection of tradition is a dead end street. It will not build a church, let alone Christ’s Church. It is only right about what is wrong, but it fails to replace harmful ideas about tradition with a positive NT vision for tradition. It still fails to listen closely to the whole counsel of Scripture about tradition. I’ll stop right now, because I plan to discuss these ideas more in the sequel to this post.

So those are four things we sometimes do instead of listening carefully to Scripture. I’m sure you could add more.


What the NT Says Negatively about Tradition

To finish this post about “bad examples,”  I’d like to do a quick U-turn and summarize what the NT says negatively about tradition. In order to simplify a complex topic, I’m going to zero in on just those NT texts that actually use the word tradition(s) in English translations. I’ll keep this survey short because many of us are already familiar with what I’d like to share. But I’ll include this survey because I’m not sure all of us have felt the full weight of these Scriptural warnings.

The words tradition or traditions are found fourteen times in the ESV Bible. In eleven of those fourteen occurrences, the word is used negatively:

1. Matthew 17 and Mark 7. Perhaps the most important NT account about tradition-gone-bad is Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees about “the tradition of the elders.” The central critique that Jesus launches against the Pharisees in this account is that their traditions were preventing them from obeying the word of God. Loyalty to the Corban tradition, for instance, was preventing them from obeying the command for children to honor their parents.

It is important to remember that the traditions of the elders were not random rules made up out of thin air. Rather, they were originally designed to be clarifications, applications,  or expansions of commands already found in the Law of Moses. But these traditions had taken on a life of their own until it was considered equally essential to obey the “oral law” as the “written law.” And any time we act as if our applications of Scripture are as important as what Scripture itself teaches, we “make void the word of God” (Mark 7:13).

Please note that we can do this without speaking a single word against God’s word. The mere act of treating man’s word as weightily as God’s word is blasphemy against God’s word, a de facto demotion of God to the status of man.

Here are three tests to see whether we have exalted our traditions and applications too highly:

a. Does our application of one of God’s commands hinder us from obeying any other of God’s direct commands? Examples: Does an expectation that all church members give financial support to a church school (application of biblical commands to train our children) hinder us from obeying the command to love our neighbor as ourselves (especially the poor)? Does the practice of having self-supporting ministry (application of command that elders not serve for shameful gain) hinder us from obeying the command that those who preach the gospel must be financially supported, and the command that elders must work hard at caring for the needs of the church? Does a highly programmed service order (application of the command to do all things decently and in order) hinder us from obeying biblical teaching about allowing each person to bring “a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (1 Cor 14:26)?

b. Are we more grieved when others disregard our traditions than when we dishonor God’s word? Examples: Which bothers me more—When my brother fails to bow and pray before his meal or when I grumble about the food in front of me? When my brother worships God while playing his guitar or when I daydream about my new vehicle all through the worship service? When a single mother works part-time as a nurse, leaving her children with a babysitter, or when I fail to help support her and her family?

c. Do we find it hard to clearly distinguish between our applications and God’s direct commands? Examples: Which of the following are applications, and which direct Scriptural commands? Converts must complete instruction class before being baptized. We must not drink alcohol. We must not smoke. We must not vote. We must not own TVs. Weddings must be held in churches, with an ordained minister leading. Women must not wear pants. Men must not wear skirts. Answer: They are all applications (or, perhaps for one or two, deduced implications).

(For extended reflection on this account, see my sermon notes for Mark 7.)

2. Galatians 1:14. This is Paul’s testimony of being a good Pharisee: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” Paul is referring here to the same traditions critiqued by Jesus in Matthew 15. There these traditions were shown to be contrary to the word of God. Here they are shown to be contrary to the church of God (Gal. 1:13), the grace of God (Gal. 1:15), and the Son of God (Gal. 1:16). Those who are most zealous for religious traditions may also be those who preach another gospel and oppress the church.

3. Colossians 2:8. Here Paul issues a warning: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Context and Greek vocabulary both suggest that “human tradition” here could perhaps be another reference to the traditions of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, but that is debated among scholars. Later in the same section of Colossians Paul gets more specific:

…Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath...  Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind…

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (From Col. 2:16-23.)

In this passage we can see at least two problems with human religious traditions. First, they don’t do anything to stop us from sinning. Second, and most important, they detract from the sufficiency of Christ. Paul presents a clear contrast: You can walk in the human traditions you may have received, or “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (Col. 2:6). Notice that “received” is the language of tradition, of something being passed on from leaders to followers. Only one tradition can save those who receive it—the tradition of Jesus as Christ and Lord.

The above passages (Matt. 15, Mark 7, Gal. 1, Col. 2) account for all eleven times that the word tradition(s) is used negatively in the ESV Bible. In all but one of those cases the underlying Greek word is παράδοσις (paradosis), a word referring to a teaching or tradition that is handed over. In the other case (Mark 7:4) tradition helps translate a phrase that refers to receiving and keeping something handed down.

The KJV and NKJV use tradition in one more passage:

…You were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. (1 Pet. 1:18-19, NKJV)

Here the phrase refers to a way of life inherited from one’s ancestors. Commentator Karen H. Jobes explains:

The πατροπαραδότος (patroparadotos, ancestral way of life) was esteemed and venerated as the basis of a stable society in both Greek and Jewish culture. First Peter is probably the first Christian writing to use the word in a negative sense for one’s way of life before coming to Christ… The ancestral way of life, though appearing to offer a venerable reality, is precisely that from which one has been redeemed when given new birth into the only true reality established by the resurrection of Christ.5

A central theme of this passage is Peter’s urgent call to holy living. How is holy living to be achieved? Not through the “futile ways inherited from your forefathers” (ESV), Peter writes, but through Christ. In context, then, these futile traditions include anything that detracts from Christ—an emphasis similar to Colossians 2. Christ has redeemed us from the futility of trying to achieve holiness through adherence to human traditions. Praises to our Savior!

These passages make it clear that tradition is usually used in a negative sense in the NT. The evidence is overwhelming: Again and again we see tradition is opposed to the word of God, to grace, to the church, to our own holiness and salvation, and to Christ.

Is there really any room left for a positive vision for tradition? Well, we still have three instances of tradition to account for in the ESV NT. God willing, I’ll use them in a forthcoming post as the launching pad to talk about “good examples” of tradition. Listening well to the Scriptures demands that we hear the whole biblical story and not just that aspect of tradition (pro or con) that fits most comfortably with our personal stories.


It’s your turn. Have you experienced similar examples of how we listen poorly to what Scripture says about tradition? What authorities do you hear us relying on when we turn from Scripture to other voices? How would you summarize the Bible’s critique of tradition-gone-bad? Share your insights in the comments below.

  1. Pastoral Messenger (Scottdale, Pa.), July 1957, pp. 7-8. Article signed by J.P.G. (J. Paul Graybill). Emphasis added. Cited by Melvin Gingerich, Mennonite Attire through Four Centuries (Breinigsville, PA: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1970; dist. by Herald Press), p. 102.
  2. Ibid.. Emphasis added.
  3. Gingerich, Mennonite Attire, 148.
  4. Ibid., 157. Emphasis added.
  5. Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 118.

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Thinking Intentionally about Tradition and Change

Well, it’s no surprise: The topic of church standards and traditions gets conservative Anabaptists fired up like little else. My recent posts about Gerhard Roosen’s critique of Amish clothing rules, Frank Reed’s warning about cultural idolatry, and David Bercot’s testimony about cultural hurdles for spiritual seekers are already sitting at 1st, 3rd, and 6th place, respectively, on my list of most-visited blog posts.

Evidently many of you feel that Roosen, Reed, and Bercot are onto something important, whether or not you agree with everything they said or with everything about how I framed their thoughts. Evidently many of you agree we need the reminder to keep church traditions subservient to Scripture. But where do we go from here?

I have no illusions that I can answer this question sufficiently or to everyone’s satisfaction. And I am in no position to specify exactly when or how your church should flex its traditions and standards on a particular point such as regulation suit coats or beards. But I do feel some responsibility, after having helped raise the issue of problems with church traditions, to suggest some further guidance. So in this post I want to suggest some basic realities and values to keep in mind as we wrestle with particular questions of tradition and change. And in an upcoming post I hope to examine some of what the New Testament says about the positive role of tradition.

Before I begin: One voice I would love to hear more from on the topic of Anabaptist tradition and change is John Coblentz. In the past I have valued his calm and thoughtful voice, and I think he has more reflective wisdom on this topic up his sleeve. I pray God will nudge him to share it, if doing so would indeed be helpful. (As I reference John, I want to clarify that I’m not claiming he agrees with what I’m writing here.)

My fundamental point in this post is captured in this sentence I’ve heard John say:

I wish we could be intentional about change and not just about preservation.

As John has elaborated, we conservative Anabaptists have thought about how to preserve, but we also need to think about how to change. And, what is more, we need to learn to do both without seeing them in contradiction.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions to bear in mind as we think intentionally about tradition and change in our churches:

1. It is easier to tear down than to build, but tearing down is insufficient. It is easier to be an iconoclast than to build a cathedral, let alone a healthy local church or network of churches. Any fool can grumble about too many church rules. But only a wise man understands the real reasons why too many cultural regulations are a problem, and only divine Holy Spirit guidance can lead a church to make positive changes that build up every member of the body.

In Luke 11:24-26, Jesus warns what will happen to a person who is freed from a demon but does not align themselves with Jesus: The demon will return along with “seven other spirits more evil than itself,” and “the last state of that person is worse than the first.” I think we can make an argument here from greater to lesser. If removing even demons is pointless and dangerous on its own, how much more pointless will it be to content ourselves with taking pot shots at church rules. Removing even harmful church rules will not, by itself, draw a single person closer to Christ. [Update: I clarify this statement in my next post.] We must set our hearts on Christ, not on personal freedoms. Only Christ-ward change will bring deeper life to our churches.

2. The dynamics that are making some conservative Anabaptists dissatisfied with regulated traditions are not likely to go away. Conservative Anabaptist youth vary widely in how satisfied they are with the traditional religious culture they have inherited from parents and grandparents. In a recent conversation I overheard, one young lady said she would be quick to leave her church if only there were an attractive alternative available nearby. But her friend from the same church replied that she was basically satisfied with their church as it was. She would want only a few small changes.

At a 2014 Faith Builders inter-generational colloquy on challenges facing the conservative Anabaptist church, I was somewhat surprised to hear how many younger men were content to retain many of our traditional religious forms and regulations—as long as we do a much better job of acknowledging which ones are merely cultural rather than directly biblical. That said, at the same forum we discussed how modern developments are fundamentally changing the way we experience church—developments such as electronic communications, national and global travel, missions experiences, the religious blogosphere, the explosion in Christian publishing and our access to it, multiple Bible translations, increasing involvement in higher education, and more. The combined effect of such developments is that, for many youth and “not-so-youth,” their local church with its cultural traditions is seen, often rightly so, as just one of many possible ways that faithful Christians have followed Christ.

These developments are unlikely to disappear any time soon. One result of these developments is a conclusion that was strongly affirmed by all generations at the Faith Builders colloquy: merely providing Scriptural proof-texts in support of Anabaptist cultural traditions is no longer satisfactory (if it ever was). It is becoming increasingly obvious to all that there are many faithful cultural expressions of the same Bible teachings, and proof-texting alone is not sufficient proof for why an individual should choose the particularly Anabaptist traditional expression of a given teaching.

In sum, the question of what to do with our traditional church cultures is not going away. Leaders who stick their heads in the sand after reading the concerns of Bercot and Reed are likely to find their flock is restless or scattered when they finally come up for air. (Hello? Do sheep stick their heads in the sand? What’s that? Ostriches run in flocks, too, you say? But since when is the church of Christ compared to a flock of ostriches? And don’t you know that the preferred term for a group of ostriches is a pride? Just what are you insinuating, sir? You’re confusing me, Mr. Gingrich!)

In other words, this is a time for intentional change, not only intentional preservation.

3. Changes in surrounding cultures make changes in church culture unavoidable. We need to be very clear here in our thinking. The choice is not between change versus no change. The choice is rather in what kind of change we will experience.

What do I mean by this? I draw this point from my observation of church history. On the one hand, we have Anabaptist groups that have changed obviously, in outward ways, such as adopting motorized vehicles or dropping prayer veilings. On the other hand, we have groups such as the Old Order Amish or Mennonites who appear to most casual observers to have changed very little over the past century. But how have they remained “unchanged”? By changing their lists of church rules, expanding and adapting them to address new social and technological developments from without.

As J. Gordon Melton summarizes regarding the Amish, “the number of distinctives multiplied as new innovations in the larger culture were one by one rejected.” And Melton summarizes Mennonite American history like this:

Given the relatively free atmosphere in the United States, and the large number of issues that were continually pressing upon the Mennonites as they attempted to define themselves as a people apart, it is not surprising that the movement splintered into a number of separate factions. Given the relatively small size of the total Mennonite community (which numbers only several hundred thousand), it is the most splintered segment of American Christianity.”1

This, too, is change—a change that results in churches becoming increasingly distinct from both surrounding culture and each other not only on matters of biblical principle, but on myriad other matters as well.

So, just as questioning of Anabaptist cultural traditions is inevitable (point 2), so also change is inevitable. The challenge, again, is to be intentional and wise about change. Do you want an ever-growing list of rules? Or a list of consistent length but evolving content, so that your church follows twenty years behind the surrounding culture? Or do you want a change from a list of rules to a focus on other means of achieving church cohesion and holiness? Or some mix of the above? All options involve change.

Again, this is a time for intentional change, not only intentional preservation.

4. Change rarely happens neatly or uniformly, so we should extend grace for Christ-centered, Scripture-bounded diversity. What issues do you think conservative Anabaptists today should change or preserve? Now think back to yourself ten or twenty years ago. How would you have answered that question then? Differently? If so, how would you have liked the twenty-years-ago you to be treated by the now-you? Here’s my point: Most of us experience changes in our understandings about Bible and church over time, and none of experience exactly the same changes at exactly the same times. Therefore, let us extend grace.

I am happy to count as my brothers and sisters all who are in Christ, all who are relying on his grace for salvation and all who are seeking to follow him within the bounds of the guidance of Scripture. Do any of us rely on grace perfectly or identify the bounds of Scripture perfectly? No. And are there some who claim to rely on Christ and honor Scripture who do not actually do so? Yes! But I am convinced that many within a wide range of conservative Anabaptist churches, for example, do so sufficiently, that is sufficiently to be part of the true church of Christ. (And many, I hasten to add, who are not Anabaptists; but I’m speaking here to my main readership.)

Could every one of our churches change in ways that would better honor Christ and reflect the guidance of Scripture? Absolutely! And may we do so, lest our candlesticks be removed (Rev. 2-3)! And meanwhile, may our mutual exhortations continue with both zeal and gracious patience.

This point, of course, is also an argument for embracing more cultural diversity in our inter-church relationships and, where possible, within our congregations. Rather than monitoring all our intra- and inter-church relationships by rules on matters of divergent opinion, we should learn to welcome each other as we have been welcomed by Christ (Romans 14:1-15:7).

Again, two quotes from John Coblentz can help us here. (1) For those of us who are impatient to see urgently needed changes in church standards, we can remember what those who resist change may be aware of: “Even good changes have losses.” (2) And for those of us who are inclined to draw our lines of regulation and association too narrowly, may we learn to say, “I have purposed to rejoice in Jesus wherever I see him.”

Finally, as we still disagree on some important though secondary matters, may Christ find us working together as Paul hoped to find the Philippian believers: living lives “worthy of the gospel of Christ” and “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27).

Much more could be said, but this is enough for now. Even as I urge some patience above, I want to reaffirm my agreement with the concerns raised by Roosen, Reed, and Bercot. I long for our churches to be more fully and obviously centered on Christ, dependent on the Holy Spirit, and guided by Scripture. To the extent that our churches are not each of these, there will be eternal loss: we will fail to meet the needs of generations who are hungry for authenticity and timeless truth. By God’s grace, I’ll share in a coming post some ideas about how we can gain a more Scriptural understanding of the role of tradition in church life and spiritual formation.

How would you add to this post? What do you think we should remember in order to think intentionally and wisely about tradition and change? Share your insights in the comments below.

  1. J. Gordon Melton, Nelson’s Guide to Denominations (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 248, 249-50.

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