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Tradition in the NT (2): Good Examples

[For the first post in this series, see: “Tradition in the NT (1): Bad Examples.”]

“What you have done for my son and my family is beyond love.” The writer was a mother named Lisa, and she was writing to Bald Eagle Boys Camp. Her letter continued:

Perhaps you will never know how many years I prayed that Derek could find a mentor… I wanted and prayed for one mentor. God gave Derek all of you… All of you have separate gifts and talents that you share with the boys. You all have different insights and personal attributes to share… You very well may have saved his life, saved him from self-hatred, and saved him from not ever seeing what God’s love is. [Emphasis added.]

Mentoring is an important part of the therapeutic camping program at Bald Eagle, a camp for “troubled boys.” Listen to some more excerpts from their website:

The counselors, called “chiefs”, are responsible for direct care and provide the key to meeting the emotional needs of a camper. Because the chiefs live with the boys twenty-four hours a day and join them in all of their daily routines, they become keenly aware of the individual needs of each camper. Their dedication and care provide a secure atmosphere where healing relationships can occur…

Spiritual values are intrinsically woven into the fabric of daily Wilderness Camp living and are reinforced by our staff as they model the teachings of Jesus Christ. They are displayed in the simplest ways—the love and understanding of a counselor, the forgiveness of one boy to another, and the helpfulness of a friend….

We aim to maintain groups of four to five members who have stabilized and are able to provide accountability, cohesion, and a positive influence to the rest of the group…. [Emphasis added.]

As the letter from Lisa suggests, many boys and their parents are being powerfully shaped by the influence of loving mentors at Bald Eagle Boys Camp.


Story two: The need this time is not troubled boys but troubled communities—communities that lack the relational and economic networks needed for people to climb out of poverty.

Several decades ago Merle Burkholder and his family lived for a year in a small rural village in Haiti. The Burkholders imitated their neighbors by adopting their simple lifestyle and, in return,  they gave their neighbors something to imitate by modeling Christ to them. Deep friendships began that continue to this day. Merle has returned to Cadiac, Haiti once or twice a year ever since, speaking in church seminars and mentoring leaders.

More recently, Merle’s Haiti involvement merged with his service at Anabaptist Financial, leading to a new project called Open Hands. Here, from the Open Hands website, is a description of what they do:

Open Hands operates savings and credit associations in countries where Anabaptist missions are working with people who are experiencing the effects of poverty. We hire and train national Christian individuals to form and supervise savings groups in association with local churches. Our objective is to assist the local churches by helping people grow in Christ, and by teaching them to save funds in order to operate micro-businesses. The Open Hands program will increase their income and will result in stronger, more self-sufficient churches.

The Open Hands program involves many relationships and lots of training. These flow in multiple directions, as everyone listens and learns from each other. Open Hands has adopted some elements of a dialogue education approach, where facilitators ask questions and help learners discover answers using their prior knowledge. This helps build the dignity and confidence needed for responsible and successful living.

But Open Hands also knows that outside training, when welcomed, is a crucial element in giving a community new tools for growth. So a long, intentional flow of relationships and training exists within Open Hands. This is especially evident with the curriculum that Open Hands is producing for savings groups:

Board and administration has set a vision for producing family and small business training booklets.

green-arrow-down-1Writing teams turn this vision into instructor’s guides and student workbooks.

green-arrow-down-1Translation teams transmit the content into other languages.

green-arrow-down-1Program leaders living abroad teach the new curriculum to…

green-arrow-down-1National group facilitators and trainers, who train…

green-arrow-down-1Savings group leaders how to teach the curriculum to…

green-arrow-down-1Each savings group with its individual members.

Such a long chain does leave space for things to be lost in transmission. But so far this approach seems to be working well, helping to transform lives. And communication is certainly not all one-directional; everyone from administration through writers through translators has interacted directly with national leaders and group members to celebrate our partnership in the gospel.

Merle summarized this train of transmission another way recently in an email:

When we began with the savings group model we realized that this model follows a pattern that many Amish and Mennonite people here in the developed world have used. The model we use relies heavily on brotherhood accountability within the savings group. It demonstrates how faithfulness in small things leads to larger responsibilities. It helps a person to start a small family business with a little capital and grow that business into a business that will provide for the needs of the family.

When you think about the large number of Amish and Mennonite family businesses, you see that what we have done here is often replicated in the developing world through the savings group model. Often here, Amish and Mennonite families would pool their funds in order to purchase a farm or fund the start up of a small home based business. The savings group model follows the same pattern within a community.

In the Amish and Mennonite communities we have a strong work ethic and a belief that we should provide for our own families and not depend on social assistance programs. The savings group help people in the developing world move from dependency on an aid program, or charity in some other form, to providing for their own needs. There is great dignity in being able to internally produce the resources that are needed for the support of a family rather than depending on outside resources. [Emphasis added.]

So Open Hands is strengthening a transmission of influence from Amish and Mennonites to developing nations worldwide. Open Hands aims to transmit our “strong work ethic” and “belief that we should provide for our own.” The curriculum also emphasizes Jesus’ kingdom teachings about stewardship, eternal values, and neighbor love, and includes a gospel invitation in each booklet. In this way North American Anabaptists are helping to shape men, women, and children in Haiti, India, Kenya, and other nations worldwide.

(Disclosure and gratitude: Merle hired me as a writer for Open Hands and was a formative influence years ago during my time with Northern Youth Programs.)


Story three: The need this time is for leaders. Followers of Jesus Mennonite Church (FJMC) in Brooklyn, NY, has a practice of asking its members periodically to identify men in their midst who have leadership potential. Those identified by the congregation are invited to participate in a several-year training program called Servant Leadership Apprenticeship (SLA). Trainees study books on doctrinal and practical matters (such as Alexander Strauch’s Biblical Eldership), attend half the FJMC leadership team meetings (voice but no vote), and practice a wide variety of leadership activities from giving sermons to praying for church members. (See here for a longer summary.)

The SLA program has helped raise up leaders for FJMC and beyond. Richard Schwartz, the current FJMC lead pastor, was an SLA participant. And so—thanks be to God—was I, training under Allen Roth and alongside his son Arlin. (More disclosure and gratitude. My wife was also grateful for the opportunity to learn from the pastors’ wives.)

Allen Roth, FJMC’s founding pastor, was the human brainchild behind the SLA program. In 2009 Allen shared a talk subtitled “If I Were Starting a Church Again…” In this talk he described fifteen things he would do differently if he planted another church in the future. One thing he said was this:

I would start the Servant-Leader Apprenticeship earlier as a deliberate, planned approach to raise up more leaders, not only to pastor the new church but also to serve as missionaries and church planters.

Recently I asked Allen to describe what inspired him to begin the SLA program. Here is his answer:

Dwight, I cannot really remember any “aha” moment.  I’m sure prayer figures in.  I had had a very rich experience with a group of 20+ Nicaraguans living with us and helping with two church plants in Nicaragua.  Working with a team in NYC was also very influential in my thinking.  But even earlier than all these was the mentoring I received by Richard Showalter, my missions teacher, when I was a[t] Rosedale.  And of course, through the years, there have been books that imprinted me about Jesus’ work with the Twelve, mentoring books, disciple making books, etc.  Early in the formation of BMA, Walter Beachy and I worked together on assembling a mentoring guide for development of new ministers in BMA.  An entire Ministers’ Enrichment event in 2002 was devoted to the theme of developing tomorrow’s leaders.  This year Paul Emerson and I worked on a document entitled “Mentoring For Ministry” that is scheduled to be presented to the ministers next month for their review and hopefully for implementation within BMA.  Probably, though I cannot remember a specific incident, was the realization that to establish FJMC, plant new churches, and send out workers in missions we needed to develop more leaders.  Does that help? [Emphasis added.]

Indeed, it does!

And hopefully by now you can see some common themes emerging in my three stories. Many similar stories could be added. But these are enough for me to make an observation: sometimes conservative Anabaptists, whether they realize it or not, demonstrate a very Scriptural practice of tradition.

“Of tradition?” you say. Yes, of tradition. In my last post I described how conservative Anabaptist often listen rather poorly to what the NT says about tradition. I also summarized the NT’s critique of tradition-gone-bad. But the NT also has positive things to say about tradition. And if we only exorcize the demons of bad tradition without filling the house with the Holy Spirit’s positive tradition, then the last state of our churches will be worse than the first (image lifted from Matthew 12:43-45).


Word Studies: Challenges and Procedures

There are three times that the ESV NT uses the word tradition in a positive sense. We will explore these three passages and see what we can learn.

But first, please bear with some technical notes for Bible students. With the one exception noted in my previous post, the ESV’s use of the word tradition perfectly matches the Greek text’s use of the word παράδοσις (paradosis, a word referring to a teaching or tradition that is handed over). This means that, despite using an English translation, we are matching the results we would get if working from the Greek.

On the one hand it can actually be better to work from English for a topical study like this, for translators sometimes identify multiple Greek (or Hebrew) words that are used in a way best expressed by a single English word. (For example, ἀγαπᾷς and φιλῶ in John 21 probably both mean “love,” as in most English translations, with no distinctions intended in this passage between agape and philia kinds of love.) On the other hand, we should not assume that the range of meaning for paradosis perfectly matches the range of meaning for our English word tradition. Even in this case where the ESV matches the two words nearly perfectly, I cannot assume that paradosis means exactly the same thing in every NT passage, or that in any passage it means what I most commonly mean when I use the English word tradition. The best approach for word studies is to use dictionaries to determine the range of possible meanings for a given word (Greek or English), and then study the context in which a word is used in order to select which of the possible meanings best matches the particular passage which we are examining.

In this study of tradition, context revealed that Jesus often used the word paradosis to refer specifically to the Jewish “tradition of the elders”—the oral law that Jews believed (including some today!) that Moses received from God during his 40 days on Mount Sinai. But when Paul used the word paradosis he sometimes meant something very different, as we shall soon see. And when we use the English word tradition, what do we mean? Scanning dictionary entries, I see definitions as varied as these:

  • The passing down of elements of a culture from generation to generation, especially by oral communication
  • “A long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting
  • “A doctrine or body of doctrines regarded as having been established by Christ or the apostles though not contained in Scripture
  • “A piece of folklore
  • “A style or method of an activity or practice, especially of artistic expression, that is recognized and sometimes imitated

None of the above definitions fully captures what we mean when we talk about Anabaptist or Mennonite traditions, and none perfectly matches how either Jesus or Paul used the word paradosis. Bottom line: We need to listen closely to Scripture to let it shape our definitions and understandings.


What the NT Says Positively about Tradition

Back to the positive NT use of tradition. Let’s examine our three passages individually, making observations. Then we’ll summarize our observations and suggest some implications for how we should think about tradition in our churches.

1. 1 Corinthians 11:2. Here Paul affirms the Corinthian church: “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” Here we can clearly see the root concept of paradosis: It is something that is “delivered” from one to another. The word “delivered” suggests intentionality. Paul did not simply live quietly in the land, assuming others would learn from him if they wished.

The thing delivered was old to Paul, but new to the Corinthians. Thus, the transmission of tradition produced radical changes. On the other hand, once the Corinthian believers had received what Paul delivered to them, the proper thing to do with these traditions was to “maintain” them. Thus paradosis in this passage implies both intentional change and intentional preservation.

Notice that Paul wanted the Corinthians to remember more than just the traditions he had delivered. He also wanted them to “remember [him] in everything.” Thus, tradition was not to be received as an impersonal body of practices or “ordinances” (the KJV’s unfortunate translation of paradosis in this passage). Rather, tradition was a personal matter, rooted in intimate relationship.

If we zoom out to the wider context, we see that Paul did not merely want the Corinthians to “remember” him; he wanted them to imitate him: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” This suggests that Paul believed that personal example and imitation was an important way of “delivering” tradition. In other words, mentoring.

The mention of Christ shows the ultimate source of the tradition that Paul delivered to the Corinthians. Paul is the channel of these traditions, not the source. Thus, we can see three “generations” of tradition in this passage: Christ, Paul, and the Corinthian church.

What were these traditions that Paul received from Christ and passed on to the Corinthian church? In the context of this letter to Corinth, these traditions definitely include several things:

  • The account of Christ instituting the Lord’s Supper: “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you,” Paul writes (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
  • The gospel as a whole, including the historical facts and theological significance of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received” (1 Cor. 15:1-11).

These traditions may have also included Paul’s teaching about headship. Most likely Paul uses paradosis here to refers to any and all of his teachings, both doctrine about Christ and instruction about how to live in response to Christ. Clearly, Christ is central—both as the source of Paul’s tradition and as the center of its content.

2. 2 Thessalonians 2:15. Here Paul appeals to the church at Thessalonica: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” This passage, though similar to our Corinthian one, offers additional insights into the traditions that Paul affirmed.

Here the traditions were “taught,” a word that again suggests intentionality. But different modes of transmission are specified: “spoken word” and “letter.” Tradition, then, is something that you not only do, but also teach verbally.

The word “taught” implies that the Thessalonians did not originally know and practice Paul’s traditions. His traditions challenged and changed their former ways of thinking and living. On the other hand, having learned Paul’s traditions, they were to “hold” to them, a word that suggests preservation. Thus tradition again involves both change and continuity.

What were the traditions that Paul taught the Thessalonian believers? Context suggest at least two things:

  • The phrases “stand firm and hold” and “either by our spoken word or by our letter” echo phrases from earlier in the chapter: “We ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come” (2 Thess. 2:1-2, emphasis added). In this chapter Paul is instructing the Thessalonians “concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him” (2 Thess. 2:1). This topic, of course, was an important theme in Paul’s previous letter to Thessalonica (1 Thess. 4:13-5:11). And here Paul says, “Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?” (2 Thess. 2:5). So Paul had previously instructed the Thessalonians previously both by “spoken word” and by “letter” (2 Thess. 2:15) about these matters. These teachings about the coming of Christ were part of the “traditions” that Paul had taught to the Thessalonian church.
  • Another contextual clue is suggested by the words “so then” at the beginning of our verse. These words link back to the the previous verses (2 Thess. 2:13-14), where Paul recalls with gratitude how God first chose the Thessalonians to be saved: “To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 14). This context reveals several important truths.  First, the reason why Paul thought the Thessalonians should hold to the traditions was because they were essential for salvation. Unless the Thessalonians held fast to the traditions Paul had taught them, they had no assurance they would “obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” They had begun well; now Paul wanted them to finish well. Clearly, “traditions” here does not refer to merely human customs or rules. Second, a close relationship is suggested between “gospel” and “traditions.” God had initially called the Thessalonians “through our [Paul’s] gospel” (2 Thess. 2:14; see also 1 Thessalonians 2, where Paul recalls how he originally “proclaimed… the gospel of God” to the Thessalonians, who had “accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.”). Now they needed to hold fast to “the traditions.” This suggests that the traditions were either the gospel itself (the message about being saved “through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth”; 2 Thess. 2:13), or other teachings integrally springing from the gospel message.

In summary, Paul uses paradosis in 2 Thessalonians 2 to refer to the core gospel message and to all the associated truths (such as teaching about Christ’s appearing and the man of lawlessness) that the Thessalonians needed to hold in order to persevere to final salvation without being “shaken.”

3. 2 Thessalonians 3:6. Here Paul gives a command concerning tradition: “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. The usage of paradosis here is clearly parallel to our other two passages. For example, there is again a very strong emphasis on imitation and an appeal to the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. But several new emphases can be noticed.

In context, the tradition that Paul is talking about is the tradition of working quietly and earning one’s own living (2 Thess. 3:6-12). Here behavior is clearly included as part of tradition. Tradition is not merely about how we think; it is also about how we act.

Tradition here serves as a boundary for the church, or at least as a measure for good standing within the church. The Thessalonians are to “keep away from” anyone who does not follow the tradition of working diligently. They must not even share food with such people.

Notice how Paul describes this tradition in clear but general terms: The Thessalonians are to work diligently and quietly, earning their own living. They are not to be disorderly, burden others by eating food without paying for it, or be busybodies. Paul does not say how often one could eat free as a guest before one should start paying (the Didache limited traveling Christians to two or three free nights). He does not say how many hours per week one must work in order to be considered diligent. He seems to expect that his instructions are clear enough that they can be applied on a case-by-case basis without detailed universal rules.

In summary, Paul uses paradosis in 2 Thessalonians 3 to refer to godly behaviors learned by imitation from Christian leaders—behaviors which are necessary for good standing in the church of Christ.

If we summarize all three passages where Paul speaks positively about tradition (paradosis), we find that the content of this good NT tradition includes the gospel message about Christ and his work past, present, and future, all the associated truths that we need in order to persevere to final salvation, and all sorts of Christlike behaviors.


For Further Study

A proper study of the positive use of tradition in the NT would also examine a host of other passages related to the theme of the apostles passing things on to the first churches. For example, here are a few key concepts and references to review (based on a concordance search of the ESV):

  • deliver“: Luke 1:2; Acts 15:30; 16:4; 2Cor. 3:3; 2Pet. 2:21; Jude 1:3
  • proclaim“: Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 10:7; 24:14; Acts 4:2; 8:5; 9:20; 13:5, 38; 15:36; 17:3, 13, 23; 20:25; 26:23; 28:31; Rom. 10:8; 1Cor. 2:1; 9:14; 11:26; 15:12; 2Cor. 1:19; 4:5; 11:4; Gal. 2:2; Eph. 6:19; Phil. 1:17-18; Col. 1:23, 28; 1Tim. 3:16; 2Tim. 4:17; 1Pet. 2:9; 1John 1:2-5
  • receive“: John 3:11, 32-33; 12:48; 13:20; 14:17; 17:8; Acts 2:41; 8:14; 11:1; 17:11; 1Cor. 4:7; 2Cor. 6:1; Gal. 1:9, 12; Phil. 4:9; Col. 2:6; 1Thess. 1:6; 2:13; 4:1; Heb. 4:6; 10:26; James 1:21; Rev. 3:3
  • example“: John 13:15; Phil. 3:17; 1Thess. 1:7; 1Tim. 4:12; 1Pet. 2:21; 5:3
  • imitate“: 1Cor. 4:16; Eph. 5:1; 1Thess. 2:14; Heb. 6:12; 13:7
  • entrust/deposit“: Luke 12:48; 1Cor. 9:17; 2Cor. 5:19; Gal. 2:7; 1Thess. 2:4; 1Tim. 1:11, 18; 6:20; 2Tim. 1:12, 14; 2:2; Tit. 1:3

(I have listed verses only once, not repeating them if they were discussed above or if they use multiple key terms.)

In addition to the above passages, one should examine the entire theme of discipleship in the NT!


Conclusion: Summarizing the Evidence and Exhorting the Anabaptists

As I end this brief study of tradition in the NT (good and bad examples), my heart is full. I feel I must speak clearly and honestly to my fellow conservative Anabaptists. Scripture is speaking, and we must listen. In short, I think we are in urgent need of having a radical renewal in our concept of tradition.

I ask you: When we talk about “tradition” in the context of church life as conservative Anabaptists, what kind of traditions usually come to mind? Man-made customs and rules that we have added to God’s word (as with the “tradition” of the Pharisees)? Or the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and basic principles of Christlike behavior (as with the “tradition” of Paul)?

I ask you another question: Do you see any suggestion in the NT that tradition in the first sense (man-made customs or rules, however good or natural) is ever emphasized as a useful means for either bringing anyone to salvation, producing holy behavior, or preserving the gospel?

(Here I must make a brief aside, prompted by a question from my wise wife. I presented the Bald Eagle Boys Camp above as a positive example of tradition. But the Bald Eagle program is full of man-made rules! Am I contradicting myself? I hope not. Remember that Bald Eagle is designed to serve boys—in fact, “troubled” boys. Man-made rules are essential for raising children, especially unregenerate ones. And the more immature the children, the more there will be a need for regulated structure. Bald Eagle uses Pauline mentoring relationships combined with good methods of child management to produce children who will be better prepared to respond to the “tradition” of the gospel. We should learn from Bald Eagle’s emphasis on intentional mentoring. But do we really want to run our churches in a highly-regulated fashion, as if they are full of unregenerate “troubled boys”? Procedural expectations will always be needed in any group setting—times for meeting, etc. And cultural norms and group habits are fine—ways of singing, etc.  And some of our habits, though not commanded in the NT, are drawn from its pages—praying before meals, etc. But those who are filled with the Spirit surely do not need an abundance of rules to produce holy behavior.)

Let me summarize with eight overlapping observations from our study.

This is what good tradition looks like in the NT. Ask yourself: Is this what tradition looks like in my church?

  1. Tradition involves personal relationships. When the NT talks about tradition positively, it usually depicts intimate relationships between an apostle or missionary and those in his care. Seeing tradition as merely involving beliefs and practices is not enough. If tradition is experienced as an impersonal force, then we have fallen short of the NT pattern.
  2. Tradition involves personal imitation. When the NT talks about tradition positively, there is not merely conformity to a social norm. Rather, there is direct imitation of a worthy individual. This means that those of us who want to promote tradition must focus on being persons worth imitating. It is not enough to merely point to a body of beliefs or practices. Good tradition requires good people—people who consciously aspire to be Christlike role models.
  3. Tradition involves imitation of Christ. When the NT talks about tradition positively, in passage after passage the flow of tradition is clear: The fountainhead is Christ, and all worthy tradition flows downhill from him—down through his apostles, down through faithful Christians of all time, down through those who proclaimed the gospel to us, and down through us to others. As we drink from the stream of those who have taught and modeled Christ to us, we walk up through this stream, ever closer to Christ himself, our only perfect Model.
  4. Tradition involves a group cohesion found in Christ. When the NT talks about tradition positively, it indicates that the church finds its cohesion in Christ. Group cohesion is found not merely in each individual conforming to the group, but in each individual helping the other conform to Christ. As the gospel tradition draws us closer to Christ, we are held together in him. Tradition involves a community being transformed into the image of a p/Person (a Christ-imitator and Christ himself), and not merely a person being transformed into the image of a community.
  5. Tradition involves intentional choice. When the NT talks about tradition positively, there is no suggestion of subconscious immersion in a religious culture or thoughtless conformity to social norms. Rather, we see people proactively proclaiming, mentoring, and following. Those of us who want to affirm and hold onto tradition should intentionally look for mentors worth imitating, not merely conform to peer pressure.
  6. Tradition involves explanation. When the NT talks about tradition positively, we see both the what and the why being taught. Last fall I read the fascinating book Runaway Amish Girl, written by Emma Gingerich, a brave young lady who used to belong to a Swartzentruber Amish group not far from my home here in Leon, IA. I expected that by reading the book I would gain a better understanding of why Amish live the way they do. I did learn much about the Swartzentruber Amish, including some details of their ordnung (church ordinances or rules). But I was surprised to discover as I ended the book that I really hadn’t learned much about why they live as they do. The reason I didn’t learn much about the why is because the author, despite having grown up Amish, was never taught the why, either. This failure of these Amish to explain the why became for me one of the most important lessons of the book. This Swartzentruber Amish group had plenty of traditions, but they had little understanding of tradition in the positive NT sense.Ordnung without explanation is empty. Teaching and training are essential elements of the apostolic approach to tradition. The apostles never merely commanded what to do; they rooted the what firmly in a gospel why—in a theological explanation of some aspect of the work of Christ. In fact, they often taught the why first, then deduced the what from the why afterward. And they even sometimes flexed the what from situation to situation, aiming to best promote the why of the gospel in each unique context.
  7. Tradition involves change. When the NT talks about tradition positively, it describes something that comes into our lives from the outside and turns our world upside down. The kingdom of God brings a new world, a new age, and new ways of thinking. Yes, we hold onto this tradition fiercely once we have received it. But its revolutionary work in our hearts will not be finished until Christ returns. Our thoughts and behaviors will continue to evolve as we are ever more conformed to the gospel. Not all change is life or growth. But to be alive is to grow, and to grow is to change. Thus, tradition is not merely “doing things as we’ve always done them.” It radically changes both individuals and entire communities.
  8. Tradition involves biblicism. The word biblicism has received a bad rap, for at its worst it signifies a legalistic adherence to the letter of the Bible. But in its best sense it signifies something good: a strong focus on the Bible as divine revelation that leads us to Christ and guides us as we follow him. And when the NT talks about tradition positively, it ties this tradition very tightly to Scripture—hence, tradition involves biblicism. This is surprise. One of our dictionary definitions for tradition above, remember, went like this: “A doctrine or body of doctrines regarded as having been established by Christ or the apostles though not contained in Scripture” (emphasis added). This definition sounds a lot like the Jewish concept of the tradition of the elders or “oral law,” which they believed was given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. (Here is an Orthodox believer struggling helpfully but imperfectly with the question of “Holy Tradition.”) But Paul’s use of tradition is different. Remember that when Paul mentioned tradition in 2 Thessalonians 2, he mentioned both “spoken word” and “letter.” Paul taught tradition through both. Significantly, there is no indication here (or elsewhere in the NT) that the content of Paul’s verbal teaching was conceptually different from the content of his written communication. There is no indication, for example, that Paul taught “principles” through his letters and then gave more specific “applications” of those principles in his verbal instructions to churches. This means that we today can access Paul’s traditions by reading his letters. To study Paul’s letters is to learn his traditions; to follow tradition is to be a biblicist. If we faithfully adhere to the tradition of the apostles, we will neither add to their writings nor take away from them.

Let me summarize our observations more concisely.

Tradition, when it is described positively in the NT, is always tied to discipleship. Therefore, in order for tradition to be life-giving for us today, it must always be tied to discipleship. More specifically, it must involve relationships where disciples are trained by those who are imitating others who have imitated Christ. Ultimately, authentic NT tradition involves imitating Christ by means of imitating his apostles and their imitators. Thus authentic NT tradition is a concept that pushes us back to Scripture and on to Christ himself.

Conversely, tradition smothers and kills to the extent that it is devoid of meaningful mentoring relationships and unhinged from the biblical witness of Christ and his apostles.

So here is my appeal to my fellow conservative Anabaptists: Do you think tradition is important? Then become a disciple of Christ who makes more disciples of Christ!

Find the most Christlike people you know! Spend time with them, imitating them as they imitate Christ. Find someone else who wants to follow Christ, and model Christ to them! Share your heart along with the doctrines and behaviors of Christ. And as you do this, submit all your human traditions (Phil. 3) and personal and cultural preferences (1 Cor. 9) to the cause of the only tradition that really matters: the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 9:23).


This has been a long post, but it has been brewing in my heart for a long time. I sense it may be one of the most important posts I’ve shared so far, with its call for us to recapture a NT vision of tradition and disciple-making. Please pray for me that I will not only teach these things but also understand and live them more fully. (I am a disciple who is a slow learner.) May God give you grace to do the same.

Now it’s your turn. What did you learn in this study of tradition in the NT? How would you add to or change what I have written? Am I missing something? How can we live out this call to NT “traditionalism”? What methods or means can we use in our churches to better pass on the faith once for all delivered to the saints? Please share your insights in the comments below.


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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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Church cultures and the danger of complacency

(Old Facebook Post – Revised)

The Dangerous Side of Success.” This article by John Johnson is a superb warning for pastors (or other leaders of spiritual institutions) about the dangers of complacency. Giving examples from the business world, Johnson observes:

“Something… tends to happen with success.  Organizations become arrogant, monolithic, and inflexible.”

Another key quote:

“Church cultures are prone to the same thing—to achieve some success and then become satisfied, content, turning insular, rigid—oblivious to the warning Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, who once said: ‘When the rate of change inside an organization is slower than the rate of change outside of an organization, the end of the organization is in sight.’”

How do we keep our churches and church fellowships “cutting edge,” so that we keep young spiritual visionaries growing up within our ranks, rather than ignoring them, then suppressing them, then squeezing them out altogether?


Reader response:

“Change management practice [from business education] would indicate that to initiate the process, what is needed is a core group of “change champions,” preferably people with a high level of credibility and some level of power or influence. And of course, lets not forget that this is the Church of God–prayer is a powerful tool that tends to not make it into the textbooks I bought while I was in school.” 🙂


My response to reader:

…A combination of prayer and “change champions with credibility.” The latter requires patient people, persistent people, people who intentionally and humbly stay in meaningful dialogue with existing His Name Was John: The Life Story of an Early Mennonite Leader Buy on Amazon leaders, people who actively support everything current that is worth supporting, etc. For an old-fashioned account of such a change champion, read His Name Was John, a biography of J.S. Coffman, early Mennonite revivalist (d. 1898), who persisted against significant opposition to help introduce “protracted meetings” (week-long revival/teaching mtgs.) and Sunday School, etc. into very tradition-bound churches. Although some of his efforts resulted in new ossified traditions within a couple generations, he was, in his time, someone who brought needed fresh vision and life to the Mennonite church.


My main concern here is this: How can we better disciple new leaders within our churches? New leaders will mean some new ideas and ways of doing things (godly, but new). Do we intentionally make room for this newness? Or are our church Historical Drift: Must My Church Die? How to Detect, Diagnose and Reverse the Trends Buy on Amazon institutions so rigid that we stifle godly visionaries and set ourselves up for constant cycles of churches dying and new institutions being formed, often through conflict with old leadership?

It’s easier to criticize than to find solutions. An interesting book on this topic, which borrows carefully from business principles as well as church history, is Historical Drift: Must My Church Die? How to Detect, Diagnose and Reverse the Trends, by Arnold L. Cook.


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