My recent posts prompted a couple questions that I want to answer briefly here. Both are good questions, deserving much fuller responses than I will be able to provide. But here’s a start.
Q. 1: Should we be drawing parallels between Anabaptist traditions and Jewish traditions?
As I understand it, the concern here is that comparing the two may cause us to downplay the value of Anabaptist traditions, thus rejecting them too quickly. Here is the question as it was presented to me:
Is it appropriate to compare the fading Mosaic law at a time when the light of Christ had just come into the world, to the “practice” part of Christian faith and practice that has been established by hundreds of years of born again, Spirit-led Anabaptist believers? One set of rules was outshone by the light of Christ. The other seems to be teetering and threatening to be blotted out by a world that is quickly sliding into darkness as the church is “falling away.”
This is a complicated question! I want to begin by acknowledging the differences. The Mosaic Law clearly belongs to the time before Christ, while Anabaptist traditions have been formed since the time of Christ, by Christ-followers. So, yes, it is very clear that we are no longer under the Mosaic Law (in the sense of being legally bound to observe its rules), but our relationship to church traditions and laws is not always so clear.
That said, I still think we can learn a lot about the potential dangers of regulated church traditions by looking at the Mosaic Law and Jewish traditions.
First, Jewish traditions did not become a problem only after the institution of the new covenant in Christ. Already prior to this, Jewish traditions were obscuring God’s true intent with the Law of Moses—see Matthew 15. The word of God for the nation of Israel was being buried under the tradition of the elders. The elders (early Pharisees, etc.) were God-fearing, Law-loving men. They intended this tradition to be a “fence around the law” to ensure no one broke the law. But as the traditions became more extensive and rigid, they actually distracted people from the spirit of the law and hindered people from obeying it. If this all happened within the time of the old covenant, then surely the same can happen today within the time of the new covenant, with its ethical commands. In both cases, good men with good intentions can become badly imbalanced. So I think it is fair and wise to draw lessons from the former for the latter.
Second, I do not find any NT example of a similar “fence around the law of Christ.” I do not see any example of an established, prepackaged Christian set of traditions that would parallel the Jewish tradition of the elders. We see no uniform, church-wide sub-culture being promoted, with detailed church standards for things like regulation clothing. On the one hand, this has a natural sociological explanation, for “the Way” was too new to have developed into such an established movement. Indeed, within a couple centuries there were many such church systems, rules, and cultural practices in place.
On the other hand, I think it is significant that the apostles never seem to have envisioned the formation of such a uniform Christian culture. They proclaimed a gospel, not a culture. And the gospel is not a culture. The gospel is a message about a King who calls people everywhere to submit their cultures to his reign. Thus in Revelation we see people of many cultures all serving the Lion-Lamb—we see cultural diversity, not homogeneity.
This suggests that when we aim to regulate the production of a Christian subculture, we may be borrowing an approach more suitable to the old covenant. The Jewish traditions of the elders were based on a Mosaic Law which was designed by God to physically separate Israel from the surrounding nations, forming a people of God identifiable by its own language, geography, national government, foods, and clothing. If a Jew obeyed the food laws of the Mosaic Law, he was physically unable to eat with Gentiles. This was not just an incidental consequence of these food laws; it was the very purpose of the laws—to keep Israel segregated from the influence of their godless neighbors. But this physical segregation was abolished by the introduction of the new covenant (read Acts 10). Spiritual separation from unbelievers is still important (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1), but it is now no longer accomplished by means of physical segregation. (Paul reserves physical segregation for those under church discipline—those who claim to be Christians but don’t live like it; see 1 Cor. 5:9-13.) Rather, spiritual separation is accomplished by being personally cleansed from the sins that unbelievers share in (2 Cor. 6:14-15; 7:1) and by opening our hearts to the apostles and to the gospel message they proclaimed (2 Cor. 6:11-13; 7:2).
I want to make some important distinctions within Anabaptist traditions here. Paul’s approach to personal holiness seems consistent with warnings against specific sinful behaviors (including specific clothing items, etc.). It also seems consistent with “holy habits” that a godly community will inevitably form as it follows Christ. But I am not convinced that it is very consistent with an approach that emphasizes prescribed uniform standards—especially when this standard includes rules that have no obvious direct moral significance, rules designed primarily to promote “separation.”
In summary, I think (a) the fact that Jewish traditions were a problem even during the time of the Mosaic Law suggests that church traditions can become a similar problem during the time of the law of Christ. And (b) the fact that the apostles preached a gospel with that promoted holiness by very different means than either the Jewish traditions or the Mosaic Law suggests that we should ask whether regulated church traditions reflect a deep understanding of the gospel.
Q. 2: Is it true that “removing even harmful church rules will not, by itself, draw a single person closer to Christ”?
I made that claim in my most recent post. One person cited it as my most valuable observation. Another challenged it. Is it true? Here is the question as I received it:
I guess i don’t get it when someone says that removing harmful church rules has nothing to do with our souls or being a better Christian…. That’s false my friend!!!!…or am I missing something here?????
The key phrase in my statement is the words “by itself.” With that included, I stand by my statement. Without those words, the sentence becomes untrue.
An analogy may help. Merely removing weights from runners will never bring any of them closer to the finish line. However…! If someone has a mind to run, then removing weights may make all the difference as to whether they ever reach the finish line.
If you think I’m being confusing here, listen to Paul. In the letter to the Galatians he writes, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision” (Gal. 6:15). Yet earlier in the same letter he says this:
Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal. 5:2-4, emphasis added)
So which is true, Paul? Is circumcision neither here nor there, or is it deadly?
Well, it depends. If you are a new creation in Christ (Gal. 6:15), and you are clear that circumcision has zero ability to save you or anyone else, then is neither here nor there. But if you’re thinking you need to be circumcised in order to be saved, or you’re thinking others need to be circumcised in order to be saved, then it’s deadly!
Paul had Timothy circumcised for strategic mission purposes, probably to enable Timothy to enter synagogues with him as they proclaimed Christ on their mission trips (Acts 16:3). But imagine the gross hindrance to the gospel if he had insisted that all converts be circumcised! Similarly, I might wear a regulation plain suit today for strategic purposes, in order to open doors for gospel proclamation and to open the ears of those who might otherwise never listen. Or I might wear it as one of many possible ways to dress in a NT-consistent manner. (Or I might wear it simply because it’s the only suit in my closet, and I’m too cheap to buy another!) But if I insist that I must wear a regulation plain suit, or that others must wear one if they are truly sincere about following Christ, then two problems arise: First, I am confusing myself and others about the true nature of the gospel. Second, I am creating cultural hurdles for others who may want to respond to the true gospel.
So, to answer the question: It is true, merely removing church rules, even harmful ones, won’t by itself draw anyone closer to Christ. But it is equally true that, if I or others are already eager to place faith in Christ or serve him fruitfully in mission, removing unhelpful rules may make a crucial difference for all eternity. Thanks for pushing me to speak clearly here!
Again, both these questions deserve better answers than I’ve given them here, but perhaps my responses can help someone continue thinking in gospel-shaped ways about the questions of tradition and change.
If you have more insights, please add them in the comments below. Thank you!