Tag Archives: clothing

Wanted: Weak Christians (3 of 5)

This is part three of a series called “Wanted: Weak Christians.” Here are the other posts:

Wanted: Weak Christians (1 of 5) — Introduction
Wanted: Weak Christians (2 of 5) — Who Are They?

Wanted: Weak Christians (3 of 5) — How Are They Indispensable?
Wanted: Weak Christians (4 of 5) — Advice to the Strong
Wanted: Weak Christians (5 of 5) — The Power of the Powerless


Why, then, does God include seemingly weak members in Christ’s body? Again, the answer is surprising: he includes such people because the rest of the body needs them. In a word, they are “indispensable.”

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. (1 Cor. 12:21-22)

Indispensable. Stop and weigh that word. Consider similar words from other translations, such as necessary or essential.1

Do others consider you a “weaker” person? Do you feel like one? God is speaking to you. He has intentionally included you in the composition of his church. He considers you “indispensable.” He does not look the other way when you walk into the room. He does not wish you weren’t there. He put you there, and he wants you. He needs you. More precisely, he needs you because others in Christ’s body need you. You are indispensable to other Christians.

How might seemingly weak persons be indispensable? Paul does not address this question directly, but the context suggests some answers:

The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. (1 Cor. 12:22-25)

HOW DOES GOD HONOR “WEAK” CHRISTIANS?

Let’s begin with God’s action in verse 24. Paul says that God has given “greater honor to the part that lacked it.” When and how did God do this? I see several possibilities.

One possibility recalls that the word “indispensable” is probably a euphemism for reproductive organs. Paul is talking about our “unpresentable” but “necessary” body parts—our “private parts,” to use a contemporary euphemism.  Witherington explains: “God composed the body by giving the parts that were lacking in appearance even more honor, bestowing on them the most crucial of functions, that is, reproduction.2

In this reading, God has honored the seemingly weaker members of Christ’s church by giving them important work to do, work that the church needs for its survival. In Kenneth Bailey’s interpretation of this passage, he concludes that Paul is talking about spiritual reproduction—more specifically, evangelism.3 This is too specific and narrow of an interpretation, though members of Christ’s church who seem to be weak do indeed play important and often overlooked parts in the broader task of promoting the gospel.4 In the history of redemption, we see how God repeatedly chose secondborns over firstborns in the bloodline of the Messiah. He entrusted women who were social outcasts for the same noble task—those who were barren (Sarah), sexually immoral (Tamar and Rahab), foreign (Ruth and Rahab again), or pregnant out of wedlock (Mary). In the New Testament, Jesus chose men like Matthew (a despised tax collector) and Paul (a former persecutor) among his apostles. Today, many of us could tell a story about some overlooked or socially backward church member who, at just the right time, possessed an insight or a gift that helped the church through a crucial moment. Truly, “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). “He gives gifts that the body needs to people who might otherwise be thought of as unimportant or dispensible,”5 calling them “indispensable” instead.

Again, when and how has God given “greater honor to the part that lacked it”? Here is another possible answer: Perhaps it happened when he honored it with clothing. God indeed gave “greater honor” to our private parts when he clothed Adam and Eve. He didn’t deck their face or hands with clothing; presumably he clothed their torsos, including their genitals and Eve’s breasts—the parts of their bodies that they used especially for love-making and child-rearing. Whether we consider our private parts to be full of shame or glory (and in this fallen world they bear a potent mix of both), God granted them the privacy they needed, thus honoring them.

Similarly, consider the honor that God has given to the lowly within Christ’s church, quite apart from any work they may or may not do. “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” On the contrary, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:4-6). At the final judgment, our destiny will be determined in part by how we have treated “the least of these my brothers” (Matt. 25:40). Consider the emphasis the early church placed on caring for the poor, the sick, the widows, and the orphans. Consider how, time and again, Paul focused his exhortation primarily on the “strong,” urging the former to lovingly limit their freedoms out of consideration for the “weak.” God, by the teaching and example of Jesus and his apostles, has indeed “clothed” those who seem to be weak with greater honor, giving them the sort of deference that is normally reserved for royalty.

This leads closely to a third possible way that God has given “honor to the part that lacked it”: by God-given instinct, it is the same body parts that God covered in Eden that we are most careful to cover (or adorn in the marriage bed!) today. Martin explains:

The genitals may seem to be the most shameful part of the body, but our very attention to them—our constant care to cover them and shield them from trivializing and vulgarizing public exposure—demonstrates that they are actually the most necessary of the body’s members, those with the highest status.6

In clothing our bodies, we are imitating what God has already done.

In this reading, God grants honor to the seemingly weaker members of Christ’s body through the actions of the other members. Yes, Paul says that it is God who has given the honor. But a couple sentences earlier he also said this: “On those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor.” Clearly, one way God works is through the actions of his people. And when his people are merely imitating what he has already done, then, all the more clearly, it is God who is working through them. We will discuss this more in a minute.

There are at least three ways, then, that God has given “greater honor to the part that lacked it.” First, he entrusts important tasks to them. Second, in his upside-down kingdom he repeatedly exalts the lowly for no apparent reason but to demonstrate his generosity, saying that “the last will be first” (Matt. 20:16). And third, he gives honor to those who need it through the care of their brothers and sisters in Christ.

All three options are related, and all are true. I am not sure how many layers of meaning Paul had in mind as he wrote.7  I suspect, though, that our third option was uppermost in his mind.

It seems to me that Paul is saying something like the following: God designed our physical bodies so that our brains, eyes, and hands instinctively work together to honor our crucial reproductive organs with appropriate clothing. In the same way, God designed Christ’s body so that its true members instinctively work together to give honor to fellow Christians who appear weaker or less presentable, knowing they are valued by God and essential for the vitality of the church. In this way, God is giving “greater honor to the part that lacked it.”

Bessy’s attempt to apply 1 Corinthians 12:23 didn’t produce the results she was hoping for.

 

HOW ARE “WEAK” CHRISTIANS INDISPENSABLE?

We can now propose three answers to our initial question. How might seemingly weak persons be indispensable in Christ’s church? First, God often gives them important abilities and tasks that might be mishandled if left to the more glamorous members. Second, they provide essential opportunity for God to demonstrate his sovereign grace. And third, they draw other body members to participate in God’s work of raising up the lowly.

Let’s consider this third point more closely. We have done some theological guesswork to consider when and how God has given “greater honor to the part that lacked it.” The question that Paul explicitly answers, however, is why:

God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. (1 Cor. 12:24-25)

God’s design is that, as honor is given to the weaker members, the body avoids division. Instead of experiencing division, the members care for one another.

Wait a minute. This is ironic. Weakness can help prevent division? How many times have Christians parted ways because one considers another too weak? How many times have they divided over differing definitions of weakness, or differing ideas of how to “care for” those who are weak? How many times have I simply avoided getting too close to someone whose weakness leaves me feeling uncomfortable?

Weakness is supposed to lead to unity? And yet this is part of God’s upside-down master plan. How does it happen? Listen again to Paul:

God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Cor. 12:24-26)

Have you ever noticed that, no matter how much you may fight with your brother at home, you will defend him to the death in public? Something similar was true in the ancient honor-shame culture of Paul’s day. He may have been alluding to such social values here. David deSilva explains:

A principle Plutarch advocates [for sibling relationships] is that, where inequalities are unavoidable (for example, in age and thus seniority), the brother in the senior position must downplay his advantage out of sensitivity to the junior, while the brother in the ‘inferior’ position should respect the difference in status… In doing so, each honors the other and unity is preserved… This is also the ethos we find Paul promoting [in 1 Corinthians 12:22-26] as he considers the various gifts (even degrees of giftedness) within the church —those more visibly gifted must compensate by bestowing honor of [sic? perhaps “on”?] those less gifted in order “that there may be no dissension.”8

This sounds glorious, and glory is indeed the intended outcome. But the process is often painful. Sometimes honoring a “weaker” person means “covering” for them—enduring discomfort of our own in order to preserve their dignity. Thiselton is right: “Paradoxically, our very embarrassment over the so-called ‘less presentable’ parts leads to care and attention in how we cover or even adorn them.”9

Paul is similarly blunt: “If one member suffers, all suffer together.” He does not say this should happen; he says it does happen. Having a person with social difficulties, material needs, mental health challenges, or spiritual limitations in your church not only should cause you suffering; it will.

Chrysostom waxes eloquent on this point:

Often when a thorn has pierced the heel, the whole body feels it and becomes concerned. The back bends over, the abdomen and the legs join in, the hands, running forward like bodyguards and servants, remove the thorn, the head bows down, and the eyes look on with great concern. As a result, even if the foot is at a disadvantage because it cannot raise itself up, it is made equal by the lowering of the head and enjoys equal honor…

Again, if something happens to the eyes, all the members feel pain, all are made idle. The feet do not walk or the hands work, and the stomach does not enjoy its usual foods. Yet the ailment belongs to the eye. Why does your stomach waste away? Why are your feet constrained? Why are your hands fettered? Because they are bound up with the eyes, and the whole body suffers more than it can say. If it did not suffer as a whole, it would not trouble itself with all this care for one part.10

Read that last sentence again: “If it did not suffer as a whole, it would not trouble itself with all this care for one part.” Or, as Thiselton said above, “Our very embarrassment over the so-called ‘less presentable’ parts leads to care.”

This is God’s purpose, a hinge-point in his master plan for using “weak” Christians to produce unity in the church: mutual suffering, even mutual embarrassment, is intended to produce mutual care. Sharing in another’s suffering is divinely-orchestrated motivation. The experience of shared suffering moves us to care for the “weak” person whose suffering we are sharing.

And make no mistake: those who are deemed “weaker” often experience great suffering. It is suffering upon suffering not only to endure whatever weaknesses we possess, but also to be keenly aware that others perceive us as being weak. This awareness is often enough to weaken us still further, threatening a downward spiral of inability and shame. The suffering can be immeasurable.

But God’s design is different: Mutual suffering produces mutual care, and all that mutual sharing strengthens the unity of Christ’s body.

Further, all members are enabled to share together in honor and joy. After all, “we do not say to a victorious runner, ‘I congratulate your legs’; congratulations go to the person.”11 Thus, whether the honor is given to those who seem to more naturally deserve it or to those who seem to more naturally lack it, all share in the joy. Oh, for a greater outworking of this divine plan!

GOD’S COMPOSITION

Again, this is God’s composition. When Paul says that “God… composed the body” in this way, he emphasizes the noun “God”12 and then uses a telling verb. Thiselton explains:

The verb [used here by Paul]… is used of a painter mixing and blending colors, of composing a harmonious work or substance, or of compounding the various elements which together form the human body… The picture is of a craftsman mixing a compound, or of a musician composing a harmony, or of a divine agency creating a body by combining elements to form a compound. At all events, it is God who decides [what honor or function each person is given].13

God’s composition is not something you or I would have dreamed up. We all want to be the one equipped to give. We don’t want the embarrassment of needing someone else’s gift. We want to be the helper in every relationship, or at least not the one needing help. We want the insight, articulation, and charisma to lead convincingly and effectively. We want to be the one making the world better for others.

But what if…? What if your weakness holds a gift that, though unglamorous, is exactly what the church needs? What if your inability to lead well prepares you to be exactly the sort of follower some leader needs? What if your poverty enables someone else to give? What if your helplessness allows another to rely on or give God’s grace more fully? What if your dishonor allows another to share in the sufferings of Christ? What if your needs pull the church together in unity as they care for you?

What if what your world most needs is someone with needs?

What if your weakness is God’s gift to Christ’s church?


This series is nearly done, but we’ll meditate on that last question a little more in our final post. This series is not merely theoretical for me. I suspect it isn’t for you, either. Sometimes it isn’t easy to talk about those parts of our lives that lack honor. Sometimes it isn’t appropriate, either.

If you have something you’d like to share, though, please leave a comment below. And thanks for reading.

  1. Necessary is by far the most common English translation. Indispensable is the second most common, also frequent. Thiselton suggests the following: “Normal we should translate the Greek as necessary, since ἀνάγκη usually means necessity or compulsion. But since the “superior” or “strong” groups see themselves as the essence of the church, the wordplays implicit in vv. 22 and 23 may be best served by rendering it essential” (ibid., 1007). Some translations say something like much more necessary or the most necessary, but the words translated much more probably modify the whole argument rather than just the word necessary: “it is much more the case that the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” After all, though Paul says we give “greater honor” and “greater modesty” to those body parts that need it, he does not seem to be arguing for degrees of necessity (something the Corinthian “elites” affirmed), but that all are needed. (See Thiselton, ibid., 1006.)
  2. Ben Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth: Socio-rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 259.
  3. Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 344-45. Bailey draws seven parallels between natural and spiritual reproduction, including that each is “a very private affair” that is “sacred and honorable,” involving “deep relations” and “long-term commitments.” These may be true, but almost certainly were not in Paul’s mind when he wrote this passage.
  4. See The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips, by John Dickson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010) for the distinction between evangelism and gospel promotion and for a helpful discussion of New Testament teachings about how Christians with diverse gifts all play a role in the latter.
  5. Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 606.
  6. D. B. Martin, “Tongues of Angels and Other Status Indicators,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 1991, 51:567. Quoted in Garland, ibid., 596.
  7. Gordon D. Fee shares my uncertainty here: “It is less clear, however, precisely what Paul had in mind by ‘greater honor.’ Most likely he means that the parts that appear to be weak and less worthy are in fact accorded the greater honor of having important functions or receiving special attention. See The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 680.
  8. David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 167-68, also 168 n. 17.
  9. Thiselton, ibid., 1009.
  10. John Chrysostom, Homily 31, ibid., 209.
  11. Thiselton, 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical & Pastoral Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 210.
  12. Thiselton, First Epistle, 1010.
  13. Thiselton, ibid., 1010.

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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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“The Holy Scriptures Must Be Our Ruling Standard”

A couple weeks ago I posted a quote from David Bercot that received quite a bit of interest. Bercot asked us to acknowledge that Mennonite customs and traditions—“things that are added to us that are not biblical requirements”—can “add up and become quite a hurdle” for genuine spiritual seekers.

What Bercot said was not unusual. It is very easy to find other people saying the same sort of thing. And, to be honest, it is also easy enough to find people who say pretty much the opposite—who believe that prescribed Mennonite traditions aren’t much of a barrier if someone is really serious about following Christ.

A testimony alone is not proof of the truth of a claim. What makes Bercot’s words compelling, however, is the life behind his words. Bercot has a pretty solid track record of both preaching and living radical “kingdom Christianity.” His words about cultural barriers have credibility because his life testifies that he is willing to make hard choices for the sake of following Christ. Do I agree with him at every turn? No. Do I listen when he talks? Yes. He has earned our ear.

When words are backed up not only by a life but also—and this is even more important—by the weight of Scripture, then we should listen carefully. Such is the case with the words of a man I’d like to introduce in this post.

Gerhard Roosen was a name I didn’t recognize until I encountered him in my studies this past month. But for generations of Mennonites and Amish his name was familiar indeed, perhaps nearly as widely recognized as (though less important than) the name Menno Simons.

Gerhard (or Gerrit) Roosen (1612-1711) was a Mennonite bishop in northern Germany. He  is famous today mostly for the catechism he published when he was 90 years old, the Christliches Gemütsgespräch or “Christian Spiritual Conversation on Saving Faith and the Acknowledging of the Truth Which Is After Godliness in Hope of Eternal Life (Titus 1:1, 2), in Questions and Answers for the Rising Youth, by Which They May Be Incited and Encouraged to a Wholesome Practice of Life.” The common English title is simply Roosen’s Catechism.

Published in Germany in 1702, Roosen’s catechism is “the first complete German Mennonite catechism in existence.”1 It was reprinted in German or English at least fifteen times from 1769 through 1892 in various North American communities, as well as more recently.2 Robert Friedmann observed that “few books have met with such general approval among Mennonites everywhere as the Gemütsgespräch, the outstanding catechism of the church as a whole.”3 This catechism is one helpful window into Mennonite theology in the pre-revivalist, pre-Daniel Kauffman era. You can read an English translation here.

According to Melvin Gingerich writing in 1970, this catechism “is still being read by the Amish.”4 This use of Roosen’s catechism by the Amish is somewhat curious to me, given that Roosen was not Amish and, what is more, that he strongly critiqued some practices of the Amish.

It is this critique by Roosen of some Amish rules that I’d like to share here. I want to talk about Roosen’s letter rather than Roosen’s catechism. But I also want us to remember that behind Roosen’s letter is the trusted leader who wrote Roosen’s catechism. As with Bercot and his words, the life behind the words makes the words more compelling. And more importantly, we should consider Roosen’s appeal to Scripture.

Here is Melvin Gingerich’s introduction to Roosen’s letter and to Roosen, whom he calls a “man of deep piety and moderate views”:

For the time before Jacob Ammann, leader of the conservative schism which appeared in Switzerland in 1693, no [Anabaptist] documents have been found prescribing a definite form of dress, although a degree of uniformity of style was achieved in some groups by forbidding certain styles and colors of costume. In 1697 a deeply respected and very influential leader and an elder of the North German Mennonites, Gerhard Roosen, wrote a letter to the Alsatian brethren protesting against the strict rules on clothing that had been made by Jacob Ammann.5

And here is Roosen’s letter, written when he was 85 years old:

I am sincerely grieved that you have been so disturbed by those who think highly of themselves, and make laws of things which are not upheld in the Gospel. Had it been specified in the apostolic letters how or wherewith a believer should be clothed, or whether he should go in this or that country and this were disobeyed, then these had something of which to speak; but it is more contrary to the Gospel to affix one’s conscience to a pattern of the hats, clothes, stockings, shoes, or the hair of the head (Colossians 2:14-18), or make a distinction in which country one lives; and then, for one to undertake the enforcement of such regulations by punishing with the ban, all who will not accept them, and to expel from the church, as a leaven; those who do not wish to avoid those thus punished, though neither the Lord Jesus in His Gospel or His holy apostles have bound us to external things, nor have deemed it expedient to provide such regulations and laws. I agree with what the Apostle Paul says in Colossians 2 (verse 16), that the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is not obtained “in meat or in drink,” nor in this or that, in the form or pattern of clothing; to which external things our dear Saviour does not oblige use.

Wherefore then does our friend, Jacob Ammann, undertake to make laws of such things for the people, and to expel from the church those who will not obey him? If he considers himself a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and advocates a literal administration of the law, then he must not wear two coats, nor carry money in his purse, or shoes on his feet. [Matthew 10:10.] If he does not adhere to the letter of his Lord, how dare he insist on obedience form his fellow men, in regulations he has not received from his lawmaker? Oh, that he might do as the Apostle Paul has done, in the fear of the Lord; showing meekness to all men. [Titus 3:2.] The apostle’s advice is: that the “strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak” [Romans 15:1-7].

In all of Paul’s letters we do not find one word in which he has given believers regulations concerning the forms of clothing they should have, but in all things he instructed them to “condescend to men of low estate” [Romans 12:16] according to all decency and modesty. [See 1 Timothy 2:9.] I hold that it is becoming to adapt the manner of dress to the current customs of one’s environments; but it is reasonable that we abstain from luxuries, pride, and carnal worldly lusts [1 John 2:16-17], not immediately adopting the latest styles of fashionable clothing; which is certainly something to be reproved, but when it has come into common usage then it is honorable to follow in such common apparel, and to walk in humility. But, thanks be to God, I do not want showy array or worldly lusts, and have always continued wearing nearly the same pattern of clothes; but if I had dressed in modern fashion, should I then, for this reason, be excommunicated? This would be an injustice, and contrary to the Scriptures. The Lord has, indeed, made regulations in the church of God, for punishment of the contentious, and those conducting themselves contrary to the ordinances of God, as set forth in the Gospel. Herein it must be determined whether the things we wish to bind are also bound there, or are commanded to be bound.

The Holy Scriptures must be our ruling standard; to this we must yield, not running before it, but following, and that not untimely, but with care, fear, and regret; for it is a dangerous venture to step into the judgment of God and bind that which is not bound in heaven.

So much written in love and truth for your service and instruction in things worth while. I can hardly leave off writing to you. The beloved heavenly Father and God of consolation sustain and strengthen you in all oppressions, and bless you in body and soul, to His honor and to your salvation. Amen. From me, your brother, Gerhart Roosen of Hamburg.6

I think Roosen overstates his case just a little. It is perhaps not strictly true that “in all of Paul’s letters we do not find one word in which he has given believers regulations concerning the forms of clothing they should have.” Roosen would have done well to acknowledge Paul’s prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2:8-10:

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.

He could also have mentioned 1 Peter 3:3-5:

Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands…

These apostolic exhortations match what we generally find in the earliest Anabaptist writings—general admonitions to a humble modesty of dress, a few specific examples of the kinds of adornment to avoid, and a focus on developing a Christ-like spirit and character, but an absence of regulation attire or long lists of clothing rules.

Roosen’s letter could have been strengthened by mentioning these passages, for their emphasis matches his very well. But, to be fair, we should acknowledge that when Roosen claimed Paul gave no “regulations concerning the forms of clothing,” by forms Roosen quite likely meant specific clothing designs or styles (cut of coat, etc.), not merely clothing adornments. If that is what he meant, then Roosen was fully correct in his claim.

The question of clothing rules is more complex than two or three testimonies or letters. (If you want to read more of this history, I recommend Melvin Gingerich’s book Mennonite Attire Through Four Centuries as one very helpful place to continue.) History is littered with countless numbers who have affirmed words such as Roosen’s and then abused grace as a license for vain and sensual living. And the cultural pressures we face today regarding clothing are not the same as the ones the Anabaptists faced in Roosen’s day.

That said, the Scriptures have not changed, and the gospel has not changed. True regeneration of heart and lifestyle happens the same way today as it did in Roosen’s day, which is the same way it happened in the time of Jesus and his apostles: by grace. J.S. Coffman realized this as well as Roosen did, and he said similar things near the end of his life.

If Jacob Ammann did not get the idea of uniform clothing rules from Scripture, where did he get it? He certainly didn’t get it from the first generation of Anabaptists, for historical records indicate that while they were being persecuted they were indistinguishable from their neighbors based on their clothing.

I’m sure there were many influences on Ammann’s thinking, but here is one important one: the world around him. Ammann’s clothing rules were a worldly idea. What do I mean by this? What I mean is that in northern Europe, and in Switzerland in particular, the Reformation era was a time of multiple civil laws about clothing. Gingerich explains:

These laws attempted not only to freeze the social classes but also to keep the lower classes from spending too much money on luxury items. As illustrations of this kind of ordinances, one can cite the Zurich Ordinance of 1628, the Basel Ordinance of 1637, the Zurich Ordinance of 1650, and the Nuremberg Ordinance, which named what each class was expected to wear and what was forbidden them.7

“In cities of Switzerland,” writes Gingerich, “this kind of legislation… became increasingly strict so that city councils ‘even went so far as to prescribe the length of certain garments, length of shoe points or height of bonnets.'”8

Jacob Ammann was very familiar with these laws, for he was a tailor. As a tailor, he was responsible to tell his customers what kind of clothes they were permitted to wear. If he failed to do this, he and his customers could be fined. It seems that when Ammann became an Amish bishop, he advocated a similar rules-based approach within his church. In fact, he went beyond the civil laws which prohibited lower classes from wearing ornamentation reserved for the upper classes, and beyond what some previous Anabaptists had done in forbidding certain specific excesses for all their members (such as crimson linen or high-heeled shoes). His regulations were so specific and extensive that they resulted in a regulated uniform attire.

This is what I mean when I say that Ammann’s clothing rules were a worldly idea. In trying to avoid conformity to the worldliness of upper class clothing, Ammann conformed to a very worldly method: detailed clothing regulations. Perhaps now we can better understand why Roosen so strongly objected, and why he kept pointing to the gospel and emphasizing that “the Holy Scriptures must be our ruling standard.”

It is not easy to discuss such topics well. In writing this, I am taking risks. Some may agree with me so strongly that they show no patience for anyone who wants to nuance things differently. (If you’re a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.) Others may disagree strongly, thinking I am undermining our ability to preserve a godly lifestyle. (If you’re a nail, then every solution feels like a hammer.) Others, whether they agree or not, may sigh when they see me getting on my hobby horse again!

I readily admit that each of us tends to have our pet topics, and that one of my central concerns is the question of how our Anabaptist churches can do a better job of rooting both holiness and loving unity—at the same time—in the gospel of grace. To the extent that the gospel is my pet topic, I do not apologize. Where I have undeniable gaps and imbalances, I remind you that this blog is intentionally focused and not designed as a one-stop-meets-all-needs source of spiritual nourishment. I also invite your responses to help balance my thinking.

Let us be patient with each other as we seek to understand our Anabaptist history and—more importantly—the Scriptures better. Let us give each other time to grow in our understanding and in living lives made holy by grace. But in our patience, let’s keep prodding each other back to the apostolic testimony, back to the gospel, and back to Christ.

I invite your responses in the comments below. May you be clothed in the grace of Christ—and may it show in the clothes you wear!

  1. Robert Friedmann. “Christliches Gemütsgespräch (Monograph).” GAMEO (1953); available from < http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Christliches_Gem%C3%BCtsgespr%C3%A4ch_(Monograph)&oldid=106756>; accessed 18 April 2015.
  2. John C. Wenger. The Doctrines of the Mennonites (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1950), 111.
  3. Robert Friedmann. Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries (Goshen, IN: Goshen College, 1929), 144. Quoted in Wenger, Doctrines, 111.
  4. Melvin Gingerich, Mennonite Attire Through Four Centuries (Breinigsville, PA: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1970, dist. by Herald Press), 18.
  5. Ibid., 18.
  6. Ibid., 19-20.
  7. Ibid., 15.
  8. Ibid., 11; quoting J.M. Vincent, “Sumptuary Legislation,” Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York: Macmillan, 1931), Vol. 14, pp. 464-66.

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