[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.
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.” 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.
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.
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.
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.