Thinking Intentionally about Tradition and Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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23 thoughts on “Thinking Intentionally about Tradition and Change”

  1. I have a sort of love-hate relationship with tradition. On one hand I am glad we don’t just follow after the prevailing winds of mainstream culture. One the other hand we cling to programs they may have lost their value because we have sentimental attachments or can’t see past the ‘what’ of the tradition to the ‘why’ of it. We might keep something like summer Bible school around long after the original mission is lost.

  2. Thanks Dwight for your valuable insights. Too often I fear that tradition ends up being the boogeyman – the thing that stands opposed to the work of the Spirit or in danger of distracting us from Scripture. The reason for this is because a defensive, preservation-minded tradition often does just that. But healthy tradition is something that is growing and developing. It is more like a vine than a fortress.

  3. Two thoughts.

    1) Change for the sake of change or as a reflexive backlash against prior abuse of tradition (real or imagined) is rarely healthy and can create a culture of continual discontent so that is to be avoided.

    2) It seems to me that what is really needed is a sense of balance in local gatherings, in other words how do you retain your deeply held traditions while extending grace and hospitality with others who don’t (currently) share those traditions so that they are welcome and able to contribute and participate fully in the life of the local church?

    1. I agree, Arthur. Good thoughts. I would add that for your second thought to be reality in many conservative Anabaptist churches (“able to contribute and participate fully”) would itself require significant change.

      1. Dwight, I am not sure how to reduce the “fear factor” for many conservative Anabaptists in relation to other parts of the church. I sort of understand the “why” but I wish I could figure out the “how” to get past it.

        1. Arthur, I agree: I have sensed an unhealthy amount of fear in some of the conservative Anabaptist churches I known most closely. Some persons are quite crippled by fear. We sometimes seem to be more confident about the power of evil to contaminate/divide us and our churches than about the power of God in Christ to purify/unite believers. Fear, unless overcome by faith and love, reduces our capacity for those virtues, reducing our spiritual fruit in brotherly encouragement and witness to our communities. May God renew our faith and love!

  4. When we begin to read our culture through the lens of the Bible, instead of the Bible through our cultural lens these changes will lose their fear factor, and become imperatives.

    1. “Fear factor.” James, you are the second person here on this thread to cite fear as a factor in conservative Anabaptist churches. I agree. Are we more confident of the power of the gospel to transform lives, or of the power of “change” to lead to backsliding? And yes, while our reading of the Bible will always be influenced by our culture, if we consciously examine our culture in light of the Bible, our clarity of sight and our gospel-focused faith can increase. Thanks for sharing.

  5. It might be worth mentioning that for many of us, at least speaking for myself, these concerns/critiques of conservative Anabaptism come from a stance of love and a deep appreciation for all the wonderful things about the tradition and culture. I seek change within conservative Anabaptism not because everything they do is wrong but because so much is right and I want others to be blessed by this long tradition in the church that has enriched the Kingdom in so many ways.

  6. Interesting to see in the comments the talk of “fear” and in others “love”. Brings to mind the “perfect love casts out fear” verse, although I’m not sure how that might apply to tradition exactly. Perhaps if we remember that a Godly love for the word, for the church, for the world builds a flexibility into our traditions that actually adds strength; whereas fear causes us to make our traditions more rigid – but that doesn’t add strength, it makes them more brittle, and more likely to break apart! Tradition has be living in order to be strong. Also dead tradition tends to evolve into bad, unbiblical tradition.

    What might be some good questions that would guide us in being intentional about change?

    Perhaps one might be, if we want to continue observing and strengthening/maintaining conviction on x biblical principle, how does our tradition need to adjust to reflect that?

    I think the passion around tradition is good, and I appreciate Arthur’s comment – there can be a lot of criticism of tradition, but I believe for most, if not all, the criticism comes from love and concern and should be taken in that spirit.

    1. Good thoughts, Roger, and a good guiding question. Here is a similar one: If we want to better observe/strengthen/maintain both biblical principle X and biblical principle Y at the same time, how might our tradition change to help us do that? I suggest this question because sometimes in our zeal for one teaching of Scripture we develop lifestyles/traditions/applications that make it hard for us to remember and observe another equally important teaching of Scripture.

  7. I should add, I also share your curiosity as to what a leader such as John Coblentz (not necessarily him but someone like him who is a trusted voice for many of us) could add to this discussion.

  8. Have you ever posted your thoughts regarding the Regulative Principle? In short (my summary) it is something like “we will keep as guiding principles what has been shown to us by the early church and the NT, and we will not practice what the early church and the NT was silent on.” With this principle, many of the programs of modern churches would not take place because they are not outlined in Scripture. Sunday School, V.B.S., worship teams, segregated seating, youth groups, etc. would not be a part of a church that has a strict model of following the Regulative Principle. I have pondered the significance of the Regulative Principle and have not jumped on board with the concept, but it has been an interesting exercise to consider its wide-reaching implications if implemented fully in 2015.

    1. Yes, I have. Not everyone summarizes it as strictly as you did, but that is part of the difficulty with the principle: there is a lack of consensus historically about what it means in practical implications, so other preconceptions seem to determine how it is understood. I should write on it sometime.

    2. The so-called “regulative principle” of worship is pretty popular among my Reformed brethren but ironically most of their distinctives can’t be found in the Scriptures.

      1. Yes, Arthur, I’ve noticed that some in Reformed camps (or influenced by it) affirm this principle. It was also affirmed by some early Anabaptists. But each theological camp (including different Reformed camps) understand and apply it differently. Conrad Grebel thought that the NT didn’t teach singing in church worship, so forbade it altogether. Some conservative Reformed churches today use the principle to forbid musical instruments in worship. Other larger Reformed churches use it to forbid any drama from being performed during Sunday worship, but permit musical instruments. It does get rather confusing. 🙂

  9. All living things change. Only dead things do not change(actually, I suppose they do if acted upon by an outside force).

    Not all change is good. Drift is unintentional change that will take us places we don’t want to go. We must embrace intentional change if we want to stay alive.

  10. Good post. My longing for our churches is intentional, biblical, Spirit-led change.
    Regarding the regulative principle. Much of this discussion is about our churches that are trying to maintain things as they were about fifty years ago (or perhaps a different number), which we are contending causes some issues. I do agree that the record we have of the early church is at the very least a helpful commentary on the Bible. However, I wonder if trying to follow the practices of any past generation of Jesus followers (as a formula) is unwise. I would include in this the practices of our grandparents, the early Anabaptists, the early church, and even (to a lesser extent) the apostolic church. We are building a church, and to try to replicate designs from other layers will cause us to miss the design God has for our layer. Is it not enough to be faithful in following the Bible and the Spirit in our day?
    Lest I get pounced on, please note that in many ways I am very traditional, I am an avid student of church history, and I own and use most of David Bercot’s writings.

    1. Good thoughts. I think we can learn valuable things from all eras of church history, and we are wise to do so. But I do agree that mere copy-and-paste won’t work, whether from 50 years ago or 500 or more.

      One clarification: I would point out that following the Bible is really the same thing as following the teaching and example of the apostolic church. I’m very eager to learn all I can from the inspired record of that era of the church, while still recognizing we live in different contexts that will call for some different expressions of faith.

      Thanks for contributing!

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