Clarifications about Removing Church Traditions

My recent posts prompted a couple questions that I want to answer briefly here. Both are good questions, deserving much fuller responses than I will be able to provide. But here’s a start.

Q. 1: Should we be drawing parallels between Anabaptist traditions and Jewish traditions?

As I understand it, the concern here is that comparing the two may cause us to downplay the value of Anabaptist traditions, thus rejecting them too quickly. Here is the question as it was presented to me:

Is it appropriate to compare the fading Mosaic law at a time when the light of Christ had just come into the world, to the “practice” part of Christian faith and practice that has been established by hundreds of years of born again, Spirit-led Anabaptist believers? One set of rules was outshone by the light of Christ. The other seems to be teetering and threatening to be blotted out by a world that is quickly sliding into darkness as the church is “falling away.”

This is a complicated question! I want to begin by acknowledging the differences. The Mosaic Law clearly belongs to the time before Christ, while Anabaptist traditions have been formed since the time of Christ, by Christ-followers. So, yes, it is very clear that we are no longer under the Mosaic Law (in the sense of being legally bound to observe its rules), but our relationship to church traditions and laws is not always so clear.

That said, I still think we can learn a lot about the potential dangers of regulated church traditions by looking at the Mosaic Law and Jewish traditions.

First, Jewish traditions did not become a problem only after the institution of the new covenant in Christ. Already prior to this, Jewish traditions were obscuring God’s true intent with the Law of Moses—see Matthew 15. The word of God for the nation of Israel was being buried under the tradition of the elders. The elders (early Pharisees, etc.) were God-fearing, Law-loving men. They intended this tradition to be a “fence around the law” to ensure no one broke the law. But as the traditions became more extensive and rigid, they actually distracted people from the spirit of the law and hindered people from obeying it. If this all happened within the time of the old covenant, then surely the same can happen today within the time of the new covenant, with its ethical commands. In both cases, good men with good intentions can become badly imbalanced. So I think it is fair and wise to draw lessons from the former for the latter.

Second, I do not find any NT example of a similar “fence around the law of Christ.” I do not see any example of an established, prepackaged Christian set of traditions that would parallel the Jewish tradition of the elders. We see no uniform, church-wide sub-culture being promoted, with detailed church standards for things like regulation clothing. On the one hand, this has a natural sociological explanation, for “the Way” was too new to have developed into such an established movement. Indeed, within a couple centuries there were many such church systems, rules, and cultural practices in place.

On the other hand, I think it is significant that the apostles never seem to have envisioned the formation of such a uniform Christian culture. They proclaimed a gospel, not a culture. And the gospel is not a culture. The gospel is a message about a King who calls people everywhere to submit their cultures to his reign. Thus in Revelation we see people of many cultures all serving the Lion-Lamb—we see cultural diversity, not homogeneity.

This suggests that when we aim to regulate the production of a Christian subculture, we may be borrowing an approach more suitable to the old covenant. The Jewish traditions of the elders were based on a Mosaic Law which was designed by God to physically separate Israel from the surrounding nations, forming a people of God identifiable by its own language, geography, national government, foods, and clothing. If a Jew obeyed the food laws of the Mosaic Law, he was physically unable to eat with Gentiles. This was not just an incidental consequence of these food laws; it was the very purpose of the laws—to keep Israel segregated from the influence of their godless neighbors. But this physical segregation was abolished by the introduction of the new covenant (read Acts 10). Spiritual separation from unbelievers is still important (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1), but it is now no longer accomplished by means of physical segregation. (Paul reserves physical segregation for those under church discipline—those who claim to be Christians but don’t live like it; see 1 Cor. 5:9-13.) Rather, spiritual separation is accomplished by being personally cleansed from the sins that unbelievers share in (2 Cor. 6:14-15; 7:1) and by opening our hearts to the apostles and to the gospel message they proclaimed (2 Cor. 6:11-13; 7:2).

I want to make some important distinctions within Anabaptist traditions here. Paul’s approach to personal holiness seems consistent with warnings against specific sinful behaviors (including specific clothing items, etc.). It also seems consistent with “holy habits” that a godly community will inevitably form as it follows Christ. But I am not convinced that it is very consistent with an approach that emphasizes prescribed uniform standards—especially when this standard includes rules that have no obvious direct moral significance, rules designed primarily to promote “separation.”

In summary, I think (a) the fact that Jewish traditions were a problem even during the time of the Mosaic Law suggests that church traditions can become a similar problem during the time of the law of Christ. And (b) the fact that the apostles preached a gospel with that promoted holiness by very different means than either the Jewish traditions or the Mosaic Law suggests that we should ask whether regulated church traditions reflect a deep understanding of the gospel.

Q. 2: Is it true that “removing even harmful church rules will not, by itself, draw a single person closer to Christ”?

I made that claim in my most recent post. One person cited it as my most valuable observation. Another challenged it. Is it true? Here is the question as I received it:

I guess i don’t get it when someone says that removing harmful church rules has nothing to do with our souls or being a better Christian…. That’s false my friend!!!!…or am I missing something here?????

The key phrase in my statement is the words “by itself.” With that included, I stand by my statement. Without those words, the sentence becomes untrue.

An analogy may help. Merely removing weights from runners will never bring any of them closer to the finish line. However…! If someone has a mind to run, then removing weights may make all the difference as to whether they ever reach the finish line.

If you think I’m being confusing here, listen to Paul. In the letter to the Galatians he writes, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision” (Gal. 6:15). Yet earlier in the same letter he says this:

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal. 5:2-4, emphasis added)

So which is true, Paul? Is circumcision neither here nor there, or is it deadly?

Well, it depends. If you are a new creation in Christ (Gal. 6:15), and you are clear that circumcision has zero ability to save you or anyone else, then is neither here nor there. But if you’re thinking you need to be circumcised in order to be saved, or you’re thinking others need to be circumcised in order to be saved, then it’s deadly!

Paul had Timothy circumcised for strategic mission purposes, probably to enable Timothy to enter synagogues with him as they proclaimed Christ on their mission trips (Acts 16:3). But imagine the gross hindrance to the gospel if he had insisted that all converts be circumcised! Similarly, I might wear a regulation plain suit today for strategic purposes, in order to open doors for gospel proclamation and to open the ears of those who might otherwise never listen. Or I might wear it as one of many possible ways to dress in a NT-consistent manner. (Or I might wear it simply because it’s the only suit in my closet, and I’m too cheap to buy another!) But if I insist that I must wear a regulation plain suit, or that others must wear one if they are truly sincere about following Christ, then two problems arise: First, I am confusing myself and others about the true nature of the gospel. Second, I am creating cultural hurdles for others who may want to respond to the true gospel.

So, to answer the question: It is true, merely removing church rules, even harmful ones, won’t by itself draw anyone closer to Christ. But it is equally true that, if I or others are already eager to place faith in Christ or serve him fruitfully in mission, removing unhelpful rules may make a crucial difference for all eternity. Thanks for pushing me to speak clearly here!

Again, both these questions deserve better answers than I’ve given them here, but perhaps my responses can help someone continue thinking in gospel-shaped ways about the questions of tradition and change.

If you have more insights, please add them in the comments below. Thank you!

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9 thoughts on “Clarifications about Removing Church Traditions”

  1. I think the questioner is mistaken if they believe that a passed down religious tradition carries the weight of the Holy Spirit with it. There is a sort of paradox, Jesus said that if we follow his teachings (love our neighbors, judge not, etc) then his Spirit will dwell in us and teach us. I do not see the idea that our dutifully applying religious prescriptions as being the same as being obedient to Jesus Christ. Love is about more than what we do outwardly to conform to the expectations of a subculture.

  2. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this post and the recent posts on the same topic. I agree with your understanding and have recommended your blog to a number of friends.

    There is one thing, however, that crossed my mind while reading this. You mention, “We see no uniform, church-wide sub-culture being promoted, with detailed church standards for things like regulation clothing.” And that’s true, however I’ve often been a bit confused while pondering the decision of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:29. Of the four banned practices, only one of them is actually a sin. They also agreed to forbid things like meat offered to idols, which Paul directly allows in 1 Corinthians 8. So why did the Jerusalem council agree to ban 3 things that were not wrong? Any thoughts on that?

    Blessings as you continue to encourage critical thinking and exegetical Bible study through articles like this.

    1. That’s a good question, Jethro, and I do have thoughts on it. Perhaps I should do a whole post on Acts 15 sometime–especially since I’ve had several others wonder if those Acts 15 restrictions are still valid for us today. For now, the briefest of observations: the clear thrust of Acts 15 is to require as few restrictions as possible. The pro-circumcision wanted all Christians to observe not only circumcision by the Mosaic Law as a whole. But the gathered church rejected that, trimming all restrictions down to four, with only three being what we might call “extra-biblical.” Their concern was to avoid placing a burden on Gentile believers. And the motive for the remaining restrictions may have been, if I’m reading between the lines well, a strategic missionary motive. I don’t think the restrictions were designed so much for current believers as to avoid antagonizing Jewish potential converts.

      Acts 15 demands more study, but if my brief observations above are valid, then we could learn from that chapter to (a) trim our church-wide restrictions down to as brief a list as possible, in order to avoid “troubling” converts with “burdens,” and (b) use church-wide restrictions, when they are truly needed, to increase our effectiveness in mission rather than to avoid offending/upsetting the consciences of current believers. (Romans 14-15 suggests that voluntary giving up of freedoms rather than church-wide rules is the better solution for that need.)

      More observations should be drawn, such as that the Acts 15 conference represented the entire universal church with apostolic leadership (an impossibility today) and that they relied heavily on theological interpretation of Scripture and the current working of the Holy Spirit (who had already sealed the Gentiles) as they made their decisions. Careful attention to Scripture and the moving of the Holy Spirit might shape some of our church standards differently, too.

      Those are some quick thoughts, and I invite more insights from others.

      Oh, one more thing that needs study and clarification: Not all biblical scholars agree that Acts 15 and Paul disagree on eating meat offered to idols. Acts 8-10 are very difficult to understand well, because Paul first teaches Christian freedom and then warns against participation in idolatry. So in Acts 10 Paul does place restrictions on eating such meat, at least doing so in pagan temples. That, too, deserves further study.

      Thanks for the comment and question!

  3. Even in OT times we can see that though God required obedience to the letter of the law, His greatest desire was to see an awareness of and growth into the spirit of the law as per Hosea 6:6, for instance. I think Jesus’ expansion of a few of these laws in the Sermon on the Mount, the “you have heard it said, but I say onto you” statements, point in that direction as well.
    Probably most of the OT traditions prevalent in Jesus’ time had, in the dim distant past, and before countless embellishments, actually been based on commandments of God.
    Can we say the same about our Anabaptist traditions? Do we need to dig through the ‘fluff’ and find a Scriptural basis? I think most of our traditions have great value, but I also believe that in a lot of cases the original intent and value may have become more or less obscured by ongoing addenda.
    When we give our lives over to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and grow in grace and the knowledge of the truth, the cores of most of our traditions make sense, even though the details may not.
    Or what?
    (rant off)

  4. Hi Dwight,

    Just some observations and example that come to mind when I reflect on a quote from your post above:

    “Rather, spiritual separation is accomplished by being personally cleansed from the sins that unbelievers share in (2 Cor. 6:14-15; 7:1) and by opening our hearts to the apostles and to the gospel message they proclaimed (2 Cor. 6:11-13; 7:2).”

    I am not afraid of having my spiritual separation as a child of God show up as a physical separation in many ways. A sometimes reactionary impulse to the “come out from among them and be ye separate” passage in the latter part of 2 Cor. 6 is to spiritualize it across-the-board and discount any possibility it could be referring to even physical separation. Jesus, in John 15, says “If you were of the world, the world would love its own. But because you are not of the world, but I have called you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” What choices do I make to come “out of the world” and to love Jesus? Does the world “hate” me? Most of the time, I try to make the people around me like me–that does not sound like Jesus’ call to me in this passage. May the Spirit guide me how to live in this area.

    Take yoga pants as a fairly recent current cultural trend sweeping American female fashion. I was shocked three or more years ago when women in our neighborhood started walking around in tights (more like panty hose) with nothing even remotely disguising their feminine shapes. I found out that these tights have been cleverly renamed yoga pants, and I heard a woman who has become a billionaire in this marketing opportunity, Sara Blakely, tell a group of billionaires on air “I made my billions by making women’s butts look cute.”

    Hopefully a good deal of Western Christianity would look at yoga pants as immodest, and maybe most would take the grace of God and apply it to this fashion and reject it. But I am fairly certain that most churches in America will not mention it from the pulpit, would never dream of telling their female congregants not to wear them, and so in a matter of 20 years or less it could easily become commonplace or matter-of-course to see worship teams with female members wearing yoga pants, female speakers on stage in yoga pants, etc.

    Sadly, sometimes our intense desire to spiritualize “separation” runs aground on the rocky shoals of antinomianism and a fear of naming something sinful as just that-SINFUL.

    My spiritual separation in Christ at times calls me to call others to a level of physical separation away from some of these worldly trends and ungodly practices. In the case referenced above, it would be a clothing prohibition. It is true that if I revert to only focusing on physical separation, I miss the spirit of the matter. I believe it is also true that if I only address the spirit of the matter and teach others to do the same, it may be that I am guilty of violating the “despise not prophesyings” in I Thessalonians 5. That passage goes on to say…
    20 Despise not [a]prophesying.
    21 Try all things, and keep that which is good.
    22 [b]Abstain from all [c]appearance of evil.

    I believe that when the people of God are taught NOT to have any kind of physical separation, but to make your choices as a matter of heart condition between you and the Lord ONLY, there is a chance we will dampen the prophetic voices among us in this part of our lives by ignoring their calls to holiness and purity, or maybe even silencing their calls altogether. We may lose the value of the “try all things and keep that which is good” command, and we may fail in the “Abstain from all appearance of evil” command.

    God bless you as you navigate the journey of walking the narrow path, while noting the excesses and problems that can arise from religious “fences” that quench the Spirit.

    Just some thoughts and an example.

    1. Wow. It is amazing to me to find the word “grace” properly used online. Apparently, though, Mr. Schwarz, you are not used to “most of western Christianity’s” misuse of the word “grace.” With rare exceptions evangelicals do not “take the grace of God and apply it” to anything to “reject it.” Grace in most of western Christianity, is ONLY a reason to overlook something, not reject it. A good dose of Titus 2:11-12 would heal their Jude 4 ways, but it is rarely administered unfortunately.

    2. Rich, thanks much for your thoughts here. I am in essential agreement with everything you wrote.

      You chose to respond to what was perhaps the sentence I was least satisfied with in my entire blog post. It is hard to speak as clearly and accurately as I’d like on such matters, and it is easy to leave room for misunderstandings.

      In context, the sentence you quoted is part of a discussion about physical segregation–living geographically separated from unbelievers. I am saying that I don’t see this as a NT solution for avoiding sin. However, I included this discussion of physical segregation in the middle of a longer discussion about creating a subculture—a practice that can be more subtle than physical segregation, involving things like clothing rules, etc.—things that allow us to live geographically near unbelievers, but still be disconnected. My real aim in this discussion was to suggest that rules about separation for the sake of separation are misguided and without clear NT support—that the idea that creating a sub-culture is the means to avoiding sin is backwards. Rather, as we avoid sin, various specific cultural practices will be challenged and necessarily changed or discarded.

      In the context of 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, it seems that when Paul called for believers to “be separate,” he was especially thinking of the need for Christians to reject pagan idolatry and the immoral practices that accompanied it—concerns that appear repeatedly in both letters to Corinth. This did not mean that a Christian needed to abandon all social interaction with unbelievers (1 Cor. 5:10), abandon unbelieving spouses (1 Cor. 7:12-14), or refuse to accept invitations to eat with unbelievers in their homes (1 Cor. 10:27). However, Paul probably was calling the Corinthian believers to a broad response: “to avoid any public or private relationship with unbelievers that was incompatible with or would compromise Christian standards, Christian adherence to monotheism, and Christian witness” (Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC, page 501).

      I tried to clarify my understanding in the paragraph right after the sentence you quoted, where I said, “Paul’s approach to personal holiness seems consistent with warnings against specific sinful behaviors (including specific clothing items, etc.). It also seems consistent with “holy habits” that a godly community will inevitably form as it follows Christ.”

      So I definitely agree that wise Christians will be warning against sensual practices like wearing yoga pants in public. It will be an interesting calling to learn how to disciple women (and the men around them) by gospel means in such matters in coming years, as people begin thinking it is as acceptable to make their “butts look cute” in public as it is to smile a winsome smile in public. May God give us a growing love of holiness, and wisdom not to lose grip on the gospel of grace either by accepting sin or by fighting it by human means!

      I was reading in 1 Peter recently and was impressed again not only by the repeated call to holiness but also by the many diverse motivations he provides for choosing holiness. He summarizes his letter as being all about “grace”: “I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it.” (1 Pet. 5:12) May we do the same.

      One quibble with your comments: I don’t think 1 Thessalonians 5:22 is warning us to avoid anything that might be construed by someone else as sinful. The KJV reading (“avoid every appearance of evil”) uses the word “appearance” in a way that is not standard anymore today. The NKJV and ESV are clearer: “Abstain from every form of evil.” In context, this is referring to evil prophecies—perhaps prophecies that, upon testing, are shown to not come from the Spirit of God. Or, more specifically, perhaps prophecies that urge hearers to engage in evil deeds.

      That said, I am also reminded of Paul’s admonition to “give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (Rom. 12:17) and to avoid leading our brother into sin through the exercise of our own freedoms (Rom. 14-15; Gal. 5:13). Although we are finally judged only by God (1 Cor. 4:3-5), the path of peace will include, at times, avoiding not only actual sin but also what others understand to be sin.

      Thanks much for your interaction here! I am in hearty agreement that holiness is not only a matter of the heart, but actions. When we preach a gospel of grace and heart transformation, we run the risk of being misunderstood on this point!

  5. Sorry for commenting so much. I just found you & this blog today. “Cultural hurdles”! What a huge two words!

    There was a time over 20 years ago when I found the Anabaptists. We were desperate for fellowship, frustrated with evangelicals and their disregard for the Bible they claimed to follow. Our favorite Anabaptist contact was Elmo Stoll and his Christian community in Cookeville, TN, I know Elmo has passed away, but there are very few men I have respected as much as him. Still, I could never “hurtle” the cultural fact that I would never be able to take communion with a pr still, I could never “hurdle” the cultural fact that I would never be able to take communion person who tapered their hair or wore a belt. I could give into such a standard myself for the sake of fellowship, but I could never demand that of others with a good conscience toward God. My search for a church was extended several years because of “cultural hurdles.”

    1. Paul, no need to apologize for multiple comments today. I identify so strongly with this statement you made: ” I could give into such a standard myself for the sake of fellowship, but I could never demand that of others with a good conscience toward God.”

      Thanks for sharing!

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