Where can you serve God most strategically? This is not always an easy question to answer. There are needs everywhere, and diligent laborers are in short supply all over.
One answer is to simply say that I am most needed right here, right wherever I am. This is certainly true on one level. If I’m not useful “here,” I’m unlikely to be useful “there.” Discipleship begins here and now, not there and later.
This is one popular application of Jesus’ final words to his apostles. He told them “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Therefore, we often hear, we should imitate the apostles by starting at home, in our “Jerusalem” hometown, then expanding outward to Samaria (nearby regions) and eventually to the end of the earth.
But Collier Berkshire of IGo (Institute for Global Opportunities) once corrected my thinking on this. He pointed out that Jerusalem was not the apostles’ hometown! Most of them were from Galilee, after all. Then why did Jesus instruct them to begin witnessing for him at Jerusalem? The answer is a strategic one—Pentecost was coming. Jesus wanted his apostles to be in Jerusalem during Pentecost, because he knew that this annual Jewish feast would attract “devout men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). New disciples from among this pool of feast-goers would then return to “every nation under heaven” (slight biblical hyperbole there, but we’ll skip that valuable exegetical lesson), carrying the gospel with them.
So I ask you again: Where can you serve God most strategically? For some of you, I suggest, the answer will be “in a city.”
Why should you care about cities? I’m sharing three reasons in this blog series:
This post will discuss the second reason. Why should you care about cities?
The City Needs You!
Two facts: Cities are growing, and globally they are growing faster than their Christian populations. An article by Al Mohler summarizes the first fact well:
In 1800, only 3 percent of the human population lived in cities. By 1900, cities held 14 percent of the population. By 2000, fully half of all human beings lived in urban areas. We are fast becoming an urban species…
As Stewart Brand argues, we are becoming a “city planet.”… “At the current rate,” Brand writes, “humanity may well be 80 percent urban by mid-century. Every week there are 1.3 million new people in cities. That’s 70 million a year, decade after decade.” (bold added)
Are Christians keeping up? Timothy Keller (see his book Center Church) doesn’t think so:
The people of the world are now moving into the great cities of the world many times faster than the church is… The Christian church is not responding fast enough to keep up with the rapid population growth in cities.
There are five million new people moving into the cities of the developing world every month—roughly the size of the metropolitan areas of Philadelphia or San Francisco. Think of that—how many churches ought there to be in a city the size of Philadelphia? Even if there were one church for every five thousand people—which is five times fewer than the United States average—this means we should be planting a thousand urban churches in the world every month. (p. 158, bold added)
Let’s add some Anabaptist context here. Not only are Anabaptists moving into cities at a rate far below Christians of many other denominations. More importantly, we also have a long heritage that values and often prioritizes rural living. But the data above shouts what should already have been evident from the pages of Scripture: The idea that people should leave the city so that they can experience optimal spiritual growth in rural environments is simply unreasonable.There simply isn’t enough farm land available for all urban converts to come join rural Mennonites. Mennonites are even running out of farm land for their own children!
Unless Anabaptists learn how to be faithful disciples of Christ within cities, several trends will become increasingly true:
Children of Anabaptists who find their needed living space in towns and cities will tend to join other denominations.
Anabaptism will remain a primarily rural phenomenon, with little direct impact on most of humanity.
I think there are theological repercussions, too, but we’ll stick with those sociological ones for the moment.
So, the city needs you, because you have the gospel that the city needs. What kinds of people in the city need you and the gospel?
Keller identifies “four important groups of people who must be reached to fulfill the mission of the church”:
1. The younger generation… In the United States and Europe, the young disproportionately want to live in cities… If the church in the West remains, for the most part, in the suburbs of Middle America and neglects the great cities, it risks losing an entire generation of American society’s leaders…
2. The “cultural elites.” The second group is made up of those who have a disproportionate influence on how human life is lived in a society because they exert power in business, publishing, the media, the academy, and the arts… Since cities now influence the culture and values of the world more than ever, the single most effective way for Christians to influence the culture of a nation is to have large numbers of them stay in cities and simply “be the church” there…
3. Accessible “unreached” people groups… The currents of history are now sweeping many of these formerly unreachable people into cities as rural economies fail to sustain old ways of life. Millions of these newcomers in the burgeoning cities of the world are more open to the Christian faith than they were in their original context…
4. The poor… Some have estimated that one-third of the people representing the new growth in cities in the developing world will live in shantytowns… An urban church does not choose between ministry to the poor and ministry to the professional classes. We need the economic and cultural resources of the elites to help the poor, and our commitment to the poor is a testimony to the cultural elites, supporting the validity of our message. (p. 160-62)
Of these four groups, which have American Anabaptists been most comfortable and successful in reaching? I think most of us would point to the fourth group—the poor. Organizations like Christian Aid Ministries have helped Anabaptists provide rapid response services after natural disasters, including in urban centers. Additionally, my unscientific observation would be that many of our few long-term urban efforts have focused on poor neighborhoods.
There are good reasons for this (we have a heritage of skilled manual service and material generosity). I suspect there are also sometimes bad reasons (scorn of the professional class, fear of education, inability to meet non-material kinds of needs). Consider the pointed questions raised by Allen Roth, in an article1 urging mission efforts in the materially-wealthy Canadian province of Quebec:
Might our neglect be due to a defect in us as a people… a lack of clarity about the Gospel itself and the need of all people for salvation, yes, even the prosperous ones who consider themselves superior to us? Are we unable and unwilling to share the Gospel unless we can hand some material benefits downward to those who “need us” and toward whom we feel superior? If… if indeed this might be the case, then God have mercy on us! (bold added)
I think we should continue our efforts to the poor, learning not only to hand out relief but also to live among the poor in long-term relationships. And I think we Anabaptists should also expand our vision to include the other three groups of urban dwellers that Keller identified.
One way to reach all three of these groups (youth, cultural leaders, unreached peoples) is to share the gospel with international college students. For example, consider a Foreign Policy article published earlier this month: “Leave China, Study in America, Find Jesus.” The article is part of a special series called China U. The description of China U. underscores the significance of Christian engagement with international students:
China U. is an FB series devoted to higher education’s role as a major and growing node of connection between the world’s two powers. How will a new generation, fluent in China and in America, shape the future of bilateral ties?
Indeed, how might a new generation, fluent in China and in America and newly won to Christ’s kingdom, shape the future of both China and America?
According to the article, the number of Chinese college and university students in America has multiplied more than four-fold in just the past 10 years. The article is full of fascinating personal stories of converts. Here are some excerpts with other data:
While firm statistics do not exist on the number of Chinese converts in the United States, it’s clear that a rapidly increasing number of Chinese students, including Cai, have come Stateside to pursue higher education; more than 304,000 Chinese studied in American colleges and universities in 2015 alone, many hailing from large cities like Beijing and Shanghai. China is the largest secular country in the world; young Chinese people often identify as atheists, although many may have visited a Buddhist temple to pray for good luck before an exam, or celebrated traditional festivals with roots in Chinese folklore. Public preaching is forbidden there, and the Communist Party-state oversees all religious matters, often with a heavy hand. Meanwhile, the state-controlled educational curriculum emphasizes patriotism and socialism, promoting a purely materialistic and scientific worldview…
As a result, U.S. universities are the first places that hundreds of thousands of educated young Chinese are exposed to different religious ideas, and invited to consider them freely…
Some predict that the future of Christianity lies in China. After all, they argue, the popularity of the faith is declining in the United States, the largest Christian country in the world. Meanwhile, in China, even government figures acknowledge a growing number of followers, from 14 million in 1997 to 23 million in 2010. (This number is generally considered a low estimate.) (bold added)
Such reports are a reminder that we don’t always have to leave our nation to reach the world. Often “the world” can be found right here in the cities of North America. For example, consider this sample of statistics about where immigrant populations live:2
Total Population: 207,510 Foreign-born residents: 15,713 (7.9% of Des Moines’ total pop.) Nations of birth: 71 different countries!
Here are the top fifteen nations of birth for Des Moines’ foreign-born population. To help you see some significance in this list, I will color-code nations based on the persecution index provided by Open Doors (red = extreme; orange = severe; green = moderate):
(Yes, you could reach nearly 300 Canadians right here in Des Moines, without needing to head north to the border and the nearest dog sled!)
It’s hard for me to imagine, but apparently 32,658 Des Moines residents speak a language other than English at home. And 17,225 of those speak English “less than very well.” All that is right here in Des Moines, Iowa—in one of the least diverse states in the nation!
I say it’s time to make Des Moines a little more diverse. Maybe it’s time some Anabaptists move there and help love the world for Christ.
And what about Toronto? Here I’d like to challenge my Ontario Anabaptist friends. What would it look like for the conservative Anabaptists of Ontario to put aside some of their differences and band together with a vision for the Toronto harvest field?
The opportunities in Toronto are immense! Here’s the big picture, from a good little article called “Understanding Toronto”:
Toronto is Canada’s largest city, and North America’s fourth largest city, with a population of 2.8 million people (5.5 million in the Greater Toronto Area, commonly called the GTA). It’s a center for business, finance, and education. It’s one of the most multicultural cities in the world… It’s one of the largest cities in North America, and it’s one of the least churched. (bold added)
Here is an interactive map where you can learn more:
Where do these Toronto immigrants come from—and visit on return trips, carrying the ideas they’ve found in Canada? Here are the top birth nations (data from Statistics Canada). Again, I will color-code nations based on the persecution index provided by Open Doors (red = extreme; orange = severe; green = moderate):
India: 279,425 China: 237,025 Philippines: 185,085 United Kingdom: 116,655 Italy: 116,240 Sri Lanka: 105,565 Pakistan: 99,295 Hong Kong: 99,285 Jamaica: 97,660 Portugal: 73,740 Guyana: 72,090 Poland: 64,095 Iran: 60,785 Vietnam: 60,555 United States: 55,630 South Korea: 48,785 Trinidad and Tobago: 46,915 Russian Federation: 35,200 Ukraine: 31,795 Greece: 31,185 Germany: 27,635 Bangladesh: 25,560 Romania: 24,515 Iraq: 22,145 Afghanistan: 21,185
All told, there are over half a million people living in Toronto who come from countries where you may have to risk extreme or severe persecution to reach their families overseas! And the religious needs are immense. For example, Toronto has Canada’s largest population of Muslims, at just over 424,900. Equally significantly, more than 1,165,000 Torontonians claim no religious affiliation at all. Ontario Anabaptists, will you rise to the challenge?
What about your own city? To find immigrant data for your nearest city, visit City-Data.com or Statistics Canada. And remember, behind every data point is a person who needs Christ.
The city needs you, so you should care about the city. And, who knows? Perhaps you will conclude that the city is the most strategic place for you to serve God!
“What you have done for my son and my family is beyond love.” The writer was a mother named Lisa, and she was writing to Bald Eagle Boys Camp. Her letter continued:
Perhaps you will never know how many years I prayed that Derek could find a mentor… I wanted and prayed for one mentor. God gave Derek all of you… All of you have separate gifts and talents that you share with the boys. You all have different insights and personal attributes to share… You very well may have saved his life, saved him from self-hatred, and saved him from not ever seeing what God’s love is. [Emphasis added.]
Mentoring is an important part of the therapeutic camping program at Bald Eagle, a camp for “troubled boys.” Listen to some more excerpts from their website:
The counselors, called “chiefs”, are responsible for direct care and provide the key to meeting the emotional needs of a camper. Because the chiefs live with the boys twenty-four hours a day and join them in all of their daily routines, they become keenly aware of the individual needs of each camper. Their dedication and care provide a secure atmosphere where healing relationships can occur…
Spiritual values are intrinsically woven into the fabric of daily Wilderness Camp living and are reinforced by our staff as they model the teachings of Jesus Christ. They are displayed in the simplest ways—the love and understanding of a counselor, the forgiveness of one boy to another, and the helpfulness of a friend….
We aim to maintain groups of four to five members who have stabilized and are able to provide accountability, cohesion, and a positive influence to the rest of the group…. [Emphasis added.]
As the letter from Lisa suggests, many boys and their parents are being powerfully shaped by the influence of loving mentors at Bald Eagle Boys Camp.
Story two: The need this time is not troubled boys but troubled communities—communities that lack the relational and economic networks needed for people to climb out of poverty.
Several decades ago Merle Burkholder and his family lived for a year in a small rural village in Haiti. The Burkholders imitated their neighbors by adopting their simple lifestyle and, in return, they gave their neighbors something to imitate by modeling Christ to them. Deep friendships began that continue to this day. Merle has returned to Cadiac, Haiti once or twice a year ever since, speaking in church seminars and mentoring leaders.
More recently, Merle’s Haiti involvement merged with his service at Anabaptist Financial, leading to a new project called Open Hands. Here, from the Open Hands website, is a description of what they do:
Open Hands operates savings and credit associations in countries where Anabaptist missions are working with people who are experiencing the effects of poverty. We hire and train national Christian individuals to form and supervise savings groups in association with local churches. Our objective is to assist the local churches by helping people grow in Christ, and by teaching them to save funds in order to operate micro-businesses. The Open Hands program will increase their income and will result in stronger, more self-sufficient churches.
The Open Hands program involves many relationships and lots of training. These flow in multiple directions, as everyone listens and learns from each other. Open Hands has adopted some elements of a dialogue education approach, where facilitators ask questions and help learners discover answers using their prior knowledge. This helps build the dignity and confidence needed for responsible and successful living.
But Open Hands also knows that outside training, when welcomed, is a crucial element in giving a community new tools for growth. So a long, intentional flow of relationships and training exists within Open Hands. This is especially evident with the curriculum that Open Hands is producing for savings groups:
Board and administration has set a vision for producing family and small business training booklets.
Writing teams turn this vision into instructor’s guides and student workbooks.
Translation teams transmit the content into other languages.
Program leaders living abroad teach the new curriculum to…
National group facilitators and trainers, who train…
Savings group leaders how to teach the curriculum to…
Each savings group with its individual members.
Such a long chain does leave space for things to be lost in transmission. But so far this approach seems to be working well, helping to transform lives. And communication is certainly not all one-directional; everyone from administration through writers through translators has interacted directly with national leaders and group members to celebrate our partnership in the gospel.
Merle summarized this train of transmission another way recently in an email:
When we began with the savings group model we realized that this model follows a pattern that many Amish and Mennonite people here in the developed world have used. The model we use relies heavily on brotherhood accountability within the savings group. It demonstrates how faithfulness in small things leads to larger responsibilities. It helps a person to start a small family business with a little capital and grow that business into a business that will provide for the needs of the family.
When you think about the large number of Amish and Mennonite family businesses, you see that what we have done here is often replicated in the developing world through the savings group model. Often here, Amish and Mennonite families would pool their funds in order to purchase a farm or fund the start up of a small home based business. The savings group model follows the same pattern within a community.
In the Amish and Mennonite communities we have a strong work ethic and a belief that we should provide for our own families and not depend on social assistance programs. The savings group help people in the developing world move from dependency on an aid program, or charity in some other form, to providing for their own needs. There is great dignity in being able to internally produce the resources that are needed for the support of a family rather than depending on outside resources. [Emphasis added.]
So Open Hands is strengthening a transmission of influence from Amish and Mennonites to developing nations worldwide. Open Hands aims to transmit our “strong work ethic” and “belief that we should provide for our own.” The curriculum also emphasizes Jesus’ kingdom teachings about stewardship, eternal values, and neighbor love, and includes a gospel invitation in each booklet. In this way North American Anabaptists are helping to shape men, women, and children in Haiti, India, Kenya, and other nations worldwide.
(Disclosure and gratitude: Merle hired me as a writer for Open Hands and was a formative influence years ago during my time with Northern Youth Programs.)
Story three: The need this time is for leaders. Followers of Jesus Mennonite Church (FJMC) in Brooklyn, NY, has a practice of asking its members periodically to identify men in their midst who have leadership potential. Those identified by the congregation are invited to participate in a several-year training program called Servant Leadership Apprenticeship (SLA). Trainees study books on doctrinal and practical matters (such as Alexander Strauch’s Biblical Eldership), attend half the FJMC leadership team meetings (voice but no vote), and practice a wide variety of leadership activities from giving sermons to praying for church members. (See here for a longer summary.)
The SLA program has helped raise up leaders for FJMC and beyond. Richard Schwartz, the current FJMC lead pastor, was an SLA participant. And so—thanks be to God—was I, training under Allen Roth and alongside his son Arlin. (More disclosure and gratitude. My wife was also grateful for the opportunity to learn from the pastors’ wives.)
Allen Roth, FJMC’s founding pastor, was the human brainchild behind the SLA program. In 2009 Allen shared a talk subtitled “If I Were Starting a Church Again…” In this talk he described fifteen things he would do differently if he planted another church in the future. One thing he said was this:
I would start the Servant-Leader Apprenticeship earlier as a deliberate, planned approach to raise up more leaders, not only to pastor the new church but also to serve as missionaries and church planters.
Recently I asked Allen to describe what inspired him to begin the SLA program. Here is his answer:
Dwight, I cannot really remember any “aha” moment. I’m sure prayer figures in. I had had a very rich experience with a group of 20+ Nicaraguans living with us and helping with two church plants in Nicaragua. Working with a team in NYC was also very influential in my thinking. But even earlier than all these was the mentoring I received by Richard Showalter, my missions teacher, when I was a[t] Rosedale. And of course, through the years, there have been books that imprinted me about Jesus’ work with the Twelve, mentoring books, disciple making books, etc. Early in the formation of BMA, Walter Beachy and I worked together on assembling a mentoring guide for development of new ministers in BMA. An entire Ministers’ Enrichment event in 2002 was devoted to the theme of developing tomorrow’s leaders. This year Paul Emerson and I worked on a document entitled “Mentoring For Ministry” that is scheduled to be presented to the ministers next month for their review and hopefully for implementation within BMA. Probably, though I cannot remember a specific incident, was the realization that to establish FJMC, plant new churches, and send out workers in missions we needed to develop more leaders. Does that help? [Emphasis added.]
Indeed, it does!
And hopefully by now you can see some common themes emerging in my three stories. Many similar stories could be added. But these are enough for me to make an observation: sometimes conservative Anabaptists, whether they realize it or not, demonstrate a very Scriptural practice of tradition.
“Of tradition?” you say. Yes, of tradition. In my last post I described how conservative Anabaptist often listen rather poorly to what the NT says about tradition. I also summarized the NT’s critique of tradition-gone-bad. But the NT also has positive things to say about tradition. And if we only exorcize the demons of bad tradition without filling the house with the Holy Spirit’s positive tradition, then the last state of our churches will be worse than the first (image lifted from Matthew 12:43-45).
Word Studies: Challenges and Procedures
There are three times that the ESV NT uses the word tradition in a positive sense. We will explore these three passages and see what we can learn.
But first, please bear with some technical notes for Bible students. With the one exception noted in my previous post, the ESV’s use of the word tradition perfectly matches the Greek text’s use of the word παράδοσις (paradosis, a word referring to a teaching or tradition that is handed over). This means that, despite using an English translation, we are matching the results we would get if working from the Greek.
On the one hand it can actually be better to work from English for a topical study like this, for translators sometimes identify multiple Greek (or Hebrew) words that are used in a way best expressed by a single English word. (For example, ἀγαπᾷς and φιλῶ in John 21 probably both mean “love,” as in most English translations, with no distinctions intended in this passage between agape and philia kinds of love.) On the other hand, we should not assume that the range of meaning for paradosis perfectly matches the range of meaning for our English word tradition. Even in this case where the ESV matches the two words nearly perfectly, I cannot assume that paradosis means exactly the same thing in every NT passage, or that in any passage it means what I most commonly mean when I use the English word tradition. The best approach for word studies is to use dictionaries to determine the range of possible meanings for a given word (Greek or English), and then study the context in which a word is used in order to select which of the possible meanings best matches the particular passage which we are examining.
In this study of tradition, context revealed that Jesus often used the word paradosis to refer specifically to the Jewish “tradition of the elders”—the oral law that Jews believed (including some today!) that Moses received from God during his 40 days on Mount Sinai. But when Paul used the word paradosis he sometimes meant something very different, as we shall soon see. And when we use the English word tradition, what do we mean? Scanning dictionary entries, I see definitions as varied as these:
“Thepassingdown of elements of a culturefromgeneration to generation,especially by oralcommunication“
“A long-established or inheritedway of thinking or acting“
“Adoctrine or body of doctrinesregarded as havingbeenestablished by Christ or theapostlesthoughnotcontained in Scripture“
“A piece of folklore“
“A style or method of an activity or practice,especially of artisticexpression,that is recognizedandsometimesimitated“
None of the above definitions fully captures what we mean when we talk about Anabaptist or Mennonite traditions, and none perfectly matches how either Jesus or Paul used the word paradosis. Bottom line: We need to listen closely to Scripture to let it shape our definitions and understandings.
What the NT Says Positively about Tradition
Back to the positive NT use of tradition. Let’s examine our three passages individually, making observations. Then we’ll summarize our observations and suggest some implications for how we should think about tradition in our churches.
1. 1 Corinthians 11:2. Here Paul affirms the Corinthian church: “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” Here we can clearly see the root concept of paradosis: It is something that is “delivered” from one to another. The word “delivered” suggests intentionality. Paul did not simply live quietly in the land, assuming others would learn from him if they wished.
The thing delivered was old to Paul, but new to the Corinthians. Thus, the transmission of tradition produced radical changes. On the other hand, once the Corinthian believers had received what Paul delivered to them, the proper thing to do with these traditions was to “maintain” them. Thus paradosis in this passage implies both intentional change and intentional preservation.
Notice that Paul wanted the Corinthians to remember more than just the traditions he had delivered. He also wanted them to “remember [him] in everything.” Thus, tradition was not to be received as an impersonal body of practices or “ordinances” (the KJV’s unfortunate translation of paradosis in this passage). Rather, tradition was a personal matter, rooted in intimate relationship.
If we zoom out to the wider context, we see that Paul did not merely want the Corinthians to “remember” him; he wanted them to imitate him: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” This suggests that Paul believed that personal example and imitation was an important way of “delivering” tradition. In other words, mentoring.
The mention of Christ shows the ultimate source of the tradition that Paul delivered to the Corinthians. Paul is the channel of these traditions, not the source. Thus, we can see three “generations” of tradition in this passage: Christ, Paul, and the Corinthian church.
What were these traditions that Paul received from Christ and passed on to the Corinthian church? In the context of this letter to Corinth, these traditions definitely include several things:
The account of Christ instituting the Lord’s Supper: “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you,” Paul writes (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
The gospel as a whole, including the historical facts and theological significance of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received” (1 Cor. 15:1-11).
These traditions may have also included Paul’s teaching about headship. Most likely Paul uses paradosishere to refers to any and all of his teachings, both doctrine about Christ and instruction about how to live in response to Christ. Clearly, Christ is central—both as the source of Paul’s tradition and as the center of its content.
2.2 Thessalonians 2:15. Here Paul appeals to the church at Thessalonica: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” This passage, though similar to our Corinthian one, offers additional insights into the traditions that Paul affirmed.
Here the traditions were “taught,” a word that again suggests intentionality. But different modes of transmission are specified: “spoken word” and “letter.” Tradition, then, is something that you not only do, but also teach verbally.
The word “taught” implies that the Thessalonians did not originally know and practice Paul’s traditions. His traditions challenged and changed their former ways of thinking and living. On the other hand, having learned Paul’s traditions, they were to “hold” to them, a word that suggests preservation. Thus tradition again involves both change and continuity.
What were the traditions that Paul taught the Thessalonian believers? Context suggest at least two things:
The phrases “stand firm and hold” and “either by our spoken word or by our letter” echo phrases from earlier in the chapter: “We ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come” (2 Thess. 2:1-2, emphasis added). In this chapter Paul is instructing the Thessalonians “concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him” (2 Thess. 2:1). This topic, of course, was an important theme in Paul’s previous letter to Thessalonica (1 Thess. 4:13-5:11). And here Paul says, “Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?” (2 Thess. 2:5). So Paul had previously instructed the Thessalonians previously both by “spoken word” and by “letter” (2 Thess. 2:15) about these matters. These teachings about the coming of Christ were part of the “traditions” that Paul had taught to the Thessalonian church.
Another contextual clue is suggested by the words “so then” at the beginning of our verse. These words link back to the the previous verses (2 Thess. 2:13-14), where Paul recalls with gratitude how God first chose the Thessalonians to be saved: “To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 14). This context reveals several important truths. First, the reason why Paul thought the Thessalonians should hold to the traditions was because they were essential for salvation. Unless the Thessalonians held fast to the traditions Paul had taught them, they had no assurance they would “obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” They had begun well; now Paul wanted them to finish well. Clearly, “traditions” here does not refer to merely human customs or rules. Second, a close relationship is suggested between “gospel” and “traditions.” God had initially called the Thessalonians “through our [Paul’s] gospel” (2 Thess. 2:14; see also 1 Thessalonians 2, where Paul recalls how he originally “proclaimed… the gospel of God” to the Thessalonians, who had “accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.”). Now they needed to hold fast to “the traditions.” This suggests that the traditions were either the gospel itself (the message about being saved “through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth”; 2 Thess. 2:13), or other teachings integrally springing from the gospel message.
In summary, Paul uses paradosis in 2 Thessalonians 2 to refer to the core gospel message and to all the associated truths (such as teaching about Christ’s appearing and the man of lawlessness) that the Thessalonians needed to hold in order to persevere to final salvation without being “shaken.”
3. 2 Thessalonians 3:6. Here Paul gives a command concerning tradition: “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.“ The usage of paradosis here is clearly parallel to our other two passages. For example, there is again a very strong emphasis on imitation and an appeal to the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. But several new emphases can be noticed.
In context, the tradition that Paul is talking about is the tradition of working quietly and earning one’s own living (2 Thess. 3:6-12). Here behavior is clearly included as part of tradition. Tradition is not merely about how we think; it is also about how we act.
Tradition here serves as a boundary for the church, or at least as a measure for good standing within the church. The Thessalonians are to “keep away from” anyone who does not follow the tradition of working diligently. They must not even share food with such people.
Notice how Paul describes this tradition in clear but general terms: The Thessalonians are to work diligently and quietly, earning their own living. They are not to be disorderly, burden others by eating food without paying for it, or be busybodies. Paul does not say how often one could eat free as a guest before one should start paying (the Didache limited traveling Christians to two or three free nights). He does not say how many hours per week one must work in order to be considered diligent. He seems to expect that his instructions are clear enough that they can be applied on a case-by-case basis without detailed universal rules.
In summary, Paul uses paradosis in 2 Thessalonians 3 to refer to godly behaviors learned by imitation from Christian leaders—behaviors which are necessary for good standing in the church of Christ.
If we summarize all three passages where Paul speaks positively about tradition (paradosis), we find that the content of this good NT tradition includes the gospel message about Christ and his work past, present, and future, all the associated truths that we need in order to persevere to final salvation, and all sorts of Christlike behaviors.
For Further Study
A proper study of the positive use of tradition in the NT would also examine a host of other passages related to the theme of the apostles passing things on to the first churches. For example, here are a few key concepts and references to review (based on a concordance search of the ESV):
(I have listed verses only once, not repeating them if they were discussed above or if they use multiple key terms.)
In addition to the above passages, one should examine the entire theme of discipleship in the NT!
Conclusion: Summarizing the Evidence and Exhorting the Anabaptists
As I end this brief study of tradition in the NT (good and bad examples), my heart is full. I feel I must speak clearly and honestly to my fellow conservative Anabaptists. Scripture is speaking, and we must listen. In short, I think we are in urgent need of having a radical renewal in our concept of tradition.
I ask you: When we talk about “tradition” in the context of church life as conservative Anabaptists, what kind of traditions usually come to mind? Man-made customs and rules that we have added to God’s word (as with the “tradition” of the Pharisees)? Or the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and basic principles of Christlike behavior (as with the “tradition” of Paul)?
I ask you another question: Do you see any suggestion in the NT that tradition in the first sense (man-made customs or rules, however good or natural) is ever emphasized as a useful means for either bringing anyone to salvation, producing holy behavior, or preserving the gospel?
(Here I must make a brief aside, prompted by a question from my wise wife. I presented the Bald Eagle Boys Camp above as a positive example of tradition. But the Bald Eagle program is full of man-made rules! Am I contradicting myself? I hope not. Remember that Bald Eagle is designed to serve boys—in fact, “troubled” boys. Man-made rules are essential for raising children, especially unregenerate ones. And the more immature the children, the more there will be a need for regulated structure. Bald Eagle uses Pauline mentoring relationships combined with good methods of child management to produce children who will be better prepared to respond to the “tradition” of the gospel. We should learn from Bald Eagle’s emphasis on intentional mentoring. But do we really want to run our churches in a highly-regulated fashion, as if they are full of unregenerate “troubled boys”? Procedural expectations will always be needed in any group setting—times for meeting, etc. And cultural norms and group habits are fine—ways of singing, etc. And some of our habits, though not commanded in the NT, are drawn from its pages—praying before meals, etc. But those who are filled with the Spirit surely do not need an abundance of rules to produce holy behavior.)
Let me summarize with eight overlapping observations from our study.
This is what good tradition looks like in the NT. Ask yourself: Is this what tradition looks like in my church?
Tradition involves personal relationships. When the NT talks about tradition positively, it usually depicts intimate relationships between an apostle or missionary and those in his care. Seeing tradition as merely involving beliefs and practices is not enough. If tradition is experienced as an impersonal force, then we have fallen short of the NT pattern.
Tradition involves personal imitation. When the NT talks about tradition positively, there is not merely conformity to a social norm. Rather, there is direct imitation of a worthy individual. This means that those of us who want to promote tradition must focus on being persons worth imitating. It is not enough to merely point to a body of beliefs or practices. Good tradition requires good people—people who consciously aspire to be Christlike role models.
Tradition involves imitation of Christ. When the NT talks about tradition positively, in passage after passage the flow of tradition is clear: The fountainhead is Christ, and all worthy tradition flows downhill from him—down through his apostles, down through faithful Christians of all time, down through those who proclaimed the gospel to us, and down through us to others. As we drink from the stream of those who have taught and modeled Christ to us, we walk up through this stream, ever closer to Christ himself, our only perfect Model.
Tradition involves a group cohesion found in Christ. When the NT talks about tradition positively, it indicates that the church finds its cohesion in Christ. Group cohesion is found not merely in each individual conforming to the group, but in each individual helping the other conform to Christ. As the gospel tradition draws us closer to Christ, we are held together in him. Tradition involves a community being transformed into the image of a p/Person (a Christ-imitator and Christ himself), and not merely a person being transformed into the image of a community.
Tradition involves intentional choice. When the NT talks about tradition positively, there is no suggestion of subconscious immersion in a religious culture or thoughtless conformity to social norms. Rather, we see people proactively proclaiming, mentoring, and following. Those of us who want to affirm and hold onto tradition should intentionally look for mentors worth imitating, not merely conform to peer pressure.
Tradition involves explanation. When the NT talks about tradition positively, we see both the what and the why being taught. Last fall I read the fascinating book Runaway Amish Girl, written by Emma Gingerich, a brave young lady who used to belong to a Swartzentruber Amish group not far from my home here in Leon, IA. I expected that by reading the book I would gain a better understanding of why Amish live the way they do. I did learn much about the Swartzentruber Amish, including some details of their ordnung (church ordinances or rules). But I was surprised to discover as I ended the book that I really hadn’t learned much about why they live as they do. The reason I didn’t learn much about the why is because the author, despite having grown up Amish, was never taught the why, either. This failure of these Amish to explain the why became for me one of the most important lessons of the book. This Swartzentruber Amish group had plenty of traditions, but they had little understanding of tradition in the positive NT sense.Ordnung without explanation is empty. Teaching and training are essential elements of the apostolic approach to tradition. The apostles never merely commanded what to do; they rooted the what firmly in a gospel why—in a theological explanation of some aspect of the work of Christ. In fact, they often taught the why first, then deduced the what from the why afterward. And they even sometimes flexed the what from situation to situation, aiming to best promote the why of the gospel in each unique context.
Tradition involves change. When the NT talks about tradition positively, it describes something that comes into our lives from the outside and turns our world upside down. The kingdom of God brings a new world, a new age, and new ways of thinking. Yes, we hold onto this tradition fiercely once we have received it. But its revolutionary work in our hearts will not be finished until Christ returns. Our thoughts and behaviors will continue to evolve as we are ever more conformed to the gospel. Not all change is life or growth. But to be alive is to grow, and to grow is to change. Thus, tradition is not merely “doing things as we’ve always done them.” It radically changes both individuals and entire communities.
Tradition involves biblicism. The word biblicism has received a bad rap, for at its worst it signifies a legalistic adherence to the letter of the Bible. But in its best sense it signifies something good: a strong focus on the Bible as divine revelation that leads us to Christ and guides us as we follow him. And when the NT talks about tradition positively, it ties this tradition very tightly to Scripture—hence, tradition involves biblicism. This is surprise. One of our dictionary definitions for tradition above, remember, went like this: “Adoctrine or body of doctrinesregarded as havingbeenestablished by Christ or theapostlesthoughnotcontained in Scripture” (emphasis added). This definition sounds a lot like the Jewish concept of the tradition of the elders or “oral law,” which they believed was given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. (Here is an Orthodox believer struggling helpfully but imperfectly with the question of “Holy Tradition.”) But Paul’s use of tradition is different. Remember that when Paul mentioned tradition in 2 Thessalonians 2, he mentioned both “spoken word” and “letter.” Paul taught tradition through both. Significantly, there is no indication here (or elsewhere in the NT) that the content of Paul’s verbal teaching was conceptually different from the content of his written communication. There is no indication, for example, that Paul taught “principles” through his letters and then gave more specific “applications” of those principles in his verbal instructions to churches. This means that we today can access Paul’s traditions by reading his letters. To study Paul’s letters is to learn his traditions; to follow tradition is to be a biblicist. If we faithfully adhere to the tradition of the apostles, we will neither add to their writings nor take away from them.
Let me summarize our observations more concisely.
Tradition, when it is described positively in the NT, is always tied to discipleship. Therefore, in order for tradition to be life-giving for us today, it must always be tied to discipleship. More specifically, it must involve relationships where disciples are trained by those who are imitating others who have imitated Christ. Ultimately, authentic NT tradition involves imitating Christ by means of imitating his apostles and their imitators. Thus authentic NT tradition is a concept that pushes us back to Scripture and on to Christ himself.
Conversely, tradition smothers and kills to the extent that it is devoid of meaningful mentoring relationships and unhinged from the biblical witness of Christ and his apostles.
So here is my appeal to my fellow conservative Anabaptists: Do you think tradition is important? Then become a disciple of Christ who makes more disciples of Christ!
Find the most Christlike people you know! Spend time with them, imitating them as they imitate Christ. Find someone else who wants to follow Christ, and model Christ to them! Share your heart along with the doctrines and behaviors of Christ. And as you do this, submit all your human traditions (Phil. 3) and personal and cultural preferences (1 Cor. 9) to the cause of the only tradition that really matters: the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 9:23).
This has been a long post, but it has been brewing in my heart for a long time. I sense it may be one of the most important posts I’ve shared so far, with its call for us to recapture a NT vision of tradition and disciple-making. Please pray for me that I will not only teach these things but also understand and live them more fully. (I am a disciple who is a slow learner.) May God give you grace to do the same.
Now it’s your turn. What did you learn in this study of tradition in the NT? How would you add to or change what I have written? Am I missing something? How can we live out this call to NT “traditionalism”? What methods or means can we use in our churches to better pass on the faith once for all delivered to the saints? Please share your insights in the comments below.
I know, that’s hardly a news flash. But the non-news comes with a point: I, like you, long to understand the Bible better. The good news is that I think I understand parts of Revelation better than I did five years ago. The other good news is that there is still much left for me to learn!
Brief story: About five or six years ago I was assigned to preach from Matthew 24–that confusing chapter about the signs leading up to Christ’s return… or is it the non-signs that occurred before the destruction of Jerusalem? Anyhow, puzzling over such questions aroused my interest in Bible prophesy, and I started wishing to understand Revelation better. I soon learned that if you hope to understand Revelation, you must first understand the OT prophetic books, where much of Revelation’s imagery comes from. Then I learned that if you hope to understand the OT prophetic books, you must first understand the five books of Moses, for the OT prophets were enforcers of the Mosaic covenant.
These observations shaped my growing interest in serious Bible study. So I listened to the Pentatauch repeatedly while pounding nails at work, and I read some big semi-technical commentaries on Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus–straight through, cover to cover. It was very rewarding, but I got bogged down as I began a commentary on Numbers, and I haven’t yet read a commentary on any of the Major Prophets straight through. And my Revelation commentaries… well, I’ve dabbled in them, but not enough to fully defuse my confusion.
Thank God, you don’t need to understand much prophecy to become “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus”! And thank God, he rewards the diligent student of “the sacred writings” so that we can become increasingly “equipped for every good work” as we grow in our biblical understanding (2 Tim. 3:15-16).
So, without further ado and in random order, here are…
Five Ways You Can Understand the Bible Better in 2015
Read, read, and reread the Bible. This is obvious, yet it is exactly here where most of us fail worst. First, most of us read far less than we need to if we are ever going to understand the Bible well. Second, when many of us do read, we read in such a way (poor technique, poor heart condition) that our understanding doesn’t grow as it could. Two excellent blog articles I read recently address both these problems. “How to Change Your Mind” by Joe Carter describes a Bible reading plan that I heartily endorse, based on my own similar short-term efforts while preparing to preach and teach. “What Kind of a Thing Is the Bible? 6 Theses” by Gavin Ortlund reminds us of the forest before we get lost in the trees reading individual Bible passages. He says he’s “naming the obvious,” but this article is packed with pregnant points that invite deep consideration and help make sense of the Bible. Read these articles, then read your Bible–more, and more wisely. Bonus tip: Audio Bibles count, too!
Read a book on biblical interpretation. Don’t let words like exegesis and hermeneutics scare you. They aren’t any worse than words like carburetor (had to check how to spell that one) or hemorrhage (had to look that one up, too). They’re just words that are suited for the job and help us understand how things work. There are books on biblical interpretation suited for every reader, and it’s a shame that more of us aren’t reading them. I’m a case in point: Despite graduating from a four-year Honours English Literature program with a bachelor’s degree, I had never read a single book on biblical interpretation! It wasn’t until Allen Roth assigned Understanding and Applying the Bible (McQuilkin) as reading material for our church leadership team that I opened such a book. Since then I’ve read at least four others through and scanned others, besides reading more specialized books on related topics. You don’t know which one to choose? I have a page (see here) that lists nine such books, with descriptions to help you find the right one for you. None of these books are perfect, but all have proven helpful again and again for hundreds and thousands of people. Better yet: find some friends and read one together!
Listen to free seminary lectures on the Bible. If I had to name a single resource that has been most helpful in my own growth in biblical understanding over the past 5 years, it would probably be the website biblicaltraining.org. This website–the brainchild of Bill Mounce who served as the NT chair of the ESV translation team–aims “to help leaders in the local church become effective ministers of the Gospel by providing them with world-class, Christ-centered educational resources that will allow learning to take place in community. In other words, our goal is to help make fully-formed followers of Christ.” This website has free audio recordings of Bible classes for all levels, from new believers to graduate students. Free lectures from dozens of seminary courses are included. Most of the speakers are well-known evangelical professors and authors. I’ve listened to most of the seminary lectures on this site. I’ve found all the Bible courses helpful for growth in biblical understanding, and several courses like Robert Stein’s excellent “Biblical Hermeneutics” are especially relevant to this post. (By the way, one great thing about this website is that the speakers don’t agree on every point of interpretation or doctrine! This diversity-within-gospel-unity provides excellent training in discernment and nudges you back to the Bible to think things through for yourself.)
Subscribe to some good blogs. The number of scholarly blogs and websites devoted to biblical interpretation and theology is astounding! The best you can do–which can be good indeed–is to pick a handful and begin following. Here are some I’ve been following:
* http://readingacts.wordpress.com/ Phillip Long, a conservative seminary prof, started a blog on Acts but now writes on all things NT. Includes helpful book reviews and monthly links to a “Biblical Studies Carnival”–long lists highlighting “the best and the brightest in the world of bibliblogs.”
* http://zondervanacademic.com/blog/ Jeremy Bouma posts most often, with a wide range of thoughts usually triggered by some book he’s reading. Other blog authors take their turns as well, including Bill Mounce with his “Mondays with Mounce” about NT Greek and Lee Fields with a similar series about Hebrew. A great way to be introduced to lots of big name biblical studies and theology authors.
* https://bbhchurchconnection.wordpress.com/ Louis McBride, the Bible and academic book buyer at Baker Book House, a Christian bookstore, writes on all things biblical and theological, again usually triggered by a book he’s reading. Lots of good stuff to chew.
* http://marccortez.com/ Marc Cortez teaches theology and supervises doctoral students at Wheaton College and writes here at Everyday Theology. Thus says Marc: “The purpose of the blog is to connect theology with everyday life. I’m convinced that what we believe matters – it shapes who we are and how we live in the world. So I want to help people access the best that theology has to offer and see how it matters for life today. Having said that, I’m also a bit random. They say that a good blog should have 3-5 categories that provide focus and purpose for the blog. Following that guideline, my three categories are: life, the universe, and everything.” Yup, that’s about right! 🙂
* http://www.challies.com/ Tim Challies provides a firehose for all things Reformed and conservative, with daily postings that include links to theological blogs and Kindle books on sale. Lots of very good stuff (even if you question his Calvinism and wish he’d include more diversity of voices at times). For example, the two blog articles I recommended in point #1 above were recommended by Challies. If you follow Challies you’ll soon learn of lots more helpful Reformed bloggers that I won’t name here.
* This list could go on forever, and I know I haven’t even mentioned some of the best. For a dizzying list of helpful and not-so-helpful blogs, see this. I’ve only visited a tiny fraction of the blogs listed there. A final caveat is extremely important: Blogs like the ones I’ve listed contain a mixture of truth and error. (So does my blog!) Some others are only helpful as case studies of heresy. Of my five suggestions in this post, this is the one that is least helpful unless you already have some solid biblical grounding. That said, good biblical blogs have prodded my thinking with new insights and perspectives, helped me assess the strengths and weaknesses of popular evangelical scholars (good prep for book buying), and introduced me to valuable online and print resources. The five blogs I mentioned first generally do a good job of achieving these benefits without throwing in intentionally provocative or theologically liberal ideas.
Attend a good Bible conference or training program. I’ll keep this point short by directing you to my page about upcoming events for Bible students: see here. Two things: (a) I recently added a couple more events that will be helpful for some of you; (b) the BMA Ministers’ Enrichment Weekend (end of January and open to everyone) is now open for registration. Go if you can!
(By the way, thanks to those of you who have been sharing this events page on Facebook and elsewhere. Let’s spread the word and help people–especially our pastors–get some good training.)
So, there you have it: five ways to understand the Bible better in this coming year. My advice would be to pursue #1 and then pick two or three others to supplement it.
What else would you add to this list? What has helped you understand the Bible better? Share your thoughts in the comments below.