I’ve suggested in some of my recent blog posts that multiplying church regulations isn’t the solution for producing holiness. And I’ve said that the gospel of grace is the solution. Grace trains us in holiness:
For the grace of God has appeared… training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age. (Tit. 2:11-12; compare Tit. 2:11-15 with Tit. 3:3-8)
It’s always a delight to sense God’s grace operating in our own lives! Here’s a small example from today: A piano student (actually, the student’s parents) failed today for the umpteenth time to come for the scheduled lesson. I’ve decided I’ll adjust my policies to require a minimum of four pre-paid lessons per month, with no same-day cancellations offered. But meanwhile, I’m thankful that I don’t feel angry. Why not?
Because I am keenly aware that my own offenses have been far greater, yet I’ve been given grace! What a wonder! Having received this grace, I am equipped and motivated to offer it to others, too.
Sanctification isn’t always as easy or immediate as this (and, believe me, I certainly do still struggle with impatience). But the basic path to victory is always the same: lean more heavily on the grace of God shown to us in Christ Jesus.
Takeaway: Meditate deeply on the grace of God to you–past, present, and promised for the future–and you are sure to grow in holiness. That’s a guarantee that I’ll never make if you only meditate on a set of rules.
Do you have a testimony of how you have been trained by grace? Share it below, to the glory of God in Christ!
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.
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.