Who you are depends largely on who you have been with. And most of what you know you have learned from other people. If these statements are true, then it must be vitally important to be intentional about our relationships.
A Christian’s most vital relationship is with Christ. If your relationship with him is all it should be, then he can help you survive even the worst set of human companions. The normal way that Christ strengthens and trains us, however, is through human relationships.
What kinds of relationships will help you grow? Diversity helps. Let me suggest a sample:
People who have known you well for a long time.
People who are wiser than you—mentors.
People who are eager to learn from you—disciples.
People who are like you, who help you feel at home.
People who are different from you, who make you feel not-at-home.
People who don’t know you well.
The last couple categories might be less obvious, or at least less comfortable. If you are surrounded only by people who don’t know you well, it can be hard to develop a secure or accurate self-identity. (See my poetic musings on that possibility.)
On the other hand, if you are surrounded only by people like youself, then your picture of yourself might be rather two-dimensional, lacking depth and perspective. Spending all your time with people just like you won’t teach you much about the rest of life, either. This is why youth need adults, men need women, and you need the city.
Why should you care about cities? I’m sharing three reasons in this blog series:
This post will discuss the third reason. Why should you care about cities?
You Need the City!
This might be the least expected reason why you should care about cities, but it might also be the most important. If you would be a wise and effective Christian, then you must first be a learner. And Christians, including rural Anabaptists, have much to learn from the city.
Cities can help you learn about yourself. When I was in Thunder Bay, I was one of a team of five Mennonite adults surrounded by First Nations youth. When went to college, I was the only Mennonite in my city. When I taught school in the Bronx, I lived in a neighborhood that was about 80% Hispanic. When we lived in Queens, there were at least seven ethnic groups on our immediate block—Chinese, Puerto Rican, Guyanese, Sri Lankan, African American, and, including us, two white households.
Each of those contexts taught me things about myself. Now we plan to move to a neighborhood in Atlanta that is over 95% African American, also within reach of multi-ethnic college populations. I anticipate many new learning opportunities.
I think it would do most people good to live for at least a year as an ethnic or cultural minority. When you live as a minority, you learn that you are not normal—most people are not like you. You learn that your heritage has some unique strengths. You also learn that your culture has some besetting sins (perhaps selfishness with time and possessions, thanklessness, or impatience). And you probably even learn that you have some unexpected racist tendencies (I did).
Cities can remind us that we really don’t understand “the lost” as well as we think we do. Here I begin with a point I made in my last post—that too often conservative Anabaptists think of missions in terms of caring for the poor, tending to overlook other kinds of people. But a happily married (gay or otherwise) university professor or plastic surgeon with a six-figure income needs the gospel just as much as the whino on the curb.
A friend and I were recently discussing the idea of Anabaptists doing missions in Toronto. This friend has lived in Toronto for eight years and continues to work there. Here is some of what she had to say:
It irks me to no end to hear about “mission trips” to Toronto that consist simply of people standing on street corners handing out tracts—likely to tourists because that’s who hangs out around the Eaton’s Centre. How exactly is that addressing the needs of the hipster in Liberty Village, the professor in the Annex, the young family in Riverdale, the public servant at High Park, the gay couple on Church, the young graduates in the Beaches, the writer in the Junction. Those are my friends and colleagues. And they have spiritual lives and needs too…
I am puzzled by the notion that our life in in city is different than life in Elmira or Parry Sound or Newton or Harrisonburg or Shipshewana or Walnut Creek. Urban people do the same things—go grocery shopping, volunteer at school, walk their dog, visit the library, help out with neighbourhood events, go out to eat, see plays and hear concerts, enroll their kids in swimming lessons. If we as Anabaptists believe in lifestyle evangelists—just go. But check out the demographics of more than the poor and needy. If God is truly no respecter of person, then the urbane, literate, middle class professionals are in as much need of Christ’s love as anyone. But if you are going to live in their neighbourhoods (because let’s face it—the best way to get to know someone is through their kid or dog), you need to be able to afford it. This means having a profession that is transferable to a urban centre and being socially fluid.
We like to talk about how Jesus hung out to the poor and marginalized. But Matthew was a tax collector and Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy. Imagine being friends with the policy wonks, decision-makers, financial investors and cultural creators of our times!
Then, in a final reply to the idea that the poor are often more open to the gospel (which I would argue is almost certainly true, on average), she added this:
…People who are not in desperate socio-economic straits are not open to the gospel? Using that logic, most of Mennonite-land should be impervious.
Ouch. And probably truer than we like to think.
Street-corner evangelism certainly has its place. Many have come to Christ through such efforts. But I would suggest that most are unlikely to respond to Christ unless they experience a meaningful, ongoing sharing of life with Christian friends. Why should we limit our city mission efforts to “hit-and-run” approaches?
And most of us are somewhat poorly prepared to win people to Christ. We may understand the gospel well enough (see my next point, however). But to be an effective “gospel-er” we also need to understand our audience. Consider how Paul adjusted his message to his audiences.
I still do not consider myself an effective evangelist. But I do know that I have a better grasp today than I did in my youth of how a secular, post-Christian mind can tend to think. How did I grow in understanding? By spending time around secular minds. When I was in university (or college, as they say here in the U.S.), it took me about three years before I felt that I understood my classmates and professors well enough to start writing a Christian opinion column in the student paper.
Some are faster learners than me. And even after three years I’m not sure how effective I was. But my basic point remains: Growth in my understanding took time—long, daily time spent with unbelievers. (Ask any cross-cultural missionary.) And if I had never moved to the city for school, I would never have debated Freud, traced Islamic history, analyzed Milton, read Genesis, tiptoed through feminist assumptions, debated homosexuality, and laughed in the hall with my new postmodern friends.
Such educational cross-cultural relationships can be formed almost anywhere, if you try hard enough. But they are almost unavoidable in most cities. What an opportunity!
Cities can help you understand the gospel better and experience it more fully. Nothing makes you appreciate a homegrown tomato like eating the cardboard imitation found in your local supermarket! Similarly, meeting people from other world religions can help you see the unique vitality of the Christian gospel. Wrestling with heresy helped the early church identify orthodox belief more precisely. Engaging thoughtful non-Christians today can help us do the same.
Being surrounded by undeniable, unavoidable needs can help you focus on the core message of the gospel, with its power to save. Well-manicured hands are nice, but when a patient arrives with a heart attack, you aren’t going to reach for your nail clippers. And when you are helping youth escape the sensual tentacles of mass youth media, you might not worry too much about whether they become skilled at singing four-part choral music.
Both Christians and unbelievers from other cultures can push us to do a better job of distinguishing between our cultural traditions and gospel traditions. (“I don’t see that in the Bible!”) Diversity within the church can give us a sense of proportion about the little things that sometimes divide us. (Fact: Most Christians have never given a moment’s thought to questions about how big your beard should be or whether you should wear covering strings.) As we ponder together how we can best meet the needs of our communities, the differences that otherwise might divide are sometimes revealed to be assets, turning the local church into a veritable Swiss Army knife of multifaceted strengths.
Diversity in the church gives all sorts of opportunity for growth in character.For example, some Caribbean cultures might think Germanic Mennonites are too quiet. Why don’t we show more zeal in worship? How can they tell what we are really thinking about them and their ideas when we hide our disagreement behind so much polite silence? And they might find us disrespectful. Why don’t we wear ties to their funerals? Why do we walk right past our elders at church without greeting them (even if they are in the middle of a conversation)?
So, who is right—Germanic Mennonites or Dominican Christians? Both! Or neither! But seeing ourselves through someone else’s eyes is informative, and learning to love each other is a challenge that can cause us to lean harder on the gospel. And if you lean hard enough, your shame of the gospel will evaporate when you discover, like Paul, that the gospel has the power to bring people of all cultures together as one in Christ (Rom. 1:16-17; Eph. 2-3).
Culturally homogenous churches [churches where everyone shares the same culture] are adept at targeting and attracting a certain type of person and creating a strong group identity. However, attendees at such churches are at a higher risk for creating the overly simplistic and divisive Right Christian and Wrong Christian labels that dangerously lead to inaccurate perceptions of other Christians as well as hostility and conflict. What often begins as an effective and culturally specific way to reach people for Christ ends up stifling their growth as disciples. Perhaps this is because we often fail to make a distinction between evangelism and discipleship. People can meet God within their cultural context but in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the incarnation and on the cross. Discipleship is crosscultural. When we meet Jesus around people who are just like us and then continue to follow Jesus with people who are just like us, we stifle our growth in Christ and open ourselves up to a world of division. However, when we’re rubbing elbows in Christian fellowship with people who are different from us, we can learn from each other and grow more like Christ. Like iron sharpens iron.
For this reason, I believe that churches and Christian organizations should strive for cultural diversity. Regardless of ethnic demographics, every community is multicultural when one considers the various cultures of age, gender, economic status, education level, political orientation and so on. Further, every church should fully utilize the multifaceted cultural diversity within itself, express the diversity of its local community, expertly welcome the other, embrace all who are members of the body of Christ and intentionally collaborate with different churches or organizations in order to impact the kingdom. And churches situated in multiethnic communities… should absolutely be ethnically diverse. (pp. 21-22, bold added)
Let me share an hypothesis: I suggest that conservative Anabaptists risk becoming increasingly ingrown, divisive, and ineffective in missions unless more of us experience the sort of cross-cultural challenges that urban living offers.
In closing, let me repeat some advice to myself: When you do move to an urban setting, bear the gospel, yes, but go as a listener and a humble learner.
Let’s face it: All this rightfully-urgent talk about urban missions can be perverted by our pride. Among some of us, urban ministry has given us not only a sense of urgency but also a sense of superiority. For many who have cut their rural umbilical cords, urban ministry is cool (substitute the latest relevant slang). We may forget that rural and small-town living are also honorable.
We may also overestimate our preparedness for urban living and ministry. For some hard-hitting warnings to white wanna-be urban missionaries, read Christena Cleveland’s article “Urban Church Planting Plantations.” Here is the burden of her words:
So much of the urban church planting I’ve seen simply replicates and extends the power inequities between whites and people of color that were cemented years ago on plantations… I’m amazed at how quickly majority-culture pastors with no urban ministry experience acquire a passion for urban ministry and then automatically assume that they are qualified for the job… This privileged perspective on urban church planting undermines the unity of the body of Christ. If each part of the body has a unique perspective, gift and role to play, then we need to recognize that we’re not equipped to do every type of ministry and humbly collaborate with the parts that are better equipped.
Ouch. Read her whole article. Be humbled. But don’t give up on the city. Just go with a renewed determination to be a learner—a disciple-maker who is first a disciple.
I know I will have a lot to learn when we move to Atlanta. One thing I hope to learn is how Anabaptists can better participate in Christ-centered racial reconciliation. Though our heritage has unique gifts to bring to this work, most of us are either pretty ignorant or pretty ineffective. Too many of us are still happily colorblind, which is a problem, as my friend Lowell Herschberger explains. We have much to learn.
I need the city, so do other conservative Anabaptists, and so do you.
This is the end of my series called “Why Should You Care about Cities?” Much more could—and should—be said. And I’m aware that some of what I said could be misunderstood. I have spoken strongly, and I have made some generalizations. But what will it take to engage God’s people to respond to one of the greatest challenges of our time—the rise of global cities with their multi-ethnic, multi-need populations?
Rest assured:If you don’t go to the city, the city will come to you. It is already coming. It is coming in the form of your news media, the designs of your consumer products, your college-trained bankers and doctors, the teachers and curricula in your local public school, your construction products, your farm commodity prices, government regulations, the election of your next president, your Amazon orders, your cell phone apps, your Internet signal, and, hopefully soon, Dwight Gingrich Online.
Will we run to meet this Goliath? Or will we merely try to dodge his spear? Better, will we see the city as not only a giant to be slaughtered, but also a fertile field? Will we take a proactive approach to global urbanization? Or will we retreat behind ever-less-effective geographical and cultural walls?
It was in the world’s third-largest city (population c. 500,000) that Christ’s followers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). And it was to the largest city in the world (population c. 1,000,000) that Christ specifically sent his apostle to the Gentiles: “Take courage… you must testify also in Rome” (Acts 23:11). The big city just might be the most ideal habitat one could possibly imagine for a Christian.
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations in your nearest city!
Do you agree that more Anabaptists could benefit from urban living? What do you think we need to learn from the city? What should we learn about ourselves, our neighbors, and the gospel itself? Share your observations in the comments below.And thanks for reading!
“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 don’t have much Scripture for this sermon.” The speaker was a visiting minister and his topic was Beachys, culture, and tradition. As I recall, his main question for the evening was this: should Beachy-Amish churches retain their cultural traditions as a way to help pass on the faith to the next generation?
The confession came perhaps 5 minutes into sermon. Unfortunately, it was true. The speaker briefly cited only about three Scripture passages that were vaguely related to his topic. (One, if I recall correctly, was Deuteronomy 6:6-9. More on that later.)
But the confession, however true, didn’t result in any change of behavior. The speaker continued for another 30 or 45 minutes, filling the time mostly with his own rationalizations about the usefulness of retaining traditions as they were. For example, traditions help a congregation run more smoothly and efficiently, so that everyone knows exactly what is supposed to happen. I, being new to Beachys and fresh from a multicultural congregation in New York City, found my mind quickly supplying counter-rationalizations for each of the speaker’s points. For example, unexplained and entrenched traditions might make things run smoothly for those who have always been part of the group, but they can be quite confusing for newcomers. In the absence of relevant Scripture, the sermon became for me a contest of human reasoning.
When I arrived home after the service, it didn’t take me long to fill nearly a page with typed notes about New Testament passages discussing culture and tradition. (Here are my notes, lightly modified after the fact. I’ll discuss some of the same content in my posts here.) The problem, I concluded, was two-fold: On the one hand, the NT passages about tradition and culture didn’t say what the speaker wanted them to say. On the other hand, he also missed a lot of things the Bible doessay about passing on the faith to the next generation. In my notes I wrote, “Thesis: The New Testament is not concerned with preserving cultural traditions… However, a topic that is emphasized in the NT is cultural incarnation: giving up our own culture for the gospel’s sake.”
Story two: The scene was a panel discussion at the Anabaptist Identity Conference. Under the mysterious title “The Turtle Wins” (given the previous talk, I expected the discussion to be about the benefits of organic farming!), the main speakers for AIC 2015 spent most of the time discussing Anabaptist traditions and culture. Many of their words circled around a knotty problem: The same church traditions that seem to help groups like the Amish retain cohesion and oncoming generations also seem to be hurdles for seekers who would wish to join. What to do about our traditions? (Here is my friend Arthur Sido’s reflection on the problem as discussed by the panel.)
Questions, stories, and sociological observations all added to an interesting conversation. But near the end—too late for me to submit a question to the panel—I suddenly realized that I couldn’t remember whether any Scripture had been cited. Perhaps I had missed some passing reference, but clearly Scripture wasn’t framing the evening’s discussion. Didn’t Scripture say a few things about this question? Why weren’t we turning there for answers? I hastily prepared a question based on 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, but was only able to raise it after the service with one panel member and a few fellow audience members.
Story three: This time Scripture was clearly present. In fact, the sermon was designed to be an expositional sermon. The text was Matthew 15, and I think it was read in full near the beginning of the sermon. So far, very good.
And there were a lot of other good things in the sermon, too. Yet half way through I started to become uncomfortable, and by the end this is what I felt: Much of the sermon (a quarter? a third?) had not been based on the text at all. In fact, a major concern of the speaker was to say what he thought the text did not say: Despite Jesus’ warnings against the traditions of the elders, not all tradition was bad. In fact, tradition can be very good and important, and we should not be too quick too discard our traditions.
Now, as I have summarized my recollections here, these statements are true. But they were not based at all on the text of the sermon. More importantly, by the end of the sermon I did not feel that we had been made to feel the heavy weight of Jesus’ strong warning. I did not feel we had been asked to take a hard look at our religious traditions to see if any of them are keeping us from obeying the word of God. The speaker had not let Scripture speak clearly into our lives.
(For my own attempt to preach the same account, from the parallel passage in Mark 7, see these sermon notes.)
If I had a better memory I could tell more stories. But these are enough for me to make an observation: conservative Anabaptists don’t always listen to Scripture very well when they think about religious traditions and culture.
Alternatives to Listening Well to Scripture
What do we often do instead of listening well to Scripture? Here are four approaches I’ve heard:
1. Selectively or inaccurately cite Scripture to support our traditions. Often this involves pulling OT passages out of their literary and covenantal contexts. For example, sometimes Deuteronomy 6:6-9 is cited. True, this passage shows the timeless importance of parents teaching their children. However, much of the content of this teaching is very different under the new covenant than under the old Mosaic covenant. Under the old, parents were to teach their children not only timeless ethics but also divinely-commanded cultural practices such as avoiding unclean foods and marrying only fellow Israelites. Under the new, parents are to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4), something that can happen within many diverse cultural traditions, even multicultural ones. Another OT passage I’ve heard used out of context in this way is Jeremiah 15. (See here for more.) Even more obviously questionable is how Psalm 133:2 has been used to support the wearing of beards. And does Numbers 15 really provide any more basis for us mandating uniform attire as a means of reminding us we are God’s people (Num. 15:37-40) than it does for us mandating the death penalty for those who break the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36)?
2. Selectively or inaccurately cite history to support our traditions. For example, how many of us have heard something similar to these words from a Mennonite article published in 1957:
It has never been known that a church denomination has maintained simplicity of dress according to Bible standards for any length of time without the church prescribing what that dress shall be. This is simply a fact of history.1
If by “church prescribing what that dress shall be” was meant a church issuing general warnings against worldly clothing practices or even prohibitions of specific clothing styles, then perhaps the statement would be true. But the article was claiming historical evidence for a more rigorous approach: “the best way to help our members to maintain Bible modesty in dress is for the church to prescribe a form.”2 In actual historical fact, however, some streams of the Mennonite church (unlike the Amish) had maintained an emphasis on simplicity of dress for about three and a half centuries without teaching uniform attire. Here is historian Melvin Gingerich’s analysis, from Mennonite Attire through Four Centuries:
Centuries of persecution of their Anabaptist forefathers had convinced the Mennonites that an unfriendly society around them had different standards from their own… To be the salt of the earth required the maintenance of strict standards and high ideals in all areas of life, including the clothes they wore. The people of God were to be a separate people that could be distinguished from those conforming their lives to the standards of secularism. They therefore believed that a Christian should look different from the non-Christian. This conviction was held deeply even by those Mennonites who did not dress uniformly.
When the language barrier [German] was surrendered and geographic isolation was lost [urbanization], a final effort was made to strengthen the third separation device, that of simple dress… This simplicity was to conservative Mennonites the final citadel which must be held at all cost. It is this image and fear which explains in a large part the series of conference regulations of the first four decades of the twentieth century. A uniform costume was pleaded for, demanded, and ruled on by conference action. Detailed descriptions of plain costume were made part of conference regulations, in contrast to a simplicity earlier maintained largely through tradition.3
Gingerich summarizes the practice of “Mennonites in most times and places” like this:
They wished to avoid legalism and thus were reluctant to endorse detailed regulations. By stressing the life of humility and naming the articles of clothing and decorations that they believed violated biblical principles of simplicity, they often became a “plain” people rather than the “gay” people. Living in communities, they came to regard certain items of clothing as conservative without any attempt being made to prescribe by church edict the exact costume or garb that must be worn.4
It is easy to underestimate the challenges that Mennonite conference leaders faced in the early twentieth century. I do not want to hastily condemn them. The clothing culture in society around them (even among Christians) was on a rapid descent into godlessness and sensuality, creating new challenges for church leaders. However, I do want to point out the historical sleight of hand in that 1957 article: A history of simple clothing traditions and warnings against ostentation was re-read as being a history of prescribed uniform attire. But the two are not the same. In fact, they are very different.
Perhaps a better lesson to learn from our vantage point in history is that regulations about uniform attire will not produce the same spiritual fruit as a voluntary “natural” participation in a simple clothing culture. The force of tradition is often more powerful than the force of law, and adopting the latter when the former begins to be questioned is a dubious solution, a stop-gap measure likely to raise societal pressure until a cork blows somewhere. (And are either regulated costumes or cultural norms really Christian means for achieving Christian behavior? Don’t we usually question attempts to Christianize people by either legal codes or behavior modification via culturalization?)
Other examples of selective historical citation could be shared, but must wait for another time.
3. Cite recent Christian authors who discuss culture and tradition. All truth is God’s truth, so we should willingly learn truth no matter where we find it. But sometimes we perceive truth when a careful biblical comparison would reveal that it isn’t actually there. And sometimes we become so preoccupied with searching for truth in extra-biblical places that we forget to mine the Scriptures for wisdom.
Mennonites looking for truth about tradition and culture read a variety of authors. For example, some who want to hang onto conservative Anabaptist church traditions listen to thinkers such as Cory Anderson, who draws on his training in sociology to discuss culture and change in conservative Anabaptist churches. (Anderson has “a Ph.D. in rural sociology” and his research has focused on “the social structure and social change of the plain Anabaptists, with a particular emphasis on the Amish-Mennonites.”) Thus Anderson uses sociological observations to “build… a rational case” (his words) that the head covering should do much more than what is described in 1 Corinthians 11. It should be a distinctive religious symbol (not merely a hair covering) that ties the wearer into a recognized historical religious tradition (Anabaptism), thus preserving a wide range of religious values, not merely the headship truths that Paul presented. (Listen to these talks to hear more. Please tell me if my memory of Anderson’s emphases is incorrect.) Now, I agree, as best as I can understand Scripture, that the headship veiling is for today, and that it should be taught in our churches. But with Anderson’s approach I can’t help wondering: Are we becoming more exciting about sociological methods for culture-building than about obedience to Scripture and the Christ of Scripture?
Others who are less bound to preserving recent Anabaptist traditions might read elsewhere. Those with a similar separatist vision might affirm the Benedict Option recently popularized by Rod Dreher. In this view, Christians should withdraw from an increasingly hostile surrounding culture and transmit a robust Christian subculture across the generations within their own communities, much as monks preserved Christian intellectual and moral life in monastaries through the European Dark Ages. Other readers prefer authors such as Richard Niebuhr (Christ and Culture), Andy Crouch (Culture Making), or James Davidson Hunter (To Change the World).
Please don’t misunderstand me. While I have not read these particular books (just summaries and reflections from other readers), I certainly do affirm the value of reading widely. And while some of these books appear to be based significantly on sociology, philosophy, or other fields of study, some do wrestle earnestly and productively with Scripture. My concern is not that people are reading such books, but that some readers may not be investing equal energy in searching for themselves what Scripture has to say about tradition and culture. Are we as excited about tracing what the apostles thought about Christianity, tradition, and culture as we are about debating the views of thought-shapers such as Francis Schaeffer, Jerry Falwell, Bill Gothard, N.T. Wright, Albert Mohler, Shane Claiborne, Stanley Hauerwas, or Timothy Keller? Who is referenced more in your writing or preaching: Paul or your favorite Christian culture maker/analyst/prophet?
4. Selectively cite Scripture to reject any positive role for tradition. This is a parallel but opposite error to the first I listed. The temptation is huge. There are many examples today of religious traditions hindering people from obeying the word of God. It is easy to spot “Pharisees” in our pulpits and pews—people who demand external conformity to religious traditions but appear unable or unwilling to address matters of the heart. And it is easy to conclude that the word “tradition” is entirely negative, even evil. But mere rejection of tradition is a dead end street. It will not build a church, let alone Christ’s Church. It is only right about what is wrong, but it fails to replace harmful ideas about tradition with a positive NT vision for tradition. It still fails to listen closely to the whole counsel of Scripture about tradition. I’ll stop right now, because I plan to discuss these ideas more in the sequel to this post.
So those are four things we sometimes do instead of listening carefully to Scripture. I’m sure you could add more.
What the NT Says Negatively about Tradition
To finish this post about “bad examples,” I’d like to do a quick U-turn and summarize what the NT says negatively about tradition. In order to simplify a complex topic, I’m going to zero in on just those NT texts that actually use the word tradition(s) in English translations. I’ll keep this survey short because many of us are already familiar with what I’d like to share. But I’ll include this survey because I’m not sure all of us have felt the full weight of these Scriptural warnings.
The words tradition or traditions are found fourteen times in the ESV Bible. In eleven of those fourteen occurrences, the word is used negatively:
1. Matthew 17 and Mark 7. Perhaps the most important NT account about tradition-gone-bad is Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees about “the tradition of the elders.” The central critique that Jesus launches against the Pharisees in this account is that their traditions were preventing them from obeying the word of God. Loyalty to the Corban tradition, for instance, was preventing them from obeying the command for children to honor their parents.
It is important to remember that the traditions of the elders were not random rules made up out of thin air. Rather, they were originally designed to be clarifications, applications, or expansions of commands already found in the Law of Moses. But these traditions had taken on a life of their own until it was considered equally essential to obey the “oral law” as the “written law.” And any time we act as if our applications of Scripture are as important as what Scripture itself teaches, we “make void the word of God” (Mark 7:13).
Please note that we can do this without speaking a single word against God’s word. The mere act of treating man’s word as weightily as God’s word is blasphemy against God’s word, a de facto demotion of God to the status of man.
Here are three tests to see whether we have exalted our traditions and applications too highly:
a. Does our application of one of God’s commands hinder us from obeying any other of God’s direct commands?Examples: Does an expectation that all church members give financial support to a church school (application of biblical commands to train our children) hinder us from obeying the command to love our neighbor as ourselves (especially the poor)? Does the practice of having self-supporting ministry (application of command that elders not serve for shameful gain) hinder us from obeying the command that those who preach the gospel must be financially supported, and the command that elders must work hard at caring for the needs of the church? Does a highly programmed service order (application of the command to do all things decently and in order) hinder us from obeying biblical teaching about allowing each person to bring “a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (1 Cor 14:26)?
b. Are we more grieved when others disregard our traditions than when we dishonor God’s word?Examples: Which bothers me more—When my brother fails to bow and pray before his meal or when I grumble about the food in front of me? When my brother worships God while playing his guitar or when I daydream about my new vehicle all through the worship service? When a single mother works part-time as a nurse, leaving her children with a babysitter, or when I fail to help support her and her family?
c. Do we find it hard to clearly distinguish between our applications and God’s direct commands?Examples: Which of the following are applications, and which direct Scriptural commands? Converts must complete instruction class before being baptized. We must not drink alcohol. We must not smoke. We must not vote. We must not own TVs. Weddings must be held in churches, with an ordained minister leading. Women must not wear pants. Men must not wear skirts. Answer: They are all applications (or, perhaps for one or two, deduced implications).
2. Galatians 1:14. This is Paul’s testimony of being a good Pharisee: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” Paul is referring here to the same traditions critiqued by Jesus in Matthew 15. There these traditions were shown to be contrary to the word of God. Here they are shown to be contrary to the church of God (Gal. 1:13), the grace of God (Gal. 1:15), and the Son of God (Gal. 1:16). Those who are most zealous for religious traditions may also be those who preach another gospel and oppress the church.
3. Colossians 2:8. Here Paul issues a warning: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Context and Greek vocabulary both suggest that “human tradition” here could perhaps be another reference to the traditions of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, but that is debated among scholars. Later in the same section of Colossians Paul gets more specific:
…Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath... Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind…
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”…—according to human precepts and teachings?These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (From Col. 2:16-23.)
In this passage we can see at least two problems with human religious traditions. First, they don’t do anything to stop us from sinning. Second, and most important, they detract from the sufficiency of Christ. Paul presents a clear contrast: You can walk in the human traditions you may have received, or “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (Col. 2:6). Notice that “received” is the language of tradition, of something being passed on from leaders to followers. Only one tradition can save those who receive it—the tradition of Jesus as Christ and Lord.
The above passages (Matt. 15, Mark 7, Gal. 1, Col. 2) account for all eleven times that the word tradition(s) is used negatively in the ESV Bible. In all but one of those cases the underlying Greek word is παράδοσις (paradosis), a word referring to a teaching or tradition that is handed over. In the other case (Mark 7:4) tradition helps translate a phrase that refers to receiving and keeping something handed down.
The KJV and NKJV use tradition in one more passage:
…You were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. (1 Pet. 1:18-19, NKJV)
Here the phrase refers to a way of life inherited from one’s ancestors. Commentator Karen H. Jobes explains:
The πατροπαραδότος (patroparadotos, ancestral way of life) was esteemed and venerated as the basis of a stable society in both Greek and Jewish culture. First Peter is probably the first Christian writing to use the word in a negative sense for one’s way of life before coming to Christ… The ancestral way of life, though appearing to offer a venerable reality, is precisely that from which one has been redeemed when given new birth into the only true reality established by the resurrection of Christ.5
A central theme of this passage is Peter’s urgent call to holy living. How is holy living to be achieved? Not through the “futile ways inherited from your forefathers” (ESV), Peter writes, but through Christ. In context, then, these futile traditions include anything that detracts from Christ—an emphasis similar to Colossians 2. Christ has redeemed us from the futility of trying to achieve holiness through adherence to human traditions. Praises to our Savior!
These passages make it clear that tradition is usually used in a negative sense in the NT. The evidence is overwhelming: Again and again we see tradition is opposed to the word of God, to grace, to the church, to our own holiness and salvation, and to Christ.
Is there really any room left for a positive vision for tradition? Well, we still have three instances of tradition to account for in the ESV NT. God willing, I’ll use them in a forthcoming post as the launching pad to talk about “good examples” of tradition. Listening well to the Scriptures demands that we hear the whole biblical story and not just that aspect of tradition (pro or con) that fits most comfortably with our personal stories.
It’s your turn. Have you experienced similar examples of how we listen poorly to what Scripture says about tradition? What authorities do you hear us relying on when we turn from Scripture to other voices? How would you summarize the Bible’s critique of tradition-gone-bad?Share your insights in the comments below.
Pastoral Messenger (Scottdale, Pa.), July 1957, pp. 7-8. Article signed by J.P.G. (J. Paul Graybill). Emphasis added. Cited by Melvin Gingerich, Mennonite Attire through Four Centuries (Breinigsville, PA: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1970; dist. by Herald Press), p. 102. ↩