Well, it’s no surprise: The topic of church standards and traditions gets conservative Anabaptists fired up like little else. My recent posts about Gerhard Roosen’s critique of Amish clothing rules, Frank Reed’s warning about cultural idolatry, and David Bercot’s testimony about cultural hurdles for spiritual seekers are already sitting at 1st, 3rd, and 6th place, respectively, on my list of most-visited blog posts.
Evidently many of you feel that Roosen, Reed, and Bercot are onto something important, whether or not you agree with everything they said or with everything about how I framed their thoughts. Evidently many of you agree we need the reminder to keep church traditions subservient to Scripture. But where do we go from here?
I have no illusions that I can answer this question sufficiently or to everyone’s satisfaction. And I am in no position to specify exactly when or how your church should flex its traditions and standards on a particular point such as regulation suit coats or beards. But I do feel some responsibility, after having helped raise the issue of problems with church traditions, to suggest some further guidance. So in this post I want to suggest some basic realities and values to keep in mind as we wrestle with particular questions of tradition and change. And in an upcoming post I hope to examine some of what the New Testament says about the positive role of tradition.
Before I begin: One voice I would love to hear more from on the topic of Anabaptist tradition and change is John Coblentz. In the past I have valued his calm and thoughtful voice, and I think he has more reflective wisdom on this topic up his sleeve. I pray God will nudge him to share it, if doing so would indeed be helpful. (As I reference John, I want to clarify that I’m not claiming he agrees with what I’m writing here.)
My fundamental point in this post is captured in this sentence I’ve heard John say:
I wish we could be intentional about change and not just about preservation.
As John has elaborated, we conservative Anabaptists have thought about how to preserve, but we also need to think about how to change. And, what is more, we need to learn to do both without seeing them in contradiction.
With that in mind, here are some suggestions to bear in mind as we think intentionally about tradition and change in our churches:
1. It is easier to tear down than to build, but tearing down is insufficient. It is easier to be an iconoclast than to build a cathedral, let alone a healthy local church or network of churches. Any fool can grumble about too many church rules. But only a wise man understands the real reasons why too many cultural regulations are a problem, and only divine Holy Spirit guidance can lead a church to make positive changes that build up every member of the body.
In Luke 11:24-26, Jesus warns what will happen to a person who is freed from a demon but does not align themselves with Jesus: The demon will return along with “seven other spirits more evil than itself,” and “the last state of that person is worse than the first.” I think we can make an argument here from greater to lesser. If removing even demons is pointless and dangerous on its own, how much more pointless will it be to content ourselves with taking pot shots at church rules. Removing even harmful church rules will not, by itself, draw a single person closer to Christ. [Update: I clarify this statement in my next post.] We must set our hearts on Christ, not on personal freedoms. Only Christ-ward change will bring deeper life to our churches.
2. The dynamics that are making some conservative Anabaptists dissatisfied with regulated traditions are not likely to go away. Conservative Anabaptist youth vary widely in how satisfied they are with the traditional religious culture they have inherited from parents and grandparents. In a recent conversation I overheard, one young lady said she would be quick to leave her church if only there were an attractive alternative available nearby. But her friend from the same church replied that she was basically satisfied with their church as it was. She would want only a few small changes.
At a 2014 Faith Builders inter-generational colloquy on challenges facing the conservative Anabaptist church, I was somewhat surprised to hear how many younger men were content to retain many of our traditional religious forms and regulations—as long as we do a much better job of acknowledging which ones are merely cultural rather than directly biblical. That said, at the same forum we discussed how modern developments are fundamentally changing the way we experience church—developments such as electronic communications, national and global travel, missions experiences, the religious blogosphere, the explosion in Christian publishing and our access to it, multiple Bible translations, increasing involvement in higher education, and more. The combined effect of such developments is that, for many youth and “not-so-youth,” their local church with its cultural traditions is seen, often rightly so, as just one of many possible ways that faithful Christians have followed Christ.
These developments are unlikely to disappear any time soon. One result of these developments is a conclusion that was strongly affirmed by all generations at the Faith Builders colloquy: merely providing Scriptural proof-texts in support of Anabaptist cultural traditions is no longer satisfactory (if it ever was). It is becoming increasingly obvious to all that there are many faithful cultural expressions of the same Bible teachings, and proof-texting alone is not sufficient proof for why an individual should choose the particularly Anabaptist traditional expression of a given teaching.
In sum, the question of what to do with our traditional church cultures is not going away. Leaders who stick their heads in the sand after reading the concerns of Bercot and Reed are likely to find their flock is restless or scattered when they finally come up for air. (Hello? Do sheep stick their heads in the sand? What’s that? Ostriches run in flocks, too, you say? But since when is the church of Christ compared to a flock of ostriches? And don’t you know that the preferred term for a group of ostriches is a pride? Just what are you insinuating, sir? You’re confusing me, Mr. Gingrich!)
In other words, this is a time for intentional change, not only intentional preservation.
3. Changes in surrounding cultures make changes in church culture unavoidable. We need to be very clear here in our thinking. The choice is not between change versus no change. The choice is rather in what kind of change we will experience.
What do I mean by this? I draw this point from my observation of church history. On the one hand, we have Anabaptist groups that have changed obviously, in outward ways, such as adopting motorized vehicles or dropping prayer veilings. On the other hand, we have groups such as the Old Order Amish or Mennonites who appear to most casual observers to have changed very little over the past century. But how have they remained “unchanged”? By changing their lists of church rules, expanding and adapting them to address new social and technological developments from without.
As J. Gordon Melton summarizes regarding the Amish, “the number of distinctives multiplied as new innovations in the larger culture were one by one rejected.” And Melton summarizes Mennonite American history like this:
Given the relatively free atmosphere in the United States, and the large number of issues that were continually pressing upon the Mennonites as they attempted to define themselves as a people apart, it is not surprising that the movement splintered into a number of separate factions. Given the relatively small size of the total Mennonite community (which numbers only several hundred thousand), it is the most splintered segment of American Christianity.”1
This, too, is change—a change that results in churches becoming increasingly distinct from both surrounding culture and each other not only on matters of biblical principle, but on myriad other matters as well.
So, just as questioning of Anabaptist cultural traditions is inevitable (point 2), so also change is inevitable. The challenge, again, is to be intentional and wise about change. Do you want an ever-growing list of rules? Or a list of consistent length but evolving content, so that your church follows twenty years behind the surrounding culture? Or do you want a change from a list of rules to a focus on other means of achieving church cohesion and holiness? Or some mix of the above? All options involve change.
Again, this is a time for intentional change, not only intentional preservation.
4. Change rarely happens neatly or uniformly, so we should extend grace for Christ-centered, Scripture-bounded diversity. What issues do you think conservative Anabaptists today should change or preserve? Now think back to yourself ten or twenty years ago. How would you have answered that question then? Differently? If so, how would you have liked the twenty-years-ago you to be treated by the now-you? Here’s my point: Most of us experience changes in our understandings about Bible and church over time, and none of experience exactly the same changes at exactly the same times. Therefore, let us extend grace.
I am happy to count as my brothers and sisters all who are in Christ, all who are relying on his grace for salvation and all who are seeking to follow him within the bounds of the guidance of Scripture. Do any of us rely on grace perfectly or identify the bounds of Scripture perfectly? No. And are there some who claim to rely on Christ and honor Scripture who do not actually do so? Yes! But I am convinced that many within a wide range of conservative Anabaptist churches, for example, do so sufficiently, that is sufficiently to be part of the true church of Christ. (And many, I hasten to add, who are not Anabaptists; but I’m speaking here to my main readership.)
Could every one of our churches change in ways that would better honor Christ and reflect the guidance of Scripture? Absolutely! And may we do so, lest our candlesticks be removed (Rev. 2-3)! And meanwhile, may our mutual exhortations continue with both zeal and gracious patience.
This point, of course, is also an argument for embracing more cultural diversity in our inter-church relationships and, where possible, within our congregations. Rather than monitoring all our intra- and inter-church relationships by rules on matters of divergent opinion, we should learn to welcome each other as we have been welcomed by Christ (Romans 14:1-15:7).
Again, two quotes from John Coblentz can help us here. (1) For those of us who are impatient to see urgently needed changes in church standards, we can remember what those who resist change may be aware of: “Even good changes have losses.” (2) And for those of us who are inclined to draw our lines of regulation and association too narrowly, may we learn to say, “I have purposed to rejoice in Jesus wherever I see him.”
Finally, as we still disagree on some important though secondary matters, may Christ find us working together as Paul hoped to find the Philippian believers: living lives “worthy of the gospel of Christ” and “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27).
Much more could be said, but this is enough for now. Even as I urge some patience above, I want to reaffirm my agreement with the concerns raised by Roosen, Reed, and Bercot. I long for our churches to be more fully and obviously centered on Christ, dependent on the Holy Spirit, and guided by Scripture. To the extent that our churches are not each of these, there will be eternal loss: we will fail to meet the needs of generations who are hungry for authenticity and timeless truth. By God’s grace, I’ll share in a coming post some ideas about how we can gain a more Scriptural understanding of the role of tradition in church life and spiritual formation.
How would you add to this post? What do you think we should remember in order to think intentionally and wisely about tradition and change? Share your insights in the comments below.
- J. Gordon Melton, Nelson’s Guide to Denominations (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 248, 249-50. ↩