Tradition in the NT (1): Bad Examples

[For the sequel to this post, see “Tradition in the NT (2): Good Examples.”]

“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 does say 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 [amazon text=Mennonite Attire through Four Centuries&asin=B000BW06WO]:

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).

(For extended reflection on this account, see my sermon notes for Mark 7.)

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 [amazon text=Karen H. Jobes&asin=0801026741] 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.

  1. 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.
  2. Ibid.. Emphasis added.
  3. Gingerich, Mennonite Attire, 148.
  4. Ibid., 157. Emphasis added.
  5. Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 118.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Save, print, email, or share this post:

25 thoughts on “Tradition in the NT (1): Bad Examples”

  1. I believe as far as traditions I am in some weird ‘other’ category. I love cultural tradition and would hate to see conservative Mennonites conform to the standards dictated by modern consumeristic media culture. At the same time, Paul, in his “be not conformed” (aka: nonconformity) was not making an argument for strangeness for the sake of strangeness and it seems not speaking of clothing at all.

    My issue with tradition is that it is not the same as faith. Many seem to believe falsely that their application of good standards, especially those established by a prior generation, will make them more righteous before God. But when the New Covenant talks of clothing, it speaks figuratively of the cover provided by the grace of God through Jesus and not some religious prescription passed by a prior generation.

    We must watch that our tradition always falls at the feet of the weightier matters of spiritual truth. The fighting and bickering over minutia all too common in our (conservative) churches is a sign of our worldliness that the plainest of fabrics could never hide. No, this does not mean we need to throw out cultural tradition, because that does nothing to address the problem of a carnal mind, but we need to put love ahead of prescription.

    I personally hope that conservative Mennonite tradition survives. I believe it is beautiful in its right place and, if accompanied by a genuine love of the Spirit, will not hinder our evangelism. However, the moment we turn this into a rigid set of rules to measure and judge each other from, then we are better without the tradition. It is not a matter of balance between having the Spirit and preserving our tradition, God’s word always gets prioritized first.

    1. Joel, there are areas where “balance” is an appropriate goal. But in areas of right and wrong, balance is a false goal. If we are trying to balance between “tradition” (culture) and the Holy Spirit/God’s word, then we are sadly mistaken – either we are under the authority of the Word or we are not.

      1. Right. My point, in case it was confusing, is that we do not attempt to balance tradition with God’s Spirit. The living God always gets prioritization over our own ideas of application, over our own interpretation and religion. We need to walk in the Spirit rather than conform to a standard. That said, I believe one could possibly both have riches of tradition and also have experienced God’s grace.

    2. Good thoughts, Joel. And I’m with you in that, if I am honest, there are many aspects of Mennonite culture that I miss (sooner or later) when I suddenly find myself immersed in a totally foreign culture.

      A general comment for all: I think it is important that we distinguish between (a) living within a culture and its traditions and (b) legislating that culture. The first is an inevitable part of being human, unless you are a refugee and an orphan in the most radical sense. The second can quickly turn into something that hinders the gospel.

  2. Tradition in the NT, as I see it, is condemned when it prevents people from obeying the word of God. So we could have a tradition that helps us apply one truth . . . while violating another! That would be a bad tradition that needs to be changed or discarded. Tradition is a servant, not a master, and in some/many conservative Mennonite/Amish circles one could point to traditions that are masters.

    “Does our application of one of God’s commands hinder us from obeying any other of God’s direct commands?” An excellent question, and the other two are useful as well I think.

    We shouldn’t think that just Mennonites and Amish have traditions. We will pick up traditions from the culture around us. Right now it appears that FIFA’s tradition of bribery and corruption is catching up to it and that is tied to soccer traditions that are worth a gazillion dollars (that’s an approximation). We are people of cultural practices, so the question is not so much, “will we have traditions?” but “what sort of traditions will we have?”

    We need to continually think biblically about these things. I’ve noticed the same thing you talk about at the beginning of your article – messages that are exercises in rationalization and appeals to authorities outside the Bible, supposedly in a good cause of supporting our tradition, even proclaiming doctrine that is sound Biblically, without showing the support. The end does not justify the means. We do not want to support a tradition that is “right” at the expense of thinking Biblically. We may not be all that different from liberal churches who preach about tangential things like animal rights, or even undermine the Bible – if we don’t use a scriptural foundation to rightly understand and support and build and transform tradition.

    This is a rather incoherent and dashed-off response . . . thanks for writing.

    1. Good thoughts, Roger. I agree on all fronts. (And it is essential to remember that every community has traditions; that mere fact is not a problem. And we must remember that even the most “liberal” of cultures can use social pressure to legislate their cultural rules.) Keep those “incoherent” comments coming. 🙂

  3. Wow. It is so good to see a leader of our churches addressing these issues in such a frank, gentle, scriptural manner, not being afraid of where the truth leads. I really hope this catches on.

    Regarding the above comments I’m a little like Joel, in that certain Anabaptist traditions feel pretty right. My standards of beauty and the rightness of certain things have been shaped by my upbringing, and I don’t suppose I’ll ever find another group that in certain areas makes as much sense to me. Beyond that there are things that we do correctly or Biblically that other people just don’t. I would agree that the traditions of American consumerism would be a pretty poor substitute for all this. The real question as I see it is this: Can we have both these traditions and Jesus, or at some point are we going to have to decide for one or the other? Paul talks about the tradition in which he was raised (Philippians 3:1-11), and ends up considering it “loss” and “dung.” (Try holding dung as a beautiful thing.) Perhaps our traditions have a place in a life of faith, but my belief is that we will not be able both to cling to these traditions as most of our churches do and love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. You just can’t do both.

    1. Thanks, Will. I agree: we have a cultural heritage that is rich in so many ways, shaped in many ways by the gospel. That is good! So we should not be ashamed of the good elements of our tradition. There is no need to jettison all our traditions. Rather, we should submit all–both the good and the bad–to Christ and the cause of the gospel. This means we wean ourselves from anything not in line with the gospel and then hold the good parts of our cultural heritage with an open hand. We should not “cling” to cultural practices that are not clearly biblical, but unless they impede the gospel (and sometimes they do without our awareness) we can enjoy them–just like we can enjoy blessings such as family and a home unless they impede the gospel. As I hope to clarify in my next post, not all traditions are “dung.”

      (Clarification: I am not currently an officially-designated “leader” in any church, though I did serve on the leadership team in NYC.)

  4. Um, I guess I’m going to be brave enough to ask about something that’s niggled at the back of my mind for a while. Is it totally my imagination, or does our tradition affect women more than men? For instance, the covered head for women is taught and practiced much more rigorously than the uncovered head for men. A family picture in which the men are wearing hats is “cute,” but if the women had their heads uncovered, it would be scandalous! Also, the men can buy their clothes at Walmart or Goodwill (and I am glad they can–I wouldn’t wish it any different!) while we ladies have to sew our clothes by a prescribed pattern. Even the spiritual roles of men and women puzzle me a bit. I am NOT advocating that women should be the leaders in the church! But are they really only good for serving on the food committee and sewing comforters for the poor? Not that those things are bad, at all, but I do wonder if the spiritual gifts of women are neglected at times, and women are pushed into traditional roles that don’t fit them all that well. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts sometime about how women fit into all this.

    1. “Does our tradition affect women more than men?” I think many people feel the answer is “yes.” I’ve heard many say that first-hand, and I’ve read it from people who were saying the same thing about 100 years ago. I think this is a problem, not only for women already in the church, but for those who have yet to join. Buying decent clothes is not easy for a godly woman today. But my wife is one who prefers that challenge to the challenge of sewing!

      And yes, I think we have room to grow in recognizing the gifts of our sisters and giving them space to serve. I understand Scripture to say that men and women have different roles in the church and the family, but sometimes we have over-reacted to feminist goals. Sometimes we haven’t even let them teach women! Beyond these brief words, I confess I haven’t studied this enough to know exactly where to “draw the line” regarding roles–and maybe we weren’t meant to always have a precise line, but a flexible honoring of rolls and callings?

  5. Maybe I should apologize for using the example of men wearing hats in pictures. I don’t know that that’s wrong; after all, they aren’t praying or prophesying in the picture are they? 🙂 I don’t mean to condemn anyone. My point was simply that I’ve felt we have a double standard for men and women in some cases.

    This past winter I decided to read through Paul’s letters 20 times. I was astounded at some of the things I read that I had never noticed before! For instance, I had never connected the verses in Col 2:20-23 with Col 3:1-4 before! This intense reading (I’m not finished!) is really the big thing that has been opening my eyes to new questions and ideas.

    Thanks for writing!

    1. Rosina, I understood your hat example, and I think it is a very fair one. But thanks for being sensitive.

      Well done. Reading Paul’s letters 20 times within several months! That is the kind of reading and meditating that will bring deeper and clearer understanding! 🙂 May God multiply your kind.

      Yes, the end of Colossians 2 and the beginning of Colossians 3 are closely connected. When we see this, other things become clear. For example, we can see that the “things that are on earth” that Colossians 4:2 tells us not to set our minds on involve not only the evil passions and actions of Colossians 4:5-9, but also any worldly attempts to control these fleshly indulgences–the human precepts and self-made religion of Colossians 3:20-23. Both earthly sins and earthly solutions for sin are to be rejected in favor of the heavenly life “in Christ”—a life that has as its starting point the fact that we have died (Col. 3:20) and risen (Col. 4:1) with Christ and are now “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” (Col. 4:12).

  6. This post is good and it brings a lot of scattered thoughts to mind. As I read, I was thinking that for me, a tradition must be a deeply personal thing in order for it not to be simply mandated or regulatory. What I mean is that a tradition or practice that I institute (or do as part of a group) must connect my spirit to Jesus or in some way help me to understand God better. As soon as I lose the foundational, core “why” of the tradition, it becomes a burden and a means of control. If our Mennonite traditions are simply meant to keep us separate and distinctive by looking differently, then we have lost the core “why” of the tradition.
    Jesus gave us the “tradition” of the Lord’s supper but how many times have I gone through it because this is what we do twice a year. Even if I do it simply because Jesus told me to do it, the power of this tradition to point me to my Savior is diminished, even though there is value in obedience.
    This is a good post. I would like to see our conservative churches being intentionally biblical in our approach to traditions even if that means we have to change or even *gasp* scrap some of them!

  7. Dwight, I think one reason we struggle with the traditional elements in the conservative churches is that while we’re uncomfortable with the “merely cultural” elements, the general godliness among them is undeniable.

    1. Steve, I think you have a valuable point. I have been deeply blessed and challenged by many aspects of godliness (generosity, persistence, patience, zeal, etc.) by many in what we might call “conservative churches.” The fact that I have some significant differences in understanding about ecclesiology and the role of tradition does not mean I want to belittle the godliness that I do see. On the other hand, however, neither do I want my admiration of such things prevent me from being honest about what Scripture says about the church. This does leave us “struggling” as we discuss such matters.

      Thanks for the comment.

  8. Dwight,
    In my lifetime there seems to have been a shift from integrity to loyalty. You express my thoughts this way –

    “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. ”

    There were Biblical teachings/traditions (such as modesty) in our culture. They were not codified but were honored as Biblical aspects of our Anabaptist culture. Applications were not always prescribed but we generally observed the principles as important.

    There has been an increasing emphasis on loyalty. ISTM that in a weakening culture of principles we have turned to a codified practice of specifics that demand loyalty. Can this be sustained? How did we lose the concept of Biblical principles? Where do we go from here?

    This is one of the pressing question for us today. Could it work to teach Bible and expect the rising generations to make the Biblical applications in their times? Can we do that? Are our churches doing that? Are our schools doing that? Who can do that?

    What are your thoughts?

    1. Frank, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      I’ve read your ruminations about loyalty and integrity in the past, on your blog, and I agree. I wish I had a solution that would guarantee godly churches, but I don’t. Some thoughts:

      Each church age has its primary challenges. If I’d generalize on how those challenges have changed for Anabaptists recently, it might sound a bit like this. The last 100 years of the Western church has seen a rapid erosion of moral values in the general culture. In the past half-century or so this cultural erosion has entered the Mennonite church–some groups earlier, some only in the past generation or so. In the time of J.S. Coffman (100 years ago), the general problem seemed to be that Mennonites were doing a lot of good things but had forgotten why. They were doing what they were doing largely because they lived in a culture that did those kind of good things (both their Mennonite culture and often the surrounding “Christian” culture). But when the cultural motivation for good morals began to erode, cultural values could not be relied upon to bolster Christian behaviors. This was a new age with a new challenge, one not to be scoffed at.

      The solution that the Fundamentalists provided was to legislate with increasing specificity, largely freezing in time what used to be the assumed cultural norms. This did result in Christian behaviors for many, but it led to new challenges: an increasing number of people rebelling against church rules. (The Amish scene is a bit different, since they have retained a greater measure of cultural isolation, so that cultural norms play a stronger role in shaping behaviors.) So a primary challenge for today is the discovery that neither cultural norms nor church rules are working well to preserve Christian behavior.

      On the positive side, I’d like to suggest that the current conservative Anabaptist church scene provides great opportunity: It should help us recall that neither cultural norms nor legislation are particularly gospel-ish or Christian ways of promoting good behavior. This should drive us back to the Scriptures to ask how the apostles approached personal and communal sanctification in the first century, in an age where cultural norms were equally unreliable supports for godliness.

      You ask, “Could it work to teach Bible and expect the rising generations to make the Biblical applications in their times?” My answer, as best as I understand things presently, would be to say “yes, but without cutting off rising generations from the counsel of their elders.” In other words, I think that (a) younger generations need the wisdom of the elders in discerning Scriptural implications for their day, and (b) the elders need to show great(er!) wisdom in zeroing in on gospel priorities so that preservation and change each find their proper, Christ-centered place.

      One observation that powerfully shaped the way I think about these questions is the observation that Paul “failed” to find a way to ensure the long-term success of the churches he planted. He predicted the coming of “fierce wolves” that would “draw away the disciples after them,” and in the face of such dangers he committed the churches “to God and to the word of his grace” (Acts 20:28-32). He did not suggest that the churches should establish their own sub-culture that would ensure transmission of godliness, nor did he suggest that they develop long lists of rules that would somehow prevent this falling away. (And neither work well when the primary danger is predicted to some from within the church.) Then if we look at the seven churches in Revelation, we notice that many were started either by Paul or by those under his teaching. Yet most of them were in deep trouble only about a generation after their founding. I have concluded from such observations that we should not imagine that we can come up with a solution for long-term church health that is better than Paul’s solution. We need to focus on passing on the “tradition” of the gospel message—all the work of God through Christ, past, present, and future—and entrust our churches to this.

      Those are my thoughts, and I welcome responses and further enlightenment. Thanks again for your comment.

      1. Thanks Dwight – I appreciate your insightful study and writing. Thanks for your thoughtful response. Blessings as you continue. Our generation needs your input.

        1. Thank you, Frank. Your prayers and insights are always most welcome. If every joint does its part (Eph. 4, perhaps suggesting by “joint” not merely a body part but the interaction between parts), then we can help the church of Christ grow in maturity in our generation, leaving an example for the future.

      2. Dwight, what do you think is the driving force behind legislation–in particular, making rules to ensure the spiritual success of coming generations?

        My observation is that it often stems from fear and manifests as control–which causes a whole lot of damage.

        What you said about Paul’s approach looks more like trust in God’s care and provision for the future of the church! How exciting! Isn’t this what God really wants from His followers?

        1. Louisa, I think there is truth to your observation about fear being a motivator. Of course, there is also a godly fear of sin and sinning, and there is plenty of reason to shudder and weep over how sin is infiltrating our churches in this season. So I don’t want to belittle the desire to awaken and preserve holiness in our churches. But when our fear leads us to look for solutions other than those provided by the gospel of Christ, then, yes, we will see damage. I agree that we need to learn more deeply what it means to “not be ashamed of the gospel”—to not be ashamed precisely for the reason that we are convinced it (alone) is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

          Thanks for the comment!

  9. Dwight–You selectively isolated (took out of context) one “confession” of my presentation to support your own position. You did what your post is supposedly against. So, then, how do you operate any differently than what you accuse others of?

    Are you setting a higher standard for others than yourself? Do you spend your whole day quoting Scripture passages for every conversation? Or is anything outside the realm of needing Bible-cited proofs through the course of conversation?

    The deception of the modern day “Bible-only” movement (characteristic of your post) is that while it puts on a front of Biblicism, it fails to grapple with modern day issues that are nonetheless matters of sin. In so doing, it actually makes a license for sins under the rationale that such-and-such is not verbatim addressed in the Bible. Bible-only licenses for sin, which the written Word of God hardly sanctions. This position also assumes the Bible is the sole source of God’s Word, when God’s Word is imparted from several sources, including the Church. By isolating the Word of God to only the Bible, the Church is weakened, as is the Christian’s ability therefore to identify and reject present day sins that may not have a clear “Thus saith the Lord” from Scripture. The motivation for the “Bible only” camp is not a higher regard for the Bible but a desire to move away from strict discipline in holiness coming from the church.

    That said, it is consistently the more “traditional” churches that use the most Scripture in sermons and less “traditional” churches that are fine with a few snipped passages that fail to be substantive. To me, the strong Scripture emphasis of Bible-trumpeters is more rhetoric than actuality, a numbing agent so the reality of actually moving away from devote holiness never really sinks in.

    1. Cory, thank you for taking time to read my post. As a fellow author, I am sure you know what it is to appreciate when you are read.

      I confess, however, that I disagree with a significant part of what you wrote here. (For example, my experiences of churches that emphasize tradition versus churches that emphasize the Bible has been that the latter are equally eager to maintain holiness, just more aware of the biblical warnings against not only subtracting from the Bible but also against adding to it. I have also heard stronger exposition of longer Scripture passages in such churches. Another example: I do not believe that an approach that emphasizes the Bible means that you are only able to address sins that are verbatim addressed in the Bible. This is a hyper-literalism that is contrary to Scripture itself, which models teaching by principle.) However, I am not sure this is a profitable place to discuss our disagreements further. Perhaps we will find a private place to discuss this sometime?

      I do want to be sure that I have characterized your position accurately, however. You say that I took you out of context. I did limit my quote to a few words, but I also honestly attempted to accurately summarize your beliefs about what function the veiling should fulfill. For example, I said that you:
      – use sociological observations
      – believe the covering should do more than what is described in 1 Corinthians 11
      – believe the covering should be a distinctive religious symbol
      – believe the covering should tie the wearer into a recognized historical religious tradition

      If any of these points are not accurate, I would value if you provided a balancing summary of your beliefs.

      Thank you, and may God bless your week.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.