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Tag Archives: church tradition
We celebrated Memorial Day this week, and it got me thinking about the value of ceremony and tradition. depending on your background, it may be critically important, or not at all important. I think of it most often in the context of the church, since, sad to say, that’s where we most often fight over it. Churches I grew up in expressed disdain for tradition, failing to realize how much of it they retained or that they had simply replaced the ones they so despised with different ones. Anyone who dares suggest that the old ones were better is labeled as a Pharisee, or an “old wineskin.”
As for me, I ask the same questions I try to ask about everything. What does God want? Does it accomplish anything? Of course, if the first answer is that God values it, then the second is yes, though we may not always be able to see the purpose in it.
Does God value tradition and ceremony? When we read the Old Testament it would seem that He very much does. Then we read the New Testament and things seem to have radically changed. Is that so? If “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” what changed? It seems that the value of tradition in the Bible is only to lead us to Jesus. Paul said of the law, (the instructions to the Jews in the Old testament) that it is “”a “tutor to lead us to Christ.”
Yet the New Testament is not entirely devoid of ceremony and tradition. Two are generally recognized by the church, though the practices differ significantly between different groups. Paul indicates that there may be others at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 11, but I will focus on the two. The first is baptism, signifying the new believer’s burial and resurrection with and through Jesus into life as a new creature. By the way, one is not buried by sprinkling a little dirt over the body. This is obviously important, since it is part of the commandment that Jesus gave his disciples before going back to Heaven. He said, “…make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…”
just as we tend to do with everything else, we’ve developed all kinds of ideas on exactly how baptism should be done. Depending on the denomination, one may be sprinkled or dunked. Some say the name of Jesus must be used exclusively. Others say we must use the words “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” This hair splitting is done by pulling different snippets from the various accounts of baptism and instruction on baptism that can be found in the Bible.
It all misses the point. Looking back at the Old testament, we see that if God meant for a thing to be done a certain way, He knew how to be specific. He laid out design of the tabernacle, the implements and practice of sacrifice, the clothes the priests had to wear, what sacrifices were required in under what circumstances, and so on. There was no room for doubt or improvisation. In fact the slightest deviation from His specifications put one in danger of instant death. This served to illustrate His holiness and our inability to be in His presence without the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus. If he meant baptism to be a wrote ritual, would he not have laid it out in the same fine detail? I think so. God has always been more concerned with the motivations of the heart. The significance of baptism is the public commitment of the new believer to walk in the new life given to him by Jesus’ sacrifice.
So let’s move on to the second New Testament tradition. Depending on your background it may have been called communion, The Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist. We’ve gotten really crazy on this one. Again I think we totally miss the point. We’ve got it wrong on two counts. First, we have taken a simple meal shared among believers and turned it into a stilted ritual. 1 Corinthians 11 starting in verse 17 is a well-known warning against taking communion unworthily, but what we miss in this passage is that it was clearly a meal shared together. that leads me to the second thing, that we aught to be thinking of any meal we share with the same gravity we associate with our little ritual. I don’t see the ritual as a bad thing, but I think that by focusing on it as the fulfillment of Jesus’ command to “do this in remembrance of me” we miss the full scope of the instruction.
I’ve lumped ceremony and tradition together, but they are separate things that kind of overlap. It would be fair to say that what I’m really talking about today is more ceremony than tradition. Both have their place. I think my second question regarding what they accomplish must be answered case by case and even individual by individual.
If God gave them to us then they must have value, but what about the ones we invented? In our society, with the written word and other ways of capturing memories and instruction readily available to most anyone, their value as memory aids would seem to be reduced. Yet we seem to need them. In fact, eschewing them in many cases will be looked upon as an indicator of bad character. Since we just celebrated it, I’ll take up Memorial Day as an example. I’ve heard many lament the fact that most of us take the day off as an opportunity to cook out or hit the sales rather than a solemn remembrance of the soldiers who have given their lives to make us free. I’ll agree there is something to that. As a country we lack an appreciation for what we have and what it takes to keep it. We would do well to take time to remember these things and to personally thank the living families of those we have lost.
However, I was asking myself that second question on Monday. Linda had been talking about attending one of the memorial services in the area, and wanting to accommodate whatever she felt was necessary, I agreed to go. Privately I was thinking, “who will be any better off because we did this?” I suppose there is some value in standing with others, thereby affirming our support and sympathy, but I’m looking for some kind of practical benefit that I can offer. In the end, thinking of my difficulty standing in one place for long periods of time and Linda’s sensitivity to heat, we opted to visit a friend in the hospital instead. Serving a friend in need doesn’t’ seem like such a bad way to celebrate what we have been given. What do you think?
It’s my wife’s favorite pair of questions. They are good ones. They are on my mind this morning because I was in a meeting last night where we discussed how to help our church grow. My few readers may know that I’ve been reading books like Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church. While I am not completely convinced that some of Mr. Viola’s Biblical interpretations are correct, overall I find the message refreshing. I’ve recently read another book from a few years back, Organic Church by Neil Cole. It strengthens my conviction that our traditional church models are not likely to last. If our country keeps on the way it’s going, churches as we know them may be forced out of existence. We will be back to meeting in small home based churches whether we like it or not. I pray revival comes before we get to that point, but maybe that’s exactly what we need to draw us back to true devotion to Yahweh. In saying that I’m not implying that traditional church is the root of our problem. It may be considered a symptom.
What does all of this mean to us? Specifically, what is my response as a committed member of a body that despite some unique qualities is very much a traditional church? We talked about bringing in more people. We talked about ways to help the people we have to develop and mature. All of the time I am thinking, “what if what we need to do looks completely different than anything that has been done before?” Our pastor spoke of patience. That is certainly what we need, for if the radical transformation I anticipate is to happen, it will take time. It will take a willingness to work with people and circumstances as they are now, not as we wish they were. In fact I don’t know that we know what we wish they were? I think we probably have very different visions of what a successful ministry is going to look like.
I for one, though ready and willing to operate within the construct where God has placed us, have been dissatisfied with the same old thing for years. We do have an unusual mix of flavors in our church that appeals to me, but if we don’t keep adding to the mix it will quickly grow stale and unappetizing. If everything we did could be traced to a firm Biblical foundation, then I would say that we must proceed as we are out of obedience, but most of what we do is just a combination of tradition and personal preference. In that we are no different than any church I’ve ever been in, though each had its own strengths.
I hasten to add that I love our church and the people in it. I believe our mission is God given and will work in whatever capacity I am asked to see that mission accomplished. I’m only questioning the methods we will use in the future. I believe we will carry on. If the Lord doesn’t come back before then, I want to see the next generation take up the cause. My question is this: does the Bartimaeus Baptist Temple of 2020 look anything like the one we know and love today, or is it something we would even recognize? Is there a better way to reach people and families affected by disability than our traditional church models regardless of denominational affiliation are able to provide? I hope that by saying that I believe so I do not gravely offend those whom I hope to work with in building this future, but I feel it would be dishonest of me to say nothing of what’s going through my mind. It is my prayer that we grow in love and unity of purpose until God forges from this raw material something greater than any of us imagined.