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  • Writer's picturesonnyholmes

Resisting traditionalism

It may be just another one of the word games church people, including spiritual leaders, like to play. There's really nothing like quibbling when we want to make a point or score one for our team. Still, the distinction between tradition and traditionalism is worth noting. You know the axiom: tradition is the living faith of the dead, and traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. It's a little loose and like most cliches' it's a slick sounding admixture of truth, hyperbole, and personal bias. Even when spoken in such a light manner you get the picture. Tradition isn't the bad boy that junks up faith or church. Traditionalism, the over-playing of traditions for unworthy motives, perhaps is. it's also a mine-field for pastors and spiritual leaders. Tampering with the rituals and established norms of church life may be a dangerous no-no zone. Most of the time, though, they are ministry junk you better handle.

Scripture never downplays tradition. There is the distinction between the traditions of men, human perquisites, and those established by God. Jesus contrasted the well- established practices of ancient Judaism, grounded in the law and Word of God, with those perversions authorized by human authority and outside the limits of Jewish law. His criticism of tradition was usually a condemnation of their ritualistic human twists designed to satisfy their legalistic expectations rather than the spirit of the law instituted by God. When he was questioned about his disciples failure to wash their hands ritualistically before eating, Jesus challenged them with, "Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?" (Matthew 15:3). He wasn't authorizing disobedience to God's commands. He was calling their traditions into question, which is traditionalism, according to the simple axiom mentioned above.

The Apostle Paul referred to his teaching as traditions entrusted to the churches that he expected to be maintained. They would have been considered Apostolic traditions to be preserved rather than legal requirements for the churches. Notes to the Corinthian, Colossian, and Thessalonian churches advised them to maintain, stand firm around, and uphold the traditions that he had taught them. So, once again, we must note that the traditions of the Apostles and those included in the teaching of Paul were never considered in a negative light. His word to the Colossians was very clear in this regard---"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" (Colossians 2:8). The traditions of Christ were to be honored and reverenced by the body of believers.

So, what is the ministry junk involving traditionalism. Someone has defined it more formally as unwritten laws that are over, above, and often against the Word of God. In church they are often the rules of common practice that define church life and governance. Mark 7 Jesus provides clear guidance in dealing with traditionalism. Several clear points are made----

1. Traditionalism can be a source of hypocrisy (Mark 7:6-7).

And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

2. Traditionalism can nullify the Word of God (Mark 7:8-13).

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)]—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

3. Traditionalism produces and promotes false spirituality (Mark 7:14-23).

And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

OK, be specific. What are they? Honestly, every church is different and the junk that clutters church life varies. The five traditionalisms that were most troubling to me were (1) buildings, (2) budgets, (3) business, (4) by-laws, and (5) bulletins. But, they might have been just bothersome to me.

The thing is, traditionalism can accomplish those three trouble areas and more. They can be ministry junk no one wants to handle, but should.

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