Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Tradition Vs. Traditionalism Part 1

Thursday, 29.—I left London and in the evening expounded to a small company at Basingstoke, Saturday, 31. In the evening I reached Bristol and met Mr. Whitefield there. I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; I had been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church. (Journal of John Wesley, entry in March 1739)
In this rather humorous journal entry Wesley admits extreme reluctance to the thought of preaching outside. The prim and proper Anglican minister's scruple gives us an excellent opportunity to discuss a Church problem that has harassed us from the beginning, something I like to call tradition verses traditionalism.

Biblically speaking, the Greek word paradosis is used in the New Testament of both good and bad traditions. Paradosis means to give up or give over; it means to pass down instruction from one generation to another. For the sake of clarity, I use tradition to speak of good instruction verses bad traditionalism to speak of legalistic instruction.

For example, Paul could write such Scripture:
Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. (1Co 11.2 ESV)
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. (2Th 2.15 ESV)
I believe Paul is saying what Jude describes in another way:
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jud 1.3 ESV)
The New Testament, then, teaches that good Tradition is the same as The Faith. There is nothing wrong with this; in fact, we should be passing down The Faith to others.

However, the Door of Paradosis swings both ways. Jesus could condemn religious leaders who taught wrong tradition:
"Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 'Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.' He answered them, 'And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.' But you say, 'If anyone tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God, he need not honor his father.' So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: '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.'" (Mat 15.1-9 ESV)
This is a prime and horrific example of traditionalism. It is legalism and it is deadly to the move of the Spirit in the life of a person or a congregation. Let me describe four dangers of traditionalism.

1. Traditionalism wrongly can become just as authoritative as Scripture itself.

Traditionalism may mean well, but it can come to command as high a level of obedience as the Bible. That is tragic, because nothing else is to be given the respect and authority of Scripture, which Paul said was "breathed out by God" (2 Ti 3.16b ESV). If God wanted more rules in his Word he would have inserted them as the Bible was written.

2. Traditionalism is molded by people who are fallible.

This society honors people who are sincere; the sticking point comes when sincere people are sincerely wrong. My case in point involves a person I knew. He (a Gentile) felt that women should not wear pants. Evidently he came across Deuteronomy 22.5 which said that men and women were not allowed to swap clothes. However, that passage says nothing about the modern fashion industry making male and female pants! I think his interpretation went well beyond what was actually written or could be logically deduced!

When people take it upon themselves to get too specific with hard and fast rules on how to obey general principles of the Bible, they place themselves in the precarious position of wrongly burdening others. This is called "spiritual bondage," and it is no laughing matter.

3. Traditionalism frequently is inconsistent and illogical.

Remember my illustration of the man at the last point? Well, he didn't have any problem eating a ham sandwich, with was also against Mosaic Law (Lev 11.7)! He was inconsistent and illogical in his rules.

4. Traditionalism often breeds a spirit of pride and criticism.

There's a dirty little secret about those who toe the fine line of traditionalism: they often become proud of their obedience. You see, the more folks think they are walking the straight and narrow, the more they feel they are upholding the moral standards of past, nobler generations, the easier it is for them to pat themselves on the back. After all, they should feel proud of themselves for keeping such a difficult, unwritten list of do's and don'ts, right? Who do they become? Saints misguided by traditionalism.

There's another dirty little secret about those who toe the fine line: they often become judgmental of others who won't follow their rules. They believe that they have the right answers, and so it goes that anyone who doesn't agree with them is wrong. It's easy to begin judging his spirituality at that point. It becomes perniciously easy even to question his salvation...and all based on rules not found in Scripture!

Don't forget the uncomfortable illustration given by the Lord:
"To some people who were confident that they themselves were upright, but who scorned everybody else, He told the following story: 'Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee stood and said this self-centered prayer, 'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men, robbers, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast two days in the week. I pay a tithe on everything I get.' But the tax-collector stood at a distance and would not even lift his eyes to heaven, but continued to beat his breast, and say, 'O God, have mercy on me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man, and not the other, went back home forgiven and accepted by God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.'" (Luke 18.9-14)