If John Henry Newman was correct when he said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant,” then I grew up in churches that were in absolutely no danger of ceasing to be Protestant. We were ahistorical, but not due to a simple lack of education. Instead, we rejected any claims that we were shaped by our history. It was just us and our Bibles (and a Strong’s Concordance).
Of course, things were not as clean-cut as that. We studied issues that were in no way relevant for our little congregation. For example, I remember a discussion on whether churches could use money from their treasuries to support parachurch missions organizations. Our church was broke, so that wasn’t a live decision for us. But it was an issue because our church was invested in the historical disagreements among the Churches of Christ. Furthermore, we just accepted that true churches would use the name “church of Christ” as a part of their name since it was biblical. But “Church of God” appears much more frequently than that, so why not use “Church of God” instead? No one could give me an answer, but the unspoken answer was that that was how we’d always done it.
But our church consciously rejected the notion that we had traditions, were affected by church history, or were influenced by church leaders from bygone days.
Influenced By Tradition
It should be clear from what I just wrote, I don’t think that my churches were free from traditions or uninfluenced by history. We had traditions and we were influenced by our history. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s normal for groups of people to be so influenced.
Unlike the churches I grew up in, I think it is both inevitable and a good thing for churches to be influenced by its traditions and its history. The people who have gone before made choices that, in general, they thought reflected Biblical teachings. We should respect that and not be so suspicious of it that we wholesale reject what they pass on to us. What has been passed on to us over the decades and centuries before us contains much wisdom.
Yes. We have to amend and revise some traditions and counteract some influences. But that doesn’t mean we should reject all tradition and historical influence. There is a vast logical space between acknowledging that some portion of tradition might be wrong and the complete rejection of all tradition. In other words, we should reject bad tradition, not all tradition. (Notice that, for instance, Jesus didn’t reject of when to stand and when to sit when reading and expounding Scriptures in the synagogues.)
Two Ways of Rejecting Tradition
grew up in the conservative Churches of Christ. As I explained above, we denyed that we had any tradition. But when I came to college, I met a class of Christians I had never spent much time around: progressives from among our churches. Progressives freely admitted that our churches had traditions and had been influenced by our history. In this, as should now be obvious, they departed from my childhood churches.
They recognized the traditions and historical influences, unlike more conservative churches. But like conservative churches, they had a disdain for tradition and historical influences. The fact that something was a merely historical influence or simply a tradition was sufficient reasons to reject them.
I was recently reading a selection from Dr. Jeff Childers’s The Crux of the Matter. Childers explains that there are two ways that you can mistakenly reject tradition.
First, you can pretend that your traditions do not exist. This is like the churches I grew up with. But you can also reject tradition in the second way: you can pretend that tradition should not exist1. Both are equally bad, honestly.
Both are too dismissive. Both are too cynical. But, most importantly, both fail to honor those who have gone before them and to recognize how God has been at work in the many generations preceding us. No, they were not perfect. Yes, mistakes were made. But we can still see the evidence of God’s work in the traditions that influence us.
Furthermore, we need to recognize that the wisdom and practices passed down to us have a logic and helpfulness that aren’t immediately seen. We should be slow to reject the traditions passed on to us, because in our haste we might reject helpful and godly practices.
So, while still admitting that tradition can be bad and being vigilant about our own traditions and historical influences, let’s recognize and respect the traditions we have.
1. Both of these statements are taken from Jeff Childers, The Crux of the Matter, p. 59.
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