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Perpetuating Traditionalism

American society finds itself in the midst of a rapid number of changes. Tolerance for anything and everything (except for biblical standards) has replaced an appreciation for basic morality. The reemergence of socialistic thought among millennials is challenging the long-held principles of free market capitalism in the halls of government. The principle tenets upon which the country was founded, enshrined in the Constitution, have found themselves strangers in their own land. In response some have revolted. While appeals to the Constitution do appear sporadically, many simply want to return to the familiar rather than to the Constitutional. If pressed on well-established matters that nonetheless defy the Constitution as written, these traditionalists would rather compromise than stand on principle. In other words, they actually use themselves and their own experience for their standard rather than the Constitution. 

Not surprisingly, the same pattern has emerged in the church. Christians upset over the degree of moral and doctrinal compromises made in some congregations over the years now call for a halt to its progress, when they accepted it for years. They simply reached their personal limit. And this is the real problem. Christians have held fast on the basis of tradition far more than on the basis of scripture. This subtle problem develops due to people accepting positions on doctrine from the pulpit and from practice without ever committing it to principle. The same people who cite the principle of silence and the principle of exclusion regarding instrumental music in the assembly may hedge on that same principle when applied to other matters not so firmly ingrained in tradition. This is the heart of the problem.

As long as we operate on the basis of congregational precedent rather than scriptural precept, we have signed our own death warrant as a people. The only question is how long it will take to die. After Job received a strong rebuke from Zophar on the basis of the traditional thought of the day “Job answered and said: ‘No doubt you are the people, And wisdom will die with you! But I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you. Indeed, who does not know such things as these?’ ‘I am one mocked by his friends, Who called on God, and He answered him, The just and blameless who is ridiculed’” (Job 12:1-4). Job was confused by his own traditionalism. The facts did not match his assumptions, but he did not yet appreciate why. Rather than investigate the information Job provided, his friends chose to mock him for his confusion. This is an all too common situation today for many.

However, the answer that some propose is to break entirely with former practices in a type of cleansing process typical of the overly zealous but underinformed. The first step is to distinguish between tradition and scripture. But the next step is to recognize the difference between tradition that conforms to scripture and tradition that defies scripture. If we treat these as equal, we delegitimize our own motives by insisting on change when there is nothing to be gained. This has the side effect of causing people to hunker down in tradition rather than to listen to the scriptures. Why do people do this? Because they are projecting their own doubts, fears, and confusion onto everyone else, ultimately making themselves the standard by which change should be measured. And so we are back to square one.

In reality, those who protect every tradition and those who attack every tradition are two sides of the same coin. One is focused on the past and the other on the future. What both need to do is begin by focusing on the scriptures as the foundation for every decision, by making changes that have both scriptural backing and wisdom in purpose, and by respecting one another in the process. I would think that everyone recognized Jesus’ call for unity (John 17:21-23) as fundamental to the cause of Christ, but it is time to make this a central principle to our thought process (Col. 3:15). Insisting people change something that is scriptural just because you prefer something different is not a unifying behavior. Rejecting change that is scriptural just because it is not what you have always done is not a unifying behavior either.

Brethren, you do not protect Christianity by perpetuating traditionalism nor do you advance Christianity by attacking traditional practices that are scriptural. You protect and advance the cause of Christ by returning to the scriptures, working actively to change unscriptural thoughts and practices, working patiently to help people understand the difference between scripture and tradition, and working diligently to show people love throughout it all. If you do not have the knowledge, the patience, the diligence, and the love to do so, perhaps you should begin working on improving yourself spiritually before giving advice to the rest of the church.

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