Exploring the dangers and delights of congregationally unified practice
The Tradition Problem
In my previous article, I laid out a spiritual culture of sorts, based on a collective pursuit of God, that I consider the foundation of congregational development. No congregation will succeed that does not build on that foundation. But in the real world, many things don’t fit neatly into spiritual categories. How should a congregation process these things? We all live them, inevitably. And in the process, a sort of practical culture arises. We try to respect each other, and we do things similarly to each other. Then we begin to recommend those things to each other. That is to say, we develop traditions.
Many Christians, even those of quite conservative varieties, are uncomfortable talking about traditions. Let’s look at a few reasons why this might be the case.
Perhaps we once belonged, or still belong, to a church that holds its traditions above the truth. Many conservative churches hold their traditions high as conditions of membership. For example, one cannot (in theory at least) be Amish and own an automobile. Some Amish might even claim that those who drive automobiles are outside the kingdom of God. At the same time, many of these people don’t seem to take some of God’s actual commands very seriously—the Great Commission, for example. When we aren’t the ones wrongly prioritizing our preferences, we are often quick to judge: “Teaching for doctrines the commandments of men!”
Perhaps we’ve been ostracized by others who seemed to value their traditions above their relationships with us. They may have been members of our congregation, relatives, or other traditionalist Christians in the area. All we wanted was to relate pleasantly with them; but when they found out about the music we listen to, or that one author we like, or our recent vacation, they wanted nothing to do with us. If they’re so much better than we are, can they not interact positively with others who haven’t “made it” in the same way? After all, anyone who says he loves God must also love his brother.
Finally, we may have been embarrassingly unable to defend our own homely practices to inquisitive or hostile outsiders. “Does your wife have a job?” “Why don’t you watch TV?” “What’s up with the funny clothes?” Many of us dread these questions, yet we still fail to prepare good answers to them. Instead, we lower our eyes and mumble something about the way we’ve always done it. Wouldn’t it be easier to limit our traditions to plain Biblical commands?
All of these situations are frustrating, and any one of them can be tragic. Yet does a tradition become invalid simply because, when wrongly held, it can warp our understanding of God and His kingdom? Surely that potential doesn’t invalidate all tradition. In this article, I’m going to argue that we can’t escape forming a practical culture of congregational traditions. Because traditions are inevitable, we ought to be mindful of the traditions we form, and we should cultivate those that will keep us true to our mission as the church of Jesus Christ.
The Language of Action
Many of us aren’t used to thinking in these terms of necessity. Isn’t it a little presumptuous to argue that we can’t live together without forming traditions? I don’t think so.
Genesis 11 tells the story of a large group of people (apparently most or all of the post-Flood human race) who attempt to build a tower that will reach heaven. God stops their work by giving them new languages which are mutually incomprehensible. It’s easy to see how an inability to speak to one another would muddle the processes on a construction site with only four or five builders, let alone thousands. Yet when we carelessly denigrate and eliminate traditions, we can work similar confusion.
In his recent book Beyond Order, Jordan Peterson explains that we need other people to keep us sane. Of course, it’s not hard to imagine that we would quickly become unmotivated and depressed if we lived in absolute isolation. Yet there’s more to living in human society than simply the presence of other rational, communicative beings. We mutually create a sort of framework by which to operate our shared existence. In Peterson’s words, “Compliance with those indications and reminders [of our shared values and expectations] is, in large measure, sanity itself.”
In order to act rationally, we need to understand at least some of the consequences of our actions—but if we always needed to figure these consequences out for ourselves, we would be paralyzed by our constant uncertainty. Our world has time-sensitive needs, and we need to be able to work together with each other to solve them. Thus, we need this mutual framework as a kind of non-verbal language that enables us to relate our actions in much the same way that we relate our ideas with ordinary speech. It’s not just ethical problems but also merely practical decisions that demand these coherent solutions.
Where does such a framework originate? If we have a common point of origin, it will grow organically with time. That is, we ought to understand each other better and better as we live and work together. As Christians, we must all have one common denominator by which to shape our experiences: the Holy Spirit who is present in each of our lives. In my last article, I explored how our congregations can grow spiritually when we ground our mutual life in the Spirit. But it doesn’t stop there. As we spend time with each other, our common experiences, even practical experiences, will grow, and positive traditions will develop.
A Memorial Forever
I’m definitely not arguing that we should cultivate all traditions just because tradition can be a good thing. I’m simply recognizing that congregational traditions will inevitably arise as we live and work together. Fighting the concept of tradition is a bad idea because without it, we would be unable to understand each other. Instead, I believe that our congregations should work to develop a culture based on those traditions that help us build each other up.
As I mentioned in my last article, many Christians distrust the idea of developing congregational culture. Shouldn’t we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us? Why, yes. But I repeat: the Holy Spirit uses the hands, feet, and mouths of our fellow members. He has given us the authority—and the responsibility—to both encourage and rebuke each other in our words and deeds. And it makes sense that there are words and deeds we can cultivate that are particularly valuable in this regard. Things that, while they may be inconsequential in themselves, prepare us to be edified.
I’d like to look at another Old Testament story to shed a little light on how we can use our traditions to help each other. In the book of Joshua, God miraculously allowed the wandering Israelites to cross a raging Jordan River on dry ground. This moment was very significant in Israel’s history. This was the beginning of the conquest of the Promised Land. It was also a symbolic reiteration of the Red Sea crossing, which was Israel’s deliverance from slavery. After forty years in the wilderness, this day was a stunning confirmation both to Joshua and to the people that God was still fighting for them. At the end of the day, however, the Israelites faced an important concluding task.
When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’” Then Joshua called the twelve men from the people of Israel, whom he had appointed, a man from each tribe. And Joshua said to them, . . . “When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord . . . So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever” (from Joshua 4:1-7 ESV).
What were these stones for? Were they to be useful to the conquest in some way? Were they to build a fortress in which to store armaments or to hide the most vulnerable among the people? Were they to build a new city in the Promised Land? Surely they were for an altar on which to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving. But no, the stones Joshua’s men carried from the bed of the Jordan had no practical value in themselves. They were no more than ordinary rocks. The Bible doesn’t tell us their size, but it’s unlikely that they were very large, as a single man carried each one.
In fact, the value of the stones lay precisely in their lack of practicality. Joshua had them set up in a prominent place so that people would see them for years to come. He had the stones set up so that people would ask, “What on earth are those stones for?” Then those who knew the story would have the opportunity to tell the others about God’s goodness.
This story is about traditions. Many of the practices the word “tradition” brings to mind are of little profit in themselves. They come from various sources (it’s interesting that a man from each tribe was asked to bring a stone for the memorial), and perhaps they don’t even fit together well. They tend to draw people’s attention, and they seem meant to bring on awkward questions. But if we who know are prepared to answer those questions, we can often use our traditions to bring focus back to God.
So far, I’ve kept this discussion fairly broad, and that’s intentional; I believe that it is the concept of tradition itself, rather than a particular set of traditions, that lends itself to practical culture. But there are some kinds of traditions that are more likely to help congregations mature together.
Some congregational traditions are directly geared toward helping members think alike (which is a Scriptural command—see Philippians 3:12-17). Highly structured or liturgical services are one example of this. Perhaps the congregation always sings certain songs or prays certain prayers together at specific places in the service or at special times of the year. Or the members may be encouraged to read the same passage of Scripture during the week and, ideally, discuss it when they meet.
Other traditions help develop practical culture by encouraging members to become better acquainted with one another. A congregation may share regular meals (at my church, it was once a month before covid) or have other scheduled or spontaneous times of fellowship. It should encourage its members to work and play together on their own time as well.
A third kind of tradition is one that helps to protect the congregation from temptation in the community around it. Probably our congregation dress in a different way than societal norms would predict. Perhaps we choose to limit our intake of books, music, or other media. We may suggest that certain styles of houses or cars are unsuitable for us. Most of these things are not wrong in themselves. However, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:23, the freedom to do something doesn’t automatically make that thing helpful or upbuilding in every circumstance. We should form traditions that protect both our individual and collective weak points.
These last traditions are by nature the most visible, and they tend to control our discussion of tradition in general. We have an unfortunate tendency either to venerate or to despise them, but the right approach is usually somewhere in the middle. We dare not lift up our traditions to the authority of Scripture or suggest that they determine the level of our personal relationships with God. Yet we must also resist the urge to thoughtlessly brush aside traditions we find personally distasteful. It’s often the case that seemingly meaningless traditions arose out of real needs which may still be present.
But what about those traditions that seem to hurt more than they help? At the beginning of this article, I mentioned several ways in which traditions can be mishandled, and there are undoubtedly traditions that are difficult to handle properly and thus unwise to preserve. Besides, people change; a congregation may grow and decide that a tradition here or there needs to be updated, replaced, or simply discarded. Alternatively, if some members plant a new congregation, they should expect that some of their cherished traditions will no longer be appropriate in their new setting.
A strong practical culture needs to include a mechanism for discarding traditions that are no longer useful. This doesn’t have to be difficult if the distinction between spiritual necessities and practical aids is kept clear. Our calling to “glorify God in the body” does not change, but the best ways of fulfilling that calling may vary over time. If we are mutually grounded in the Spirit, we should trust him to reveal the directions in which we need to grow. After all, our traditions cannot lead us into new truths; the best they can do is protect the progress we’ve already made.
How do we decide which traditions to keep? G. K. Chesterton answers this question well in his 1929 book The Thing by likening tradition to a fence. If we come across the fence and don’t know the reason it was built, our instinctive response will likely be, “Tear it down!” But we may be ignorant, for example, of the giant creatures that are contained inside the fence. Very few fences are put up for no reason, after all. Yes, sometimes fences (and traditions) ought to be torn down; we simply need to do our homework and make sure that the reasons for their existence are no longer valid.
One aspect of this discussion deserves more particular attention. As a congregation’s culture becomes thicker, it may become more difficult for outsiders to join. Does this difficulty work against our task of bringing the gospel to every creature? I hope to address this question in my next article.
In the meantime: how have you benefited from practical traditions?