#3: Testing Tradition
I had a great lunch the other day. Tried some Thai food for the first time and really enjoyed it. Talked about life and during the conversation the topic of traditions came up. I’m not referring to things like “family game night” or going to church on Easter Sunday. I’m referring to the kind of traditions that guide the way some people live their lives. They’re the kind of things that may have began with good intentions but ultimately supplanted Scripture’s teaching on the matter (or took it further than Scripture prescribes) and in the end only tightened the chains on those who were supposed to be free.
I live in the middle of Georgia. One of the big traditions of the church in the southeast is the prohibition of alcohol (at least in the Baptist denomination, which is my background). It’s not as bad as it has been, but it still affects many in the church today. It began with good intentions but it took Scripture further than Scripture actually goes. Is drunkenness a sin? Yes. Is consuming alcohol in moderation (without becoming drunk) a sin? No. So in order to make sure that people do not become enslaved to the sin of drunkenness, people decided to promote prohibition of alcohol, which, over time, became a tradition that said, 'alcohol is sin'. Another issue is worship music. Once again, it’s not as bad as it has ever been, but you can still find the mindset that pins any contemporary music down as wrong (not based on content, but based on the fact that it’s new and different). Then there’s the small torch carried by those who herald the King James version of the Bible as the only infallible, inerrant Bible available (“If the King ain’t on it, the King ain’t in it!”). All of these things have one very similar problem: they lack clear substantiation from Scripture and, in many cases, reason.
Now I must be clear about the direction of this post: I’m not about to discuss each individual tradition available for us to scrutinize. That wouldn’t address the real problem that these traditions are symptoms of. I would rather take the approach of teaching one how to fish. Specifically, I want to point you to the place where you are going to find the all important fish—the Bible.
Many have simply stopped thinking. For some people, asking the question, “why?”, is off limits—“Don’t break the system!”. Beginning with “why” is a fine place to start. It breaks the ground that, when worked, yields understanding. But for those in the church, we have been looking like the problem that sparked the beginning of the Reformation in the 16th century. We’ve conditioned ourselves to simply absorb content from the "professionals" without taking care to actually check their conclusion with God’s Word. The big differences between society today and the pre-Reformation Church is:
The Catholic Church had restricted the translation of Scripture into common dialect for regular people to read for themselves. The Bible was read in the church in a foreign tongue (latin) and whatever the priest told you it said, is what you had to believe was true. There was far less opportunity to go the source of what was being taught and to check its truthfulness.
The literacy level of the common person was typically very low.
So the big difference is this: they didn’t know any better because, in many cases, they couldn’t; the resources were not as available to them. Many in our congregations across the U.S. don’t know any better because they won’t—we’re lazy. We’ve got plenty of usable, understandable resources at our disposal for knowing our Lord and His counsel but we simply ignore them and take the easy way out—we trust what we hear without checking it against the standard.
If the people of God want to seek true unity and clarity in our world, we must practice one simple discipline: read, trust, and apply the fully sufficient truth of God’s Word. As the reformed church of the 16th century would say, “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone!). This is an understanding that comes from Scripture (c.f. 2 Tim. 3.16-17; Matt. 4.4; 2 Pet 1.3-4). Don’t be lazy. Intellectual laziness will lead to more chains than freedom. There is freedom in knowing what God has said. When we unite around the Word of God, the issues of sexual identity, racism, and other injustices find their resolution. Because, if we are truly submitting to Scripture together, then we understand that regardless of race we are the people of God. Sexual identity issues need no debate because the Lord has spoken clearly about it, and the verdict is the need for grace, truth, and repentance—just like with any other sin. We don’t have to create the standard for faith and practice, because God graciously gave us one—the Bible. Read it. Trust it. Grow by it. Start thinking. Don’t chain someone up for something that God will not. Read the Bible and SUBMIT to it.