28 August 2018

Tradition: Customs which (should) help us follow Jesus.

TRADITION /trə'dɪ.ʃən/ n. Beliefs and customs passed down from generation to generation.
[Traditional /trə'dɪ.ʃən.əl/ adj.]
CHRISTIAN TRADITION /'krɪs.ʃcən trə'dɪ.ʃən/ n. Someone other than the Holy Spirit, or something other than the bible, which taught you Christianity.

The first time we were introduced to Jesus, for most of us it wasn’t a personal introduction. He didn’t appear to us personally, like he did Stephen or Paul or Ananias.

Nope. We learned of him secondhand, through other Christians—parents, relatives, friends, evangelists, preachers, writers, and so on. We interacted with those other Christians, heard their stories, heard of their own God-experiences, put our faith in these people, and followed the Jesus they shared with us till we eventually had our own experiences of him. (You have had your own experiences, right? I would hope so.)

But despite those personal experiences we’ve had of Jesus, most of the things we still think, believe, and practice as Christians, aren’t based on those personal God-experiences. They’re based on what our fellow Christians did and do. We go to church, see how our fellow Christians worship Jesus, and do as they do. Or we read some book about ways to worship Jesus, and do as the book suggests. Or we hear about some Christian practice, think, “I wanna try that,” and try that.

We draw from the collective experience of the Christians we know. It’s called tradition.

Yeah, there are plenty of people who are anti-tradition. Many of them are irreligious, but a number of ’em aren’t happy with the traditions they grew up with, so they’re trying to figure out better ways to follow Jesus. Which is fine if they’re authentically following Jesus! It’s just a lot of times they’re not. And a lot of other times, they’re anti-tradition because they were taught tradition is dead religion. Which it can be, and can become.

But every Christian follows one tradition or another. Because tradition isn’t just the dead doctrines of formal churches. Tradition is Mom and Dad, who taught you to pray and read your bible. Tradition is Sunday school teachers, who tell you what the bible means. Tradition is Pastor, who encourages you to follow Jesus. Tradition is your favorite Christian authors and podcasters. Tradition is me.

Tradition is anything or anyone, other than the Holy Spirit or bible or Jesus himself, who shows you how to follow Jesus. Sometimes it takes the form of customs and rituals. More often it takes the form of “This is how we do it,” or “This is how it’s always been done.” Whether these customs were passed all the way down from the first apostles, or invented last week by a clever worship pastor, they’re still tradition. Still the teachings of fellow humans on how best to follow God.

And some of these teachings are really good stuff!

And some of ’em aren’t. That’s why we gotta use our heads and figure out which of them is valid, and which aren’t. Which of them will work for us, and which won’t. How some of them might be bent, or might be getting bent, into something which really doesn’t bring us closer to Jesus at all… and how some of them which aren’t so effective might be made effective.

Don’t just assume all traditions are all good. Or all evil. Test everything. Keep the beneficial stuff. Chuck the useless stuff. 1Th 5.21 Including all the practices you invented… which are turning into your own little traditions. Don’t be too tightly wedded to them, ’cause they might not help your relationship with Jesus as much as you imagine, and might need adjusting, adapting, refining… or rejecting.

Tradition gone wrong.

Thanks to anti-tradition folks, a lot of Christians simply refer to tradition as other things: Our faith, customs, values, conventions, heritage, practice, way, message, movement, denomination, institution, praxis. (Sometimes they permit “traditional”—but they’ll only use the adjective. Never the noun.)

Ever notice how “non-traditional” churches often look alike? They sing the same contemporary worship songs, have the same decor and stages and podiums and slideshows, teach a lot of the same things? Obviously they’re following a tradition. But it’s recent tradition. Stuff they picked up from popular Christian culture. They usually understand where it came from, and don’t really downplay the fact they borrow ideas from fellow Christians. It’s “not traditional” only because it doesn’t look old. But lots of these things are, in fact, very old. Ain’t nothing new under the sun.

The reason anti-tradition folks are so paranoid about tradition is because some of ’em grew up in unhealthy or heretic churches, which were all about following the rules and not about grace. Once they learned better, they threw away the rules. Which is kinda like finding out megadoses of vitamins are bad for you, so you stop taking vitamins altogether: Not smart. Humans need rules! Rules don’t save, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still need ’em.

Same with tradition: We need tradition. We can’t practice Christianity in a vacuum. That’s why the apostles in the New Testament kept pointing to what Jesus taught ’em, to what they’ve seen and heard, to what they’ve always done—to their own traditions. Because whenever Christians try to follow Jesus without any input from our fellow Christians, we keep going heretic.

’Cause we fall in love with these clever new traditions we invent. So do cult leaders. We start promoting them like crazy. They appeal to our self-centeredness and pride, and since Jesus doesn’t do this for us so much as our own so-called “wisdom,” we wind up prioritizing them over Jesus. We follow them instead of him. Like I said, heresy.

You know, like the Pharisees. You may not be aware their traditions were only about 50 years old when Jesus butted heads with them. (That’s right: Some of the Pharisees who invented those customs were still alive when Jesus showed up to critique them!) And some of those customs totally violated what the LORD was trying to show them in his Law.

Mark 7.6-13 KWL
6 Jesus told them, “Isaiah accurately gave this prophecy about you phonies. He prophesied this:
‘The people honor me with lip service. Their heart is kept far distant from me.
7 They worship me for show. They teach human ideas for their teachings.’ Is 29.13
8 You forgive God’s commands, and seize hold of human customs.”
9 Jesus continued, “Good job, rejecting God’s command so you can set up your tradition.
10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ Ex 20.12
and ‘Curse father or mother and die.’ Ex 21.17
11 You say, ‘If a person tells father or mother, “Qorbán—a gift, which from me you might gain…”’
12 you forgive his doing nothing for father or mother,
13 nullifying God’s word in favor of the tradition you recommend.
And you do many similar things.”

If you ever read the Mishna, the Pharisees’ traditions, you’ll notice they do a lot of nitpicking over the Law… ’cause they were looking for loopholes. Exactly like Christians do nowadays, Pharisees picked and chose which commands were “still valid,” and which to ignore. Or adjust. Sometimes adjust so much, they wholly violated the spirit of the original. To which Jesus strongly objects.

See, that’s the danger of tradition. It’s based on God. But it wasn’t invented by God. It’s invented by us humans. Honest followers try to make sure our traditions follow God, and grow our relationship with him. Dishonest followers don’t care about that; they want to do the bare minimum yet still be able to think of themselves as Christian. Like the Pharisees, they want loopholes.

So some Christian traditions are rigged so people look Christian, with their evil disguised as righteousness. And Jesus cuts right through this bulls---, same as he did with Pharisees, and exposes them when he finds them. Assuming we bother to listen to him; some so-called Christians would much rather not.

And of course there are the dishonest followers, like the Pharisees Jesus critiqued: Their traditions were rigged so they looked like followers, and disguised their evil as righteousness. That sort of thing still happens. Same with the Pharisees, Jesus cuts right through our rubbish. He exposes such things when he finds them. Assuming we bother to listen to him. Some so-called Christians would much rather not.

Tradition, properly practiced.

Tradition is hardly a foolproof double-check against heresy, foolishness, and fruitless behavior. Frankly there are a lot of traditions Christians embrace wholeheartedly which are anti-biblical. That’s why tradition needs to be in its proper place: It’s there to help us follow Jesus. But we need to be following Jesus. Keep listening to the Holy Spirit, keep reading your bible, and use your commonsense. Tradition should work together with them just fine. When it doesn’t, it’s wrong.

Tradition is a useful tool. It fills in the gaps in our personal experiences. I myself have only seen and heard so much. So I can profit from what fellow Christians have seen and heard. Some of those Christians are my contemporaries; some are long-dead Christians from antiquity, the middle ages, the early modern era, or the last century. There’s so much wealth to be drawn from any and all of them. It’s just stupid to reinvent the wheel all by myself!

Sometimes I can duplicate their experiences. If I “practice God’s presence” like Brother Lawrence taught, can I experience him like Lawrence did? (Spoiler: Yes.) If I imitate Christ like Thomas à Kempis taught, can I experience him like Thomas did? (Sure.) If I do as the apostles did in the New Testament, can I experience the same miracles and firsthand experiences they had? (Of course.) And so on.

Now, while the bible’s infallibility is proven by centuries of Christians, other traditions aren’t so trustworthy. Because they came from fellow Christians, they might be flawed or fallible. Tradition is a conversation with those other Christians in the past—who aren’t our masters, but fellow students of Jesus. They’re iron sharpening iron. Pr 27.17 They’re not a whetstone; that’d be Christ Jesus. He alone remains our final authority. Not tradition.

Problem is, not every Christian recognizes the Christians of the past are our equals. To their mind, these saints are authorities. If St. Athanasius proclaimed it, John Calvin wrote it, John Wesley preached it, or C.S. Lewis hinted at it in a Narnia book, it’s so. Even though every single one of these people would tell us, “No, no, not me; Jesus,” there are plenty of Christians who’d respond, “Oh, you’re just being humble,” and blindly follow ’em anyway.

For this reason, certain churches get pretty slavish and narrow towards their favorite saints. Lutherans revere Martin Luther, Calvinists do John Calvin, Methodists do John Wesley, Adventists do Ellen White, independent megachurches do their founding pastors. Even though a lot of these founders, unlike cult leaders, drew from tradition: They studied other Christians, and repeated what they learned. Many people of those churches assume their traditions began with their founders, and forget their founders were likewise looking at tradition. Calvin and Luther were big fans of St. Augustine; Wesley a big fan of Herbert Law. No Christian follows Jesus without help. Nor are we meant to!

And again: Like all humans, these saints made mistakes. Calvin was hugely wrong about how God’s sovereignty works, yet many Calvinists blindly follow Calvin instead of the bible, and teach a graceless, deterministic God. Again, it goes back to pride. “We’re right and they’re wrong” is how we stay wrong.

We can’t elevate any one Christian above all others, and interpret everything through that one Christian. We’ve no business putting certain favorite Christians at Jesus’s right and left! That’s only for the Father to do. Mk 10.40 We’re to treat them all alike, as sisters and brothers in Christ, and remember we’ve only one teacher, one master, one authoritative voice in our Christianity: Christ Jesus. Mt 30.10 Everybody else, every tradition they started, is open for discussion and debate. No exceptions.

Especially not me. Double-check what I say too.