I like to play the card game spades. It’s a great game, especially when you’re playing with three other people who know the game and how to play it. There’s strategy involved, there’s working with a partner, and even sometimes there’s a little luck.
I’ve been playing spades for as long as I can remember. But one of the things I learned early on is that different people have different rules for playing the game. For instance, some folks have the first hand played by each player laying down his lowest clubs. Others let you start with any card from any suit but a spade. In another home, going low means you don’t win any hands and you’ll get 100 points and if you go “blind” low you can win 200 points and swap a card with your partner. Others will go low for 100 points and swap one card while going “blind” low gets you 200 points and you can swap 2 cards.
So before I play spades with new folks, I always make sure we establish the rules by which the game will be played before we start playing. That way we’re all on the same page and we can enjoy the game.
Churches have rules we call tradition
Churches can have “rules” by which it operates, some spoken and some unspoken. These rules can be labeled “traditions.” Traditions aren’t necessarily bad in themselves. But traditions can be elevated to the level of truth so that failure to obey the traditions becomes equal to disobeying the Scriptures. And, of course, there have to be people who guard and protect the traditions. Rules may be meant to be broken, but traditions are meant to be honored, upheld, and treasured.
But what happens when traditions become a barrier to a church reaching its community with the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ? What happens when traditions keep the church looking inward instead of outward? What happens when traditions become sticks to beat people with?
Traditions fill the silence
Often times, traditions are used to fill the, so-called, silence in Scripture for clarity on certain topics. For instance, have you ever been amazed at how little the Scriptures say about worship style? The Bible speaks to the content of worship and the attitudes of those worshiping. But should musical instruments be used? How many instruments? What instruments are good and which ones aren’t? How many singers should sing? Should a choir be used or not? Should a praise team be used or not? So into the seeming silence of the Scriptures churches begin to adopt practices that become habits that become traditions. And once a practice becomes a tradition it then takes on an authoritative power over everyone so that it shapes and controls what people think and do. And then those who guard and protect the traditions will fight against any who would dare speak against that tradition. The keeping of the traditions becomes more important than obedience to the Scriptures.
One of my favorite stories about tradition concerns a newly-wed couple. The young bride was getting ready to cook a ham for her husband. Before she put the ham into the baking pan she cut off both ends of the ham. This was a curious practice for the husband had never seen anyone do this before. So he asked his wife why she cut both ends of the ham off. She answered that her mother always did this so she did, too. So one day the young lady was with her mom and asked her why she cut both ends of the ham off before placing it in the baking pan. Her mom said that her mom, the young bride’s grandmother, always did this. Both ladies decided to go and talk to the grandmother and ask her why she cut both ends of the ham off. The grandmother answered, “My baking pan was always too small for the ham, so I had to cut off both ends of the ham to make it fit.”
There are traditions we should hold to
Traditions can take on a life of their own, sometimes to the detriment of the gospel and to the church. I like how some folks talk about closed hand and open hand issues within the church. Closed hand issues are those for which we will fight to the death. Things like the inerrancy of the Scriptures, the substitutionary death of Jesus for sinners, the certain return of Jesus, God is Trinity, and other truths like these are worth dying for. These are traditions we should gladly hold to.
But there are other issues that, while important, we should hold with an open hand and allow varying beliefs without looking down on someone who believes differently. How long should a worship gathering last and when should it start? Should a church do on-site Bible studies or home groups? Should there be a children’s church or not? Which translation of the Bible should be used?
The problem with closed hand and open hand beliefs is that some people will differ on what’s closed and what’s open. And therein lies the struggle that churches often face.
And lest you think this is only a traditional church issue, even new church starts can develop practices that quickly become traditions. There are young pastors who don’t want to go to established churches because of the traditions they will find there. But they will start their own church, determine how it will operate, and a few years later will discover that they have traditions, too. How will they know? When someone new comes to the church and wants to see a practice changed, how the pastor responds will let him know if he’s become a protector of tradition.
The proclaiming church is a tradition we should always hold to
Traditions aren’t necessarily bad things, unless they are elevated to the level of Scripture (closed hand issues), or they become hindrances to the proclamation of the gospel, or they become a source of pride and identity for the church instead of Jesus so that to change or lose a tradition is to, in some minds, destroy the identity of the church.
Ultimately, there is no better church tradition than boldly proclaiming the gospel to our cities and to the ends of the earth. That is a tradition that we must hold on to tightly with a closed hand!