Monday, 10 October 2016

Beware of Becoming Attached to Church Traditions

It should be very obvious that any church which is seriously trying to follow Jesus as Lord will be continually modifying its practices.  The Christians there will be constantly looking at what they are doing to see what could be improved.  When potential improvements are recognised, they will be put into practice without delay.  Nothing could be more obvious, could it?

Those who prefer traditions over God

Sadly, there can be no doubt that churches which properly attempt to keep improving their practices are in a minority, I think a small minority.  Instead, what so often happens is that traditions develop and take hold among congregations and prevent them from fully following the Lord.  Either something that was once the will of God continues to be practised after it should have been let go.  Or, even worse, something that was never God’s will becomes entrenched and then goes on and on.

I would suggest that on the Day of Judgment large numbers of Christians will be found to be at fault for the times when they had a choice between loving God or a church tradition and they chose the tradition.  To be fair, I am sure that there are many believers who are not to blame in this respect.  But I am sure too that many others are not properly submitting themselves to God in this area. 

Positive traditions

Of course, Christian traditions are not always negative things.  There is a great sense in which the church is a traditional entity right to its heart.  The Christian faith has been handed on as a tradition down the generations, most recently to those of us who are alive today.  There is a real sense too in which the Bible is a tradition that we have received from the church of the past.  And statements of faith such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed are also good and helpful traditions.

Taking care with morally neutral traditions

There is nothing wrong with the great traditions of Christianity.  It is wrong, however, when much more superficial things become ingrained as church traditions without proper consideration. 

One of the major characteristics of the societies we live in is that they are constantly evolving.  As people who are living out a Christian witness within these societies (Matthew 5:14-15; 1 Corinthians 5:9-10), we should be continually adapting the way we do things in morally neutral matters.  This will allow us to appear as relevant as possible to people outside the Christian community.  And at times it will also help believers themselves to grow more quickly in the faith.

This, however, doesn’t always happen, and traditions often become entrenched.  Christians of all ages can be guilty of refusing to let go of church traditions, but especially it tends to be those of an older generation.  All too often mature believers, who should be setting an example to the younger ones of Christ-like selflessness, can be seen doing precisely the opposite.  Older Christians frequently cling on to traditions simply because they personally like them, having become familiar with them over many years.  This is a shameful way to behave.

Traditions putting people off the Christian faith

Sometimes when Christians selfishly cling on to traditions, it can have serious consequences.  I know something about this personally.  As a child I was very put off the Christian faith by all the old-fashioned stuff I couldn’t understand that I saw in the churches I had any connection with.  As a result I walked away from the faith until I was 17.  If I had been presented with something Christian that I could relate to when I was a boy, I wonder how my life might have been so much better when I was growing up.  For me, old-fashioned church traditions had a very negative impact.

Someone might want to say in response to this that people are very different.  They could point out that some are actually attracted to the Christian faith by old-fashioned traditions, and that I mustn’t use just my own experiences to generalise. 

It is true that some people are indeed drawn to the faith by old-fashioned traditions.  Nevertheless, I am certain that many more are put off by such traditions than are attracted.  I am sure that many of the non-Christian children when I was growing up had a similar attitude to Christianity to me for similar reasons.  I am also sure that many of the young people today who drift away from God do so in part because of old-fashioned traditions which make it seem as if the faith is not really relevant for them.

That is not to say that churches should aim at all costs to accommodate themselves to the societies in which they live.  I am talking only about morally neutral issues.  Christians will inevitably have to swim against the tide of the moral values of the cultures they live in, and there must be no compromise on that.  But it is a terrible tragedy when people are put off the salvation that is in Christ because Christians are selfishly clinging to traditions. 

Some examples of unhelpful traditions

There are various old-fashioned traditions that cause problems. 

Translations of the Bible that use out-of-date language should be discarded for a start.  It is ironic that those who insist on using the 400-year-old King James Version are acting so against the spirit of the Reformation that spawned that version.  One of the key concerns of the reformers was to get Scripture into the language that people use.  But the KJV’s early 17th century English is obviously anything but that today.  Using old-fashioned language for Bible translations can encourage people to see the Christian faith as something less than relevant for the present time.

Nor is this the only problem with using the KJV.  The English language has evolved a lot over the last 400 years.  Many words and turns of phrase in the early 17th century meant something quite different from what they mean today.  And this often leads to confusion and misinterpretation. 

Something else that is ironic about insisting on using the KJV is that this stubborn attitude is so different from the humble attitude of the translators of this version themselves.  They in no way regarded their translation as something definitive.  Rather, they viewed the KJV as a translation that improved upon what had come before and would surely be further improved upon in the future.

Another unhelpful old-fashioned tradition is speaking the Lord’s Prayer in out-of-date language.  This too is more than a little ironic.  Jesus gave this prayer to His followers as an example of how to pray to God their Father.  Yet what child addresses their father in old-fashioned language?  I would suggest that this is a tradition which has gone on not just decades longer than it should have, but for centuries longer! 

Using old-fashioned musical instruments or old-fashioned furniture is likewise almost always unhelpful.  Furthermore, modern technology is changing things all the time, and as far as finances allow it, churches should also reflect that change in terms of how they conduct themselves. 

Nor is it just old-fashioned things that can become unhelpful traditions.  Often a church just has certain ways of doing things that for one reason or another could be improved upon.  Yet all too frequently these traditions are allowed to go on and on.

Holding traditions loosely

When Christians hold on to unhelpful traditions, it is because they have become comfortable with them and are unwilling to accept the slight feeling of disorientation that usually accompanies change. 

Instead of taking this selfish attitude, however, the Christians in every church should hold all that is not of first importance loosely.  And then, as soon as they realise that a tradition could be improved upon, it should be dropped or modified at once.

Of course, even Christians who try to act in this way will often disagree about what would be a helpful improvement.  Nevertheless, as a first step every believer should make a conscious effort to hold morally neutral traditions loosely while looking to see how their church could be improved.  And the more Christians in a church there are who take this step, the more unity there will probably be about decisions as well.

Responding to stubbornness

Although Christians should hold morally neutral traditions loosely, in any given church there will probably be some who give no indication that they are trying to do this.  This brings us to a very important question.  What should the leaders of a church do if they have decided that it would be good to discard a tradition, but there is a minority of the congregation who are strongly opposed to that change?  Should they push the change through regardless?  Or should they avoid causing trouble by keeping things as they are?

This is an area where there is no option but to earnestly seek the face of the Lord and His leading.  If the change is not all that important, it will probably often be better to avoid offending people and keep the unhelpful tradition.  On the other hand, however, there are times when upsetting people is a price worth paying to see a church move forward.  There are even occasions when causing a division is a ‘lesser evil’ than failing to push through badly needed changes.  Sometimes, following the wishes of a stubborn and vocal minority is simply not the right thing to do. 

Trying to make changes

If you see something in your church that you think could be improved upon, try to do something about it.  Even if you are not a leader, don’t let that discourage you. 

There is a need to be very careful here, however. 

First, be open to the possibility that your idea for improvement might be a mistake.  Young Christians, in age and/or length of time as a believer, need to be especially cautious in this respect. 

Second, make sure that you act only in love.  Never be bitter towards those who reject your idea, and never talk unkindly about them behind their back.  Don’t let anyone feel that you are breathing down their neck.  And always respect the authority of your leaders.

Try to persuade various people, especially leaders, that your idea for improvement is a good one.  And if you believe that the idea is important enough to persevere with even after first being rejected, don’t give up.  Be patient in prayer, and gently and lovingly persist in making your suggestion.

See also: