Last week I enjoyed studying Matthew 15:1-9 with our interns. The teachers of the law and Pharisees were upset about Jesus’ disciples failure to follow their traditions by not washing their hands before meals. Jesus responded by pointing out that the religious leaders were placing their own traditions above God’s commands.
The Pharisees, instead of honoring their parents by helping them financially, claimed that those moneys had been given to God. It seems to me they’d found a way to count twice the money they were placing in the collection tray. The Pharisees’ tradition, then, was in direct conflict with God’s commands.
Obviously, the story teaches us to check our traditions, that they not oppose God’s desires or force us to be disobedient to God. Traditions which are in conflict with God’s commands are wrong.
But even church traditions which do not directly oppose God’s rules can be dangerous. Here are two other reasons to check our churches’ customs and rituals:
- Some church traditions are a barrier to the gospel’s advance. These practices do not stand in opposition to God’s commands, but needlessly prevent new people and cultures from entering God’s kingdom — or at least placing stumbling blocks in their pathway.
- Some church traditions water down our understanding of God’s word or our practices of living in his kingdom. Again, these religious customs do not stand in opposition to God’s commands or to the gospel’s advance, BUT they do prevent us from truly understanding or practicing Christianity in the way that God desires.
How about some examples?
Barrier to the Gospel’s Advance
We’ve traditionally taught the good news merely as Jesus dying in order for us to be forgiven of our sins. So most of our evangelism tools are based on this one premise and idea — that we have sinned and needed Jesus to die for forgiveness’ sake. [I believe this is a huge mistake; see what does it mean to preach the gospel and the full and complete gospel.]
I’d argue that, in much of Africa, we’re actually hindering the advance of the gospel by our tradition of making the good news about nothing more than sin and forgiveness, or atonement theory. Many African cultures have no concept of inherent right and wrong, making the idea of sin and forgiveness a difficult (and dumb) place to start. We’d do better to begin with ideas of God’s love and power versus fear… and talk about sin a little further along in the process.
There is nothing wrong with sin and forgiveness — these ideas are crucial to a complete understanding of Christianity. But placing so much focus on this one area, and designing entire evangelistic efforts only around it, prevents an entire portion of our world from understanding God and his desires.
Watered Down Understanding of Christianity
The Churches of Christ are proud of our commitment to the Lord’s Supper. We take Communion each and every Sunday that we gather. But I would argue that our tradition of taking the Lord’s Supper has watered down its meaning — not that we take it weekly, but the way in which we take it. It seems clear to me that Paul views the Lord’s Supper as a remembrance of Jesus’ life and death, but also as a celebration of his body — that we ourselves are now the body of Christ. The Lord’s Supper should stress unity and commitment to one another.
However, our church tradition does not demonstrate this in any real way. Instead, we sit silently in our pews, all facing the front, taking communion one at a time. It’s the most individualistic thing we do during our entire worship service. [And don't get me started on our Sunday evening communion service -- the one in which we either send people away to another room or have them sit up front and take Communion by themselves, everyone else not participating with them. That's pretty much the exact opposite of what Paul teaches.]
So our traditions concerning the Lord’s Supper cause many of us to have a poor understanding of it. I grew up believing Communion was a very private thing, in which I inspected my life to see if I was worthy of drinking the juice and eating the bread. Also I figured out that it was really important to do it once and only once every week, and only on Sunday (morning, if possible). This is what our Communion tradition taught me, and I don’t think it contributed to a healthy understanding of the Lord’s Supper.
What do you guys think? How do we keep our traditions in check? What traditions do we have that might not be sinful or in opposition to God’s commands, but still hurt us?