Last week at the North American Christian Convention, I attended a lecture given by my friend, Dr. John Castelein of Lincoln Christian University entitled, “Christian Universities: Academic Freedom and Confessional Boundaries.” It was a rich presentation, full of many things I am still pondering. John outlined twelve tensions he has encountered as a Christian Scholar working in higher education. These were very insightful, and I have experienced all of them myself on one level or another. Some of this has to do with the appalling ignorance of the Bible in the church vs. the rigorous study of the Bible in the academy, but there are other tensions, too. One of these is the tension between what John called Traditions vs. Traditionalism.
Why do we do the things we do in the church? Particularly, why do we repeat certain behaviors or rituals? Castelein outlined the difference between Traditions of the Church (what he calls the “living faith of the dead”) and the Traditionalism of the Church (“the dead faith of the living”). In other words, we continue Traditions if they still have a liveliness that contributes to the faith and worship of the church. We continue other practices without good reason, or without knowing why, and this is Traditionalism. A family Tradition might be that we always buy Buicks because our family has experienced them as durable, comfortable, reliable cars. Family Traditionalism says, “I’m buying a Buick because my Daddy had a Buick and his Daddy had a Buick and his Daddy had a Buick.”
If there is anything that is a regular feature of a church’s program and practices, there should be a ready answer to the question, “Why do we do this?” If there is no better answer than, “That’s just what we do,” that is Traditionalism. Traditionalism stifles the church and will kill a congregation eventually. We cannot support doing things that were favorites of folks long since departed simply out of respect or fear. We need to have a good reason to maintain any Tradition, and it should be something that adds to the life of the church in a positive way.
I could give many examples here, but let me offer one that I have been talking about this year: Women serving communion in a worship service. There is no biblical guideline here. There is no command, “Thus saith the Lord, Men only shall ye have pass the communion trays and offering plates.” It is highly doubtful that the early church did the Lord’s Supper anything like what we do in the modern church with tiny individual cups and chips of “bread.” But our way of doing it has become regularized and enshrined in some churches. Maybe it made sense fifty years ago to only have men serve, I don’t know, but it makes little sense to me now.
If you think this is unimportant, I disagree. This is the sort of thing that is noticed. While a particular church might be thinking, “We only have men serve communion,” it communicates, “We restrict women from serving communion.” Why give this message if it is unnecessary? I submit that this is not a Tradition, it is Traditionalism.
Nebraska Christian College