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Church and Tradition in a Changing World

Category Articles
Date June 9, 2009

At the annual assembly of the Association of Evangelical Churches in Wales, Ian Parry, pastor of the Bay Church in Cardiff, delivered a paper on the above subject and then led a seminar in a discussion of it. The following is a summary of what he said.

1) We need to UNDERSTAND our traditions.

Where do they come from? We may claim to be controlled by the authority of the Bible alone. And the Bible has certain commandments which are non-negotiable. Yet there is an inevitability about building traditions. Our traditions are the ways we seek to obey the Scriptures, and they’ll shape the feel and ethos of a church.

2) As well as understanding them we need to VALUE them.

We have them however new or old our churches are. The church universal has a history. In the UK reformed tradition we have a certain history which shapes what we do. So there are some good traditions in the past associated with the Reformation. We are privileged heirs of a tradition. You only need to go to the mission field to appreciate this. And this gives us a certain perspective on things. We are heirs and custodians of the past. The Church is bigger than our own day and our own context. It gives Colour: If you strip away the past it leaves you with a characterless thing with no associations. It gives Power: Our generation has cut its ties with the past and is finding it hard to live with the results. As other religions enter the country people are saying ‘What exactly am I? What is my identity in?’ So we should value them.

3) We need to EVALUATE them.

It’s difficult to identify them sometimes. Don’t ask a fish of all creatures for a definition of water. We are unaware of them, simply saying we live by the Bible. Yet our desire to obey gives rise to certain forms and traditions. For example, having an open time of prayer seemed a way of obeying the Bible’s command that we pray when a little group of us began the Bay Church. Yet it becomes a tradition.

Analyse them, asking what principle are we applying in this tradition? Is the situation that required that particular application still there? Is there a better way to do this? So we must identify them and evaluate them. Does the reason why the principle was applied in this way still count?

Yet it would be naive to stop there. Mark 7 teaches that traditions have certain dangers associated with them. We can have a St. Fagan’s Welsh Folk Museum mentality, hanging on to forms and traditions at all costs. But we are pastors of people, not curators of skeletons. The other danger is the Ikea mentality – an attitude that turns worship into a comfort zone and domesticates it. We are not there to make ourselves feel better, but to adore and worship the living God.

In Mark 7 Jesus addresses the traditions of the fathers. Routines were done out of good motives – clean and unclean foods did come from the OT after all, and these rules were added in an attempt to obey the commandments. In Mark 7 the authorities want to discredit Jesus so they asked why these traditions were not observed by His disciples. Then follows a devastating attack by Jesus, as he quotes Isaiah:

These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.

There are three main dangers in valuing traditions:

1. When we equate the traditions with God’s commands. We may tie the two together in our minds and say ‘you cannot do this or that’. Are we implementing the principle?

2. When we displace God’s commands with the traditions. A system had developed in relation to the temple which effectively evaded one’s duty to one’s parents. Yet this negated the 5th commandment. So if we are keeping the tradition we believe we are fulfilling the commandment when we actually might be denying it.

3. Our tradition becomes the test of who is in and who’s out of the group. Yet we may be opposing the Son of God as they were. It is a question to ask about in our church. What ought to unite us is not a tradition but the Gospel, the Cross, Regeneration and the New Birth – these determine who’s accepted.

Traditions may be accompanied with some deadly tendencies, and tendencies are what our hearts tend towards. We find it easier to be zealous for traditions than to be holy. Washing one’s hands is easy, but crucifying the flesh is difficult. We all have tendencies toward hypocrisy – the heart needs dealing with.

4) We need to EVOLVE the traditions.

In 2003 when we started the Bay church we served coffee at the start while waiting to see would anyone turn up. But now that would be a terrible tradition, to have coffee first. The situation has changed.

We maintain our theological traditions – those of Calvinistic Methodism. But the culture has been affected by industrialisation, globalisation, pluralism, secularism and so on. People can judge us as being distant and unrelated to life. Most people now haven’t a clue about the gospel. We are working in a post Christian missionary model. So we need new, patient, deeper strategies – an understanding of the Word and how to apply that Word.

5) We must ECLIPSE the traditions.

We must arrive at a point where people don’t see the right songs or contemporary worship, or 16th century theology or cultural sensitivity. We have failed if they see these things. We want them to see the Lord Jesus Christ. We want them to experience and seek for more than what they can see and touch. Jesus stood in our shoes; he was made flesh, and he will return. He reigns. Our aim is not the grave but the Day of Judgement and the Resurrection. Anything less is Pharisaism. Let us see Jesus Christ at the heart of all our worship and music and invitations.

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