Traditions that are Not in the Bible
Today I had a great facebook exchange with a family member friend. We were discussing wedding bands. Should married couples wear them? Are there alternative ways to demonstrate one’s marital faithfulness?
It was a friendly discussion in which I mostly pontificated as usual. It was a conversation between a few committed Christians who supported each other and didn’t question motives, etc. But one of the questions that came from that discussion was a common one that I hear a lot as an Anglican pastor.
“If some tradition isn’t in the Bible, then its not sacred or required, right? Isn’t it up to the individual to choose?” Its a really good question, and not every pastor or parishioner would answer it the same.
My job in his journal is the give the answer of the Anglican Pastor. My answer is yes. Yes, we should wear our wedding bands, and yes, they are sacred. Also, yes, they are not in the Bible. And there are many other sacred traditions that should be kept, but aren’t commanded directly in the Bible.
In the non-catholic or free church (sometimes called puritan) tradition that is popular today among evangelicals, it is standard to assume that if something is not commanded in Scripture, it is not necessary. Wedding bands, for example. But also clergy vestments, dates of holidays, traditional written prayers, communion every Sunday, making the sign of the cross, receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday, etc. In puritan theology (and most evangelical theology today) these things are at best personal or local church choices, or at worst pagan intrusions into “pure” faith.
But that way of thinking may not be helpful, true or even Biblical after all. It doesn’t say anywhere in Scripture that we should only do things that the Bible itself tells us to do. There is mention several times in the NT of traditions that are being passed along by word of mouth. The idea isn’t that we should only keep the Biblical traditions. The idea is that our “man made” traditions should never go against Scripture or be elevated above God himself, in his love and justice. They should support it. They should be pointing to the Gospel. There are many ways to point to the Gospel, but these traditions are the ways that our spiritual ancestors have passed on to us. We should consider that very highly when thinking about how to point to the Gospel and live it out.
In the Anglican way of thinking, any Christian tradition with the weight of years behind it should be kept. If it supports the Gospel and the Bible, and if it is not forbidden by Scripture, then we are obliged to keep it. I know that sounds heavy to a lot of evangelical ears. But we are evangelical too. Anglicans have been a part of the evangelical stream for a long time. For some reason, the puritan approach kind of gets more press. But it’s not un-evangelical to see traditions as important and as often obligatory on the individual.
No, traditions can’t save you. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t important and necessary. In fact, when they point to salvation, they do help people find it. And when Christians share the same ancient traditions, we are all point to salvation in the same ways. We are identifying ourselves visibly with each other, and with our spiritual forefathers.
For example, Jesus likely wasn’t born on December 25th. And yet that is the traditional date we celebrate the feast of the Incarnation. The Bible doesn’t command us to use that date, in fact it is pretty much silent on that point. But it would be foolish for an individual Christian or a local church to declare his own personal Christmas day. And not only foolish, but unwise. Unwise because it would isolate that individual or church from the rest of the Christian community. This is especially harmful in a day and age in which we need as much visible Christian unity as possible.
I know it would be silly for someone to declare their own personal Christmas. And yet that is what we are told we should do with many other traditions.
What about vestments? That is a great example. Years ago some protestants decided that the pastors shouldn’t wear robes. Of course, the vast majority of Christians kept using them (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, etc, literally 70%+ of Christians). However, most American evangelicals think that robes are inherently arrogance or legalistic, etc. The Bible doesn’t directly command robes (arguably it does, but that is for another day). Yet Christian ministers have worn robes for hundreds of years, and distinctive stoles for thousands. Should our generation just toss them aside so lightly? What baby are we tossing out with that bathwater? I’m not sure, but I don’t want to be the one to find out. And furthermore, I hate picking out ties and suit coats anyways.
At weddings, I’ve seen the couple write their own vows. That’s fine for them during the reception, or maybe at a different part of the service (not as vows, but as personal promises). But this is another example of how we scorn the traditions. We make up our own definitions of marriage, as individuals, and then impose them. Instead, we are entering into an ancient Christian institution and should take the same vows as everyone else. The Bible doesn’t include the actual vows. They are traditional. But taking them reminds us, our witnesses, and the world, that we are Christians, and that we haven’t re-invented marriage.
Another example is the Church Year. The cycle of Advent to Christmas then Epiphany, and then from Lent to Easter to Pentecost is very ancient. Christians have been observing together for so long. And yet many Christians today ignore it. They feel that because the Bible doesn’t command it, its not important. And yet millions of Christians are observing it. The Bible doesn’t command us not to have a shared calendar of celebration and repentance. It encourages us to find unity, and to work together. It encourages us to be “one.” So in my view, it can be individualism that drives us from the shared Christian traditions, rather than Holy Scripture.
At the end of the day, in American Christianity, there are three ways to look at this. The puritan way is to say that we will only do what Scripture commands. The Anglican way is to do what Scripture commands, and to reverently keep the human traditions that support the Gospel and carry on our spiritual ancestor’s way of being Christians. The Roman or Orthodox way may be to carry on all of the traditions and then try to reconcile them with the Bible.
Human traditions are not to be elevated above God as Jesus said the Pharisees were doing. Yet Jesus didn’t say “destroy all tradition!” It was the fact that we Pharisees tend to put them above God or love, or the Gospel. When they are in their proper place as means of grace, unity, visible witness, and spiritual growth, then they are important. And I know Americans hate this, but it really isn’t the individual’s choice, is it? We’re part of a community of faith. We shouldn’t see ourselves as deciding everything individually by our personal preferences or interpretations. Especially in matters of human traditions, we should participate in the group rather than being autonomous.
In my view, the puritan approach becomes very individualistic, ends up putting people in a weird position in terms of other Christians, and honestly is unbiblical. After all, St Paul wrote, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” The Roman Catholic approach can tend to be rigid and to sometimes justify anti-biblical traditions.
The Anglican approach is to see ourselves as keepers of an ancient tradition. We are guardians. We have an obligation to tradition and to Christian unity. We are individuals, yes, but we aren’t autonomous.
Thankfully, all Christians still share Baptism and Communion. We differ on aspects of understanding them, but we all believe that they are commands of our Lord Jesus that should be kept. These shared sacraments still bind us together in a visible witness. But if we went a step further and gave the Christian tradition a benefit of the doubt, default setting, we would go whole lot further in building a true unified Christian community. And on top of that, we’d probably find a better and wiser way of doing things, discovering that our spiritual ancestors knew a thing or two about how to worship and live.
What are your thoughts?
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