Does Religious Dogma Have a Place Among God’s People?

            I remember the very first cell phone I ever had: It was bulky, the screen was the size of a quarter and all I could do with it was talk and text. There was a time before that when cell phones did not exist and even when house-phones hadn’t been thought of. The progress of cellular devices since then amazes me. Now even six-year-olds have small computers that can do everything and we call them cell phones. Imagine for a moment that you still had one of the first cell-phones on the market. To say you were behind the technological curve would be an understatement. You would be disconnected from contemporary culture. Your ability to communicate in today’s world would be greatly limited, and your concern would be losing touch with contemporary culture all together. Not one person reading this could honestly say that they would rather carry an old Nokia.

Church, though, is a different story for us. We hold on to bad tradition like we would die if things were to change. The danger is: just as we would lose touch with the world by never upgrading our devices, so will we lose touch with the world by holding on to bad tradition in the church. Dogma is a poison, and just like a dog returning to ingest his vomit so the church is, many times, guilty of hording bad or irrelevant practices. If you do not believe me or are just a little upset that I might make this claim, let us look to the ministry of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Now He entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a paralyzed hand. In order to accuse Him, they were watching Him closely to see whether He would heal him on the Sabbath. He told the man with the paralyzed hand, “Stand before us.” Then He said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do what is good or to do what is evil, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. After looking around at them with anger and sorrow at the hardness of their hearts, He told the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out, and his hand was restored. Immediately the Pharisees went out and started plotting with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him.[1]

Jesus and tradition

            Jesus was a man of tradition, but His tradition was deeper than the recent past. Jesus used the creation account to address a question of divorce raised by the Pharisees.[2] Jesus’ answer was simple and according to the oldest tradition there was. God created them male and female, they become one flesh, and what God has joined together let man not separate. Jesus’ view of tradition, specifically tradition from God, led him to define marriage in this way.[3] Jesus’ view of tradition led him to say that He did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.[4] It is Jesus’ tradition that drove Him to drive out the money changers in the temple complex and to oppose first century Jewish leadership. Jesus was a champion of God’s tradition.

As we consider our own lives, we must make the realization that tradition is not evil and does not push people away from the Church. There is a place for tradition in the lives of Christians because Christ Himself cared deeply to uphold Godly traditions (specifically those given in scripture by God). The tradition, then, that has a place in our lives is tradition that is founded upon the text of Scripture and that testifies about God in our lives.

Here is something I’ve noticed in some churches today: There is a push to purge all tradition from the people of God. If it is old, get rid of it! We want the lights and the bands and the feel-good preaching. We want to attend church online or limit ourselves to reading some Christian books. All tradition is forsaken and as a result, some churches forsake even those traditions that are founded rightly in the scriptures. Here are some good things that many contemporary or “relevant” churches forsake:

  1. Christ-centered, Biblically based preaching and teaching. Sunday School classrooms become little more than social clubs and the morning message is catered only to make people feel good about themselves instead of draw them closer in their relationships with God.
  2. Christ-centered, Biblically based praise. Singing becomes more about ‘having a good time’ or ‘enjoying the music’ than about honoring God for what He has done and will do.
  3. Christ-centered, Biblically based discipleship in the younger generations of the church. The youth and children’s ministries become more about baby-sitting and entertaining than about preparing young people for life in Christ. No wonder so many young people leave even our more contemporary churches.

In contemporary western churches, we trade our crosses for comfortable chairs and we never move.[5]

Pharisee and tradition

            The Pharisees saw tradition differently that Jesus did. Their tradition was more recent and much of it was based on writings of the religious leaders that came before them. It would be as if I based my entire Christian life on the writings of Spurgeon instead of on Scripture. These Pharisees were the religious elite of the day. In this passage, they saw the Sabbath Day as a day restricting people from doing anything that might be considered work. In their eyes, this included healing. They hoped to trap Jesus by catching Him, the man believed to be the Messiah, doing work on the Sabbath Day. Jesus knew of their presence and asked a simple question, “Is it better to heal or to kill on the Sabbath?”

It is important to note that Jesus was both angry and heartbroken at the hardness of the hearts of the religious leaders. Jesus healed the man’s hand and the Pharisees looked for an opportunity to destroy Him.

While we have very contemporary churches forsaking the traditions of God, there are traditional churches that insist on holding fast to certain traditions that are not based in Scripture and that do not come from God. Instead of healing, many traditional churches are guilty of killing; and I am very confident that God is both angry with and heartbroken at the hardness or our hearts.

Churches fight so hard to hold on to the way that they have ‘always done things’ that they miss Christ entirely and condemn a world that Christ came to save. Here are some bad traditions that traditional western churches hold on to:

  1. Gossip-centered fellowship. We spend so much time judging and condemning others that we fail to reach people with the love of Christ.
  2. Sin-centered preaching and teaching. Many traditional churches are guilty of focusing more on the sins of men than on the work of Christ. While the church should address sin, it should not do so at the expense of showing Christ’s love.
  3. Hymns or songs that actually contradict scripture. In this sense, many traditional churches are just as bad as some contemporary churches when it comes to music.[6]

In traditional western churches, it seems we trade our crosses for hammers and we crucify Christ over and over again.

Us and tradition

            Tradition is not something we can move away from, and we shouldn’t, but we should not hold so strongly to traditions that are not based in Scripture or that do not testify to Christ in our current culture. Christians need not be afraid of change, but embrace improvement that is built upon a good traditional foundation. I could refer again to my cell phone. It’s platform was evolved from the design of the earliest phones. The design was not forsaken, but it was improved. Just because a church chooses to evolve with culture does not mean tradition is forsaken. While we should not be afraid of change, we must resolve never to forsake Scripture, for it is the Word of God and the authority for our lives!

Considerations for the Christian

            All this being said, I would like to ask a couple questions. The first: Is it important for the Christian to be at church? Christ was raised on Sunday, this is why we worship together on Sunday. The author of Hebrews tells us not to forsake meeting together.[7] Church, at least meeting together on Sunday, should be a priority in the life of the Christian. What we should not do regularly is skip Sunday Church to go to the beach, a concert, the lake, fishing, hunting or to just stay at home. An effort should be made not to work on Sundays. This is a tradition that is founded directly in Scripture and that directly testifies to Christ. Please go to a good church, especially on Sunday.

Do we have to sing hymns? No! There is nothing wrong with many hymns, but new praises are written every day. Why would we not sing a new song to the Lord? Are not His mercies new every day?

Is tradition important? Yes! The right tradition is important. We become dogmatic, though, when we hold on to poor traditions that have been developed by people and are not founded in scripture. This is not just a message for the church institution, but for the life of every Christian. Is your life based in scripture? Do you hold on to unnecessary rituals that are not founded in Scripture and that distract you from Christ? Is your desire to purge all tradition at the expense of Christ in your life? My hope is that we all live a life based in the Word of God, not on poor traditions or a lack of tradition altogether.

[1] Mark 3:1-6 (HCSB)

[2] Matthew 19:3-12

[3] If you’ve ever heard that Christ said nothing about homosexuality, my hope is that you seriously consider His direct definition of marriage in Matthew 19.

[4] Matthew 5:17

[5] Please note that traditional churches are also susceptible to these conditions.

[6] Please note that contemporary churches are also susceptible to these conditions.

[7] Hebrews 10:25

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