Tradition and the Church…..

I’m in the midst of teaching a series of Sunday School lessons on the twelve apostles to our senior adult Sunday School class at my church. I am using William Barclay’s “The Master’s Men” and William McBirnie’s “The Search for the Twelve Apostles” as my primary resources. In addition to the biblical accounts of the apostles lives and actions, I am including in our discussion some of the legends and traditions that have come from extra-biblical sources. In most cases this information sheds light on their travels, ministry, and mission in the decades after Christ’s death and resurrection and gives us a better understanding of how the early church grew and developed some of the doctrines that have been handed down to us through the ages.

A few years ago a candidate for elder in the United Methodist Church shared with me how she had come to think of “tradition” within the church. She said that any time the issue is raised, she goes back to the Bible, to the days of the apostles and considers how do their words and actions inform the issue? When evaluating tradition, we need to keep in mind that it is the apostolic tradition in the early church that is most instructive.

Many traditions have come along through the years and some have taken on the mantle of irrefutable mandate when, in fact, they may be merely preference or habit. They may be quite reasonable and helpful or they may be, on the other hand, destructive. But before we get into disputes over such traditions, we need to clear away the chaff and get back to the kernel of what is really necessary and what is not.

This very issue has been raised in regard to “traditions” that have developed within a faith community in which my husband and I are involved. The community’s charter has come under scrutiny because of the way many of these “traditions” have wandered off the narrow path proscribed by the parent agency. While they embellish and give “local color” and “character” to the community’s activites, they have, in many ways, distracted from the primary mission of the community. We are now engaged in stripping away many of these “traditions” in an effort to return to the purer, simpler practices of the community as it was intended.

It’s been a useful exercise. I have been much more willing to scrutinize why I do what I do personally and more questioning of why we do what we do as a local church.