What To Do With Tradition?

"Church Fathers Order", Mosaic, 11th c.

“Church Fathers Order”, Mosaic, 11th c.

A growing number of Evangelicals have been finding themselves attracted to more ‘ancient’ traditions, accommodating the Early Church Fathers to their Evangelicalism and even pushing their churches to implement liturgical practices into their services. Many have left the Evangelical tradition completely behind and have become either Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Anglican, in the pursuit of a persisting apostolic theology and tradition. This desire has not just been in non-charismatic Evangelicals, but has also very much affected both Pentecostals and charismatics. The in-depth pneumatology of the saints of the past has drawn many to such traditions, as well as the the appreciation of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments.

As a flaming charismatic who adores the Holy Spirit, I can recognize why one with charismatic beliefs would make such a jump, but I personally have not received a push from the Spirit to pursue a new communion and even feel more convinced to go in a different direction. I find that both the ‘ancient paths’ and the Charismatic Movement insufficient in their ecclesiastical and charismatic practice, as well as in their understanding of the gospel.

The past two years, I have felt an increasing call to investigate Quakerism, a not-so-ancient tradition that emerged in the mid-17th century. I first came into fellowship with the Friends of Jesus Fellowship and within the past year have also come to experience both the Liberal and Evangelical traditions. Very quickly I discovered the gifts of Quaker practice and have continually been blessed by the Quaker understanding of the Gospel, especially as I have read through the writings of early Friends. That is not to say that I believe the answer to all problems in Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism is a Quaker revival, especially since there are very different branches, but much can be learned from this continually-progressing tradition, especially in regards to their reliance on the Spirit, their communal approaches towards ministry and discernment, and their articulation and expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I cannot help but think that Quakerism has many answers for those recovering from Fundamentalism.

One question that many raise for those with restorationist tendencies, whether that be Protestants, Evangelicals, Adventists, Pentecostals, or Quakers, is where is the history to back up these theological nuances? Such a question is not baseless. Why do not always agree with the early Christians? Why does the Church need something new?

I find it arrogant to disregard all of Church history and claim certain new beliefs and practices as biblical while other beliefs and practices are disowned and chastised as without merit or basis, as though they had not been practiced throughout the centuries by many treasured and well-loved saints.

Almost nearly offensive to me, though, is the notion that some tradition was able to completely preserve very specific rituals and doctrines handed down by Jesus himself, and the early Church, on a widespread scale, looked exactly like them minus, maybe, the architecture.

Now, I do think such a question is necessary to help the Church stay humble and balanced. We need to take the Tradition of the Church seriously, learning from it, holding on to what reflects the gospel of Jesus Christ, but I also think we ought to be willing to let go of what is inconsistent with this gospel. I have recently heard somebody remark that “the lessons of our forebears were meant to be way markers, not resting places.”

We need to keep in mind that the early Church may have had many witnesses of Christ, but they were also very human who quarreled and had some beliefs that were inconsistent with the gospel.

Christ taught that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a seed that grows and consumes (Matthew 13). The reign of God in one’s life often starts with a glimpse of Christ’s nature, but once that seed finds its home in fertile soil, it grows and transforms how the Christian thinks and acts more and more. The Christian life has much to do with the process of having one’s mind renewed (Romans 12:2, Ephesians 4:23), and all believers are at different places in understanding the implications of the work of Christ and his Kingdom. I find no reason to believe this doesn’t include the apostles.

For example, Paul encouraged and recognized the good things being done among the Corinthians, which was a church full of hypersexual, borderline-gnostic, charismatics misusing the gifts. Despite their abuse of the gifts, he still was consistently encouraging, even on the matters of the gifts they abused, exhorting them to continue to pursue the spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14:1). When speaking to the Galatians, though, he calls them fools and is particularly harsh because of their mixing of the law and grace, which he blames on his fellow apostle Peter (Galatians 2:11-21). The mixing of law and grace is false grace, and is anti-gospel, which offended Paul even more than the promiscuity and charismania of the Corinthians. It seems that many in the early Church had a difficult time shedding their former ideas on the Law and in some ways mimicked the temple worship Christ came to do away with. This is one major aspect, in my opinion, of a loss of revelation in the early Church, and an example of the humanity, fallibility, and the needed spiritual growth and revelation among the apostles.

When it comes down to it, I cannot claim I know exactly what the early Church looked like or believed, and I also don’t think anybody else can make such a claim. Tradition still has its place, though. I believe we ought to honor those who came before us, recognizing that much intellectual and spiritual wrestling was done for the sake of developing the Church’s Tradition. I believe the voices of the Fathers and early Christians need to remain in our conversations today. What I also recognize is that much of how the Church has acted and much of what she has believed has been contrary to the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, and his gospel. Because of that, there needs to be change, there needs to be progress, and the Church, as Christ’s Bride, needs to be refined and readied for her Bridegroom’s return.

3 thoughts on “What To Do With Tradition?

  1. Bill Rushby says:

    Hello, Hye! Thanks for the thoughtful essay. I am an adherent of the Quaker faith, but I believe that we need to be open to God’s truth wherever it may be found.


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