It is probably a gross understatement to say that Christians are a bit averse to change in the church. As a matter of fact, it might even be fair to say that Christians can be among the most dogmatic people in history when it comes to preserving tradition.
The argument is not over whether this is true or false, the argument is over whether it is good or bad. Some Christians will use biblical evidence to support their emphasis on tradition and consider any change of any kind to be a departure from truth. Other Christians will (with equal ferocity) explain that change is a necessary part of doing church in a changing world, also citing biblical examples and claiming that not even the apostles would be so hard-headed about such peripheral issues. The question that naturally must arise, then, is “who is right?” Should we loosen our grip on tradition, or tighten it up more than ever? The answer is both. Here’s how and why.
There are without question biblical mandates to preserve tradition – Paul says that church leaders must “hold to the trustworthy word as taught” (Titus 1:9). In other words, not the trustworthy word as heard from the latest tweet on gospel relevance, and not the trustworthy word as you choose to interpret it (postmodernists), but the trustworthy word as taught. Church leaders are to receive the truth of the gospel, accurately preserve it, and pass it on to the next generation unscathed and undiluted – in other words, unchanged. The Bible simply leaves no wiggle room for the latest doctrinal fad. Truth is God’s truth once for all; it is not subject to change. Another example (and there are many) of a tradition which should never change is the Lord’s Supper (ya know, since Jesus himself set it up and whatnot). The Lord said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Not just “remember how I did this,” but “you actually do this yourself. Break this bread and drink this cup and while you do, remember me.” That is a tradition from which we have no grounds to part. Not ever.
On the other hand, there are valid biblical examples of constructive change being necessary in the church. It may be safe to call Paul the world’s first and foremost church planter, and his entire life as a Christian can seem like one tumultuous change. He changed where he slept, what he ate, how he traveled, and even (gasp!) how he presented the gospel. He never changed the gospel itself (because he held to it as taught; see above), but he certainly changed its delivery based on who he was trying to reach with it. In Athens, he even quoted a Greek secular poet to build a bridge into the Athenians’ context (Acts 17)! This is not compromising the truth or being ashamed of the gospel, it is a legitimate apostolic example of evangelism. Furthering the kingdom of God on earth is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor; it involves constant change and adjustment. To reach people who have never been reached, you have to do things that have never been done. So change is a necessary part of church life as well.
So what’s the solution? We aren’t supposed to change, but we are…how confusing. But the real solution lies in clearly outlining what is subject to change and what is not. There has to be an upfront statement about what is on the table for evaluation and what is not.
So let’s make a pretend box called, “Things We Will Never Change (Or Even Think About Changing).” In this box we can put things like the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). We can also put in our central biblical doctrines (the full humanity and divinity of Christ, Trinitarian Theology Proper, salvation by grace through faith plus nothing, etc.). Also included here is the view that the Bible is completely without error and does not contain anything that is contrary to fact. There are many things that go in this box, and none of them are subject to change. Never ever ever let anyone in this box. Lock it and throw away the key.
Let’s make another pretend box called, “Things We Will Constantly Change (And Make It A Point To Consider Changing).” This is where it starts to hurt a bit, because we love some of our traditions in church that, quite frankly, are not as central as we’ve made them. But if we say we are serious about reaching lost people yet aren’t even willing to turn loose of some of our own preferences, we are kidding ourselves. So in this box we can go ahead and put church architecture, for starters. The church has met in many kinds of buildings over the years; bricks with a steeple is only one of them (ouch). We can also put our style of worship music in this box; we should constantly evaluate what kind of music would most effectively reach whatever community our church is based in. Surely that is closer to the heart of the gospel than getting puffed up about the kind of music we prefer. There are many other things that should go in this box as well; these are just a few examples.
The key to all this, of course, is accurately assessing what goes in which box. We have a bad habit of making what is central seem peripheral, and making what is peripheral seem central. Stop worrying about whether or not you have chandeliers or florescent lights and start worrying about trying to genuinely greet a visitor. Stop caring so much about whether your music minister is wearing a tie or a V-neck, and start caring about the accurate presentation of the gospel to nonbelievers in your worship service. Because I promise you, the apostle Paul wouldn’t care if your music minister wore jeans so tight the only way out of them is get raptured as long as he’s connecting people to Christ. Let’s keep our eye on the ball.
To be effective today, the church has to be more determined than ever – determined to protect our traditions, and also determined to burn them. The key is to learn which determination to employ toward which tradition. Let’s decide prayerfully and honestly.
It is commonplace for 21st-century Western Christians to over-spiritualize certain realities that should be a part of every believer’s life. Particularly as it pertains to everyday living, we don’t often read the Bible as literally as it’s meant to be read and applied. We often dumb down the events of the Bible into bite-sized principles (which can be a good thing!), but sometimes in doing so we lose the ‘realness’ with which the text should be understood.
For a case-in-point, take four short words from 1 Corinthians 15:31: ”I die every day!”
Now this is not Paul’s literal, earthly death; it is obviously less that that. Yet it is far more than just a general attitude of humility. Just because Paul is talking about a psychological reality instead of a physical one doesn’t mean his words are automatically figurative. A comfortable, Bible-belt Christian will read these words of Paul and understand “dying every day” to be the casting aside of one’s own agenda and adopting Christ’s agenda instead. Or distancing oneself from sinful desires, enduring that struggle painfully if need be.
These are accurate interpretations, to be sure. Dying every day certainly entails replacing one’s own personal agenda with that of Christ, and it certainly refers to a necessary attitude of humility in the daily life of a believer. But it refers to a heavier psychological reality than that alone. Remember, Paul had been shipwrecked, beaten, cold, naked, whipped, stoned, and hungry. He knew what it meant to be in need (Philippians 4). And when he says “I die daily” it means that he stared death in the face every morning and accepted it for that day. Not just by an attitude adjustment, but by a complete lack of concern for himself in light of his responsibility as a follower of Christ did Paul accomplish what he did for the eternal Kingdom of God.
Echoing the realness of Paul’s outlook is the story of a young British missionary who sailed from Liverpool to the African coastline many years ago. As he left the ship that had taken him from Liverpool to Africa, he boarded a coastal tugboat and told the captain his destination – a fever-infested region where he would spend the rest of his life. The captain, a local who was well-acquainted with the dangers of such an excursion, cynically looked at the young man and said, “If you go to that place, you will die.” Looking right back at him, the missionary replied, “I died before I ever left Liverpool.”
Christians, when we read and apply the Bible with the full weight of its power, our lives will be transformed and we will begin to carry out our purpose with the urgency that such a high calling demands. Don’t allegorize or over-spiritualize the directives of the Word of God – they are more literal than you think.