The workshop focused on traditionalism in the Restoration Movement. I presented it years ago. It may date as far back as the 1980s or the 1990s. Since that time much has changed within the movement itself. Some of the change is for the better, some is not. Large segments of the movement remain tied to traditions.
Younger men and women assume traditions are bad and should be rejected. On one hand, tradition is helpful and provides beauty, meaning, and form to worship and work. Tradition can reflect encapsulated truth and needs emphasis. On the other hand, tradition becomes problematic when it obscures the truth, hinders fulfillment of the church's purpose, or contradicts biblical truth.
First, I need to make some preliminary observations about the Restoration Movement. This historic movement seeks to reach the whole world for Christ. When it began in the early 19th Century it believed division and denominationalism hindered fulfillment of the Great Commission. Thus it sought the unity of believers based on a common recognition of biblical authority. Early leaders point to Christ's prayer recorded in John 17 where he prayed that his followers would be one so that the world might believe....
To accomplish this vision, those leaders called for believers to:
- Throw off unscriptural and traditional creeds dividing Christians.
- Throw off unscriptural and traditional governmental structures designed to defend the creeds.
- Throw off an unscriptural and traditional clergy system.
In short, their plea required submitting everything to Scripture and permitting Scripture to become the source of all doctrine and practice.
Since I presented this years ago, the churches of the Restoration Movement made tremendous strides to attain the vision. There are, however, enclaves of resistance which have become as traditional, institutional, and denominational as the denominational world. Surprisingly, though, the years since the mid-1980s have seen the beginning of thousands of congregations which would agree with all three statements above. But...they have not come to the same doctrinal convictions of the Restoration Movement.
Many of these resisting congregations have become entrenched in attitudes that keep them from successfully fulfilling the Great Commission. For example:
- They are more related to the church as an institution than they are to God.
- The churches become more concerned with their continued existence than with its mission.
- They can't separate means from ends...means become ends and ends become means. They retain some practices even though they no longer achieve their reason for existence.
- There is more concern with correctness of belief than quality of life.
- They have lost the spirit of Christianity retaining only the form.
Such congregations retreat into a de facto denominationalism that ruins their message. They are functionally denominational. You can see this in:
- Exclusive cooperation.
- Suspicion of churches that are growing when they are not.
- Stress on what is wrong with "outsiders" than what is right.
- Expecting everyone else to "join their group."
- Boycotting meetings of others with whom they have disagreements.
- Blindness to one's own weaknesses and deafness to outside criticism.
- Ignorance of others and listening to the criticism of others without personal investigation.
- The idea that righteousness is determined by belief.
- The insistence on official or sanctioned literature.
- The belief that unity can only be realized when there is complete doctrinal agreement.
- Greater desire for conformity than for unity.
- The establishment of de facto creeds.
I'm fearful that all churches within the Restoration Movement allow some tradition to become encrusted until it hinders outreach and fulfillment of unity through a restoration of biblical authority. I see it in the realm of church leadership.where congregations express one of several traditional models. I see it in an over-emphasis on certain theological issues.
Is there a way to escape this treadmill? Here is a suggested methodology for evaluating belief and practice in today's congregations.
First, submit every teaching and practice of the church to Scripture. After all, Scripture is the inerrant standard against which measurement can occur. I'm assuming that in doing so, such a study of Scripture will use sound hermeneutics -- interpretative methodology. Once recognized, these truths must be preached fearlessly. This preaching must not only deal with Scripture's explicit teaching but its practical appliation as well. Growing churches preach doctrine!
Second, submit every belief and practice against the church's purpose. In doing so there are two principles to keep in mind. There is the principle of expediency. Is it helpful? does it help accomplish the church's mission? (See Proposition 13 in Thomas Campbell's "Declaration and Address.") There is the principle of inference and deduction. Realize that only that which is clear and explicit should be made a test of fellowship. Care must be exhibited in those doctrines or teachings which are inferred or deduced by human reason. (Seee Proposition 6 in Thomas Campbell's "Declaration and Address.")
When congregations and their leaderships understand these things they can evaluate tradition and suggested changes with wisdom. There are two standards to be considered when evaluating harmful tradition or bringing about change in a local assembly: biblical teaching --is it faithful to the Scripture -- and purpose!