Apostolic Traditions vs. Traditional Liberties
by Andy Diestelkamp

Confronting the traditions of men is never easy. Yes, those having a rebellious spirit may take some perverse pleasure in being counter-cultural and dunking the heads of the ignorant in the fountain of truth; but those whose desire is to "win the more" will more often find themselves becoming "all things to all men" (1 Cor. 9:19-22), in meekness correcting those who are in opposition (2 Tim. 2:25), and taking them aside to show them the way of truth more perfectly (Ac. 18:24-26). Yet, it is also true that sometimes the stubbornness and/or hypocrisy of men requires sharper rebukes in order to call attention to dire and damnable circumstances (Gal. 2:11-14). May we learn to discern when each is most appropriate.

When Jesus spat on the ground, made mud by mixing and kneading dirt and spittle, and then applied that mud to a blind man in the process of healing him (Jn. 9:6), Jesus intentionally violated the traditions of those who had taken it upon themselves to define work that was forbidden on the Sabbath. (We know that making the mud was unnecessary to healing the man because by this time Jesus had already demonstrated His ability to heal with just a word—e.g. Matt. 8:16.) Jesus did not intentionally violate their traditions because He was against traditions but because many of the scribes and Pharisees were more enamored with their traditions than with the truth. What's more, their traditions had blinded them to the truth. I find this sobering as I reflect upon our own traditions.

In this article I am using the word tradition as it is most often used in Scripture: in reference to routine behaviors that have not only been accepted and handed down to subsequent generations but are often expected by a particular group of people. Certainly, the Holy Spirit inspired the handing down of traditions through the apostles and prophets of Jesus Christ, and we are under divine obligation to keep and follow these (2 Thess. 2:13-15; 3:6-15; 1 Cor. 11:1,2). These must not be discarded as mere traditions of men. It is imperative that we are able to distinguish between the traditional patterns revealed in Scripture and those which are not. The latter can range from the relatively harmless traditions formed by the repetitive exercise of liberties to harmful departures from and contradictions to the revealed word (Col. 2:6-8). Yet even the repetitive exercise of liberties can become that which is expected, bound, and, ironically, may actually interfere with keeping the commandments of God (cf. Matt. 5:1-9).

Over eight years ago the congregation of which I am a part decided to break with the tradition of assembling a second time in the afternoon/evening of the first day of the week. This was not done to make any kind of statement about the traditions of men (like Jesus did by spitting on the Sabbath). It was not done to avoid the controversy of "the second opportunity to take the Lord's Supper." (That relatively modern tradition of men had ceased in the Pontiac, Illinois, church before I ever moved here twenty-seven years ago.) It certainly was not done to start a trend. It was done for expediency and to accommodate the needs/wants of the local congregation.

Every church does this when it originally establishes its customary times of assembly. There are reasons that most modern churches do not assemble at sunrise or routinely extend their services till midnight (cf. Acts 20:7), and most of them have to do with preference and comfort. Often the needs/wants of a local church change over time due to a variety of influences, and the local church should not feel itself bound to "the way we've always done it" in matters of liberty that are no longer expedient or to traditional "brotherhood" expectations. Yet, this often happens for fear of what others will think.

Sometimes brethren jokingly refer to "unscriptural" times of assembly or songbooks or seating arrangements or the order in which things are done. What makes these remarks humorous is the acknowledgement that often doing something in a different way "seems wrong" because it is uncomfortable to break a habit or tradition. Yet the value in breaking human traditions is that it avoids raising up a generation that religiously binds those traditions and, by so doing, actually increases the likelihood of that generation rejecting the commandments of God because of its ignorance of what is and is not authorized according to the Scriptures.

Of course, patience is a quality of the fruit of the spirit and should be shown in any effort to correct the misconceptions of brethren with regard to what can be discarded as a traditional liberty. Conversely, those who find themselves resisting change simply because it's "the way we've always done it" should not exaggerate matters of preference to matters of conscience and test the patience of their brethren when they have no sound scriptural argument for their objection.

Yes, there are some among the churches who are wolves in sheep's clothing seeking to undermine apostolic traditions and patterns. Many of them will begin by questioning traditional liberties and the ways we have always done things. This is cunning, for this mode of operation in the true law of the jungle—like a roaring lion—attacks the weakest in going for the kill.

The proper response, however, is not to characterize all who question the expediency of cherished traditional liberties (times of assembly, church buildings, the identification "Church of Christ," etc.) as predatory change agents but to teach the difference between traditional liberties (which may or may not be expedient any longer) and apostolic traditions and patterns which we are not at liberty to alter, regardless of cultural changes or prevailing opinions. For if we fail to acknowledge, teach, and even modify our behaviors based on this distinction between traditions, we set up ourselves and our children to eventually reject even apostolic traditions.

We cannot protect apostolic traditions with a hedge of traditional liberties that serve as a litmus test of soundness. It didn't work for the Jews. It won't work for us. I believe that there is general authority for a church to assemble as often as it deems expedient (cf. Heb. 10:25). However, multiple assemblies of a church on the first day of the week is without example in the Scriptures and may have its origins in a variety of misconceptions (e.g. Christian Sabbath). Again, neither the lack of scriptural example nor the possible misconceptions that led to the idea of multiple assemblies make assembling twice on Sunday wrong; but woe unto those who judge their brethren as weak, carnal, or predatory change agents simply because they do not keep a traditional liberty of dubious origin. Beware, because there may be "many such things [we] do" (Mk. 7:8) when our own traditions become as or more important than God's traditions.

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