tradition

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Tradition

Monday, May 5th, 2008

No audience is more intimidating for a speaker than a general assembly of adolescents at school on a Monday morning. It is a well-known fact that teenagers eat guest speakers for breakfast, especially the cheerful ones who walk in with a Bible wanting to give them spiritual advice. Paul’s Areopagites could not have been more daunting than chapel with highschoolers.  Whenever I visit our local Christian school to take my turn at chapel, my audience appears to be dealing with insufferable pain—maybe it’s iPod withdrawals or it could be a Facebook hangover.  It’s hard to tell.

On my last excursion to the amphitheater of doom, I gained the upper hand.  Chapel always begins with the Pledge of Allegiance followed by a prayer, but on this particular day someone had removed the flag.  This had not been discovered until the student assigned to conduct the Pledge asked the entire student body to turn and face the flag and everybody placed their right hands over their hearts and set their gaze on an empty corner of the auditorium.  It was a student’s turn to blush at chapel.  Our leader didn’t know what to do.  He blushed, shrugged his shoulders, and began, “I pledge allegiance, to the flag….”  We all followed suit.  It didn’t matter that we were pledging allegiance to a flag that wasn’t there because we always say the Pledge at chapel.

Humans are creatures of habit.  We’re locked into our traditions and sometimes we don’t even know why it is that we do the things that we do.

Like schools, churches like their traditions. Tradition provides worshipers with familiarity, with met expectations. People don’t like to worship in an atmosphere where they don’t know what’s coming next.

Most churches of Christ have a custom of offering the Lord’s Supper a second time during the evening services to accommodate those who were not able to make it to the morning services.  It’s still the first day of the week, and there are always a handful of people who take advantage of this arrangement.  Nowadays, many churches do this in a classroom after the closing song, away from the others who have already observed the Lord’s Supper.  But some churches still do this the old fashioned way: asking those who want to take the Lord’s Supper in the evening to come to the front of the auditorium during the singing of a hymn, and serving a handful of congregants before the watchful eyes of the rest who were there Sunday morning and who are not sure whether they should be dwelling on the cross or thinking about the grocery list.

I was serving as a youth minister at a congregation that followed this procedure when two souls responded to the invitation during our evening services, expressing a desire to be baptized.  We baptized them, and not wanting them to miss the opportunity, waited for them to get changed before we offered the Lord’s Supper that night. After a bit of a delay, we were serving these new Christians when another person approached me and said he wanted to be baptized.  As we were preparing him for the baptism, the question came up of how we would serve him the Lord’s Supper.  I suggested that since we had already offered it twice that day, we should dismiss the crowd after the baptism and serve him privately.  But an elder who was present had strong misgivings about changing our routine.  Long story short, we served the Lord’s Supper for the third time that Sunday to one person in front of a crowd of about 350 people.

Traditions can be good.  Paul commended Timothy for maintaining the apostolic traditions that had been delivered to him (1 Cor. 11:2). But an apostolic tradition is one thing.  A human tradition is an entirely different matter. Apostolic traditions are inspired (cf. Jn. 14:26; 16:13), human traditions are not. Much damage has been done by church leaders who move human traditions from the column of discretion to the column of faith.  This was the Pharisees’ sin.  Jesus called them hypocrites and said they made the word of God “void” for the sake of their tradition.  Quoting Isaiah, he admonished them, saying, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mt. 15:6-9).

I’m not saying it’s wrong to offer the Lord’s Supper three times on Sunday.  I do think that sometimes we make our decisions based on the learned behavior of our tradition rather than on what God’s word reveals.  God seeks true worshipers (Jn. 4:23-24), not Pavlov’s dog.  Sincere hearts engaged in the process and convinced of God’s will trump traditions every time.