Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What binds us and what divides us?

Traditions in the church are deeply ingrained and hard to shake loose. Because they are so tightly interwoven with the life of the church they become a part of the church and take on an importance and meaning far above what is proper. This can, and often does, lead to dogmatic positions that are unsupportable from Scripture and can change the way we interpret Scripture itself. I offer as exhibit A and exhibit B two examples from sources that are normally solid interpreters of Scripture and theologically orthodox. Please note I am not out hunting for blog posts to disagree with. These are blogs that I link to and read for edification often.

My first example is from The Reformed Baptist Fellowship. In an otherwise interesting post, Seminary and the Local Church, we come across this little comment:

Timothy was a pastor at the church in Ephesus, and it was in that context, while being a pastor, that Timothy was told to train and equip men for the ministry.

See how easy that is? Timothy was a pastor of the church in Ephesus (First Baptist Church of Ephesus no doubt) and likely had a parking spot out front with a wooden sign in Greek “Reserved for Senior Pastor”. Now the Scriptural account of Timothy indicates to me that he traveled all over the place and was not a "pastor" in any sense of the word as we use it today.

This is what is so dangerous about the way we read Scripture in light of our traditions. We assume something without a shred of evidence and then make proclamations based on that assumption. In doing so we create whole systems of theology that are based only loosely on Scripture but that simultaneously become dividers in the Body of Christ. Dangerous, dangerous stuff and so seductively easy to do.

So from that one traditional assumption (Timothy was a pastor in Ephesus) we see support for a whole system of professional pastors including an enormously expensive seminary system and hundreds of thousands of men employed by local churches. The enormity of this traditional assumption cannot be overstated because it is at the root of centuries of church practice that is taken for granted and vociferously defended.

The second comes from 9 Marks Ministries and is part of a lengthy series on the role and function of deacons. It is interesting that they have such a comprehensive series on the role of deacons when Scripture doesn’t say anything about the role of deacons (at least in the sense of specific spheres of responsibility) and in fact says very little about deacons at all. By my count there are five times in the ESV where the English word “deacon” is used, four of those in 1 Tim 3: 8-13. Taken together with the generic reference in Philippians 1:1, that makes seven verses where deacons are mentioned or referenced and in none of those seven verses do we see a “job description”. 9 Marks turns that into seven essays and two book reviews. One that I found especially troubling was How to Separate Deacon Work from Elder Work, not least because it assumes that there are types of ministry that are "Deacon Work" and types of ministry that are "Elders Work". From the essay in question:

Fights occur over issues that don’t clearly fall to either elders or deacons. If it’s clear to all parties who’s responsible for something, there’s no cause for dispute. But trouble occurs when it’s less clear: Is this deacon work? Is it elder work? How much should the elders comment on the deacons’ work? Can the deacons weigh in on the elders’ conclusions?

My answer is a rock solid, “It depends.”

No deacon should object to the elders’ ability to pick Sunday School teachers. No elder should argue with the deacons about the furniture polish used on the communion table. If you have this level of disputes in your church, you need to do some basic teaching about what an elder is, and what a deacon is. Your elders should know they are responsible for the spiritual oversight of the church, and your deacons should know they are responsible for the physical and material needs of the church. If both parties don’t know that, start there.

On the other hand, the tough cases are tough because the issue falls on the boundary line between the spiritual oversight of the church and its physical and material care, or the issue involves both domains.

How do we get here? Here is how the thought process works:

- Tradition teaches that Stephen was a deacon although he is never identified as such in Scripture

- Stephen was involved in making sure that the widows received the daily distribution

- Therefore deacons should take care of the buildings

- Huh?

How much time and effort is wasted in fighting over something that is entirely traditional?

Why is it that when it comes to the gathering of the church we abandon Sola Scriptura in favor of a Roman view that seems to place equal weight on Scripture, tradition and the teachings of our favorite theologians? I can’t think of another topic among the most orthodox among us where bold statements are made without even a whiff of Scriptural evidence.

We all have our traditions. Mainline Protestants have their traditions. Evangelicals have their traditions. The Reformed have their traditions. The Anabaptists have their traditions. House church people have their traditions. Many of these traditions are harmless but some are potentially dangerous. The key is to try to recognize where our traditions are and make sure that those traditions don’t override Scripture or serve as a barrier to unity in the Body. When we elevate our traditions to the level of Scripture, all manner of mischief results and I believe that these traditions are the catalyst for much the splintering in the Body of Christ. We all too often let the minors divide us instead of letting the covenant community of our common salvation unite us.

It is far easier to see and critique the traditions held by others than it is to see the ones we hold most dear. I know that is true with me and I have seen it in effect with many others. The only way to get a clearer view is to submit to Scripture and hold everything up to the pages of Holy Writ. There is no tradition that we should hold as sacrosanct to the point that it trumps Scripture. There are no traditions that fail the test of Scripture that can be used as dividers among the Body. When we draw lines in the sand that are without Biblical warrant, we sin against our brothers and sisters. That is harsh but I wholeheartedly believe it is true.

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Anonymous said...

I find it really frustrating that 9 Marks and many others, myself included sometimes, will not simply say, "we think that scripture is unclear on this, but here is how we do it." it would be more honest and would not foster bad hermeneutical practices.

Mark said...


I don't think your lasts sentence is harsh at all. I think it is absolutely true, and needs to be said. In my mind there are very few truths over which I would break communion with a brother or sister. If he/she doesn't believe in the deity of Christ, there is obviously no communion there. Likewise if they don't believe in the death and resurrection, or in the trinity, etc., there is no communion. Apart from these foundational tenets, we should be able to fellowship with each other, even though we disagree on issues like baptism by immersion or sprinkling; pre-trib, post-trib or no rapture period; pre-destination or no pre-destination. As long as we can strive together "for the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace", and love one-another as we all continue to seek after greater revelation, there is no reason to break fellowship.

I think your post is right-on, and I appreciate your words. I have linked to your blog from Alan Knox's site, and will be bookmarking this page. Thanks!