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Monday, 28 March 2011

Untangling Gospel and Tradition

Sometimes it just don't matter, but sometimes it's a matter of life and death
Occasionally the inability to distinguish one thing from another just don't matter: a colour-blind man is not overly harmed by putting on a red shirt in the morning rather than a green one. His dress may not be colour-coordinated, but that's no big shakes (unless he's a fashion junkie).

At other times learning to distinguish one thing from another is altogether more important. A warthog who mistakes a lion for a gazelle is making a fatal error of distinction. And so is a Christian or church that fails to distinguish between Gospel and Tradition.

Tradition good and evil
Tradition is the way we do things, the way we apply the fundamental principles and precepts of Scripture to our own culture and setting. So for example, we know we should celebrate communion but there are so many ways to do this. People can come to the front, people can be served, one cup can be used, songs can be sung during communion, Scriptures can be read, etc., etc. As another example, many Christians love to sing together, but there are a thousand ways to do this. Shall it all be psalms, all old hymns, all new choruses or a proper mixture of all (or none). And so on and so on.....

The helpful thing about tradition is that it facilitates some kind of social familiarity, commonality,  predictability and safety - which we all need. If every week we did everything differently, chaos would reign.

The bad thing about a tradition is that it can so easily raise its status from a tradition to The Tradition and then finally assume the standing of unchangeable Gospel.

Take singing hymns. Some think these are the best expressions of praise. So only hymns are used. Soon it is believed they are the only expression of praise. And soon they are regarded as fundamental as the Gospel. Take music. Some think the organ is the best way to accompany hymns. Soon they think it is the only way. And then, anyone who uses anything other than an organ is viewed as deserting the Gospel.

Where the problem lies
The problem here may be threefold. Sometimes it is this: people who confuse tradition and Gospel have  only worshipped in their own spiritual ghetto. If they got out there and visited churches in different cultures they would quickly see that what they think is absolutely essential, is nothing but a western tradition.

At other times the problem is more serious: people who confuse tradition and Gospel have drawn a circle around their own spritiual ghetto and really do think there are no Christians beyond that sphere. They think everyone outside their community is compromised, and only they do things right. What a shock awaits them in heaven.

The third problem is far more serious: thinking that others have lost the Gospel, they themselves have nigh on lost it themselves.

One of the most amazing features of the New Testament and of the Gospel is how the detail is left for us to work out. What exactly  you do and in what order you do it when Christians meet is nowhere spelt out in detail, for example. What time you meet is not spelt out. The reason lies in the genius of the Gospel. Since the Gospel is for the world, these details must of necessity be left to the culture in which the Gospel bears fruit. If the NT specified that Christians should meet on Sundays at 11.00am and sing only from one particular hymn book, many people would be left out in the cold: people who work in Sundays, people who can't understand dense language or ancient language, for example. By refusing to stipulate these details the Gospel is able to find a home in every community everywhere in the world.

So Christians in India can worship using their own bajas (instruments) with their own kind of music; so too Africans and Eskimos and Maltese. No fixed tradition is fixed upon them by the NT.

The idea that all Christians have to sing the same ancient hymns sung to an even more ancient instrument (organ) in one culture's musical taste is absurd, and smacks more of western imperialism, a subconscious relic of colonialism, than anything found in the Scriptures. People who think like that - and worse, people who impose such traditions on Christians of other cultures - are erecting great barriers to the Gospel among peoples in other cultures.

Beauty and the Beast
The worst example of this confusion was a film I saw some years ago: new Christians from the Auca tribe of Ecuador dressed in smart suits sporting Brylcreamed hair and singing western music (Christian) were paraded on a church platform as 'triumphs of grace'. Stripped of everything authentic and forced into a western mould these poor Christians were as much triumphs of American culture, as triumphs of grace.

This is not the vision of heaven presented to us in the Scriptures where we find the glory and honour of the nations brought into the Heavenly City (Revelation 21:26), the home of the endlessly creative God.

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