Brother Reuel Lemmons and "Traditionalism"

Ed Bragwell
Grenada, Mississippi

"A different type of people lives today than in the first century. They face different problems, and must come up with different solutions"("Traditionalism" by Reuel Lemmons, GO, Vol. III. No. 1, October 1969).

Brother Lemmons' editorial in the above mentioned paper is misleading and dangerous. It is dangerous because it is in a publication for college students, who are easily rallied behind any call for change in any "establishment" right or wrong, needed or not. "Traditionalism," as expressed in the editorial, is more than some old brother insisting on "three songs, a prayer and another song" as being the "divine order of worship." It subtly undermines confidence in the relevance of the faith of the first century to our time.

The editorial acknowledges: "There is an unchangeable character of the church and God put it there..."; "the God-given nature, make-up, government, worship, and purpose of the church will not change. It cannot change in these respects without losing its identity" and "we need to keep the church true to the Bible." We agree with these general principles. Yet, the editorial undermines the very foundation upon which these principles rest--the relevance of the practice of the first century church to our times. Let's look at brother Lemmons' call for change:

"... There is also the need for the church to change its traditions as time changes. Such change does no violence to the scriptures. In fact, to fail to change, would violate the scriptures." If the church has human traditions, it does not need to exchange them for a new set; it needs to rid itself of them completely. If it holds the "tradition" as spoken by Paul in 2 Thess. 3:6, it had better not change. The editorial suggests that changing times demand a change in traditions -- not because they are wrong, but have become obsolete!

"If the same church, with respect to traditions, existed today as existed in the first century we would have a church frozen to history; not freed to the scriptures." Now get that! It is saying that the church in the first century had certain traditions, which may have served them well, but that we should not be like they were or else we will be "frozen to history." The qualifying phrase, "with respect to traditions", does not change the picture at all. It still makes the Apostles, under whose direction the first century church functioned, tradition bound. It is saying that they chose traditions to fit their age and we ought to be "freed to the scriptures" to choose our own traditions.

Now, brother Lemmons does not object to the church practicing human traditions. "Traditions are not bad---so long as they are accepted as tradition." I have taught all my preaching life that we ought to lay aside all human tradition and follow the pattern of the first century church and have never felt the least bit cool, much less "frozen to history." The editorial is really saying that the church today cannot believe just what they taught, believe just what they believed, meet, work, and worship just like they did, organize just like they were organized without being "frozen to history." The question boils down to this: Should the church today do exactly what the first century church was commanded to do and do just what it did with apostolic approval? Or must the church in each succeeding generation seek out its own way of expressing faith in Christ? Our brother might not "own up" to this conclusion---but that is the bitter consequence of this and other statements in the editorial.

"Different types of people live today than in the first century. They face different problems, and must come up with different solutions. First century Christians faced lions in the arena, and we face materialism in the classroom. The faith o/ both ages are the same, but the changing times call for a different way of expressing it or proving it." Sin and persecution are basically the same in any age and in any place. The BOOK written in the first century is ever relevant in dealing with them. All I know about "the faith" was expressed by first century Christians (which included inspired men). If their expression was inadequate and their proof inadequate, how do I know that I have the faith that God wants me to have?

But, we are told that we must look for different ways of expression and proof for this age. That frees us of New Testament expressions and proofs. This kind of leaves us "old fashioned" fellows out in the cold, "frozen to history", no doubt. I had kind of gotten used to taking those old solutions and solving our "new problems." You see, I was just naive enough to think it would work, but guess I'll have to change now, with a man of Brother Lemmons' stature calling for a change.

You see, I can no longer express and prove my faith just like they did in the days of Paul, Peter, and John--I must look for a different way to express it in these days of Peter, Paul and Mary. Notice our brother is not merely calling 'for rejecting the traditions that have been attached to the church by men through the centuries since the apostolic times--but calls for expressing it differently than they did then.

Such talk from the influential Editor of the Firm Foundation should really boost the spirits of the "Campus Evangelism Movement" people who publish GO. One will have to admit that many of the ways they express their faith is different and not in the first century "tradition." They carried the gospel (?) to Daytona Beach by means of a folk-singing quartet. They express their faith by "regional seminars", "national seminars", various social action- programs, Christian Student Centers, "social gospel" films, along with various kinds of far-out "worship experiences.

Brother Lemmons takes a slap at somebody that does not believe in "eating in the church building." "Who knows but what at some point in the future we will have no need for church buildings. If we really restored what existed in the first century we would have to do away with them, for first century Christians did not have them. This should indicate how petty and foolish the 'eating in the church building' controversies really are." Now wait, before we start knocking down the walls of the meeting house. Let's look at brother Lemmons' sophistry. How does he know with such certainty that they did not have church buildings? We know that they came together "in one place" (I Cor. 11:20). A number of competent scholars think that "your assembly" in James 2:2 could have and maybe even should have been translated "your place of worship."

But be that as it may, he suggests that those of us who meet in "church buildings" have not really restored first century Christianity (Of course that would include him). That is like saying that "if we really restored first century baptism we would not use a baptistery" and our Methodist friends might add that since we do not really restore first century baptism --- that should show how petty and foolish the "sprinkling" controversies really are.

I am sure that our brother does not believe either the church building or eating in it to be wrong--but that they are just a part of our present tradition. Even if the time comes that there will be no need for "church buildings" as we know them--there will still be a need to choose some place to meet. But, there will not be the need to choose any place for social functions---be it called "church building", "fellowship hall" or otherwise. Such functions were not a part of the "tradition" delivered by the Apostles. This is the real issue concerning "eating in the church building." Our brother should know that.

Our brother calls a number of expedients or aids "traditions." "If we destroyed all traditionalism in the church most of us would be surprised at what little we would have left. Matzos communion bread on the Lord's Table, individual cups, four part harmony in singing, format for the entire worship service these and many other time honored practices would disappear if traditionalism were completely destroyed." He earlier listed our Bible classes as traditions.

All this just muddies up the water a little more. It suggests that none of these things have any higher authority than all other human traditions. The only difference between us and denominationalism is that we keep our traditions up to date and denominationalism refuses to. Read it for yourself: " but there is also the need for the church to change its traditions as time changes. Such change does no violence to the scriptures. In fact, to fail to change, would violate the scriptures. In a denomination, if you leave the traditions of the church you leave the church. This is the difference between the New Testament church and denominationalism" (Emphasis mine - EOB).

But the aids and expedients that our brother mentioned are included in divine commands and cannot rightly be classed with human traditions. The command to assemble includes some place to assemble. The commands concerning the Lords Supper include some kind of unleavened bread and something to contain the fruit of the vine. The command to reach includes some kind of arrangement. Now, for brother Lemmons to call such expedients "traditions" is misleading and dangerous. It leaves the impression that such is not in the "tradition" of first century Christianity and that it need not be to be acceptable to God.

The editorial summarizes: "Any sailor knows that a ship, after a length of time in the sea, becomes encrusted with barnacles. They slow the progress of the vessel, and can eventually destroy it. It becomes necessary to scrape the hull occasionally. The old ship of Zion is like that. Traditions attach themselves to it, and it becomes necessary to keep the hull scraped." We do not object to scraping the hull--it is scrapping the hull that we fear, when we hear someone talking about "facing different problems, and must come up with different solutions."


February 12, 1970