Cobwebs in the Church
Departures from the truth always are a result of an attitude toward the Scriptures. the faithful child of God should take precautions against the developing of an unhealthy attitude. When such an incipient attitude is discerned in congregations or individuals, it is time for some corrective action. We would like to call your attention to what we believe to be a dangerous situation: traditional thinking.
Traditions are like cobwebs. They seem to grow in unattended places. Lethargy, stale thinking, and selfishness are very conductive to tradition development. If you have ever heard the statement: "That's the way we've always done it . . . " you have witnessed traditional thinking in action. It is spreading through the church of our Lord at a fast pace today, especially in places where the work has been longer established; however, it may be found even in comparatively new congregations. Traditional thinking is an attitude of basing our practices on established custom rather than the authority of God's word. Sometimes it is conscious, sometimes not. Often we are deeply embedded in traditional thinking before we realize.
After the exile the Jews developed a whole scheme of intricate traditions. Many of them were derived from the Law. But the fact was that it was the traditions that were observed and not the Law. Only as the traditions included the Law was it followed. Jesus encountered this scheme of thinking. His reaction was vehement:
"Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, this people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own traditions" (Matt. 7:6-9).
Paul did not have a much higher opinion regarding traditions. He says, by inspiration, in Colossians 2:8,
"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ."
Traditional thinking may invade all kinds of religious practices. We may be, for instance, practicing the truth by tradition. There are many congregations of the Lord's people who refrain from the use of the musical instrument merely because "that's what we've always done." Any observant individual can see the logical consequences of such a position. Soon we come to tolerate the practice of error. For if we do it one way just because that's the way we have always done it, then why shouldn't they do it another way, because that's how they've always done it? This is the natural pattern of traditional thinking. If we refrain from the use of the musical instrument on traditional grounds, then we have no right to condemn the use of it among the denominations. If we immerse merely because that is the established custom, then we have no right to condemn a sect for sprinkling. Someday somebody will realize this . . . and then will come overtures for cooperation or even union with the sects, and probably the abandonment of the truthful act.
Then there are many who are practicing error by tradition. We hear of those who attempt to justify unauthorized congregational support of human institutions on the grounds of tradition. The possibility that we might have been wrong all along never occurs to these people. And a whole host of unscriptural phrases may be classified here. "Roll sins forward," "Church of Christ minister," "Stay for Church" are a few we hear. The standard of right is not now, nor has it ever been, nor will it ever be, the methods, and practices of times before. The standard of right remains the revealed will of God through Jesus Christ.
But we may also practice opinion by tradition. This is, perhaps, the most dangerous of all. For here we bind upon men things that God has not bound, and should remain in the realm of the optional. We use the traditional argument as our authority. For instance, those of us who set the revealed acts of worship in a certain pattern and refuse to acknowledge that those who practice another order of worship are "scriptural." Various strange convictions appear from time to time, and brethren must often bow to them rather than give offense. But when we bind our own convictions upon brethren, matters of optional nature, we are as guilty as those Pharisees who received the Lord's strong retribution.
One thing about traditional thinking is sure! It stifles and closes off fresh, new, inquiring thought. We can - never progress toward Christian perfection; we are in a rut. Traditional thinking binds us to human doctrines and separates us from the teaching of God. The longer it continues, the greater the rift between us and the New Testament. Tradition-bound preachers, rather than investigating the Word for a new or deeper interpretation, preach from sermon outlines of their predecessors. How we need the spirit of the pioneers in the restoration movement! Would that we could break with traditions and discover God's truth for ourselves. We would still be in the dark recesses of Catholicism if religious leaders confined themselves to established practices and customs. Indeed, Catholicism is based and thrives upon traditions. It uses them as a prime basis for authority.
Let's clean out the cobwebs! How we could all use periodic re-examinations and reevaluations of our practices. We require house cleanings every now and then. Brethren ought to sit down together and determine if their beliefs and practices were those authorized by the New Testament. We ought to discover what are matters of faith and what are matters of opinion. Peter commanded us to "be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear" (1 Pet. 3:15). May God help us to give our answer in the form of chapter-and-verse authority from his word, rather than "that's just the way we've always done it."
Truth Magazine VI, 8 pp. 23-24