On Thursday, November 11, the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies hosted their 2010 conference, “Tradition: Burden or Blessing?” (the search for piety and obedience was there, offering live coverage.)
The day after the conference, I met up with a close friend who’s pioneering a new initiative at a rather “traditional” church. He described to me his paradigm: groups of 12 to 20 individuals, meeting weekly in houses for informal worship and Bible study as well as service within the local community, and gathering once a month for a large “public meeting” of worship, discernment, and decision-making. When he observed, “It’s a whole new way of doing church,” I responded, “Actually, it’s a really old — and, within the Brethren in Christ Church, a really traditional — way of doing church.”
The next week, I spent hours pouring over old issues of the Evangelical Visitor, scrutinizing the ways in which leaders of the Brethren in Christ Church in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s used rhetoric to assert a new identity for their small denomination. In many ways, leaders directly challenged the idea of tradition. As one wrote,
Good traditions have much value and should not be carelessly thrown away. But traditions have seriously hampered and hindered the work of God. The Jews by their traditions, Jesus said, made the law of God of no effect. It required great effort on the part of the early church to free itself form circumcision, which St. Peter called a yoke of bondage. At a later time St. Paul found it necessary to rebuke Peter because he was ‘carried away’ by a desire to please his tradition-bound brethren.
The traditionalists exalts the old and opposes the new. He resists change. When he does finally accept change, he very reluctantly allows the same privilege to others.
After all that scrutiny, I wrote a thirty-six page paper on the subject. I used the word “tradition” thirteen times.
Needless to say, in the almost two weeks since the conference, I’ve thought a lot about this concept of “tradition”: what it means, why we value it, why we discard it, and why we should / how we can bring it to bear upon present-day Christian living. While I don’t pretend to have arrived at satisfactory (or even totally coherent) answers, I’ve drawn a few conclusions that I hope will spur further conversation about this concept and its role in today’s Brethren in Christ Church.
After the jump: Reflections on tradition and the 2010 Sider Institute conference.
- “Tradition” is hermeneutical. As John Yeatts, professor of the psychology of religion, said to those seated at our table during the conference’s midday luncheon, “My mother didn’t wear a covering because it was a tradition. She did it because the Bible told her to do it.” He brings up an important point. Our Brethren in Christ forebears did not observe the rituals and practices we today consider to be “traditions” just because they had been passed down from one generation to another. These early Brethren in Christ rooted their practices and rituals in Scripture as they interpreted it: that is, pre-critically. As Yeatts went on to say, “‘Tradition’ is a matter of hermeneutics.”
- “Tradition” is maleable. We can — and should — adapt meaningful traditions from the past and bring them to bear upon our present-day perception of the Christian walk. During the conference, several informal conversations focused around the question, “How can we do this?” Conference attendees discussed transforming Brethren in Christ-specific traditions like love feasts and communal discipline into rituals, observances, and practices useful for today. While no firm answers were given, attendees posited strong ideas… and made clear (to me, at least) the fact that good traditions lend themselves to being re-cast and re-imagined.
- “Tradition” is symbolic. When the early Brethren in Christ gathered twice a year for love feasts, members recognized the symbolic nature of their practices: washing of feet, breaking (not simply “taking” from a tray) of bread, sharing the holy kiss. Today, we need to be told about symbolism — we live in such a symbol-saturated world that we often times ignore the value of the gesture or ritual because it becomes too familiar or too commonplace. Informal conversations during the conference focused on Christians’ need to articulate the symbolism of their traditions — why we practice the love feast, for instance, and what its various elements mean within our religious system. As we so do, we can begin to recapture the richness of Christian practice.
- “Tradition” is (sometimes) problematic. Of course, tradition isn’t always good. Several presenters (not to mention attendees) cautioned listeners against clinging to traditions that isolate segments of the community or keep new believers from coming to faith in Christ. John Eby, for instance, described how, at his church, foot washing has become a troubling practice for some not familiar with this Anabaptist tradition. Their solution? Wash one another’s hands. The principle behind the tradition (servanthood) remains, he said, while the form changes.
A few observations related to the Sider Institute conference itself:
- A strong turnout. Great to see pastors and lay leaders from a lot of Brethren in Christ churches in the area. One attendee came from as far as California (!) to take part in the event. Hopefully future conferences will feature a live-streaming option so that pastoral and lay leaders from across the country can engage in the gathering.
- Younger leaders. At twenty-three, I was without a doubt the youngest person at the conference, but I was also an anomaly: the next youngest attendee, I would imagine, was in her late twenties, and the next youngest was in her/his thirties. Why aren’t younger Brethren in Christ people interested in these experiences? And why don’t we have younger scholars to give voice to these topics? (The main presenters were all over fifty.) Future conferences should explore opportunities to include younger voices in the proceedings, and to encourage younger attendees to avail themselves of this chance to dialogue about important church-related issues. If the denomination does not create space for younger people to get invested in its mission, we will lose an entire generation of potential leaders.
- A discussion of our “fourth stream.” At some point in the near future, the Sider Institute should consider convening a discussion of the apparent “fourth stream” in Brethren in Christ heritage: American Evangelicalism. Numerous times during the “Tradition” conference, attendees mentioned this often unacknowledged “fourth stream” and wondered about its impact upon the denomination. We need to talk about this development. For more than fifty years the Brethren in Christ have continued to intertwine themselves with the “mainstream” in conservative Protestantism. How has that intertwining affected our particular witness? How has it benefitted us, and how has it burdened or hindered us? Moreover, what have we given to the larger evangelical world? Do we need to consider how we differ from other evangelicals, and give voice to that difference? The Sider Institute can be the forum in which these questions are asked and answered.
Readers: Share your responses — to my reflections, to the concept of “tradition,” or to the conference itself — in the Comments section!